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The Trial of Dr. James Howard Snook

 

 

By Nancy Patzer

(From the September 1999 issue)

The trial of James Howard Snook was one of the most celebrated Columbus courtroom dramas of this century. During the summer of 1929, Dr. Snook, a professor of veterinary medicine at The Ohio State University, was tried and convicted for the slaying of Theora Hix, an OSU medical student. During the course of the three-week trial, witnesses and Snook himself took the stand, revealing events and actions so sexually explicit that they couldn't be published in any newspaper, especially in conservative Columbus, Ohio. Details of Snook's lurid and explicit testimony were not printed in any of Columbus' three newspapers. However, an enterprising court stenographer compiled an uncensored account of the testimony and published it later that summer. It was seized from newsstands by angry protesters and Columbus police. The material contained in this article has been compiled largely from that banished courtroom testimony, The Murder of Theora Hix and Trial of Dr. James H. Snook.

Dr. Snook was married with a young daughter, and for part of the relationship, Miss Hix had another lover, a recent graduate of OSU. Snook and Hix engaged in a three-year love affair prior to the murder, and many of their clandestine meetings were held at a rented "love nest" in a rooming house at 24 Hubbard Avenue in the Short North. The details of their affair and the events that occurred the night of the murder are still shocking &endash;even to today's readers, who, if these events had occurred in the very recent past, might view them as casually as they do the drama of TV talk shows and newsstand tabloids.

By modern standards, the trial of Dr. Snook would certainly have been given more careful and judicious treatment than it was in 1929. The trial was held in a Columbus courtroom, and jurors were selected in a questionable fashion. Most of the 14 (12 jurors, two alternates) were residents of the Columbus area, and there were only two initial jurors who were women. Eventually, one of the women was disqualified from duty because of a conversation she had with one of Snook's attorneys, rendering the jury vastly out of balance in terms of gender. Furthermore, the whole city was abuzz with news of the scandal &endash; an objective climate it was not. The jurors that would eventually convict Dr. Snook of the murder were comprised of farmers, a blacksmith, and one woman. Furthermore, Snook's confession probably would have been considered coerced, and Snook himself rescinded his own confession during the course of the trial. However, his own frank testimony was probably the primary factor leading to his conviction and eventual execution for the crime.

Theora Hix was a 22-year-old medical student at Ohio State University, working as a stenographer at the public office in the OSU veterinary building when she and Dr. Snook first met in June of 1926. Snook was a respected member of the veterinary school's faculty and a licensed veterinarian. He was well-known in the community outside of university social circles, and a member of the United States pistol team of 1920, winners at the Antwerp, Belgium Olympics. Snook was 45 years old and four years married when he began his affair with Hix. He and his wife Helen and their young daughter lived on East 10th Avenue near the university campus. He was a member of the Scioto Country Club and was described as "a fine veterinarian . . . a very fine man . . . a good neighbor."

During the summer of 1926, Snook and Hix began their ill-fated relationship with short conversations which eventually led to Snook offering Hix a ride to her Mack Hall dormitory. The rides to Mack Hall were short, and became more frequent as the days passed. The two began to take long rides in the country, and within three weeks of their acquaintance, they became lovers. Theora told the doctor that she was more knowledgeable about sexual matters than he was, and that he'd better "read up" about the subject. She offered titles of several books such as The Art of Love, a book written by a physician, for Snook to study, and he did.

During the following months of 1926 and early 1927, the two trysted at a Main Street rooming house, with Snook eventually renting a room there so they could have a permanent meeting place, getting together two or three times a week, usually between the hours of 6 and 9 p.m. Helen Snook would later testify that she had no idea what her husband was up to, and during the trial, defended him to the bitter end.

Theora, on the other hand, was moody and often disagreeable, telling Snook that her other lover, Marion Meyers', sexual superiority and greater penis size gave her much more pleasure than the doctor did. The doctor himself admitted that the relationship was mainly physical; that neither he nor Hix cared deeply for one another. "We didn't love each other . . . we satisfied each other's needs," he would testify in court. Hix, aside from being demanding of his time and somewhat petulant about Snook's need to fulfill family obligations, often used drugs such as cannabis indica, a narcotic, and another aphrodisiac commonly known as "Spanish Fly" or cantheris vesicatioria. Both substances were available to Dr. Snook in the veterinary drug room and were not prohibited for sale. Furthermore, they were present in virtually all medical centers at that time. Hix was convinced that she had an underactive thyroid, and also took thyroid extracts and thyroxin not only to remedy that problem, but as an aphrodisiac. She urged Snook to ingest some of it, and he did. Hix also consumed several other substances while the two were together: strophine sulphate, cocaine (which she once injected to remove a splinter), veronal, and barbital.

Hix had a slightly sado-masochistic bent and strongly urged Dr. Snook to comply with her sexual preferences. He did, and from his testimony during the trial, it is safe to assume that Hix called the shots in the relationship. Hix was a strapping girl; about 5'7" tall and 145 pound. More than once she said that she told Snook that she could defend herself against any man of similar stature. Hix's physical aggressiveness and sadistic behavior culminated the night of her murder, her behavior becoming so extreme that the doctor literally had to fight her off.

Snook had been described as a mild-mannered person, and during the course of his arrest and trial, cooperated with city officials seemingly without protest. He did, however, say that his confession was coerced by prosecutors and police, and claimed that one city prosecutor, Jack Chester, slapped him several times across the face while Snook was at the County Jail being questioned. He asserted that Chester, a young, ambitious attorney, struck him, saying "Damn you, go ahead and tell the story; you have got to tell it; we know that you know more and you must tell it." Police Chief Harry French verified that Snook had been slapped and that his only reply was, "Now, Mr. Chester, don't resort to that; don't resort to that." Later that day, when Snook was returned to police headquarters for further questioning, he confessed to the murder. The grilling lasted from 10 a.m. June 20 to 5 a.m. June 21st, with a few short breaks.

Hix's other boyfriend, Marion Meyers, was also taken in for questioning the day after the murder. Meyers' alibi checked out and he was released after identifying the body at the mortuary. His affair with Theora had ended over a year prior to the murder, and at that time, he was engaged to another woman.

Helen Snook was also questioned. Prosecutors claimed she was suspect because of some hair samples found in the corpse's hand, but it was eventually determined that she had no knowledge of the affair and she was released. The hair samples turned out to be Hix's own hair.

Snook hired attorneys John F. Seidel, a former Columbus municipal judge, and E. O. Ricketts. They were joined at the trial by Max Seyfert of Circleville. Snook assured Seidel that he was innocent, causing Seidel to make a statement to the press that would later haunt him. "If Dr. Snook killed that girl, I helped him do it." Snook's attorneys rallied for a postponement of the trial, but could only manage to have the opening date pushed back two days. So on July 24, 1929, Dr. Snook was brought to Courtroom I for opening arguments. The courtroom was packed to capacity with 200 people, some of whom had waited in line for hours to get a seat. Theora Hix's parents were seated in the front row. They had come from Florida for the trial and appeared "old, tired and pathetic." (Quote from More Columbus Unforgettables, Vol. 2.) Three long tables had been placed across one end of the courtroom for the 40 members of the press who were covering the trial. Reporters from all of the Columbus and area newspapers were present, joined by famed reporter James L. Kilgallen of the International News Service, and Morris DeHaven Tracy (author of the first book on Col. Charles Lindbergh) of the United Press Association.

The testimony that was presented during the course of the trial would send waves of shock, indignation, and disgust throughout Columbus. One author stated, "If (this trial) had been a movie, it would have been a blockbuster."


(From the October 1999 Issue)

Part II

As chronicled in last month's issue, the trial of Dr. James Howard Snook was one of the most sordid and infamous courtroom dramas of this century. During the summer of 1929, Dr. Snook, a prominent faculty member of the OSU School of Veterinary Medicine, was tried and convicted for the murder of Theora Hix, a 25-year-old medical student at OSU, with whom Snook had engaged in a three-year affair.

As the last article points out, at the time of the trial, no newspaper would carry any of the explicit material included in the testimony of the Snook trial. Harry Franken states in the book More Columbus Unforgettables that "the term 'unforgettable' is an apt one for the trial of Dr. James Howard Snook for the slaying of Theora Kathleen Hix. More than fifty years after it happened, attorneys still discuss the case."

The story of the trial began with a small paragraph in The Columbus Citizen dated June 14, 1929, the day after the murder: FIND WOMAN'S BODY &endash; Police were called Friday afternoon to the rifle range on Fisher Road near McKinley Avenue, where the body of a woman was found by boys. An arm was said to be missing. Coroner Murphy was called.

That small article would be the first of many articles and stories surrounding the case, and although the part about the arm being missing turned out to be incorrect, many other seedy details were exposed about the death of Theora Hix during the trial and months that followed.

Two 16-year-old boys, Paul Krumlauf and Milton Miller, both of the north campus area, drove Miller's Whippet Four sedan to the rifle range on June 14, where they found Hix's body. They hurried to the old police headquarters on Sullivant Avenue immediately after the grisly discovery. Meanwhile, Beatrice and Alice Bustin had filed a missing person report on Hix, their roommate at 1658 Neil Avenue. Later that day, they would identify Hix's body as the one found at the rifle range at the Glenn L. Myers mortuary on Second Avenue.

Although Theora's roommates identified several people as Hix's "boyfriends," it was Mrs. Margaret Smalley, a woman who managed a number of Columbus rental rooms, who recognized Snook's picture in The Columbus Dispatch and told police he was the man who rented a room at her 24 Hubbard Avenue rooming house. Smalley told officials that Snook identified himself as Howard Snook, a salt salesman, and that Hix was his young wife. The room would be subsequently referred to as the infamous "love nest" where most of the couple's meetings occurred.

The proceedings of the Snook trial lasted less than a month, but during that time hundreds of individuals waited outside the courtroom, which was packed every day, in hope of hearing some of the sordid testimony first-hand. Some people waited from 3:00 am on the street in front of the courthouse, hankering for a good seat when the room opened later in the morning.

Attorney Jack Chester, Jr. prosecuted the case and called a total of 21 witnesses, including Dr. Joseph A. Murphy, the Franklin County Coroner, who testified that he found several hammer blows to the victim's head, one of which had driven particles of bone into her brain. However, he reported the cause of death was the severing of the jugular vein and carotid artery. Dr. Murphy noted that the method by which the vein and artery were severed appeared to have been done by someone who was knowledgeable and experienced in anatomy.

Murphy also removed Miss Hix's stomach and took it to a chemist for examination. The chemist and his assistants testified that they found "a beef sandwich, a small piece of brown paper, four cucumber seeds, some strawberry seeds, a green material determined to be Spanish Fly (an aphrodisiac that Hix was fond of taking), and cannabis indica, a narcotic.

Further forensic examination of Snook's clothing found human blood (later determined to be Hix's). The same blood was found in Snook's car along with his pocket knife and a hammer. Snook had lied to detectives early in their investigation, claiming he had not had his car cleaned the day after the murder. It was later determined by testimony for the prosecution that Snook had paid a man to clean his car thoroughly that day. Apparently the cleaning job wasn't thorough enough.

The defense called a total of 42 witnesses, two of whom were Dr. Snook's wife and mother, whose weepy, pathetic testimonies moved many (including Snook) to tears. Helen Snook, the doctor's wife, claimed her husband was a peaceful and quiet man, and that she had never seen him angry. She also emotionally stated that she was unaware of her husband's affair until his arrest and admission less than a month earlier. Snook's mother recalled with pride her young son's desire to stay to himself, reading and studying animals rather than running around with the rest of the neighborhood boys. When she left the stand, mother and son embraced and sobbed for what one reporter noted "seemed like an eternity."

When Snook finally took the stand, he revealed that Miss Hix had showed him more about sex than he had known before, and that she told him he should "read up on the subject." He also recounted a story that Hix had told him about one of her previous affairs. She and Marion Meyers, then a student at OSU, had been caught having sex along the Scioto River by the police and were fined $20 each. She had lied about her identity and address to the arresting officer and the justice of the peace.

Snook went on to say that he had taught Hix to shoot at the very same rifle range on Fisher Road where her body was found. She was described as "a decent shot," but witnesses who had seen her there thought she was in the company of another man, not Snook.

The three-year affair was tumultuous, Snook testified, with Hix becoming more and more discontented with "conventional sex" and more demanding of Snook's time. She introduced him to the use of various drugs and to the act of fellatio, which he stated she performed on him about ten times. He related that, on the night of the murder, he met Hix on High Street near the campus and they drove to a remote area of the Scioto Country Club to make love. He stated that Miss Hix deemed the spot unsuitable, explaining "I would like to go someplace further where I can scream."

Snook said they then drove out Lane Avenue to the river road (Riverside Drive), left to the Gloria Barbecue, then across the river bridge to McKinley Avenue, north to Fisher Road and then into the rifle range. He and Hix tried to have sex in the tiny car but decided that it was "unsatisfactory for both of us." Afterwards, when he mentioned he wanted to leave because he needed to prepare for a trip out of town with his family, Hix became enraged. Snook told her he was taking his family to his mother's home for the weekend, and Hix replied, "Damn your mother. I don't care about your mother. Damn Mrs. Snook. I'm going to kill her and get her out of the way." At this point in the testimony, Dr. Snook began to cry, saying that Hix continued to threaten his family, even going so far as to say she would kill his young daughter as well.

After Snook was allowed to collect himself, he continued: "She said, 'You have got to help me out.' She grabbed open my trousers and went down on me then, and she didn't do it very nicely and she bit me and got hold of my privates and pulled so hard I simply could not stand it. I got hold of something out of this kit (in the back seat of the car) and hit her with it. I finally got her loose, very nearly twisted her arm off and she sat up there a little bit and said, 'Damn you, I will kill you, too.'

"She grabbed her purse and slid out of the (car.) 1 was in so much pain and when I tried to straighten up, all at once it flashed through my mind that she was getting out and I knew if she got out she would shoot me.

"I hit her once then, I hit her again and she slid right out on the ground and I followed her out. I got up behind her and hit her once more with the hammer and she went down and her head hit against the running board of the (car), and that is all I can remember of hitting her." Snook said he had no recollection of stabbing her or slashing her throat. He added on cross-examination by Chester, who made him go into greater detail about his sexual activity with Hix, that he hadn't mentioned it before because "I was ashamed of it, ashamed of any sex perversion because I never knew anyone that would do that before."

None of the local newspapers quoted any of this explicit testimony, but reporter Pauline Smith of The CoIumbus Citizen wrote: "The Snook trial devotees have been rewarded for their long hours of standing in line and sitting in the stuffy courtroom. Thursday morning they heard the dirt they have been looking for."

During the final arguments of the trial, Snook's wife and mother, who had avoided the courtroom during Snook's own testimony, sat beside him and held his hands. They remained beside him during Judge Scarlett's charge to the jury, which surprised the gallery by returning with a verdict in 28 minutes: "guilty of murder in the first degree as he stands charged in the indictment." The trial ended August 14, 1929.

After appeals through the U.S. Supreme Court failed, Snook was put to death in the electric chair at the Ohio Penitentiary on West Spring Street the evening of February 28, 1930. Following a short pre-dawn service by Rev. Isaac Miller of the King Avenue Methodist Church, Snook was given a private burial.

The End