Governor Could Clear Name Of Man Hanged In 1919

December 30, 1990|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff writer

For 18 months, accused murderer John Snowden proclaimed his innocence to all who would listen. No matter. He died on the gallows in Annapolis on Feb. 28, 1919, the last man to be hanged in Anne Arundel County.

Seventy-one years later the state Parole Commission ponders the question of guilt or innocence that did not die with Snowden that morning in the jail house courtyard on Calvert Street. The commission is trying to decide if Snowden -- on grounds of having been unfairly convicted -- should be granted an executive clemency.

Annapolis Alderman Carl O. Snowden -- no relation to John Snowden -- wrote to Gov. William Donald Schaefer in June requesting a pardon for John Snowden. He said he has since changed that to a request for executive clemency. The distinction is a legal one, he said; the moral issue remains the same.

"You and you alone hold the power to right a wrong more than 70 years old," Snowden wrote in his letter to Schaefer. "A wrong which burns in the memories of the citizens of Annapolis."

Peter Cobb, executive assistant to the governor, said it does not appear that the clemency order will be among those the governor traditionally issues around Christmas. He said a Snowden clemency, if it does come, will not be issued until next year.

Cobb said he was not certain how the Parole Commission would go about making its decision or what material it will review. Commission Chairman Paul Davis declined to return several calls.

"The importance of it is it will close a chapter of very divisive history in the city of Annapolis," Snowden said in a recent interview.

Snowden wrote in his letter to Schaefer that the 31-year-old black man was executed "for a crime he did not commit."

More recently, though, Snowden acknowledged that "we may never know the exact truth of the circumstances" surrounding the conviction of John Snowden in the murder of a white woman, Lottie Mae Brandon. Brandon's husband, Valentine, a stenographer at the Naval Experimental Station across the Severn River, found her bludgeoned and bruised body at the foot of the bed in their Annapolis row house when he returned from work on Aug. 8, 1917.

The clemency, Snowden said, "is not an abolition of any guilt on John Snowden's part. It would suggest that perhaps in the climate of 1919 there may have been a rush to judgment that did not equate to justice."

Many people thought so at the time.

Outrage over the impending execution was so great that, according to newspaper accounts of the time, police from Baltimore and two companies of the Maryland State Regiment were sent to Annapolis to keep order.

Authorities feared race riots. On the morning of the execution, guards surrounded the mansion of Gov. Emerson Harrington, who had received a letter threatening him with assassination if he did not stop the execution.

The day before the execution, a 60-year-old black man from Washington offered to die in Snowden's place.

The Evening Capital on Jan. 16, 1919, called the case "the most sensational chapter in the annals of crime in Annapolis and its vicinity."

John Snowden, a wagon driver for an Annapolis ice company, was arrested on Aug. 13, 1917, five days after Brandon's body was found. The Evening Capital reported that "Snowden was held largely because he was unable to account for certain of his time on the morning the crime is said to have been committed."

Police were directed to Snowden by a woman who ultimately became one of his most staunch defenders. Ella Ruth Murray had been told that her cook's daughters heard noises in the Brandon house on the morning of the murder.

The two women, who lived across from the Brandons, said they looked through the window of the Brandon home on the morning of Aug. 8 and saw a chair fly across the front room. They later identified Snowden as the man they saw step out the door of the Brandon home, look up and down the street, and walk away.

Medical authorities said it appeared that Brandon died of a blow to the head sometime around noon.

Murray later became convinced that Snowden was innocent. Two days before Snowden's execution, she wrote to him: "Please, please forgive me if you can for the part I have played in bringing this dreadful thing upon you. .

. . I was only trying to do what I thought was my duty, by taking that story to the authorities."

A second autopsy on Brandon's body revealed fragments of the skin of a black person underneath her fingernails. When he was arrested, Snowden had scratches on his face that he said he suffered in a fight with Edna Wallace, the woman with whom he lived on Acton Lane. Wallace at first denied any such argument occurred. She later changed her story.

According to newspaper accounts, Snowden endured repeated "grillings" by police detectives at the Baltimore City Jail. They wanted a confession. He would not give them one. He testified at his trial in Towson in January 1918 that he was beaten several times by three detectives.

He told the court that he did not know the Brandons or where they lived.

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