This is a particularly rare case, singular in fact. The case itself, a philandering husband murdering his illicit lover to protect his reputation, isn’t that unusual, unfortunately. An outwardly-respectable married man deciding to end an illicit affair, and then killing his mistress when she threatens to expose hit, is sadly all-too-common. It shouldn’t be, of course, but it simply is.
What separates James Howard Snook from so many married murderers is that none of them were Olympic gold medal-winners. James Howard Snook was. He was a member of the US Pistol Shooting Team at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics and his team won gold, making Snook the only Olympic champion ever to be executed for murder.
Snook’s other main accomplishment was his invention of what’s still called the ‘Snook hook.’ It’s a veterinary instrument used in spaying animals and even today any small-animal vet probably owns at least one. Heading the Veterinary Department at Ohio State University, Snook was a highly-respected professional man with a decent job, wife, family and sporting fame.
He was also a philanderer, murderer, Death Row inmate and joined his victim in what would be considered short order, certainly by today’s standards. Ohio didn’t treat its condemned with kid gloves in the 1920’s, but we digress. We’ll get to his grim (yet entirely legal) demise in good time.
So, Snook had it all, at least in theory. A great job, good salary, high professional standing, widely known as an Olympic champion and respectable husband and father. What more could he have wanted? A secret (and then all-too-public) affair with a wild student who was half his age and enjoyed copious amounts of drugs and kinky sex, to be exact.
He probably didn’t want to beat her unconscious with a two-pound ball peen hammer and then slit her throat with his pocket knife. Still less did he want to be publicly disgraced and condemned before being marched from his cell and electrocuted before an invited audience. Illicit affairs can be a very costly and damaging business. James Snook and Theora Hix, not to mention their families, would find out just how costly and damaging their trysts could be.
Their affair started in 1926. Theora was what we’d nowadays call a ‘wild child.’ She liked drugs, especially cocaine and barbiturates stolen from the university medical lab by Professor Snook. She also enjoyed booze, Spanish Fly and cannabis, not to mention her appetite for kinky sex with more than slight S&M overtones. Nowadays, she’d be considered less than entirely respectable by some people. In 1920’s Ohio Theora Hix was considered entirely less than respectable by a great many people. Professor Snook was not one of them. He foubd Theora all too intriguing.
He rented a secret love nest under the name of ‘James Howard’ (his first and middle names) and also took her regularly to a pistol range on Fisher Street in Columbus, site of both the Ohio State University and, conveniently, the old Ohio State Penitentiary. The pistol range was handy for indulging his continued interest in pistol shooting. The University’s location proved equally convenient when friends and family visited the nearby prison during his brief stay before electrocution.
The good Professor’s problem was Theora. According to him, she was jealous, possessive and sometimes downright cruel with an occasionally scary temper. Her jealous, cruel, scary temperament wasn’t improved on June 13, 1929 when, after throwing one too many tantrums over Snook’s consistent refusal to leave his wife, he told her their fling was over. This didn’t go down too well with Theora.
According to Snook’s trial testimony, she threatened to kill him, his wife and their children if he didn’t retract his decision to dump here. Threatening the life oan expert pistol marksman and then threatening to wipe out his family didn’t go down too well with Snook, either, especially when (according to him) she garnished her threats with assault and battery as they sat in his car at the pistol range.
Still, being a veterinarian, he knew exactly what to do with a dangerous animal (or woman scorned). He simply clubbed her repeatedly with a hammer he kept in the glovebox. With his victim badly-injured and comatose, but still alive, Snook calmly cut her throat with his pocket knife before dumping her body out of his car and driving home to his wife. Problem solved, so he thought.
Theora’s body (Snook having made no real effort to conceal it) was found at the pistol range the next day. Detectives immediately recognised it as murder and set out to find anybody who might have reason to kill her. In a matter of hours they were questioning Professor Snook as their affair, like many extra-marital affairs, had been a secret seemingly only from Mrs Snook. They also wanted to search his house and car and examine at his clothes. There was no way he could have avoided leaving blood traces if, as they suspected, he’d murdered Theora so brutally.
They were right. The hammer and pocket knife were found in his possession. For a Professor, Snook had been extraordinarily foolish not ditching the murder weapons) and forensic checks revealed bloodstains all over his car and the clothes he’d been wearing. Tests showed that the hammer, knife, car and clothes all had blood from the same person, the recently-murdered Theora Hix. Snook’s desire to eliminate somebody threatening his physical health and professional standing had already unlocked the door of Ohio State Penitentiary’s ‘death house.’ The ‘Gold Medal Murderer’ was in trouble, and he knew it.
Snook’s trial began in July only weeks after the murder. With so much evidence so easily available to the prosecution, Snook knew his only real chance was to claim self-defence. To do that successfully meant he had to blame his victim for his having murdered her and he could only do that by utterly ruining her reputation. In doing so he also ruining his own, but it was certainly better to see his respectable façade go up in smoke rather than the State of Ohio do the same to him. With Theora’s wild reputation being no secret, victim-blaming became the order of the day.
To observers (which included three large tables of journalists covering this eminently juicy tabloid fodder) it probably seemed thoroughly ungentlemanly of Snook to portray his victim as a wild, wicked, wanton, drug-using, kinky nymphomaniac. Especially when it transpired that a lot of the drugs she used had been stolen from the university medical department by the eminently-respectable defendant. Snook, of course, was beyond such minor considerations, the electric chair looming rather larger in his mind.
It failed utterly, largely because sympathy lay with the victim, not the defendant. Theora might have been a scandalous woman by the standards of the time, but she had never deserved what happened to her. Snook’s lurid tales of how she led him astray with wild, kinky, S&M-style naughtiness cut even less ice with the jury and Ohio’s newspaper-readers. 1920’s Ohio didn’t take too well to self-confessed sexual deviants, especially not when they admitted enjoying such practices, then beating their erstwhile partner to death before claiming their own deviancies were entirely the fault of the deceased.
The forensic evidence was entirely overwhelming. It was simply a question of whether or not the jury believed his claims of self-defence. This became rather unlikely when medical evidence proved Hix was already comatose when Snook, very precisely and clinically, cut her throat from ear to ear. It’s hardly self-defence if your opponent is already unconscious, after all. It took the jury all of 28 minutes to decide as much for themselves and deliver their verdict.
Guilty of First-Degree Murder, with no recommendation for mercy.
Under Ohio law at the time, no recommendation for mercy made a death sentence mandatory. With no other option the trial judge lost no time in doing his grim duty. Snook was convicted and condemned on August 14, 1929, only two months after murdering Theora Hix. Two months between arrest and conviction seems comparatively quick? Not nearly as quick as his journey between condemnation and execution. Snook was immediately transferred to the nearby Ohio State Penitentiary to await his appointment with the prison’s most notorious resident, the grim-looking oak chair Ohioans called ‘Old Sparky.’
First used on April 21, 1897 to execute murderers Willie Haas and William Riley, Ohio’s chair had executed dozens before Snook and would execute dozens more after him. Ohio’s chair was finally retired after electrocuting murderer Donald Reinbolt in 1963. Reinbolt had been Ohio’s 315th electrocution. Snook was about to be its 144th. By Snook’s time the process was well-established and those involved were usually veterans of it. Nothing would delay or disrupt the impending execution of James Howard Snook.
On January 27, 1911 death even came with an ironic twist. Years earlier, convict Charles Justice had suggested improvements to the original design, specifically replacing the original leather restraints with metal clamps that remained on the chair for the rest of its career. Returning to crime after being given early release as a reward and for his own protection, Justice also returned to Columbus in 1910 with a death sentence. Justice died quickly, held in perfect security (if not comfort) by the clamps he had suggested, made and attached.
Legal avenues for Death Row inmates exhausted themselves rather more quickly in 1929 than they do now. Today, four years would be seen as a speedy trip between courtroom and death chamber. Unless a prisoner forgoes their appeals or petitions to have their date moved forward (a so-called ‘volunteer’ in penal parlance) they would never go so quickly today. James Snook did not have four years, making the same trip in only five months. On February 29, 1930 he had his last meal and a final visit with his wife, a priest and an old friend.
Snook’s widow-in-waiting had shown remarkable compassion toward her homicidal husband. Throughout his arrest and trial, with the prurient details of his philandering and kinky tastes laid out for all to see, she stood by him. She even spent his final hours with him as the clock ticked relentlessly toward the appointed time. She certainly showed more loyalty and compassion to Snook than he had to her or his victim.
The end was mercifully brief. At 7:00am he was escorted to the ‘death house’ in the southwest corner of the prison yard, walking quietly and firmly without any fuss. Only seven minutes after walking into to brightly-lit room, the walls being adorned with the mugshot of every convict who died there, he was fully strapped in and the switch thrown. After the executioner had raised and lowered volts and amps in a two-minute cycle the power was shut off the prison doctor made his usual checks.
At 7:11am Professor James Howard Snook, Olympic champion, distinguished academic, respected professional, inventor, husband, father, philanderer, deviant and murderer, was pronounced dead. He was buried at Greenlawn Cemetery early on March 1 in a small, very brief service. To deter morbid sightseers, he was buried under the name ‘James Howard’ his surname being left off the grave marker. Ironically, ‘James Howard’ was the same alias he had used when renting his secret love nest with Theora Hix.
It has long been said that Snook’s unquiet, troubled soul haunts Greenlawn, that he still walks through the cemetery every night as though unable to find peace. People with a passion for the paranormal say that people who die violently often haunt the place of their death. Seeing as the old Ohio State Penitentiary (now long since demolished) was only blocks away from the University campus, it would be no surprise if Snook really does wander Greenlawn in the dead of night.
If his soul is troubled, though, it should be troubled by the clinical brutality he so readily inflicted on Theora Hix and the complete, public humiliation of his wife, family and friends, not by his having had to pay for the cold-blooded murder he chose to commit.