Feudin’ and Fightin’ Friday: Boyce-Sneed Feud (Because This Is Texas) – Part III

BecauseThisIsTexasOn March 1, 1912, the Bryan Daily Eagle and Pilot reported that J.B. Sneed had been in town and would soon go to Plano to visit his children.  Shockingly, a few days later, headlines again trumpeted a sensational “Sneed” story.

JTSneedShotOn the morning of March 6 a tenant of John Sneed’s father, R.O. Hilliard, shot Joseph in the back twice after they met in the post office.  (Interestingly, one source reported that the two had actually ridden into town on the same wagon, Hilliard giving no indication of his plot to kill Sneed.)  Joseph staggered outside with two bullets in his body, falling to the ground.  Hilliard fired three more bullets and then immediately turned the gun on himself and died instantly.  In a note left behind and addressed to his wife, Hilliard said that J.T. Sneed had mistreated him and he wanted to kill him, admitting that he would feign insanity in order to be sent to an asylum. “I loved you as dear as a husband ever did.  SIGNED R.O. HILLIARD”

It was quickly rumored that Hilliard was connected to the Boyce family, even that it was Al, Jr. himself who had committed the crime.

On March 11, it was reported that an investigation was begun into charges of white slave traffic against Al Boyce, Jr.  The outcome would depend on whether the allegations that Lena was insane at the time were true or not, as doctors and nurses were called to testify before the Federal Grand Jury.  On March 22, the Snyder Signal reported that the grand jury was then looking at physician conduct at the asylum.  Doctors’ actions “indicate that there has been conniving there to keep patients confined there for what ever money they could get out of it.”  Interestingly, defense attorney Cone Johnson later withdrew from the United States Senate race, citing ill health and subsequently checking himself into a sanitarium for treatment.

John Sneed himself hadn’t been in the headlines for awhile, so what was he doing after being released following the mistrial and his father’s death?  According to an August 1, 1912 Lubbock Avalanche-Journal article, John had been working to reconcile with Lena.  On that day it was reported the Sneeds had reconciled and had decided to return to Georgetown.

There in the little Texas city, where the two played together as children, and where they became college sweethearts at Southwestern University, Sneed and his wife will take up again the broken threads of their domestic life.  The past forgotten, these principals in the most sensational murder case in the history of Tarrant County, will live for the future of their two children.

John Sneed’s re-trial was scheduled to begin on November 11.

Meanwhile, Al Boyce, Jr. had returned from Canada and was in the Texas Panhandle.  On the Saturday evening of September 14, Al was gunned down by John Sneed in front of Polk Street Methodist Church in Amarillo.  Sneed immediately turned himself into the Potter County Sheriff.

On Monday the 16th a grand jury was convened and witnesses to the shooting were called to testify.  One source indicates that one of the witnesses was none other than a young school teacher, Georgia O’Keefe who was in Amarillo from 1912 to 1914 teaching art in the public schools.  It seems that John Sneed had perhaps been stalking Al, and in disguise, described as a “mysterious stranger” renting an apartment on East Eighth Street and an apartment near the church at 803 Polk Street.

Again public interest in the continuing feud was high.  Although the grand jury was closed to the public, people gathered around the court house and the jail awaiting news of the proceedings – “the quiet fascination of being close to the prisoner doubtless furnished an element of a near-contact for which they sought, and gratified them.”

On September 17, John Sneed was indicted for the murder of Albert Boyce, Jr.  In the days preceding the indictment, John received visitors at the jail but would not speak of his case.  Amarillo residents speculated as to whether he acted alone or was there an accomplice (the apartment rentals).

Witnesses were subpoenaed for the habeas corpus hearing on Monday, September 23.  Again, all people entering the court room would be searched for weapons.  W.P McLean would again represent John Sneed as his defense counsel along with the Amarillo law firm of Madden, Trulove and Kimbrough.  John Sneed, “[B]rown-bearded, brown-suited, brown cravated, and munching a partially-smoked brown Havana” entered the court room and appeared composed while witnesses were “grilled”.

One witness stated that he observed the defendant on the afternoon of the killing, and although he had known Sneed for years he did not recognize him “in the overalled and bearded condition in which he appeared following the tragedy of September 14.”  Ernest E. Robinson, pastor of Polk Street Methodist Church, was also called to testify.  Witness after witness confirmed that indeed John Sneed had been disguised, and one witness testified that he saw Sneed shoot Boyce more than once and then remarked, “I guess you are dead, you #$%! and walked on.”

Near the close of proceedings on September 24, defense counsel caused quite a stir by introducing a letter as evidence that between July 8 and August 13, Al Boyce, Jr. had in fact visited Lena and written to her while the Sneeds had been living on the lower floor of the home of Mrs. L.A. Rogers of Dallas.  The courtroom was crowded and, reportedly, “hung on every word uttered by attorneys and witness.”

The prosecution eloquently objected to submission of the evidence, but the judge overruled and allowed admittance.  The purpose of Mrs. Rogers’ testimony was to establish the fact that Al Boyce had visited Lena while John was away on business.  The two sides went on for quite awhile, the prosecution objecting often.  All of the testimony of Mrs. Rogers and the crime witnesses was recorded, word for word, in the Amarillo Daily News.  The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal reported on September 26 that Mrs. Rogers testified as to the contents of one of the letters Lena wrote to Boyce:

“Well, if I have to tell you, it was where she wrote and told him she was pregnant by him.”  The witness did not remember the date of that letter.  She said Boyce wrote in reply:  “I hope it looks like you, has your beautiful eyes, and is as good looking as you are.  I have always wanted a baby.”

Bombshell, indeed!  For whatever reason, Lena shared the letters from Al with Mrs. Rogers and then destroy them.  According to the witness’ testimony, Al was plotting the assassination of John Sneed in every letter.  The prosecution, on cross examination, grilled her as to how she knew it was Al Boyce’s handwriting – had she ever seen him write something in person?  The contents of the letters indicated that Al had been plotting with two other men to assassinate Sneed on a train while he was on a business trip.  The men had worn disguises so as not to be recognized.

Mrs. Rogers had been relieved that Sneed decided not to take that trip, so somehow he had apparently uncovered the plot, although she was prepared to divulge what she knew of the plot to Sneed.  The defense was apparently trying to establish a case for justifiable homicide.

John Sneed was indicted for the murder of Al Boyce, Jr. and denied bail.  Undeterred, his attorneys continued appealing his case to higher courts.  By the end of October, the efforts of his defense team paid off and John Sneed was granted bail in the amount of $20,000 by the Court of Criminal Appeals.  However, more legal wrangling ensued and he didn’t gain his freedom before the trial was shortly to begin.

The first day of his re-trial in Fort Worth for the murder of Colonel Boyce, November 11, John Sneed was reported to have appeared in court “calm and smiling and dressed in height of fashion.”  Defense filed a motion to set aside the indictment and transfer to another court – motion denied.  Almost three hundred potential jurors were present for the first day.  Several were excused because they were unmarried or didn’t own land, an obvious ploy by the defense to ensure that only family men served on the jury.

Several potential jurors were fined $50 to $500 for various offenses, including failure to appear.  Jury selection proceeded slowly and after the first day only two jurors had been selected, both family men.  Sneed was said to have conferred with his attorneys throughout the selection process.  Another group of two hundred potential jurors was brought in and at the end of the second day only one additional juror had been selected.  That juror, J.C. Gaither, was accepted by both sides despite the fact that he had openly expressed an opinion of Sneed’s guilt (at least until he heard new evidence to change his mind).

From that point forward in the jury selection process, Judge Swayne ordered that potential jurors would be held under lock and key, despite their protests (most were farmers and businessmen).  Jury selection was finally completed on Saturday, November 16.  On Monday, November 18, the trial began with no women present and John Sneed chewing gum  – he pleaded “not guilty” with emphasis on “not”.  That day two witnesses from the first trial again testified and the following day one other witness testified for the state’s case, followed by the prosecution resting its case.

It was determined that day that Lena would not testify on behalf of her husband, although John told his attorneys that he was not anxious should she be called.  That day a large galley of spectators were on hand to view the proceedings, some even bringing lunches with them.  Two law enforcement officers from the Panhandle caused a stir when they were found to be carrying revolvers which were confiscated.

Curiously, the first witness called by the defense was Lena’s father, J.T. Snyder, and he proceeded to basically blame the whole thing on his daughter:

Snyder, with tremulous voice declared his daughter had not proven a good wife to Sneed and that the latter was a “model” husband.  He declared his daughter was too erratic and emotional.

He further accused the Boyce family of plotting to steal Lena for Al, Jr.  He claimed to have pleaded with the Colonel to stop the affair, but he testified that the elder Boyce had turned a deaf ear.

As reported by the Amarillo News on Sunday, November 24, John Sneed would testify next and planned to bring his two daughters to court with him “to help him win the sympathy of the jury for it is acknowledged if he finds acquittal it will be due to the unwritten law and sympathy for his broken home.”  At this point, it was noted that John Sneed had spent approximately $100,000 for his defense.  He pledged to tell his whole tragic life story yet again.  Additional testimony by the defendant claimed that Boyce, Sr. had stood guard on the veranda of the Sneed home in Amarillo whilst Al and Lena were inside.  A neighbor of Sneed’s corroborated that testimony.

The final witness of the trial was the widow of Colonel Boyce.  She appeared frail, brokenhearted and aged according to newspaper reports.  Her hair had been black, but that day she appeared with white hair and appearing “careworn and wrinkled” – the toll on her was evident.  She testified that her husband, at the time of his death, was weak and sick and that he had not participated in a plot to steal Lena away from Sneed for his son Al, Jr.  It was admitted by both sides that this trial hadn’t gone as well as the first, but other than his own testimony John Sneed appeared emotionless and disinterested throughout the proceedings.

The following day, November 29, final arguments were presented to the jury before their deliberations.  When the state’s attorney called John a “murderer, a man without a home and a criminal who would commit more murders if turned loose upon society.”  He implored the jury to “break his neck.”  Sneed’s daughters, upon hearing their father called a murder, reacted hysterically – one fled the court room sobbing while the younger one ran and threw her arms around her father’s neck and wept.

The defense countered with a story about Christmas the previous year.  The girls were said to have climbed on their father’s lap with a picture of their mother and cried, “Oh Mama, Mama.  Daddy bring her back to us.  We love her, can’t you find her?  We don’t want toys.  We want her.”

Next week:  The conclusion of the Boyce-Sneed Feud series (finally!)

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.



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