On Tuesday, December 3, the jury had reached a verdict. The Amarillo Daily News described the court atmosphere as “dramatic”. The court room was filled with quiet so intense that only the court clock could be heard. “John Beal Sneed his diamonds glittering, his mouth twitching was there, his two sobbing children and brother were there.” The verdict was “not guilty”, whereupon John Sneed “emitted a cowboy yell” and grabbed his daughter Lenora and danced her around. While two of his defense attorneys were fined $50 each for whooping and tossing their hats in the air, John was not.
Admittedly, Judge Swayne was puzzled by the verdict based on the instructions he had given to the jury. His charge had called for a conviction of either first or second degree murder – defense attorneys were shocked as well apparently. Jury Foreman J.D. Crane was asked why they acquitted Sneed. He replied,
[T]he best answer is because this is Texas. In Texas we believe in protection of the home at any cost. We in Texas believe a man has the right to safeguard the honor of his home even if he must kill the person responsible.
A few minutes after receiving the verdict, John called Lena – she was ready to leave town that night. They left that night with their children headed to Calvert for a short visit and then on to California. However, the trial for the murder of Al Boyce, Jr. would begin in February. Prominent judges and political figures sent their notes of congratulations. “Scores of dispatches ended saying the acquittal was an endorsement of virtue in the South.”
Sneed Verdict Sets Precedent
Sneed’s trial and acquittal had an immediate impact on jurisprudence – a precedent had been set. On December 5, Arthur Turner, age 20 of Grand Prairie, was exonerated before a grand jury for killing 40 year-old William McKinney. Mrs. Turner said that McKinney had squeezed her and kissed her after she had brought him a drink. The grand jury decided, apparently without much deliberation, that “the killing was done for the protection of the home.” One interesting note, McKinney had been a long-time family friend – Mrs. Turner was almost like a daughter to him.
Second Murder Trial
In January of 1913, the focus would begin to turn toward the Al Boyce, Jr. murder trial. An alleged accomplice, Beach B. Epting, was seeking to have his case severed from Sneed’s. After Sneed’s initial indictment in Amarillo, apparently the grand jury had co-indicted Epting and Sneed for their alleged complicity in Boyce’s death. Defense attorney W.P. McLean (he was counsel to both Epting and Sneed) argued that the second indictment should govern. Apparently, McLean thought that the proceedings should play out and eventually the case would be forced into separate trials. However, the judge disagreed altogether and agreed to consider an amended severance application and a motion for continuance.
Ultimately, the result was that Epting’s trial began in Memphis, Texas on January 8 with jury selection, although the motion for continuance was still being considered. Again, jury selection was slow and deliberate with only one juror being seated at the end of that day. Attempts to altogether quash Epting’s indictments were denied by the court. By week’s end only two jurors had been selected.
By January 14, a jury had been seated and Epting, who was an employee of Sneed’s, pleaded “not guilty.” Epting was charged with renting the cottage from which a concealed Sneed had stepped out from just prior to shooting Al Boyce. The state presented witnesses to show that Epting had indeed been the one who rented the cottage, one testifying that she had actually observed Epting at the cottage with Sneed, but that Sneed had rented the cottage under the name of “Stinson”. Testimony, however, did place Epting in the cottage one night reading a newspaper. Sneed had told the witness that he was an automobile repair man looking for work.
Apparently two cottages had been rented because another witness testified that a man calling himself W.A. Walker (later identified as Epting) had rented a cottage. The district attorney testified as to finding a long white pine box in front of the cottage in which Sneed had concealed his weapon. A suitcase found in the cottage containing clothing, goggles, cartridges and a breast plate had been turned over to the police by one of the witnesses. Court spectators were allowed to draw near and take a closer look at the contents. The defense seemed to be following the tactics of Sneed’s re-trial – Mrs. Epting and her six children were present that day.
I find it curious that the defense called Lena’s father to testify in Epting’s trial on January 17. He testified extensively as to his son-in-law’s perceived state of mind and the circumstances surrounding the events that transpired before he killed both Albert Boyce, Sr. and Jr. J.T. Snyder made no mention of Beach Epting. Other witnesses that same day testified in detail as to Lena’s efforts to communicate surreptitiously with the Boyce family while visiting her father in Clayton, New Mexico (after returning from Canada). All of this testimony seemed to have no bearing on Epting’s defense but it was allowed. That day the courtroom was packed to capacity to accommodate the curious.
On January 22, the prosecution agreed to drop the charge of principal in the murder of Al Boyce, leaving only the charge of accomplice. The following day, Beach Epting was acquitted. “Mrs. Epting kissed her husband and he clapped his hands upon hearing the result.”
Jury selection for John Sneed’s trial would begin on Monday, February 10 in Vernon, Texas, with the process expected to take the entire week to complete. Each and every person entering the courtroom would again be searched for weapons and individuals under the age of 21 were not allowed to attend the proceedings. The jury was finally seated on February 13 and the trial began on the 14th.
The prosecution presented their case first by putting on the stand witnesses to the shooting of Al Boyce by John Sneed. Each person’s testimony was consistent with the others and on cross-examination by the defense attorney, two witnesses admitted that they had been in Sneed’s house and thought him to be a good and kind father. The pastor of the Polk Street Methodist Church had spoken to Boyce just before he was shot. He described how Sneed advanced two steps each time he fired the rifle. He also testified on cross-examination that Mrs. Sneed was a member of his church, the children attended Sunday school and that John Sneed was a “kind and indulgent father, as evidenced by the manner of fitting up his home and furnishing his family with many luxuries.”
Another witness testified that he did not recognize John Sneed, although he did in fact know him. Sneed was said to have disguised himself by wearing bib overalls and having a heavy, dark beard – one witness thought he looked like he had been riding in a coal car, so dark was his beard.
On February 15, the state presented the last two witnesses for their case against John Sneed. Two employees of hotels, one in Fort Worth and one in Amarillo, testified that (1) John Sneed had checked into the Mansion Hotel in Fort Worth on August 30, 1912 and registered under the name “John Wilson”, he stayed three days and was accompanied by another gentleman, name unknown; (2) On August 7, B.B. Epting registered at the McIntosh Hotel in Amarillo under the name “John H. Cross”, remaining there until August 13. The Amarillo hotel employee testified that about a week before Al Boyce’s killing two men registered at the hotel at approximately 1:00 o’clock in the morning, but he was not able to identify them as Sneed and Epting.
Three witnesses then testified about the windows in the rented cottage being covered with netting and drapes, presumably so that the occupants inside could see out but no one could see inside. On the following Monday, the defense of John Sneed would begin after three last state witnesses testified.
The first witness for the defense was Lena’s father, Captain J.T. Snyder. His testimony was said to be the most interesting of the trial thus far. He began by telling of his friendship with the Boyce family which stretched back to the 1850’s – he had even been partners with Colonel Boyce in the cattle business. Snyder had received a telegram on the 11th or 12th of October, 1911 telling him that “Sneed was in great trouble.” When Snyder reached the Sneed home, Lena immediately threw her arms around her father’s neck and began to cry. “What in the name of God is the matter”, asked Snyder. Lena wanted to run away with Al Boyce.
Snyder then visited the Boyce home to find out why he had not been informed of the situation since it had been going on for months. He felt that he could have stopped it had he known about it. Mrs. Boyce told Snyder they had been afraid that Snyder’s sons might try and kill Al. Snyder said that the Colonel remarked that “if Beal Sneed killed Al Boyce he would have a word to say, that he could not blame him for it if he did, but that if anyone else did, there would not be a greazy [sic] spot left of him.”
Captain Snyder further testified about Lena’s erratic behavior. Although she was always affectionate toward her father, when her sister arrived she proclaimed that she didn’t want her family there – “that she did not care for any of her folks and wished her children were in their graves.” Snyder, on cross-examination, testified that Lena had shown him a bruised place on her arm where Sneed had jerked her away from the telephone (she was trying to reach the Boyce family). At that time John had grabbed his pistol to shoot her, but one of his children ran in and grabbed the gun. Snyder, however, more or less agreed that John was justified in his rage and desire to kill his wife.
Snyder ended his testimony by saying he had tried to live a good life and raise his children to be good people, but “now in his old age to have such a thing come up his family was almost more than he could bear.” According to the Amarillo Daily News:
Captain Snyder is 74 years old and during the recital of some of his testimony he was overcome with emotion and frequently covered his face with his hands and sobbed audibly, and some of the jurors were noticed to use their handkerchiefs in wiping away tears.
On the following day, witnesses were called to testify about the attempts by Al Boyce to “spring” Lena from the sanitarium, and on February 19 John Sneed took the stand in his own defense – but not before an eminent doctor specializing in “nervous diseases” testified that indeed he thought Lena had been insane.
John testified about his life growing up in Georgetown as neighbors of the Boyce family and how he and the Boyce children grew up and played together. He said that his marriage had, he thought, been a happy one until in October of 1911 he walked into his home only to find Al Boyce standing by his wife’s bedside. When John asked Lena what was going on she began to cry and said that nothing was meant by it, only that she had asked Al to come over to the bed to see how blue her finger nails were (she had been ill). On October 13 he came home and Lena asked to speak with him privately and she told him that she wanted to go to South America with Al – Sneed noted that she said it in a cold “matter of fact tone”.
John testified as to his distress over the situation and how he tried to convince her to remain with him. He said at one point he became so despondent that he took out a pistol, ready to kill Lena, his children and himself. However, one of the children ran in and stopped him. John’s father later told him to let her go but John was of the opinion that she was just out of her mind – something was “mentally wrong” with her. At this point he felt he had no other choice but to place Lena in a sanitarium and spare no expense for her care.
Just a few days before Lena escaped with Al, John had visited her in the sanitarium and she seemed quite affectionate and concerned about her children. John left and continued with his business, but was shocked to receive a telegram telling him of Lena’s “abduction” and departure for Canada. He had spent hundreds of dollars trying to find her and bring her back home.
Later when he heard that Al was back home to again try to take Lena (and the children) away. On July 19 he was told by the Snyder family that Al was plotting to kill him (this was the thwarted attempt on the train). Mrs. Rogers further corroborated the plot (she had been privy, for whatever reason, to Al’s letters to Lena during that time). At this point, John testified that he knew one or the other, he or Al, would be killed.
He sent a wire to his farm tenant B.B. Epting, asking Epting to meet him – Epting was his friend and he felt he needed someone with him. John had become desperate and he said he didn’t know what took him to Amarillo: “Those people had taken all but my children, and were still trying to get them and were going to kill me, and something just took me to Amarillo.” He had frankly told Lena earlier in the summer that “you know one of us must die”. He said that his brother Joe had been told that the Boyces were advised that if Al killed John he would not be convicted.
John defended himself further: “I never left my wife and children alone. I knew Boyce could make my wife murder me by degrees or do anything else he wanted her to when he was with her, because he had such an influence over her.” Thus he made preparations to be killed that summer, “made sure his children were safe on the Sneed farm near Calvert, so Al Boyce could not get them, then went out to meet what he felt was his inevitable fate.”
He further testified of his actions in Amarillo leading up to the time he murdered Al Boyce (which had essentially been verified with the state’s witnesses). He was miserable and fearful for his children’s lives and something compelled him to go there, stalk Al Boyce and shoot him in the street. Following his testimony, two doctors were called to testify that in their opinion Sneed had not been capable of judging right from wrong – “that he was not capable of criminal intent at the time and that when he saw Boyce his reason was dethroned.”
Dr. Darnell supplemented his original statement with assertion that Sneed probably would have killed all Boyces if he had seen them at the moment he killed Al Boyce, the condition of his mind being such that he was incapable of reflection or reasoning and was governed entirely by his subconscious mind.
Dr. Darnell said that Sneed, just before the killing, was suffering from melancholia produced by fear, and when he caught sight of Al Boyce his reason quickly left him and he became irresponsible.
Thus, it appears that John’s attorneys were striving for some sort of insanity defense.
On the final day of testimony the prosecution called a few witnesses in an attempt to rebut defense testimony as to Al’s supposed intent to kill John. Al’s brother, Lynn, testified that he had purchased a target rifle to carry with him on fishing trips to kill bait and rabbits – trying to establish perhaps that John was a bit paranoid about a Boyce plot to kill him. Al’s other brother Will testified that over a period of time when he had seen John in Amarillo he always carried a Winchester rifle with him everywhere he went. Testimony concluded, followed by six and a half hours of closing arguments.
On February 25, 1913, the jury’s decision of “not guilty” was quick – ten minutes! John Sneed was now free and understandably gratified for the verdict, which those who had followed it closely had correctly predicted. The Amarillo Daily News, in its closing paragraph of trial coverage, summed it up this way:
It is probable that no other case of a similar character has occupied so much space in the public prints of the country, a fact attributable to the prominence of both the families so intimately involved. The public prints of practically every city in the country reproduced not only lengthy accounts of the killings, the incident court procedure, but likewise views of the homes of the families, the courthouses and officials and other places of actual or supposed interest.
Fittingly, this series ends one hundred and one years and three days following the verdict. However, that’s not the end of the story – there’s an epilogue, which will be the subject of next week’s Wild West Wednesday (for lack of a better place to put it) article. Don’t miss it – irascible (or mentally unbalanced, if you believe the doctors’ testimony) John Beal Sneed lived to be 82 years old, but he didn’t necessarily go quietly!
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!
© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.