Clemency for Hanged Man Delivers a Justice Long Awaited


It was the old people who kept John Snowden’s name alive, passing it down like a fragile heirloom. The tale they told was as distant as rumor, shorn of detail but always retrieved when a new injustice flared. Someday, Annapolis’ aging blacks said, “the lynching” would get its proper account. Someday finally came.

Hanged 82 years ago in the Annapolis city jail for the rape and murder of a white woman--despite nagging evidence that suggested his innocence--Snowden has won a posthumous pardon.

Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening’s decision this week to grant Snowden clemency was spurred by what he concluded was a “possible miscarriage of justice” and by a 10-year crusade by activists and descendants to clear his name. The decision does not declare Snowden innocent. But it closes the book on a 1917 murder that so polarized Annapolis at the time that Baltimore police and National Guardsmen were called in to prevent riots.


“It’s a long time, but it’s so good to see justice has been done,” said Hazel Snowden, the executed man’s 44-year-old niece.

When she learned of Glendening’s decision Thursday, Snowden dashed to her car from the trailer in suburban Washington where she works as a construction company secretary. She bounced giddily in her seat on the long drive home. “Thank you, Jesus!” she wept.

Leaders of Annapolis’ black community long had given up hope that “we would ever see anything done,” said the 85-year-old Rev. Floyd Snowden, who remembers only shards of the tale from his childhood. He heard the name from his elders, people who clicked their tongues in sadness when they mentioned the man who shared his last name.

The elderly preacher is not related to the hanged man. But Floyd Snowden filed away the wisps he learned. John Snowden, he was told, “did not have the attitude of a violent man,” an innocent sent wrongly to the gallows.

“The misfortune is that none of us took any steps so many years ago,” Rev. Snowden said. “I guess it was just our lack of knowledge--and maybe the fact that we had so little freedom.”

But the climate in America has changed. The grim wave of lynchings that killed hundreds of blacks in the early 20th century--mostly in the South--now has become grist for study by a new generation of historians. Some state officials have reopened long-dormant cases. A Tennessee judge last year set aside the rape conviction of a black man hanged in 1906.

At least 30 blacks were lynched in Maryland from 1882 to 1933, said Carl Snowden, an unrelated former Annapolis alderman and an activist who helped lobby for John Snowden’s pardon. John Snowden’s hanging was, in fact, an execution ordered by a local judge and sanctioned by the state. But all of the deaths, Carl Snowden said, “cry out for a proper settlement.”

“Now’s as good a time as any to bring about some justice,” agreed George Phelps Jr., 74, a black former sheriff’s deputy in Annapolis who also pressed for the clemency. “The truth will set us all free.”

Truth, in the Snowden case, fractured like sunlight on broken crystal.

On Aug. 17, 1917, Valentine Brandon, an Annapolis businessman, entered his downtown row house and found his wife, Lottie Mae, motionless in a film of blood. Newspaper reports at the time suggested she had been beaten and strangled with her own long hair.

Two women came forward, telling police they had seen a man emerge from the house. The suspect, they said, was Snowden, an iceman who made regular deliveries to the Brandon home. They pointed to Snowden in a police lineup. Police said they had found flakes of dark skin under Lottie Mae Brandon’s fingernails.

Carlotte Wotring, 75, a niece of the slain woman who was stunned by the news of the pardon, insists still that police had the right man.

“They didn’t have DNA back then,” Wotring said, “but I’ll bet you anything he had lots of scratches on him. My aunt fought for her life.”

At trial, Snowden’s lawyers complained that Annapolis detectives beat him and kept him awake for days, trying to force a confession. Even jurors who pronounced Snowden guilty later asked the presiding judge to commute his death sentence to life imprisonment.

But by Feb. 28, 1919, Snowden was ready for death. He had picked out a sturdy oak coffin and a fine new suit to be buried in. “I am leaving on the everlasting arm of Jesus,” he said. “I could not leave this world with a lie in my mouth.” He was hanged in the city jail, just a few blocks from his family’s row house.

At work one day last year, Hazel Snowden read an old newspaper account reporting that police had crushed her uncle’s genitals in their attempt to wring out a confession. “I sat there in the bathroom and cried like a child,” she said.

Hazel Snowden had grown up with only scant knowledge of her uncle’s death. Her father, Louis Snowden, talked bitterly about his brother’s hanging every year on his birthday and on the anniversary of his death. Her father kept an antique photograph of his brother and a browned, curling newspaper account of the hanging taped to his dresser mirror. Both disappeared after Louis Snowden’s death several years ago.

“I would come into my father’s room every day and read that story and look at his picture,” Hazel Snowden said. “He didn’t have to tell me a word. It just burned into me.”

Seven years ago, led by Carl Snowden’s lobbying, a small group of Annapolis blacks urged Glendening’s predecessor, Gov. William Donald Schaefer, to pardon John Snowden. State investigators talked to Phelps about the case but left him with the impression “that it wasn’t going anywhere. We never heard back.”

So the group tried again with Glendening. Two weeks ago, the governor said he would make a decision by mid-June. But he made up his mind quickly.

“While it is impossible at this late date to establish his guilt or innocence,” he said Thursday, “there is substantial doubt that justice was served by his hanging.”

Glendening was persuaded by “all the questions that raised doubt,” said spokeswoman Michelle Byrnie. “The pardon can’t get to bottom of the truth, but there were enough doubts that the governor felt he had to act.”

In Rockville, Md., a disbelieving Wotring phoned relatives through the night Thursday. Cousins vented outrage and despair for hours until they were spent. It is a lost cause, Wotring said. Glendening’s decision, like their aunt’s distant death, was beyond protest. “It’s just the way it is,” she said. “We have to go on with our lives.”

Hazel Snowden too looked forward. At home, she flipped through a thick photocopied sheath of all the newspaper stories she had collected over the years. They would knit together into a fine family memoir, she decided, “something for the next generation to read.”

Then she went down to her living room and stared at the walls. She wanted to find the perfect place to hang the official notice of John Snowden’s pardon.

“Right there,” she said, choosing a blank space under the stairwell. “When people walk through my front door, they’re going to see my uncle’s innocence staring them right in the face.”