This is a particularly rare case, singular in fact. The case itself isn’t that unusual, unfortunately. An outwardly-respectable married man deciding to end an illicit affair, and then killing his mistress when she loses her cool about it, isn’t that rare. It should be, but it simply isn’t. What separates James Howard Snook from so many married murderers is that none of them were Olympic gold medalists. James Howard Snook was. He was a member of the US Pistol Shooting Team at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics and his team won a gold, so he’s the only Olympic champion ever to be executed for murder.
His 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 nowadays every small-animal vet will own at least one of them. Snook being head of the Veterinary Department at Ohio State University, he was a professional man with a decent job, a wife, a family and sporting fame. He was also a philanderer who became a murderer, a Death Row inmate and a corpse himself in short order. Ohio didn’t treat its condemned with kid gloves in the 1920’s, but we digress. We’ll get his grisly yet legal demise in a little while.
So, Snook had it all, you might say. Great job, good salary, high professional standing and known as an Olympic champion and a respectable husband and father. What more could he have wanted, you might ask? Well, a secret affair with a wild student at his university who was half his age and enjoyed copious amounts of drugs and kinky sex was what he wanted. He probably didn’t want to to fracture her skull with a hammer and then slit her throat after dumping her, still less did he want to have his head shaved before being marched from his cell, sat in Old Sparky and fried like bacon before an invited audience. But illicit love 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 affair started in 1926. Theora was what we’d nowadays call a ‘wild child.’ She liked drugs, especially the cocaine and barbiturates procured from the university medical lab by Professor Snook. She was keen on booze, Spanish Fly and cannabis as well, not to mention having an appetite for kiny 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. But not Professor Snook. 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, of the old Ohio State Penitentiary. Which was handy when friends and family came to see him 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 two-pound ballpeen hammer and then 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 was a 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 take a good look at his clothes, seeing as there was no way he could have avoided leaving blood traces if, as they suspected, he’d murdered Theora Hix so brutally.
They were right. The hammer and pocket knife were found in his possession (not very smart for a Professor, not ditching the murder weapons) and forensic checks revealed bloodstains all over the inside of his car. The clothes he’d been wearing were also covered with blood. Tests showed that the hammer, knife, car and clothes all had blood from the same person. And the same person was the recently-murdered Theora Hix. Snook’s desire to eliminate somebody threatening his physical health and professional standing had just all but unlocked the door of Ohio State Penitentiary’s ‘death house.’ He was in trouble, and he knew it.
His 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 this by utterly trashing her reputation. In doing so he’d also ber trashing 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. 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 were illicitly obtained from the university medical department by the defendant. His tales of how she led him astray with wild, kinky, S&M-style naughtiness cut even less ice because 1920’s Ohio didn’t take too well to self-confessed sexual deviants, especially not when they admitted enjoying such practices before beating their erstwhile partners to death before making out their own perversity was entirely the fault of the deceased.
The forensic evidence was overwhelming as to Snook having killed Theora Hix. 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 that Hix was already comatose from repeated hammer blows when Snook took out his pocket knife and, very precisely and clinically, proceeded to cut her throat from ear to ear. It’ hardly self-defence if your opponent is already unconscious, after all. It tookmthe jury all of 28 minutes to reach this conclusion for themselves and to deliver their verdict.
Guilty as charged of Firs-Degree Murder. With no recommendation for mercy.
Under Ohio law at the time, no recommendation for mercy made a death sentence mandatory and the trial judge lost no time in doing his grim duty. Snook was convicted and condemned on August 14, 1929, only two months after the murder of Theora Hix. Two months between arrest and conviction seems quick to you? Not nearly as quick as going from condemnation to execution. Snook was transferred to the old Ohio State Penitentiary the same day to await his appointment with Old Sparky.
Legal avenues for Death Row inmates exhausted themselves rather more quickly in 1929 than they do now. Nowadays, four years would be seen as a speedy trip between coutroom and death chamber. James Snook made the same trip in only four months. On February 29, 1930 he had his last meal and a final visit with his wife, a priest and an old friend. At 7:00am he was escorted to the ‘death house’ in the southwest corner of the prison yard. At 7:07 he was fully strapped in and the switch thrown. At 7:11am Professor James Howard Snook, Olympic champion, distinguished academic, respected professional, inventor, husband, father, philanderer and murderer was pronounced dead. He was buried at Greenlawn Cemetary early on March 1 in a small and very brief service. In an effort to deter morbid sightseers, he was buried under the name of ‘James Howard’ his surname being left off the marker. Ironically, ‘James Howard’ was the same alias he’d used when renting his secret love nest with Theora Hix.
It’s said that the unquiet, troubled soul of James Snook still haunts Greenlawn Cemetery, that he still 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 the old Ohio State Penitentiary (now long since demolished) was only blocks away from the University campus, it wouldn’t be a surprise that Snook were trolling around Greenlawn in the dead of night. If his soul is troubled, though, it should be troubled by what he did to Theora Hix, not by his having been executed for it.