AMY DRAKE, Playwright

The Strange Case of Dr. Snook and Theora Hix: A Roaring Twenties Murder

July 23, 2021

Dr. James H. Snook won a gold medal in marksmanship in the historic 1920 Antwerp Olympics. He went on to become a professor of veterinary science at The Ohio State University. His other claim to fame was inventing the Snook Hook, a device still in use for spaying domestic animals. He met medical student Theora Hix — smart, athletic, attractive — when she began working as a student typist for his department. Snook was married to Helen, a former elementary school teacher, and had a baby daughter when he began seeing Theora. Their affair began on a rainy afternoon, three weeks after they first met in his office.

Snook and Theora were involved for three years. During that time, Snook rented a room in a boarding house on Hubbard claiming to be a salt salesman who traveled with his wife; Theora began experimenting with drugs from the medicine cabinet in the veterinary school office; and Helen sought council from attorney John Seidel while contemplating a divorce. What began as a means of escape for both Theora and Snook took a serious turn as Theora became increasingly aware of her status as an “old maid,” as she entered her mid-twenties. Theora wanted Snook all to herself, however Snook had no intention of leaving Helen.

Snook wrote articles on target shooting and would often go to the police rifle range for practice. He had taken Theora there to teach her to shoot before giving her one of his handguns for self-protection which she kept it in her purse. As their relationship progressed, Snook and Theora would be seen around town in his new midnight blue Forde Coupe and dining at trendy restaurants like The Clock or The Matsonia. They would write letters to each other using pennames. One of the more gruesome aspects to their affair was that Snook performed a vasectomy on himself to avoid conception. He had nerves of steel in the surgery and on the rifle range.

Sometimes, in the evening, Snook and Theora would park along the River Road or go on to the rifle range, secluded after dark, for privacy when they preferred to be outdoors rather than in the apartment. It was on just such a warm evening, June 14, 1929, when they had a drug-fueled argument which turned violent. Snook planned to go away with his family for the weekend to visit his mother: Theora had other plans.

The next morning, Friday, June 15, Theora’s lifeless body was found by two teenage boys after a heavy rain. Ephraim Johnson, the groundskeeper, stood by as curiosity seekers swarmed the area. Theora’s dress was covered in blood, her hair was matted, and her purse was missing. Only a broken key ring remained by her side when police arrived to shoo away throngs of onlookers, some of whom probably took home a “souvenir” from the crime scene.

The police connected Theora with the description of a woman reported missing by her roommates Bertha and Alice Bustin. Mrs. Smalley who owned the rooming house positively identified Theora at Glenn Myers’s Mortuary. She admitted she had been suspicious of Snook’s claim that Theora was his wife at the time she showed them the room. Helen again called on Seidel: this time to represent her husband.

On Saturday morning, June 16, a police detective visited Snook at home and took him in to the station for questioning. Two more detectives were dispatched to the Snook residence to search for evidence. Snook was questioned by county prosecutor Jack Chester for 19 hours, who beat a confession out of Snook and may have dictated the confession to a stenographer. Dr. Brundage, the prison doctor, took a sample of Snook’s spinal fluid to determine if he had acquired syphilis. In doing so, Brundage damaged Snook’s spine. Evidence was tampered with both at the scene of the murder and at the police station. What is clear is that Theora came at Snook and had a gun in her purse. It now appears that the murder was in no way premeditated.

During the trail Snook was in such pain from the spinal injury at the hands of Dr. Brundage that he was given a brightly colored beach chair instead of a hard desk chair to make him more comfortable. Journalists came from around the country to get a scoop. The trial was even covered by The New York Times. Famed cartoonist Milt Caniff provided illustrations of the courtroom proceedings. The jury consisted of eleven men and one woman. During the hot July weather fans were going strong in the courthouse and extra water coolers were brought in for the multitude of spectators and reporters who crammed the courthouse each day of the trial. Many were turned away due to lack of galley space.

The testimony regarding Snook and Theora’s sexual encounters was so shocking in its day that some statements could not be printed in the news. Snook’s blood-stained suit, pocket knife, and a love letter stuffed in a hat and carelessly left in the apartment were damning pieces of evidence. An enterprising printer got ahold of testimony from a court reporter and sold a pamphlet about the trial on a street corner. During the hearing Seidel realized that Snook had skirted facts about the case in their discussion and Helen committed perjury claiming no prior knowledge of her husband’s affair with Theora, the reason she had come to Seidel a couple of years earlier to discuss obtaining a divorce. Seidel’s summation of the case did not cast his client in a good light.

Even though Snook may have acted in self-defense, they jury spent a mere 28-minutes deliberating before finding him guilty of first-degree murder and recommending sentencing without mercy. He was convicted of first-degree murder and received the death penalty. The questionable and heavy-handed tactics used by the prosecution forced a change in procedure of murder investigations in the U.S.

Helen and her daughter took Helen’s maiden name as not to be associated with her late husband and his scandalous reputation. After college, Helen’s daughter moved to Hawaii, exotic and not yet a state. She taught at the Punahou School, later attended by future President Barak Obama.

The body of Dr. Snook lies in a grave marked James Howard (no surname) in Greenlawn Cemetery in Columbus, Ohio. Snook and Theora’s tawdry tale of extramarital sex, illegal in the 1920s, her drug use, and the unscrupulous murder investigation has been the topic of books, journal articles, and the basis for my Off-Broadway play, SOMEWHERE I CAN SCREAM, running July 8–25, 2021, at The Players Theatre in New York. Tickets are on sale through Ovationtix https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/277?sitePreference=normal

For more information about the case, check out the book Gold Medal Killer by Diana Britt Franklin with Nancy Pennell, Marquette Books LLC, Spokane, WA, 2010.

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