Saturday, April 20, 2019

The Snell Murder.

Rosa Buckstahlen and Ida Bjornstad, servants in the Chicago mansion of Amos J. Snell, were awakened at 2:00 the morning of February 8, 1888, by the sound of a gunshot from the floor below. They heard someone shout “Get out! Get out of here!” followed by more gunshots, then silence. Thinking that all was well—or more likely, too frightened to do anything else—the girls went back to sleep.

Five hours later, Mr. Snell’s coachman, Henry Winklebook, entered the house to attend the furnace fires and found evidence of a break-in. Snell’s basement office was strewn with scattered papers, his safe was open, and a broken strongbox lay on the floor. Winklebook hurried upstairs to inform his employer and found his lifeless body lying in a pool of blood in the hallway. 

The police were called to the scene, and detectives managed to piece together what had transpired. Burglars had cut through a panel in a door at the rear of the house and had reached through the hole to open the door. From there the thieves went straight to Snell’s office and had attempted to pry open the safe before discovering that the combination had not been turned and the door opened easily. They also found and broke into a strongbox. 

No one but Snell knew what was in the safe and strongbox and there may not have been enough value there to satisfy the thieves. They went upstairs and began gathering items of silver which they piled onto a table in the parlor. This was when Snell awoke and came downstairs in his nightshirt, armed with an old muzzle-loading pistol. He fired a shot through the closed parlor door and shouted the words heard by the servants. The thieves responded by firing a pistol shot through the door. As Snell hurried toward the front door to go outside, the parlor door opened and the thieves fired two shots, one to Snell’s head the other to his chest. Snell fell dead, and the burglars fled out the back door and over the rear fence. 

64-year-old Amos Snell had made his fortune in real estate and was one of the wealthiest men in Chicago. He lived in the West Side mansion with his wife and servants. Their children, three daughters, and one son, had all married and moved away. On the night of the murder, his wife, Henrietta, had been in Milwaukee with their daughter, Grace Coffin. Their two grandchildren who had been staying with Mr. Snell had mercifully slept through the commotion.

The police believed that the Snell mansion had been targeted by professional burglars. Several houses in the neighborhood had recently been robbed, and earlier in the week suspicious men had been seen outside the house. From footprints in the snow, the police determined that two men had broken into the house, they believed that a third stood outside watching. By midnight a police dragnet resulted in the arrest of more than 20 known thieves and other suspicious characters. 

A young man named Charles Benedict was arrested carrying a suspicious bundle that was found to contain: 6 dark lanterns, 6 chilled augers, one chilled extension bit, 6 8oz slung shots, 6 steel knuckles,  2oz dynamite, 2oz giant powder, 3 dirk knives, 3 muffled alarm whistles, 6 42-caliber Colt's navy revolvers, 4 steel jimmies, 6 boxes of lucifer fuses, 44 mail-pouch keys (US regulation), 42 different skeleton keys, and 1 diamond glass-cutter. In custody, Benedict panicked and began crying. He said he had come to Chicago from Marshalltown, Iowa, to buy tools for his “gang” of burglars. He denied any connection to the Snell murder, though no one had asked. The police kept Benedict in custody but did not believe he was involved in the Snell murder. 

In fact, none of the men arrested could be connected to the crime and days passed without any progress in locating the killer. The newspapers began comparing the Snell murder with the murder of Benjamin Nathan in New York where the perpetrator was never caught. The main difference was in the Nathan murder even the motive was uncertain while Snell’s murder was almost certainly a burglary gone wrong. Snell’s son Albert offered a reward of $20,000 for the arrest of his father’s killer. Pressure on the police to solve the case became so strong that it forced the resignation of Chief of Police Ebersold.

The first break in the case came when Mrs. Ella S. Wicks, a lodging house landlady, reported that one of her tenants had what appeared to be stolen merchandise in his closet. The man, who gave his name as Mr. Scott, rented the room in January. In February he paid her a week’s rent in advance and said he was going away for a few days and she should keep his room locked. He left the day after the murder. Mrs. Wicks went into the room and found some silverware, clothing, and pieces of jewelry believed to be stolen. None of the merchandise was from the Snell house but among his possession were fragments of check stolen from Snell’s office. 

The description Mrs. Wicks gave matched that of a safe-cracker the police knew as Billy Gebright. Gebright was actually an alias of a man named William B. Tascott, the black sheep of a prominent Chicago family, who had a criminal record in cities further west. Claiming to have additional evidence against him, the police declared Tascott the suspected killer of Amos Snell and offered a $2,000 reward for his capture.

They had no photograph of Tascott but they issued a description—22 or 23 years of age, 5 feet 8 or 9 inches high, 140 pounds weight, slim built, very erect, full round face, heavy eyebrows, very fair complexion, dark brown hair, thin on top of head cut short, large blue eyes, small, thin, dark mustache may be dyed—and distributed it nationwide. The police were confident that Tascott would be convicted when caught and that his capture was imminent. 

Chicago police had no luck in locating Tascott, but with $22,000 at stake, the rest of the country was ready to take up the search. The grand jury in Chicago rushed an indictment against Tascott to facilitate any necessary requisition from other states. 

On February 18, a man matching Tascott’s description was arrested in Los Angeles, California—it wasn’t him. On February 23, he was arrested in Lebanon, Missouri—also not Tascott. At the same time, Tascott was seen in Louisville, Kentucky and Springfield, Illinois. In March he was seen in Winnipeg, Manitoba and Boulder, Minnesota. Oscar Garland, an escaped convict from Minnesota, captured in Chicago claimed to be the true killer of Amos Snell—the first of many false confessions.
The false arrests and random sighting slowly decreased, and by the end of the year Mrs. Henrietta Snell, fearing her husband’s murder would be forgotten, increased the reward for his killer’s capture to $50,000. According to the Daily Inter Ocean, this made the reward on Tascott’s head, “the largest amount ever offered for the capture of any human being in the world.”

The sightings of Tascott did not increase, but the search area widened. In February 1889, Tascott was seen in West Virginia. In June, a woman in San Francisco claimed she helped Tascott escape to China. Then sighting died down again.

At the end of 1890, Snell’s children began fighting among themselves. Albert Stone, husband of one of Amos Snell’s daughters, had taken control of the case from the start. In November 1890, the wife of Albert Snell, Amos’s only son, publicly took issue with Stone’s handling of the case. Albert Stone issued a terse response which Mrs. Snell interpreted as an implication that she and her husband were involved in the murder. She filed three libel suits against Stone, demanding $300,000 damages. The same day she announced she had hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to investigate the case.

Henrietta Snell had tried early on to get the Pinkertons on the case, but she wanted them to work for the reward. This was against the company’s basic principle, and the Pinkertons had declined. Presumably, Mrs. Albert Snell was now paying the Pinkertons regular fee.

The Pinkertons did their work in utter secrecy and divulged little to the press. A detective named Frank Golden claimed that some of Snell’s documents were in a safety deposit box in Cincinnati. He further claimed that the break-in had not been an ordinary burglary but was to steal documents for the benefit of one man deeply in debt to Amos Snell. Golden claimed he knew where Tascott was, but he was not the killer; if Golden had access to the deposit box, he could prove who the killer was. The Chicago press assumed Golden was a Pinkerton operative. In any case, nothing came from the Cincinnati theory, and the Pinkerton Agency denied having any role in the investigation.

In May 1893, States Attorney Kern announced that the Tascott investigation had ended, but the indictment against him would still hold if he were ever captured. By this time, it was estimated that more than 1,000 men, nationwide, had been arrested on suspicion but no one was held. Tascott was still occasionally sighted throughout the country, but the Snell case faded from public view.  

In December 1910, a Chicago professional thief named James Gillan confessed on his deathbed that he killed Amos Snell while burglarizing his house. William Tascott, he declared, had nothing to do with the crime. This was not the first deathbed confession to the crime; other professional criminals hoping to advance their post-mortem notoriety had taken responsibility for the crime, but their confessions were all debunked. This time, however, the Inter Ocean took Gillan’s confession as fact.

But by now it hardly mattered; the Snell family was in decline. Henrietta Snell was dead. Albert Snell spent all of his inheritance and died in “a 10 cent lodging house.” A.J. Stone lived in broken health and reduced circumstances. Amos’s daughter Grace, with seven marriages and six divorces,  had the dubious distinction of being the most frequently married woman in the United States. The Snell mansion became a “gray, forlorn, and weather-beaten” boarding house. And there is an even chance that Amos Snell’s killer is still unknown.

Amos J. Snell Murder -
“Amos J Snell Killed,” Chicago Daily News, February 9, 1888.
“Another Tascott Arrested,” Daily Inter Ocean, October 2, 1888.
“A Brutal Murder,” Daily Gazette, February 8, 1888.
“The Chicago Tragedy,” Jackson Citizen Patriot, February 18, 1888.
“Chicago's Chief of Police,” New York Herald, February 14, 1888.
“The City in Brief,” Daily Inter Ocean, September 30, 1889.
“Deafening the Snell Mystery,” Chicago Herald, November 23, 1890.
“Did Carland Kill Snell? ,” Daily Inter Ocean, March 19, 1888.
“Enough Evidence,” Daily Inter Ocean, February 23, 1888.
“Fooled Again,” Daily Inter Ocean, February 25, 1888.
“Hunted down at Last ,” Chicago Herald, August 21, 1891.
“In Pinkerton Hands,” Chicago Herald, November 25, 1890.
“Is Tascott in Chicago?” Daily Inter Ocean, March 21, 1888.
“Is Tascott Taken? Mrs,” Daily Inter Ocean, December 6, 1888.
“Millionaire Snell's Murder,” New York Herald, February 19, 1888.
“'Murder Most Foul',” Daily Inter Ocean, February 9, 1888.
“Now for Tascott Stories,” Chicago Herald, December 7, 1890.
“On His Track,” Daily Inter Ocean, February 18, 1888.
“A Reward of $20,000,” Chicago Daily News, February 10, 1888.
“Say Its' Not Tascott,” Chicago Herald, March 19, 1891.
“The Snell Murder,” Boston Journal, February 24, 1888.
“The Snell MurderCritic-Record, February 17, 1888.
“Still at Sea,” Daily Inter Ocean, February 11, 1888.
“Tascott Case Stricken Off,” Daily Inter Ocean, May 3, 1893.
“Tascott Bobs up Again,” Daily Inter Ocean, February 13, 1889.
“Tascott Captured Again,” Daily Inter Ocean, September 13, 1891.
“Tascott in China,” Daily Inter Ocean, June 5, 1889.
“Tascott in Minnesota,” Daily Inter Ocean, March 17, 1888.
“Tascott Seen at Winnipeg,” Daily Inter Ocean, March 4, 1888.
“Tascott's Chief Crime,” Daily Inter Ocean, December 6, 1890.
“Tascott's Description,” Daily Inter Ocean, February 24, 1888.
“Who Murdered Snell,” Chicago Herald, November 10, 1890.


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