A grisly murder, a final hanging

Beth KinnaneKarns/Hardin Valley, Our Town Stories, Union

In a little country home near Gades, 25 miles from Knoxville, lived an aged couple, Henry Snodderly and wife. The snows of 90 winters had settled on the father’s head, while his trusted companion was past 70 years of age. They had been prosperous, considered rich…

This passage from a June 1894 edition of the Knoxville Tribune reads like something out of a novel. If only it weren’t for real. The paragraph continues:

…and it was believed that the motive of the double crime had been robbery.

The double crime was the murder of Snodderly and his wife, Serena Clear, at their home on Hinds Creek on February 8, 1894. It may not have been the crime of the century, but it was certainly the shocking crime of the year 130 years ago. The story gripped newspapers not just across Tennessee but the entire South.

On that winter night the couple were seated by their fireplace. A grandson, Sam Guinn, was in the home as well as two of their other younger grandchildren. Just as Guinn opened the door to head out to the Snodderly Mill, he was greeted by two men of ill intent, faces covered with red handkerchiefs and brandishing pistols.

In no time, the two intruders got straight to business. They shot Henry, who immediately fell down dead, then Serena. She managed to drag herself to another room, not dying instantly. She was shot again, and died on the threshold to her kitchen. The younger grandchildren somehow escaped the melee, hiding in the nearby woods until they were found the next day. Guinn was forced at gunpoint to empty a bureau but managed to escape as the murderers rummaged through the contents searching for money.

Guinn ran to the nearby home of the elderly couple’s son, John, but the bandits were gone with what little they could find before they made it back to the house. The masked men made their escape by stealing two horses from the barn and riding off into the night. Their mounts were later abandoned at Powell’s Station.

Young Guinn found himself temporarily under arrest, Union County constables not immediately believing that he didn’t commit the atrocities himself. He was, after all, an heir to the Snodderly fortune. The stolen horses showing up 25 miles away helped get some heat off his back.

Knox County Deputy Sheriff Sam Harbison was soon zeroed in on two names: Clarence Cox and John Stanley of Karns. But they were nowhere to be found. The pair had told their families the day before the murders they were heading to Alabama to find work. In the aftermath, they made their way to and through Kentucky, eventually ending up in Illinois.

The story in the Tribune (predecessor of the Knoxville Journal) ran four months after the Snodderlys were killed when Stanley and Cox turned themselves in. In a jailhouse interview, Stanley told the reporter he didn’t “know where he had acquired the reputation of a murderer, gambler and all-around desperado.”

The investigation and trial revealed the two had walked from Karns to the Snodderly place, having heard that the old man kept a large stash of money in his house. Apparently, Stanley is the one who did all the shooting, but Cox was found just as guilty all the same.

The two men were hanged in December 1894. Before the kick and the drop, Stanley was reported to have begged Henry Snodderly Jr. for his forgiveness, to which the son replied “I’ll never forgive you!” After being admonished by the attendant preacher that forgive he must, Snodderly begrudgingly changed his tune.

Stanley had some considerable last words for the crowd, but this part stood out: I want to give a warning to all the young men present. I have come to this by whiskey and carrying a pistol.

It was the last hanging in Union County.

Beth Kinnane writes a history feature for KnoxTNToday.com. It’s published each Tuesday and is one of our best-read features.

Sources: Knoxville Tribune digital archives

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