When J. Frank Snipes of Kernersville finally left this mortal coil on May 7, 1921, the news made the front pages of papers as far away as Raleigh and Salisbury.
That sort of notoriety was not often bestowed on a local butcher, which Snipes was, even at the turn of the century when cities had more personal connections with the men who supplied them with fresh meat for their tables.
But Snipes was much more than a simple neighborhood butcher. He was also Winston-Salem’s first crime lord, trucking in stolen merchandise, robbery, price-fixing, influence-peddling, gambling, violence and, eventually, whiskey. From his butcher shop on Trade Street and the family farm compound in Kernersville, Snipes and his gang — which included both white and black members from neighboring towns and the city, and at least three of his five sons — built a criminal empire that was alluded to but not exhaustingly documented in the newspapers of the day.
Still North Carolina newspapers ran hundreds of articles about Frank Snipes and his exploits in the years between 1884 and his death in 1920.
North Carolina in the 1880s benefited from a bounty of daily and weekly newspapers in every community. Even small towns had morning and evening editions, and cities like Winston-Salem, at the time one of the most prosperous in the South, had several.
But there wasn’t much local news, which is probably why a Feb. 7, 1884 edition of the People’s Press in Winston-Salem ran a story about a boy bitten by a “mad dog” that made the papers from Wilmington to Wadesboro, all variations on the original piece of copy, which indicated that the boy, a young Frank Snipes, would seek treatment from a magic stone.
“The family at once became alarmed and sent the lad to the famous Pointer mad stone in Person County,” reported the Winston-Salem Sentinel. “The stone is about the size of a butter bean, they say, of a dark color, and $100 is the fee charged for each patient.”
It’s the very first press Snipes ever got in a string of newspaper reports that paint him as both a violent criminal and stalwart citizen.
Even in his short obit, after detailing his arrests, prison time and pending court cases against him, the Greensboro Daily News wrote: “He was big-heatred [sic] and was noted for his loyalty to his friends. It is said that he never turned away any poor man or woman who applied to him for assistance, whether they were deserving or not.”
As the 1800s came to a close, Snipes’ newspaper trail picks up with the sort of dispatches one might expect about a man in his line of work: a story about a three-legged pig birthed on his farm, another about a calf that, Snipes discovered after he split open its head, had two brains. And there was a story every time one of his cows escaped, events which were covered in newspapers back then.
Tucked among them are clues that foreshadowed the sort of enterprise he built.
In July 1888, Winston-Salem’s Western Sentinel carried a story of a horse that had been worked to death in the summer sun. The horse’s owner: Frank Snipes.
“His other two horses are sick,” the item read, “and their illness was brought about in like manner.”
In September 1890, the Union Republican of Winston-Salem included a small item about a pair of stolen oxen found on the Snipes property. Snipes, who said he bought them from an anonymous “negro,” returned the oxen and, according to the piece, “put out after the darkey and overtook him near Old Town and recovered the money, $20.”
In November 1893, Winston-Salem’s Progressive Farmer reported that one of Snipes’ employees, a butcher by the name of George Hobbs, had gone missing with $100 in his pockets.
In September 1905, his son, Frank Jr., then 16, was shot in a sign-painter’s office on Fourth Street by a man named John Bradford.
“Young Bradford deeply regrets the accident,” reported the Western Sentinel.
And in March 1908, Snipes Sr. faced trial for assault on Eugene Albea at the downtown market. The Twin-City Daily Sentinel called it “the most important case” of the day.
“Mr. Snipes stated that he and Mr. Albea got into a dispute and he struck him two or three times with his open hand. Snipes was fined $5.”
By the time the first decade of the new century had ticked off, J. Frank Snipes had risen to prominence in the city of Winston, which was still three years away from merging with the neighboring town of Salem.
In 1909 he bought a 20-acre hillside lot at the old Belo Pond property when the city shut down the waterworks there, and another six-acre plot that included the pump house, spending almost $15,000 — which is more than $380,000 in 2017 dollars. Frank Jr. started playing baseball. The butcher shop prospered. In April 1910 Frank Sr. purchased a pair of record-setting steer from PH Hanes that yielded more than 2,000 pounds of meat.
Snipes’ affluence was further indicated by a December 1909 Western Sentinel story about a young man who had been arrested for passing checks in town with Snipes’ name forged on them.
Another interesting thing happened around this time, one that would have great effect on his life: On May 26, 1908, 12 years ahead of the rest of the country, North Carolina enacted prohibition, making it the first state in the South to ban alcohol.
As it would do in the rest of the nation after the 18th Amendment passed in 1919, the classification of alcohol as contraband created fantastic criminal opportunities for men like Snipes, who didn’t necessarily feel bound by the constraints of law.
As later events would relate, Snipes had his operation and the city of Winston pretty well sewn up. But a series of bungles by his oldest sons, Frank Jr. and his younger brother Charlie, cast unwanted light on his operation, starting with Charlie Snipes’ murder trial that began in April 1910.
In 1910, Jennie Webster owned what was likely a brothel near North Trade Street. No one saw Charlie Snipes kill Webster, who was described in the Winston-Salem Journal headline as a “negro woman” who had been shot through the temple at close range in her home, but there was ample reason for suspicion.
Charlie had become known as a drinker, gambler and frequenter of brothels in the booming, industrial city. A neighbor, Daisy Ware, had seen Charlie break into Webster’s house the day of the murder and heard two pistol shots coming from the house shortly afterward. A woman named Mollie Hayes testified to the coroner that Charlie had told her he planned to kill Webster, and had shown her the gun he wanted to use to carry out the deed. A pistol owned by Charlie had been pawned in Greensboro earlier in the month and then had been reclaimed by its owner the day before the murder. And when police arrested Charlie, he had a pocket full of bullets.
When the time came to mount Charlie’s defense, witnesses like Ware and Hayes stumbled under cross-examination. A succession of alibis presented by hack drivers, pawnbrokers and other acquaintances put Charlie in a café on Seventh and Trade at the time of the murder. Frank Snipes testified that his son was home in bed by 11 p.m. Journal coverage falls off the day the judge charged the jury, suggesting that Charlie was acquitted.
A few more items of interest appear in the news: the arrest of Will Hammond, a black man who worked for Snipes, for breaking into the home of the manager of Kress department store; an employee suffered a fractured skull on the property of the new slaughterhouse at the old waterworks; Snipes himself found a pearl in an oyster at the Star Café and sold it for $70; his youngest son “accidentally” shot the family’s African-American cook, Mary Hicks.
In February 1912, Snipes testified to the city board of aldermen denying the existence of a “meat trust” that had developed in the city, monopolizing vendor spaces at the city market and colluding to inflate prices.
And Frank Jr. and Charlie had started betting on baseball games.
In 1911, the city’s team, the Winston-Salem Twins, had won the Carolina Association on the strength of pitcher Josh Swindell, who finished the year 29-8. And though Swindell had been called up to the majors before the next season, 1912 began swimmingly, with strong play from a rookie outfielder out of Guilford College named Luke “Tiny” Stuart, though they finished in second place that year.
In 1913, the Twins would go on to win the pennant in the newly formed North Carolina State League. But not before a couple of their players got caught up with the Snipes gang.
Old newspapers cannot fully contextualize the relationship between Stuart and Charlie Snipes, but they can pinpoint their first public skirmish, which happened at Prince Albert Park on July 25, 1913, after the ballgame against the Durham Bulls. The Western Sentinel picked up the story the following Monday:
“The trouble started after the ball game last Friday afternoon when Charles Snipes and Catcher Smith and Outfielder Stuart, of the local baseball club, had a fist fight, in which Snipes came out second best.”
The beating set young Snipes, drunk and brandishing a knife, out raving in the street, where he was apprehended by two police officers who then brought him to the corner of Eighth and Liberty streets and… let him go. Meanwhile, the ballplayers Smith and Stuart were charged with simple assault.
Later that night, Charlie went looking for the ballplayers at the Webster Hotel armed with a Winchester rifle.
Police Chief James A. Thomas intercepted Charlie personally, along with an officer named Byrd, one of the cops who had let Charlie loose earlier in the day. As Byrd and the chief calmed Charlie down, Frank Jr. showed up and began an argument with Byrd, which ended with Frank Jr. slapping the police officer right in front of the chief.
Still, no one arrested the Snipes brothers at this point; they got into a buggy and went home.
In the meantime, the city buzzed with the news. The Journal reported: “While at first the affair was apparently only a personal matter between the baseball players and Charles Snipes, it rapidly became an affair in which general interest rapidly passed from mouth to mouth and open charges were made by citizens that the officers feared to arrest Charles Snipes for political reasons.”
The board of aldermen held an emergency meeting to suspend Chief Thomas and Officer Byrd, and name Sergeant JT Thompson acting chief. Finally, the brothers came back to the Webster with their father. And while Frank Sr. was signing a bond for his boy in the hotel lobby, another fight ensued in which Frank Jr. went after Stuart, drawing a gun on the ballplayer.
It happened on a Friday night. By Monday the Snipes boys got a trial in municipal court and were sentenced to time on a road gang: six months for Charlie and four for Frank Jr. They appealed the verdict to Superior Court, which suspended their sentences. Charlie missed the first court date in October due to rheumatism, according to the Sentinel. The next, in January 1914, was never reported on. The Journal issued a follow-up in October 1914, describing various dismissals and suspended sentences for the brothers.
By the end of July 1913, Mayor Oscar Eaton, elected that year as the favored candidate of Frank Snipes Sr., had reinstated Chief Thomas, who had let the Snipes boys go with a warning, and suspended the acting chief, Thompson, for five days.
And while his sons walked free, Frank Snipes’ legal problems had just begun.
The Greensboro Daily News carried the story of Snipes’ first prison sentence on Dec. 10, 1913:
“Frank Snipes, a well known white citizen, a resident of Winston-Salem for many years, was tried in municipal court this morning on the charge of retailing liquor, and was sentenced to serve a term of eight months on the county roads.”
He got out in July 1914, and was promptly arrested again three weeks later for possession of a keg of whiskey. The case was heard by Mayor Eaton himself, who in the end imposed a $6,000 bond and a promise to stay out of the whiskey business.
This might seem like a slap on the wrist, but the $6,000 — and the promise — would come into play very soon.
One year later, Snipes and his Charlie and Bruce dragged Charles Holloman from his buggy on a Thursday afternoon. When Constable Frank Martin tried to serve him a summons on that assault on North Trade Street, an argument ensued. Snipes later went to the constable’s house with an armload of rocks; the constable held him at gunpoint until the police took Snipes into custody. In municipal court, again presided over by Mayor Eaton, Snipes was fined $15.
Snipes bought the farm in Kernersville from CB Watson in January 1915. By October the property had attracted the attention of federal revenuers as an illegal moonshine operation. And Snipes would learn that his influence in Winston-Salem did not extend to the federal government.
On Oct. 18, federal Deputy CF Neelley visited the Kernersville farm. Afterward he said Snipes and his men had surrounded him, disarmed him and threatened to kill him before offering a “good-sized” bribe to return to Greensboro.
Nine days later, Neelley raided Snipes’ Trade Street residence with a squad of law enforcement officers from Greensboro, Mt. Airy, Rowan County and Lexington, with just two members of the city police, including Chief Thomas.
After battering the door and finding their man inside, hiding in a locked wardrobe with a pistol in his hands, Snipes was jailed under a $10,000 bond. But after the purchase of the farm and now on the hook for the $6,000 bond from back in July, Snipes had cash-flow problems and had to wait in jail until his trial, unlike his sons, who promptly disappeared. Without their father’s guidance, they surrendered a week later.
The trial began in Greensboro on Dec. 13, 1915. It took 20 minutes of deliberation for a jury to convict Snipes and two of his sons on Dec. 15. For his role as leader, Snipes Sr. was sentenced to six years in a federal prison in Atlanta. Somehow, Snipes and his sons posted $12,000 and were able to leave jail on an appeal. But before the appeals court could hear the case, Snipes was arrested again in March by the Rockingham County sheriff, with more than 100 gallons of liquor in a car.
With that case hanging in the air and his sentence reduced, miraculously, to three years, Snipes headed off to prison in Atlanta in April 1916.
Even with the malevolent patriarch behind bars, the family business continued. Frank Jr. was in municipal court twice for violating alcohol laws before his father got home from Atlanta in late 1918. And just a few weeks after his release, Frank Sr. made the news again for ambushing a crew of revenuers who were about to raid his farm, shooting one of them in the leg before absconding with his gang.
While awaiting federal sentencing for this new crime in September 1919, Snipes was sentenced to another 15 months with a road crew in Superior Court for a separate incident: a car chase with a motorcycle cop on Trade Street, ending in a wreck. Snipes and an associate escaped the police at gunpoint.
And before that sentence could be enforced, in October federal agents seized another 45 gallons of whiskey from the Snipes farm in Kernersville. The noose was beginning to tighten.
It climaxed on Nov. 26, 1919, when Frank Snipes Sr. tried to kill a cop.
It happened in front of the city barn on Trade Street. Snipes had been drinking, and began arguing with two city police.
The next day’s Journal reported: “Snipes had been drinking, it is said, and his wrath seemed directed against the uniform the men wore rather than against the men themselves, neither of whom, on account of their short period of service, had ever taken part in the arrest of Frank Snipes or his son.”
In the melee, the police reported, Snipes accidentally shot himself with his 32-230 special, through the right breast.
In December, Snipes, still recovering from a gunshot, accepted a plea deal that amounted to a fine while promising never to drink alcohol again.
From the Journal: “Judge Harriman, after [being] told of Snipes’ determination to refrain from drinking whiskey in the future, spoke of knowing the defendant for many years, and said that Frank Snipes, sober, was an entirely different man from Frank Snipes under the influence of whiskey.”
The felling blow for the notorious outlaw came not from the federal authorities, who had him for holding enormous amounts of liquor and for shooting one of their officers, nor from the municipal and superior courts, who up to this point had been largely ineffective in bringing the man to justice, nor even from the bullet that came, supposedly, from his own gun.
Snipes’ last hand was dealt by inept members of his of his crew, which had always been a problem.
In May 1920, a thief named Mack Bass confessed to a string of robberies in Winston-Salem, Lexington, Thomasville, Welcome and Statesville, alleging that his gang was in the practice of selling their stolen goods to Snipes, who buried the booty on his property.
On June 27,1920, the Journal reported on the discovery of the “Lie and Kill Club,” the criminal enterprise of which Snipes acted as leader, through court proceedings.
“According to members of this club who were questioned this morning,” the Journal reported, “the purpose of this ‘Lie and Kill’ club has been to take whatever they could and kill anyone interfering with them.
“As evidence,” the story continued, “the state introduced Paul Livengood, supposedly the recorder of the society, using a Bowie knife dipped in blood as pen and ink and making his records on white skulls.”
Snipes was arrested again in Winston-Salem that September after stolen property was discovered buried in his yard. That same month, one of his associates, Russell Tuggle, was apprehended in Union Cross, and two escaped convicts, Dennis Lovelace and Frank Bass, were captured at the Snipes farm.
An April 1921 raid on the Snipes farm by the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office yielded about 25 gallons of whiskey, placed in the woods just beyond the property line. They seized the booze and made no arrests, but clearly they were onto the Snipes gang. The jig was up.
Awaiting federal sentencing, under sanction from a city government on which his influence was beginning to wane, his gang being rounded up in twos and threes, still smarting from a gunshot wound taken in a tussle with police, J. Frank Snipes did perhaps the only thing that was left for him to do.
He died, peacefully in his home on May 7, 1921. He was 58 years old. The headline of the obit in the Raleigh News & Observer read: “Dead man redeems past, living a useful life.”
The funeral got a short notice in the following day’s Journal; a simple announcement indicating the burial in Woodland Cemetery.
In April 1922, the Atlantic Coast Realty Company auctioned off his property, netting about $85,000. Many of his lots near Trade Street, the Journal reported, were “bought by colored people who intend to erect nice homes in the near future.” The 105-acre farm in Kernersville was partitioned into 10 tracts and sold off as well, much of it bought by Jiggs and Co., which intended to build a hunting lodge.
Frank Snipes Jr. made his last newspaper appearance in October 1922, arrested for trying to buy a pint of whiskey on the street. Charles Snipes, who lost his young wife to pneumonia in 1917, opened a butcher shop on the corner of East Fifth Street and Cleveland Avenue in 1922 and seemed to live a relatively quiet life after that. Bruce was murdered by his own wife, Annie, in Statesville in 1924. His skeleton was found in a well near their property.
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Great article. So can we expect something about Greensboro’s Spoons Gang in the near future?. People always act like this area has always been the most civil place in the world but us old timers know better.