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.