Wineka column: Jean Ghent saved her mother from the electric chair

  • Posted: Wednesday, November 28, 2012 7:43 p.m.

By Mark Wineka
mwineka@salisburypost.com
LEXINGTON - On the banks of Swearing Creek, a finger of High Rock Lake, Jean Ghent has a swing from where she can look out onto the water and watch the boats and fishermen.
Her knee and hip are giving her trouble these days, so she doesn't usually walk down to the swing on her own.
Ghent has always been musical, She and her late husband - before and after their days working in textile mills - traveled to and competed in bluegrass events, with Howard Ghent on the rhythm guitar and Jean on the autoharp.
If pressed, Jean could handle the bass and harmonica, too. She quit playing for good a couple of months after Howard's death in 2006.
The modest, lakeside singlewide Jean Ghent lives in has a paneled wall devoted to all of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She recently added a picture of a great-great-grandchild.
You can't minimize the importance of family to Ghent. Growing up, she never knew her real parents, never realized her name had been changed and had no idea she once was known worldwide as the baby who saved her mother from the electric chair. On July 17, 1932, Clyde and Beatrice Snipes were traveling from Rock Hill, S.C., with friends Spencer Morton and Edna Milling. They were piled into Morton's Ford roadster, with Clyde Snipes driving.
He was in a hurry, heading to Charlotte to see his ailing stepmother.
Clyde and Beatrice Snipes were known moonshiners and routinely had their run-ins with law enforcement. Clyde, who often was being hauled to jail for drunkenness and petty theft, also had served time in both S.C. and N.C. state penitentiaries for crimes that included assault with a deadly weapon, violating Prohibition laws and breaking and entering.
Beatrice was no saint, either. Only a week earlier, she received a suspended sentence in Columbia police court for disorderly conduct, on the condition that she "be taken out of the city."
In June 1932, the couple's 7-month-old daughter, Ivy, had died. Back in 1928, they temporarily lost custody of their son, Clyde Jr., but the 7-year-old boy was technically with them again, though he spent a lot of time shuffling among relatives.
On that July afternoon in 1932, York County rural police officer Elliott Harris and his ride-along partner, Kenyon Young, a student at Furman University, were patrolling U.S. 21 near Fort Mill when they noticed the speeding Ford roadster.
Harris turned his Dodge around, pursued the Ford and stopped Snipes near the N.C. line. Snipes couldn't produce a driver's license.
Testimony at the coroner's inquest and a murder trial later were pretty clear on what happened next.
In Harris' attempts to make an arrest for reckless driving and speeding, he scuffled with Clyde Snipes, who resisted being carted off to jail again.
A frantic Beatrice Snipes tried repeatedly to rush the officer and take his gun. At one point, Harris even had to draw his gun to keep Beatrice at bay before returning it to his holster.
On her third attempt, Beatrice managed to secure the officer's firearm and ended up shooting Harris four times - twice in a leg, once in the chest and another shot to the forehead.
Holding the gun on Young, she then told Clyde to get into the officer's Dodge, and they sped from the scene, leaving the dying Harris with Young, Morton and Milling, who loaded him into the roadster and drove to Fort Mill for medical help.
Harris, a 26-year-old father of four, died at 5:30 p.m. His children ranged in age from four months to 6 years old.
Later that day. Beatrice Snipes turned herself in to Charlotte police. Clyde was not with her.
Clyde's stepmother died the same evening of the shooting.
Lewis Potts, driving the officer's motorcycle to inform his wife, Eula Harris, of the shooting, was killed en route when he crashed into the back of a car.
There was another complication in this tragedy: Beatrice Snipes was pregnant.
Beatrice Snipes' trial on Dec. 5 and 6, 1933, went quickly.
It gained more national prominence two days later at her sentencing. Convicted of murder, which carried a mandatory death sentence by S.C. law, Beatrice was scheduled to die in the electric chair April 7, 1933, only a couple of months after she was supposed to give birth.
Newspapers and tabloids across the country - and some across the seas - told the story of the expectant mother on death row. If her sentence were carried out, Beatrice Snipes would be the first woman in South Carolina to die in the electric chair.
It was a story almost as big as the Lindbergh kidnapping.
Petitions were circulated everywhere, asking for S.C. Gov. Ibra Blackwood to commute Snipes' sentence to life in prison. (Clyde Snipes was sentenced to seven months in the state penitentiary in Columbia for his role in the shooting.)
A petition in Holland for a commutation of Beatrice's sentence collected 23,000 signatures. Letters and telegrams also poured into Blackwood's office.
A woman in Arkansas offered to give her own life in exchange for keeping Snipes alive.
Clyde Jr. was shown in the newspapers writing a letter to Santa, asking that his mother be released. He received Christmas presents from people from five different states.
Actresses such as Jean Harlow and Greta Garbo reportedly offered to adopt "Baby Snipes," once he or she was born. And funds were being collected for the baby.
Jean Ghent says Beatrice Snipes never saw any of the money.
Clarence Darrow, the nation's most prominent attorney, predicted only days after the sentencing that Snipes' electrocution would never be carried out. He added that her pregnant condition when the crime happened was enough not to hold her entirely accountable.
"You don't know what state of mind she was in," Jean Ghent says today.
The public pressure proved too much for Blackwood. After waiting out appeals, he commuted Beatrice's sentence to life and received letters of thanks from as far away as Brazil.
The baby was born Jan. 17, 1933, a month ahead of schedule, in a state hospital. She weighed in at 7 pounds, 13 ounces, and was given the name Frances Joan Snipes.
Reporters and photographers chronicled the baby's trip with her mother back to the penitentiary after the delivery.
Clyde and Beatrice Snipes lost custody of their son, Clyde Jr., and the newborn daughter.
Clyde Jr. was sent to a state training school where, he told the Post in 1976 that the boys home raised him like a dog. He was beaten, he said, and it was always held against him his mother was a cop killer.
He worked on the school's poultry and dairy farms and came to hate the school's authorities.
The baby girl stayed with her mother in prison until she was seven months old. She was placed into the home of Beatrice's older sister, Hyacinth Hilton Summey, and to hide her true identity, her name was officially changed to Jean Anne Summey.
For the next 16 years, Jean lived an incredibly sheltered life. The Lancaster County, S.C., farm on which she lived had no telephones or newspapers. She was not allowed to turn on the radio, and the farmhouse didn't have electricity until the late 1940s.
Jean had no clue who her real parents were or any of their circumstances.
Jean called Hyacinth "Mama" and assumed she was her mother. She had no real father figure. Hyacinth's husband, Ray Summey, was never around, except for a couple of weeks in the summers.
Jean's closest companion was her cousin Catherine, the daughter of Ganson and Lela Flynn. Lela was Hyacinth's daughter, and the couple lived on the farm, too.
Jean grew up carrying her lunch in a shoebox and going to a two-room elementary school in the Tabernacle community, where she learned years later that most people knew her true identity but never spoke of the tragic shooting integral to her past.
Jean picked cotton on Hyacinth's farm and others nearby. She remembers today how protective Hyacinth always was of her, and how her life seemed to be confined mostly to the farm and school.
If she ever found herself walking alone on the road, Jean says, she instinctively turned to travel in the opposite direction of cars, so the motorists wouldn't be tempted to offer her a ride.
One day, Jean recalls, a teen-aged boy came to stay and work on the farm. He lived there for several months before leaving to join the Navy.
Jean didn't know who the boy was, only that he called her "Sis."
She figured out later, of course, that the boy was Clyde Jr.
Efforts began almost immediately after Beatrice's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment to reduce her prison stay altogether.
A succession of governors received numerous letters, petitions and appeals asking them to consider an early release for Beatrice.
On his last day in office Jan. 2, 1945, Gov. Olin D. Johnston commuted Snipes' sentence to 17 years, with an allowance for 30 percent of the time served for good behavior.
He ordered that Snipes be released April 10, 1945, having served a net sentence of 12 years, three months.
The new governor who followed then allowed Snipes to be released even earlier - on March 31, in time for Easter.
Beatrice went to live on Hyacinth's farm and managed for several months not to tell Jean Summey who she really was.
But one day while they were alone at the pipe organ in the living room, Beatrice couldn't hold her secret any longer.
"She said, 'I'm your real mother,' " Jean recalls, "but her sister told her to never tell me."
Snipes also told Jean how she had fought to keep custody of her and why her true identity had been kept a secret.
Jean says she believed her "Aunt Bea," because Snipes knew of a white birthmark on Jean's stomach that resembled a cabbage head.
(Beatrice Snipes would tell her daughter later that Clyde Snipes had really killed the officer but she took the fall for him.)
Jean knows today that definitely wasn't the truth.
Needless to say, Beatrice's revelation ushered in a confused period for Jean.
"Until I was 12," she said she realized, "I didn't have an identity at all."
Meanwhile, Aunt Bea stayed on the farm.
On Town Day, when the family sold wood, produce and chickens, Snipes would go along and sell the crochet and embroidery pieces she had made in prison.
But friction soon developed between Snipes and her sister Hyacinth, prompting Beatrice to depart for Charlotte, where she lived with one of Clyde's sisters.
Clyde Snipes, who had continued in many of his criminal ways, had remarried in Florida in 1944 while Beatrice was still in prison. He never contacted Jean during her 16 years on the farm.
With a new boyfriend, Beatrice apparently traveled back to the farm one day, possibly to retrieve her daughter. But with warnings of "kidnappers," Jean remembers, Hyacinth sent her upstairs and out of sight, refusing to allow Beatrice to see the girl.
Beatrice was out of Jean's life again.
In 1950, Jean surprised everyone when she decided to drop out of high school during her senior year to marry a young textile worker, Howard Ghent.
In hindsight, she acknowledges, part of her reason for marrying Howard may have been to get away from Hyacinth's highly dysfunctional family, where it turns out Hyacinth was having a longtime affair with her son-in-law, Ganson Flynn.
"I did love him," Jean says today, "but I wanted out of there."
The couple would be married for 56 years.
Over the years, Jean and Howard Ghent lived in 32 different apartments, houses and trailers as they became parents, over a 10-year span, of six children - Howard Jr. Mary, Glenda, Betty, Jerry and Ronald.
Ghent's textile career took the family to Lancaster, Columbia, Fort Mill, Pineville, Edgemoor, Rock Hill, Chickamauga, Ga., Salisbury, the Liberty community in Rowan County and China Grove.
He worked for the big-name textile companies such as Springs, Cannon Mills and Cone Mills. In fact, he and Jean both worked at the Cone Mills plant in Salisbury from 1964 until their retirement in 1995.
They lived in a three-bedroom, full-basement home on Mount Hope Church Road near China Grove from 1972 through 1984, when they moved to High Rock Lake full-time.
"I thought we would like it better up here," Jean says.
They had bought a lot on the lake in 1977 and camped occasionally in a tent there. The next year the Ghents purchased an adjoining lot with a boathouse, and by 1984, they had the singlewide all set up and ready for occupancy.
About this time, they also bought a travel trailer and van and began scheduling their vacations around different bluegrass conventions and festivals.
Jean Ghent would see her father, mother and brother again.
One day in 1954, when she was pregnant with Glenda, Jean answered the door to a man who had driven up in a green Nash.
She says something told her it was her father, Clyde Snipes Sr., and she was right.
They did not embrace, and Beatrice's name never came up. Before he left, Clyde Sr. gave Jean the original birth certificate listing him and Beatrice as her parents.
Clyde Sr.'s short visit prompted her to write a poem/song titled, "When I First Saw Daddy."
Clyde Sr. killed himself in December 1961. Because he had served his country during World War I, his funeral included a flag-draped coffin and military rites.
Jean Ghent was given the folded flag and still has it today.
Jean came to have much more contact with Beatrice.
After a courtship of three years, Beatrice married Phillip George Antonio, who was 20 years her junior, in 1949. She quietly settled into a life as a textile worker in Charlotte until her retirement.
In 1961, Jean Ghent learned from her brother where Beatrice was living, and she gradually began visiting her mother in Charlotte.
On one of the visits, Beatrice Snipes gave her daughter newspaper clippings she had saved from years past, telling some of the story of the police officer's killing, her incarceration and the media frenzy over "Baby Snipes."
It filled in some of the gaps for Jean, but not everything.
Today, Jean keeps all the clippings and family photographs in scrapbooks at her lake home. She also has, among other things, Beatrice's prison Bible and her crochet needles.
Once, after Beatrice and her husband had a violent fight, Beatrice came to live with Jean and her family in China Grove. She returned to her husband in Charlotte after about three months.
Beatrice died April 26, 1980, after complications from a stroke. Jean stayed a whole night in the hospital with her.
Clyde Snipes Jr. was so distressed about his childhood that he changed his name to James Ferguson. Ferguson was the name of Beatrice's first husband.
After being discharged from the Navy with a disability, Ferguson settled down in South Dakota. He married Virginia Prettybonnet with whom he had eight children.
In 1961, Ferguson and his Sioux wife and the four children they had at the time traveled east to visit Beatrice Snipes and his sister, Jean, who lived in South Carolina at the time.
The Fergusons even considered settling in South Carolina, until the public schools refused admission to their children because they were too dark-skinned. They returned to South Dakota.
Ferguson traveled south again in 1976 to see his mother and Jean. He arrived with his second wife, Sylvia, the sister of Virginia who had died.
For a brief time, Ferguson and Jean initiated efforts to find out what had happened to the money raised on their behalf back in 1932 and 1933, but they failed to turn up anything.
Jean Ghent has learned since then about a sealed envelope among state documents in Columbia that only she can claim in person, with the right identification.
She has no idea what it holds, but she plans on taking both of her birth certificates to Columbia some day.
The Ghents saw James and Sylvia and three of their children again in 1978, but that was the last time.
James did not attend Beatrice's funeral, and Jean is not sure whether he's alive today.
Jean Ghent's story doesn't end here.
In fact, it has been made into a book.
Author Felder Dorn, a retired college professor and university dean who now lives in Millburn, N.J., made Jean Ghent the central figure in his recently published book, "Death of a Policeman; Birth of a Baby. A Crime and Its Aftermath."
In a previous book, "The Guns of Meeting Street," Dorn had given brief mention of the Snipes case.
One of Jean's grandchildren, Jamie Humphreys, knowing that her grandmother still yearned to know as much as possible about her past, contacted Dorn three years ago and delivered a bombshell.
Did he know that "Baby Snipes" was alive and well and living in North Carolina?
Thus started the years of emails, personal visits with Jean and her family, telephone calls and research leading to Dorn's book.
"I wanted her to have closure to her questions," Humphreys says.
For years, Jean Ghent resisted talking about her parents' past. Mary Bruce, her oldest daughter, says she and her siblings knew all about their father's side of the family but little about their mother's.
At the same time, Howard Ghent stayed away from the subject, Jean says.
But in recent years, especially with Dorn's help, Jean wants her family to know, and she has embraced the story of how she saved her mother's life.
The author and Jean have attended a couple of book signings together, and Jean considers him a close friend.
Dorn dedicated the book to her.
As for Jean Ghent, she can't see enough of her own family. In her kitchen, she squeezes 4-year-old Madison Humphreys on the little girl's most recent visit from New Mexico.
"I'm a huggin' mama and a huggin' grandma," Ghent says.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263,or mwineka@salisburypost.com.

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