In the sweltering summer of 1929, the people of Columbus, Ohio, were enthralled by news of the Ohio State University veterinary professor and Olympic gold medal, winning pistol shooter on trial for the murder of his twenty-four-year-old lover, who was a medical student. Local writer Mark Gribben reveals how Dr. James Howard Snook was captured and interrogated, including his gory confession of Theora Hix's death. During the trial, the details of the illicit love affair were so salacious that newspapers could only hint about what really led to the coed's murder and the professor's ultimate punishment. For the first time, read the full account of this astonishing story, from scandalous beginning to tragic end.
About the Author
Mark C. Gribben is a writer living near Columbus, Ohio. A nationally recognized crime historian, his work has appeared in many publications, online and on television. He began his writing career as a courthouse reporter and newspaper editor. His true-crime website was recognized by Rolling Stone Magazine, which called it a riveting site documenting notorious crimes from the past two centuries."? This is his third book."
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CRIME AND INVESTIGATION
Paul Krumlauf and Milton Miller never did find out who was the better shot.
It was a fine summer morning, one of the last bright days before the arrival of the Great Depression. A powerful rainstorm had blown through the area the previous day, finally clearing away a stalled mass of warm air that had long since gone stale, leaving high, wispy tendrils of clouds in place of the ominous thunderheads that had been hovering close to the ground. A warm breeze was at work drying the weeds; the smell of wet earth lingered in the air.
The two teenage friends had been boasting of their sharpshooting skills and decided to settle the good-natured dispute by firing off a few rounds at a gun range on the outskirts of Columbus, Ohio; instead, they raised the curtain on a short morality play that thrust talk of infidelity and promiscuity, aphrodisiacs and illicit drugs, lust and murder onto the front pages of newspapers and into homes across the country. The secret double life of a not-so-innocent young woman would be laid bare, and a quiet, middle-aged married man would go down in history as the only Ohio State University professor — and Olympic gold medalist — to die in the electric chair.
About 10:30 a.m. on Friday, June 14, 1929, Krumlauf and Miller were wading through knee-high weeds toward the firing line at the New York Central railroad shooting range just west of the city limits to settle their bet when they saw a farmer plowing a field to the east. The boys headed over to warn the man, seventy-six-year-old Ephraim Johnson, that they were about to do some shooting. On their way across the field, they stumbled upon a pile of something in the brush.
In a way, Fortune was merciful to the boys when they found the young woman's body. Because she was facedown in the tall weeds, they were spared the sight of the dozen or so wounds on her face caused by the hammer blows her killer had rained down. They did not see the gaping cut that ran across her throat nearly from ear to ear and the bizarre appearance of her face turned china white for want of blood. They did not know of the puncture wound to her ear where her killer had inserted his knife. Because the boys had found her just a little more than twelve hours after she had been murdered, the eggs laid in the open wounds by blowflies attracted to the dead flesh had not yet hatched into maggots. Her body was badly beaten and bloody, but what might have remained for the boys to discover could have been much worse.
At first they thought the crumpled body was an abandoned pile of clothes. After all, finding discarded clothing, liquor bottles and other refuse at the shooting range was not unusual.
A convenient drive from the Ohio State campus and the city, a secluded spot not far from the Scioto River road and the exclusive Scioto Country Club, the shooting range was popular with sportsmen and young people for different reasons. The remote location and the tall weeds made the area a prime location for "necking" (the term had recently replaced "spooning" in the slang of youths), giving it the moniker "Shirt-Tail Alley." More than a few couples had been ticketed there by the local constable and fined by the justice of the peace for "fornicating." The murder victim, in fact, had been arrested here and paid a twenty-dollar fine under a false name less than a year before.
The boys first heard, rather than saw, the crime scene because of the flies buzzing around the pooled and drying blood. Once the boys realized they had not found some discarded and forgotten clothing and that the thing in front of them was a person, the thoughts of the shooting contest were lost forever. They shrank from the sight and called to Johnson, who responded in his typical casual manner to the boys' frantic summons. Johnson agreed to watch over the body while the boys brought the police. Johnson, apparently, was nonplussed by the gruesome find: after he let the boys leave, he left the scene himself to put his horses away in the barn.
The boys raced Krumlauf's jalopy to the Parsons Avenue police station about ten minutes away. It took them an hour to return to the range with Corporal John May and Officer Emmet Cloud, who secured the crime scene and waited for the arrival of the coroner and a crime- scene photographer from the state's Bureau of Identification.
Arriving soon after the first responders, Coroner William Murphy was met by a gruesome scene in the high grass. The woman's body was lying on its left side, with her right arm extended in front, the hand clutching a bloody handkerchief. Her throat had been slashed, apparent stab wounds were visible on her back and abdomen, her nose had been flattened, her face was battered almost beyond recognition and most of the bones in her skull were broken. Her hair was matted with blood.
She was clothed in a blood-saturated, belted, brown crepe dress with white collar that covered a "combination suit ripped from the waist to the hem, the garment which modern times had developed, two garments in one made to meet the needs of the busy girl," wrote Anne Schatenstein, one of the many reporters who covered the case.
Murphy, who had been coroner for Franklin County since 1921 and had seen his share of murder victims, waited until Homer Richter, the police photographer, took a couple of pictures and then helped him turn the body over. The first thing he noticed were the four bruises on the inside of her left arm and the corresponding bruise on the outside.
"She was held by someone with a strong grip," he said, gesturing toward the purple contusions. Murphy assumed this meant she had tried to flee from her attacker.
The coroner noted that the victim's throat had been cut from left to right with a sharp knife and that there were three wounds on her forehead: two blows on the left side and one above her nose that he said later "had the appearance of a puncture within an incised wound, which I supposed was made by a blow." One of the wounds above her eye was large and deep enough that he could insert his finger into it, he said.
Affixing the time of death was a simple affair. When the men turned over the body, Murphy saw that the woman was wearing a wristwatch. The crystal had fallen out, and the hands were stopped at 9:58. That clue corresponded with the temperature and rigor condition of the body. The watch still worked; once Constable John Guy lifted the arm, it started to run again.
At first, Murphy wondered if he was dealing with a horrible sex crime. "I noticed a wound in the right groin, and that her underclothing had been cut practically by the same instrument to a distance up to where would be practically a band and then another distance about three inches above the band," he testified later. "But the dress had not been cut in that position."
After his cursory review of the scene, Murphy ordered the unidentified woman to be taken to the Glenn L. Meyers Mortuary for an autopsy.
Early on in the investigation, Columbus Division of Police detectives drew some erroneous conclusions, demonstrating the folly of reading too much into a crime scene. Their incorrect assumption of a lunatic on the loose — the Columbus Hospital for the Insane was a stone's throw away from the scene — was fast revised, thanks to the newspapers that did not sit for long on the discovery of the body of a young woman so brutally murdered. Shortly after the Columbus Evening Dispatch published the first sketchy reports that Friday afternoon, the police were redirected from their search for a homicidal maniac who snatched his victim from the city and dumped her corpse in that lonely field, to an even more shocking investigation, which revealed not only that the deceased had gone to the shooting range willingly but also that she knew her killer in a most intimate way.
That is not to say that the newspapers were overly helpful or even enlightened. The Dispatch's rival paper, the Columbus Citizen, reported that unnamed "Washington, D.C., scientists" believed the murder was the result of "the blind and absolutely uncontrolled, even unconscious, rage of the epileptic."
Discounting the possibility that the killer was a sadist who had gone too far in punishing his victim, or that he was "delusional" or "obsessive," because even those madmen will stop before "more is done to the victim than is necessary to extinguish life," the Citizen claimed that epileptics have no such control. "During the course of the seizure he is absolutely unconscious of his acts," the unsigned and unsourced article states. "He is in an amnesiac state. He is not aware of what he is doing at the time, and has no memory of it afterwards."
The newspapers' clarion call of murder achieved its objective: it sold papers and prompted people with information to step forward. In some cases, police are besieged with false leads, sham confessions from the mentally ill and specious theories from armchair detectives. Not so in this case. With very few exceptions, the tips passed along to the police actually had some bearing on this murder.
The first task in any murder investigation is to identify the victim, which in this case did not prove difficult. Around the same time Krumlauf and Miller were breathlessly telling of their gruesome discovery, two sisters, Alice and Beatrice Bustin, were wondering why their roommate, Theora Hix, had not returned home the night before. The three women shared a small flat above the State Drug and Supply Company, about a block away from Mack Hall on the OSU campus. As a roommate, Theora was an enigma to the Bustin sisters, but she had never stayed away from the apartment overnight without telling them. They were perplexed but not overly concerned. Theora led her own life, quite separate from the Bustin sisters.
"We didn't become alarmed when she didn't come in when it became bedtime Thursday night, for she was in the habit of taking walks in the evening, and when she didn't return at all during the night we thought she had stayed with the Jeffers where she used to stay with the children occasionally," Alice said later. "It wasn't until late in the day that we began to get worried and called the police."
When the papers hit the street on the late afternoon with news of the murder, the Bustin sisters were not the only ones to suspect they knew the identity of the body found at the shooting range. Bertha Dillon, a switchboard operator at the Ohio State University hospital, had been more than a little miffed when the young woman she had been training, Theora Hix, had not returned from a date the night before.
Hatless, and attired in a brown dress trimmed with a flashy rhinestone belt that was uncharacteristically gaudy for her, Theora sat with Bertha for an hour or so Thursday evening, learning the layout of the switchboard until she announced that she had a date and would be back shortly.
"She came in Thursday evening to see me operate the board," Bertha told police. "She appeared about the same as usual — she never smiled much — but shortly after 7:30 she told me that she would have to be going but would be back later. She smiled when she spoke of her date. It was one of the few times I had ever seen her smile. She was always so quiet and serious-minded."
The police brought the Bustin sisters and Bertha Dillon to the mortuary, where they viewed the body of the shooting range murder victim. All identified the battered corpse as Theora Kathleen Hix, an Ohio State University medical student two months shy of her twenty- fifth birthday.
Police now had a name, and with it came a photograph of the victim: a casual sorority photo showing a fresh-skinned, moderately attractive young woman with close-cut hair, clear, bright eyes averted from the camera and a knowing expression somewhere between a Mona Lisa smile and a smirk. It is, of Theora Hix, a perfect representation — enigmatic and beguiling, a mysteriously simple photograph that hints at carefully concealed secrets.
The investigation now centered on tracing Theora's last earthly hours for clues to her killer's identity and explanations for why she had to die.
The first solid lead came from taxicab driver Earl Nickles, who had picked up a distracted young woman answering Theora's description near Neil Avenue around the time Theora left Bertha Dillon at the OSU switchboard. Neil Avenue is one of the main north–south streets that borders the OSU campus and runs directly into downtown Columbus.
"She seemed all worried," he told the Dispatch. "She told me to drive to the Hilltop and said that she wanted to go by way of Grandview Avenue. She said she thought she might see a man in a coupe.
"She asked me for cigarettes three times going over but didn't smoke more than a part of each one," he added.
When the woman failed to find what she was looking for at Sullivant Avenue and Eureka Street in the Hilltop district, she told Nickles to drive back to Neil.
"She asked for two more cigarettes on the way back but didn't smoke more than two puffs on each one," he said. "She was all fidgety about something."
Theora's nervous behavior was not the only reason Nickles remembered the fare. Theora directed the cabbie to drive a sixteen-mile circuit along a meandering route that was much longer than necessary. Directing Nickles to use Grandview Avenue took Theora in the opposite direction of the Hilltop area. The trip that took nearly an hour might have been accomplished in half that time if they had used the most direct route then available. Police learned later that the trip took Theora past a number of locations of significance in her secret life.
Excerpted from "The Professor & The Coed"
Copyright © 2010 Mark Gribben.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Author's Note 9
Part I Crime and Investigation
Loose Ends 52
Third Degree 56
Part II Confession
"The Friendship Continued in a Very Intimate Way . . . " 65
"She Considered It Her Right to Dictate My Movements . . . " 70
"I'll Kill Your Wife and Your Baby!" 74
"A Voluntary Statement" 79
Part III Justice
Public Opinion 83
The Circus Comes to Town 87
Strategy and Tactics 91
The Opening Act 95
Secrets Revealed 107
A Picnic in the Death House 119
About the Author 128
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I'm a big fan of historical true crime so I found this very interesting. I wish it werea little longer with a more in depth accounting of both Dr. Snook and Theora Hix prior to their affair and the crime so we could have gotten to know them better. But still a very interesting book.