The Freedwoman

Mary Snowden and Cynthia Walton, two dusky damsels of Eufaula, who have been awaiting trial in the Muskogee jail on a charge of assault to kill, were tried by a jury and the result was a verdict of guilty as to Mary Snowden and acquittal as to Cynthia.

Muskogee Phoenix (Muskogee, Oklahoma), December 7, 1899

Mary Snowden was convicted of assault to kill and sentenced to five years hard labor in the federal penitentiary. The 21-year-old had been married for just over a year when she became prisoner #2040 at Leavenworth. Details of the crime were not reported in the newspaper, which likely means the victim was also a person of color.

Matthew Snowden
Matthew Snowden, Leavenworth inmate photo

Her husband, Matthew Snowden, was a Creek Freedman. (Matthew’s mother had been a slave of Creek Indians. Emancipated slaves and their children were enrolled as tribal citizens). Matthew had served two stints at Leavenworth by the time he married Mary. His brothers, Littleton, Joseph and Horace also served prison terms.

The Wichita Beacon newspaper described Mary and the Snowden brothers as “members of a band of cutthroats and outlaws.”

According to her marriage license, Mary’s maiden name was Grimmett and she was born in 1879 in Indian Territory. In 1896-97 she was listed with her mother, Mary Hill, on the Indian Territory Census, living in Tahlequah in Cherokee County. Based on her almond-shaped eyes, straight hair and high cheekbones, Mary probably had both Native American (possibly Cherokee) and African American ancestry.

The Snowdens marriage didn’t last long. In 1902, while she was still in prison, he got married again, and the following year he married a third time. By 1907 Matthew had been convicted of assault to kill and was incarcerated at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary.

Mary appears to have been unfazed by the prospect of going to prison — she stared confidently at the camera with the hint of a smile on her pretty face. Officials at Leavenworth described her as “colored” with “l. mulatto” skin tone, good teeth, dark brown eyes, black hair and a short, slender build. Her religion was Baptist, and she was literate. At the time of her incarceration, both of her parents were deceased, and she had no children.

Aylesworth Album Collection. - Photographs. - Box 1. FREEDMEN DANCE DURING ENROLLMENT AT FORT GIBSON

Part of what’s intriguing about the photo of Mary is what she’s wearing: a tiny, striped straw hat, coarsely woven shirt with puffed sleeves and a beaded necklace. A photo taken at a dance during the Freedmen’s enrollment in the Five Civilized Tribes at Fort Gibson, shows the clothing worn by freedwomen around the turn of the century—the small hat and the puffy-sleeved shirt with its ruffled collar are visible. Mary’s beaded necklace may signal her Indian heritage.

Mary’s mugshots from the Kansas State Penitentiary, taken on April 14, 1901, possibly when she was released. No matter how she was dressed, Mary was a stunning beauty, Kansas State Historical Society.

Like most of the 12 women sent to Leavenworth, Mary was transferred to the Kansas State Penitentiary at Lansing, Kansas, because the federal penitentiary had no facilities for women. If she behaved well and earned “good time,” she would’ve been released in February 1904. If she served her full sentence she was freed in December.

In 1906 she married James Brice, an African American man 12 years her senior. In August 1908, Mary was shot in her thigh (“Williams Causes Darktown Terror”) during an altercation with a jealous, drunken lover named Bub Williams. The wound was described as severe and may have been fatal because, although there was no announcement of her death, Mary’s husband was listed as a widower on the 1910 census.

Mary’s mugshot was one of a handful of early Leavenworth inmate photos that were re-photographed and made available online by National Archives staff. That’s fortunate, because her photo is currently missing and may have been stolen from the National Archives in Kansas City, where the Leavenworth inmate files are held.

Featured photo: Mary Snowden, Leavenworth inmate photo, 1900. Collection of the National Archives.

54 thoughts on “The Freedwoman

  1. Greetings!

    Touched by Mary Snowden’s story.
    I want to know in which city he died and where he was buried?
    The Vinita Daily Chieftain did not write about this.

    Thanks for your response!

    Sincerely, Moger

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      1. I’m so curious about her! A face like that has launched a thousand ships! She’s undeniably beautiful, but it’s the strength in her beauty, and her eyes. I immediately thought she looked a bit Mayan. Makes sense.
        Well, thank you for responding.
        I have a sister who is gifted at the organization and concentration one needs to study genealogy. She has studied her husband’s mother’s family- descendants of slaves. So she knows about the hunt to find people who werent allowed to have a past, present, or future. To find even a piece of an indigenous US woman’s family will be impossible. But she loves a challenge.
        Mary’s family, whoever they were, and are, know her as a loved one.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Hello,

    Assuming she died as Mary Brice around 1908, could she be burried with her last husband and with the same sirname. Maybe in the same town she was shot, Vinita?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, after the gunshot which, according to the Vinitia Chieftain dated Angust 8th 1908, she was shot “just below the hip in the fleshy part of her thigh” by a drunken, jealous lover named “Bub Williams” in a “Dive” known as “Letties Place” where she had lodgings. She was taken to her “home” and being described as a “Negress” in the newspaper, I doubt that she had any kind of decent medical attention.The wound was described as severe and seems to have been fatal because, although there was no official announcement of her death, Mary’s husband, James Brice, an African-American man, was listed as a widower on the 1910 census.

      I expect she was buried somewhere in the “Darktown” cemetery in an unmarked grave. Perhaps someone in the vicinity might look this up?

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    1. Yes I agree, but I am also wondering if the cultural Cherokee rule was to be buried with your family where you were born. In this case her body would have been sent back to Tahlequah I gues. However it is quite a long distance back in 1908.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. If she was buried in Vinita, there must be a church record of her. If she was buried in Cherokee area, it is a question of whether there was any record of the dead there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The area was known as “Darktown” and she was shot in a known, “Negro Dive” called “Letties Place” which is probably long gone? As you say, I expect there will be a local burial place, but in the newspaper report, she is described as a “Negress” so perhaps an area where Native Americans were buried?

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  4. Thank you for posting this information about Mary Snowden. My ancestry is Black Indian (African-American & Native American.) Cherokee, Blackfoot, and Osage from what I was told about my ancestry. When I found out about her on the Internet, it was like looking at a family member. Your information is useful to people like me, I have been trying to learn as much about Black Indians as I possibly can. She was a beauty, I am so happy to have access to her story. She is a missing link to the past for some of us. We aren’t taught about this in schools, and the reasons are obvious.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. My family is from the same area. She may be a distant relative, who knows. She bears a strong resemblance to my female relatives. I’m a male, but I look like her too.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I saw a YouTube story about her this morning. I’m a bit embarrassed to say that I couldn’t help but notice how attractive she was.

    She’s been laid to rest the past 100+ years and still has the ability to capture attention.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes she was an unspoiled beauty with a serene & noble expression. It is tearful to read about her sad life and dying so young. Her eyed are so compelling.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Yes, she was lovely to behold; the colourised image of her on YouTube is even more compelling, and the animated version is superb. Is it all about image though? And I ask myself if she’d been an ugly bug, would we have been as interested? I think not.

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    1. Human beings love physical beauty in men and women. That’s been true since we’ve been humans.
      Something about symmetry. This is also true: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Kindness, wit, and charm make anyone attractive.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Indeed; but a reading of her court transcrips shows a violent criminal as part of the Snowden gang with her husband and his brothers all of whom served time. The Wichita Beacon newspaper described Mary and the Snowden brothers as “members of a band of cutthroats and outlaws.”

        Strange what we read into that picture of her, what we iagine she was like, her lovely countenance, when In reality she’d probably have lulled you into a false sense of security with her visage and slit your throat for $15.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Are court transcripts from Mary’s hearings available? Remember that the newspapers of the time were biased against people of color. And women who operated outside the norms of society were treated even worse. I’m not excusing criminality, but it has to be seen in context. I have seen no details of the crime(s) Mary was accused of committing.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Yes, I found it here https://capturedandexposed.com/2017/10/23/the-freedwoman I was shocked to find that lovely visage was convicted on an “assault to Kill” charge. There are newspaper reports also and the The Wichita Beacon newspaper described Mary and the Snowden brothers as “members of a band of cutthroats and outlaws.” Strangely enough, this is why her visage comes down to us at all!

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      4. Well, that’s a great deal to assume.
        As to female criminals and their looks, Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos comes to mind. Ivanka Trump. Evita Peron. Mrs. Marcos. Vile women, beautiful faces. Beguiled. Indeed.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. No, not an assumption. I based it on the facts we have at hand. That and the fact that she was imprisoned at both Leavenworth and Kansas city jails. The dont put you in there because of your sweet disposition, do they?

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      6. They STILL put black/native men and women in jail for nonsense, and that situation certainly hasn’t improved much in over 100 years. It certainly is an assumption that she would, “…split someone’s throat…”, based on 120 year old newspaper clippings.
        We disagree. I’m not going to continue this discussion. Good day.

        Liked by 1 person

      7. No, as I said, all of it is based upon Police and court records, and VICTIM testimony. That you have become enthralled or even enamoured by her visage makes you, and others yet another victim of her as such girls were commonly used in feral gangs! Read Gangs of New York and you will see. They were known as “Bleak Morts” and were used to entrap unwary men, especially sailors seeking female comfort after long trips etc, who were enticed to some crib and intoxicated with strong drink laced with “Black Drop” and at best, would wake up only to have lost everything, even their clothing!

        However, I do understand your point as even here in England, the white working classes suffered dreadful punishments such as Hard Labour and Transportation to the colonies for an array of minor crimes, such as walking along rail lines or tampering with Lock Gates on canals etc so yes, I am aware that Negroes and Native Americans suffered similar, but Mary Snowden was no angel and was a member of a known, feral gang, with her husband Matthew Snowden and his brothers not unlike our own Peaky Blinders who were described as “a backstreet razor gang” by the authorities.

        Not recognising poor Mary as such and not continuing a debate is not only denial but a bit like, -and I will use some homegrown examples here for diversity- likening the James or Hole-in-the-wall-gangs as a church social group!

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  8. @DickBradshaw – where did you find court records? The link you have above is to this blog and not another site. I am 30 minutes from Muskogee, OK and a professional genealogist and haven’t found anything online for those. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think the person who posted that comment was confusing my blog with “court records.” There are records of Mary Snowden’s incarceration at Leavenworth at the National Archives in Kansas City, MO. I doubt that any criminal court records related to her still exist.

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      1. Shayne – Yep, I have all of those records from NARA. I have reached out to Muskogee County, but nothing yet. I am working on a podcast episode on her so wanted to make sure I didn’t miss anything. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I have a question for you. Did the NA have Mary’s mugshot? Because when I was there a few years ago they couldn’t find it. Fortunately it had been photographed earlier by staff from the archives in DC. If it still hasn’t been located my guess is that someone stole it.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. It may well have been your blog, thinking on it. I did a bit of research myself, as to what happened to her. It rapidly became an essay and I posted it on the YouTube channel, entitled, Mary Snowden, Mugshot, 1900, Brought To Life (AI) which has been colourised and animated. I think I may have paraphrased your copy, “according to court reports” or something similar, which is where any confusion has arisen, but have given you the normal academic credit for your excellent work. Like many others, I became enamoured with the image and also very interested in what happened to her. I found other online resources (the report of an altercation in The Vinitia Chieftain) and found where she lodged after her release from Lansing, and the company she kept in the Lettie Brown Place with its “notorious Crap game” there. As you know, historians/researchers have to go on what evidence they can find (including yours) and there is also some hunches, guesswork, and indeed, interpretation on my part, i.e.why she ended up in Vinitia for instance? I reasoned for instance if she made acquaintences from “Darktown” whilst in the womans prison at Lansing? I did find some reference to a Negro/Native American Cemetary close to where she had lived with her mother but how the crosses, which were made of wood have long since rotted away. Have you found anything else? By all means, please keep in touch as I am very interested in this sad case.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. @Shayne – I read on some government site that Mary’s mugshot was stolen. Very odd, but she may have been so good-looking that some penitentiary employee took the picture. I could imagine someone buying it for some type of memorabilia. I’m part Indian (Native American – Black Indian) and my family kept pictures of Native Americans all over the house. It was something people did in the past. I still do it myself. It’s not good to fantasize a group of people, but it happens. I also read that Mary was literate, she could read and write. It’s possible she may have taught illiterate inmates for points in prison. She was not a dumb individual, she knew what she was doing. She was an educated person. Life was so hard for people of color back then (and now) that her intelligence probably didn’t do much for her. Except get her in more trouble. I wouldn’t be surprised if she felt she could outwit those around her. There’s no way to know, but her mugshot is probably out there in someone’s garage, passed down from some time long ago.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hard to say when it went missing. I was at the Kansas City National Archives about eight years ago. I looked at a number of the early Leavenworth photos and inmate records, including those of Mary Snowden. Hers was the only photo that was missing and the archivist I was working with was surprised it wasn’t there and had no explanation for where it might be. However she told me that a number of years ago the archivists in DC wanted to get rid of all most of Leavenworth inmate records, with the exception of a few well known inmates such as Jack Johnson, due to the amount of storage space it required. KC NA protested and, thank god, they managed to keep the material. Nowadays it’s the most requested material they hold. So maybe her photo was taken to DC. I just don’t know. But it’s a very compelling image.

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    2. Yes, numerate and literate. She was educated in the Reservation system and probably went to boarding school where her Native American heritage and customs was actively discouraged. I expect she was also an asset to the “notorious” crap game that took place in the “Lettie Brown Place” in the “Darktown” section of Vinitia where she was eventually shot. A sad end for such a sad girl, who had little chances afforded her ba/ck then!

      Liked by 1 person

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