The Freedwoman

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 sentenced to five years hard labor and costs in the federal penitentiary after she was convicted of assault to kill. 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. Their marriage didn’t last long. In 1902, while she was still in prison, he got married again and the following year he was married a third time. By 1907 Matthew was incarcerated for assault to kill at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. 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 and African American ancestry.

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 Mary is what she’s wearing — the tiny, striped straw hat and coarsely woven shirt. 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 is the part of her outfit that may signal her Indian heritage.

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. Otherwise she would have served her full sentence and been freed in December 1904.

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 lucky, 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.