Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Death, Desire, and the Divorcee: A torrid love affair comes to a bloody end on Hanover Avenue.

Richmond in 1927 was a place that proclaimed itself as “the city of prosperity and opportunity, the gateway to Dixieland.” New buildings were being designed and constructed all over town, like the big hotel on Fifth Street, later named after Richmond’s own John Marshall, or the wonderfully elaborate auditorium the Shriners were building on Monroe Park called “The Mosque.” Talking motion pictures were just appearing in Richmond theaters. Richmond planners began to take an interest in the most modern mode of transportation and plan for an airfield east of town.

In October 1927, thousands of Richmonders rushed out to that airfield to see Charles Lindbergh fly into town in his famous airplane, “Spirit of St. Louis,” and take part in the dedication of Richard Evelyn Byrd Flying Field. Later, five hundred people crowded into the ballroom of the Jefferson Hotel to hear Lindbergh speak. A Richmond politician who was swept up with the high-minded ideals of the occasion gushed, “As long as there are Lindberghs and Byrds, we of the nation need never worry that we will sink into the mire of materialism.”

 

John Wesley Faison (1896-1972)

The same kind of confident boosterism was reflected in the membership of Richmond’s Hermitage Country Club. Founded in 1900, by 1925 the Club was looking for a new Secretary to manage the facility. They wanted a rock-solid man with the right grit who could discretely maintain the quiet aquifer of money and privilege just below the immaculate grounds of the club. They found just such a man in John Wesley Faison, upright citizen, father of five, Sunday school superintendent, and faithful husband. Faison was a former handwriting instructor at Richmond’s John Marshall High School, indicative of his disciplined and methodical nature. Married at nineteen and a deacon in the Baptist church, Faison lived a quiet life with his family on Cliff Avenue in Richmond’s North Side until the age of thirty-one.

And then in 1927, all hell broke loose.

Elsie Snipes (1897-1927)   


Hell came to John Faison’s life in July 1927 in the form of Elsie Snipes, a Richmond music teacher who lived in an apartment on the second floor of 3131 Hanover Avenue. To say Faison’s life was derailed by his meeting Snipes is an understatement. Faison completely threw over everything he once held dear, beginning with his marriage to his wife, Martha. He told her he was in love with the most amazing woman – and it wasn’t Martha. Faison’s five children, ages from one to twelve, must have looked on with heartrending anguish as Faison shoved out the door of the family home. Their father left for Elsie Snipes’ apartment and sometimes didn’t come home for days, going on what Faison called “honeymoons” with Snipes to Roanoke and Petersburg.

Probably a profoundly unhappy woman and an alcoholic, Snipes was slightly older than Faison and was perfect for the characterization as a femme fatale. But unlike Faison, Snipes’ life was unfettered by family or commitment, as (for reasons never stated) her former husband was raising their two children in North Carolina. Faison later described his time with Snipes as an “ultra-Bohemian life,” keeping Snipes in whisky while still financially supporting his stunned family.

The former Richmond home of John and Martha Faison, 3211 Cliff Avenue.

One of the more remarkable elements of the story of Faison was that his obsession with Snipes occurred with the full knowledge of his long-suffering wife. The Richmond Times-Dispatch termed Martha Faison a “plain and sad-faced woman” and quoted her stating with resignation, “Yes, I know Mrs. Snipes and I knew what was going on, but I just kept hoping and praying he would return to the call of his family and return to the same good father and husband he was before meeting Mrs. Snipes.”

That memory of who her husband had been and her Catholic faith apparently sustained Martha Faison through the emotional hurricane that had been her marriage. The Times-Dispatch attempted to explain the unusual situation for its readers: “Mrs. Faison took the attitude that the alleged intimacy between her husband and Mrs. Snipes might soon come to an end and in consequence be forgotten. Therefore, for the sake of appearances, cordiality between the two women appeared to exist.” In the end, Martha Faison proved a far better player of what proved to be a volatile contest between the women.


Martha Branch Faison (1892-1984)

That volatility is evident in the letters Faison sent Snipes, filled with sentimentality in some letters but ferocious jealousy in others. “My dear little wife, I am a slave to your beautiful self,” he wrote on one occasion to Snipes. But when Faison learned there may be another man in her life, he was brimming with rage. “I am so jealous that somehow I think my mind will crack,” Faison wrote to Snipes in a letter found by police. “Here I am in hell when I thought I was in heaven. I know it is another man. Damn his soul, I would tear him limb by limb. It is all for me or not at all. If this occurs again, I will not be responsible for what happens.”

On the evening of November 15, 1927, Elsie Snipes was entertaining Mason Smith, Dr. Robert Bybee and Mrs. Minnie Wade in her apartment. Snipes told them Faison had telephoned her several times. Perhaps knowing better than to be there when the mercurial Faison arrived, they got their coats on to leave. Snipes begged to go with them. They later recalled she came down to the street to their parked car to plead for a ride, telling them fearfully, “Don’t leave me here - Faison is coming back.” Told there was no room in the automobile for an extra passenger, Snipes’ parting words to them were “You’ll be sorry you left me,” before her friends drove off down Hanover Avenue.

Faison appeared at 3131 Hanover soon after Snipes’ earlier guests departed. According to Faison, as he and Snipes talked, she left and went into the bedroom to make a telephone call. Faison’s description of his actions before the gunshot are like those of a blasé sophisticate in a silent movie: “She went into the bedroom and shut the door. I lit a cigarette…..I looked at the pictures on the walls; I played a tune with one finger on the piano; I looked at some photograph records and while I was looking at the records I heard the explosion. I did not know what it was. I called to Mrs. Snipes and she did not answer, I went into the bedroom then saw her in a chair with a hole in her forehead.”

 

Police display the .38 caliber revolver that killed Elsie Snipes, December 16, 1927, Richmond Times-Dispatch

Snipes sat slumped in a chair in the bedroom with a bullet hole through her right eyebrow, her eyeball had been forced from the socket by the pressure of the impact. The projectile had gone completely through her head at a downward angle, exiting the base of the brain, hitting the floor behind her, and ricocheting into the woodwork of a nearby bed. Bessie Wright, who occupied the apartment above that of Mrs. Snipes, later testified she heard a gunshot and then a man called out, “God! I have killed Elsie: I have killed poor Elsie. What am I going to do? May God have mercy on my soul!” Footsteps were heard going down the hall and outside, then back into the apartment again, and out into the street. Across Hanover Avenue, Charles Ford was awakened by a commotion. He looked out and saw a man come out of Snipes’ apartment building, pace around the corner into Cleveland Street, go back inside 3131 Hanover and then appear again carrying a woman in his arms.


The entrance of 3131 Hanover Avenue, where John Faison emerged carrying the body of Elsie Snipes.

The newspaper accounts the next day stated, “Faison, the 31-year-old manager of the Hermitage Golf Club, came into Stuart Circle Hospital at 1:15 A. M. November 16, with the body of a ninety-eight-pound woman over his shoulder.” Visibly distraught, Faison told Dr. E.N. Pleasants who was on staff that morning, “My God, doctor, she is the only woman I have ever loved.” Faison knelt beside the operating table whispering words of encouragement to the dying Snipes, who mumbled something incoherent in reply.

Martha Faison arrived at the hospital within minutes of Faison, having been telephoned, she said, from Snipes’ house by her husband after the shooting. Remarkably, Mrs. Faison told police (and later testified under oath) she’d been on the phone with Snipes just before she was shot. According to Martha Faison, Snipes told her she didn’t want to break up the Faison household and would “destroy herself” instead. Elsie Snipes died at eight o’clock on the morning of November 16, her death certificate noting the cause as “gunshot wound – whether suicidal or homicidal cannot be determined at this time.”

The grave marker of Elsie Snipes in Princeton, North Carolina. (courtesy of Find a Grave.com)


On the morning of November 21, Richmond police banged on the door of Faison’s father’s house on Seminary Avenue and arrested John Faison on a charge of murder. Readers of Richmond newspapers (and certainly members of the Hermitage Country Club) were astonished to hear that this pillar of society and a man known for his righteous and upright manner stood accused of such a scandalous crime. Richmond, with little taste for sensationalism, had a hugely scandalous murder two years before and just seven blocks away when real estate agent Thomas Pollard was tried (and acquitted) of the murder of his lover in the front yard of his apartment house on Grove Avenue. 

Richmonders were rocked when they opened their newspapers the week after Faison’s arrest to read of another brutal murder. On November 25, a man named Bickers Bibb called the police to tell them he had just killed his wife in their home at 15 South Davis Avenue. A patrolman arrived to find Mrs. Bibb in her blood-spattered kitchen with her skull crushed by a heavy mantel clock and a rope around her neck. Bibb was later declared insane and committed to a mental hospital, but the whole episode constituted one more bloody spectacle with two lurid murders in the Richmond newspapers.

November 16, 1927, Richmond Times-Dispatch

Martha Faison made an appeal to the membership of Hermitage Country Club and raised $1400 toward Faison’s $10,000 bond, the remainder of which was put up by unnamed wealthy friends. The story of Snipes’ murder began to get national attention from the news services. A newspaper in Burbank, California ran a photo of the murder scene, “Clubman” Faison, and “pretty divorcee” Snipes, while a prim headline in a Clinton, Illinois newspaper characterized the tortured relationship between Faison and Snipes as simply: “Man Held in Death of Sweetheart.” The Daily Worker, the American Communist Party newspaper, even picked up the story. It assured readers that Snipes’ diary held all manner of secrets and that many members of the Hermitage Country Club had “dealings” with Snipes. This was echoed by a front page article in a Richmond paper, which ominously reported, “Prominent Richmond businessmen whose characters are of the highest order are liable to be dragged into the murder trial by virtue of their names appearing in Mrs. Snipes’ ‘little book.’”

The arrangement of bail for Faison was a routine procedure, but the unconventional nature of the relationship between him, his wife, and Elsie Snipes remained almost more than the Richmond newspapers were able to explain. This perversion of marriage with five children, completely undone by a woman of poor reputation, a woman who might be described in the slang of the day as “fast,” was utterly reprehensible. The fact that she was killed in the course of such reprehensible behavior might have been seen by many in Richmond as poetic justice for North Carolina libertines. These things happen.

A newspaper clipping from the December 2, 1927 issue of the Burbank Daily Evening Review in California, showing Snipes, “Clubman” Faison, and the murder scene in her bedroom.

The fact that Richmond was still basically a prim, church-going Southern city is reflected in the language of the city’s newspapers as they attempt to navigate some of the grittier elements of the Faison trial. The rumor that Snipes may have been pregnant and that may have been the cause of Faison’s rage was treated gently by the Times-Dispatch, who obliquely described the autopsy findings this way: “No trace of the alleged delicate condition of Mrs. Snipes was found.” “Some portions of [Snipes’] 1927 diary,” tittered the Times-Dispatch, “…make spicy reading.”

 

A newspaper illustration neatly combining a picture of Faison’s murdered lover, Elsie Snipes, inset in a photo of his wife and children. March 28, 1928, Richmond Times-Dispatch.


Faison’s trial commenced on December 12, 1927. The prosecution maintained that Faison, driven with the same fervor that drove him to abandon his family, fell into an equivalent rage and shot Snipes through the head with a .38 caliber revolver which Faison brought with him the night of the murder. The coroner remarked that it was unusual for a suicide to shoot themselves in the face with a gun, holding it at arm’s length and pulling the trigger with a thumb. The lack of powder burns on Elsie Snipes’ forehead was also an important piece of evidence. Snipes was a small woman and even at arm’s length, the six-inch-barreled revolver would have put the muzzle that much closer to her head and subsequently left powder burns.

The path of the bullet that drove through Snipes’ head was a critical part of the prosecution’s argument. Harold Colley, a North Carolina lawyer hired by Snipes’ family to assist with the prosecution, emphasized this point in court, using the actual chair from Snipes' apartment in a demonstration. The wound was consistent with Snipes being shot by someone standing in front of her, Colley said, someone like Faison, angerly confronting her from the bedroom doorway with a revolver in hand:

Could she sit on this chair (bringing out the chair on which the woman is said to have been seated), hold the telephone, the receiver and this pistol all at the same time and then while in that position could she shoot herself? Look, look at the angle at which that bullet would have to go. She couldn’t hit her head, with the index figure on the trigger She would have to hold it way up like this (demonstrating his theory)…About the time Hermitage Club found out about his affair and he sees he’s about to lose his position. He found out she didn’t have the big music class he thought she had. He schemed how to get rid of her…

 

City Sergeant John Saunders carries the blood-spattered “death chair” Elsie Snipes was sitting in when she was shot. Both the chair and Snipes’ bed were brought to the Richmond Hustings Courtroom as evidence in the Faison trial. December 18, 1927, Richmond Times-Dispatch.


In contrast to a scene of murderous rage, his defense presented the picture of a completely rational Faison, who said that night he calmly informed Snipes that he was leaving her and going back to his family. He then described puttering about Snipes’ apartment while she made a call until he was startled by the sound of a shot. “I called Mrs. Faison as soon as I heard the shot in the bedroom,” is what Faison recalled at trial, “telling her that Elsie had shot herself.” It was only after that conversation with his wife that Faison loaded the wounded woman in his car and drove her to Stuart Circle Hospital. Martha Faison arrived minutes later. In court, the entirety of that conversation of that frantic phone call between Faison and his wife was not revealed, a phone call that took place as blood poured down Elsie Snipes’ face from the bullet hole through her skull.

W. R. Widenburg spoke for Faison’s defense, where he portrayed his client as having been led astray and deluded. At the same time, Elsie Snipes’ character flaws became an essential part of the defense:

I tell you gentlemen that when a woman indulges in immorality it is because the image of God has passed from her mind. When this woman realized disaster…What did she do? She roamed around and finally landed in Virginia. She wasn’t fit for motherhood. She landed at Mrs. Gilham’s boarding house and got thrown out of there. I won’t say how bad she was, but the poor fool [Faison] thought she was the finest woman in the world – and she was to him.

The first Faison trial ran for seven days, at the end of which the jury foreman reported, “We are hopelessly divided.” A mistrial was declared on December 21, and Faison left to spend Christmas with his family. “We are not going to stop fighting,” Martha Faison said with a rare smile as she and her husband left the courtroom. Faison’s fate was deferred until the 1928 docket of the Hustings Court.


March 18, 1928, Richmond Times-Dispatch


The following March found Faison back at Richmond City Hall in the Hustings courtroom, testifying on his own behalf in front of another jury. He endured a full hour of what was called “a burning, searching cross-examination from Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave E. Satterfield.” “Reciting his story in a voice pleasant and nicely modulated,” Faison steadfastly maintained the story as he explained it in his first trial.

No matter how earnest his explanations and how calm his demeanor, the jurors didn’t believe Faison and they didn’t believe Martha Faison’s story of her conversation on the phone with Snipes, either. On March 20, the jury debated only six hours before returning a verdict of guilty – but of manslaughter - not murder, and sentencing Faison to only a year in the Penitentiary. Faison’s reaction when the verdict was announced was described in this way: “…his expression contorted into what seemed remorse; his lips compressed; and then… a few minutes later, to the suggestion of a smile.”

Throughout both trials, Faison stoutly maintained that he would appeal his case if he was sentenced to “so much as a day in jail.” Despite that, he accepted his sentence for manslaughter, knowing that with time served, he would only be in prison for eight months.  An appeal at this point had the possibility of resulting in a far more severe sentence. Faison decided not to press his luck and quietly accepted the verdict and light penalty. At the end of the trial, Judge Wells told Faison:

This jury has, in my opinion, been exceedingly lenient and I trust this will be appreciated by you when you complete your term in the penitentiary…. When you are permitted to take up your life again, to return to the exemplary conduct which characterized your early career; return to your life and family with a better outlook on life and, in consequence, make a man of yourself.

The sentence of a year in jail was unprecedented, but in the eyes of the Richmond jury, the truly guilty party had already been punished. Elsie Snipes, alcoholic, failed mother, homewrecker and seductress had already been brought to justice and she and her destructive behavior had been put to an end in the hands of a morally superior man who simply had a momentary and perhaps justifiable lapse of control. Considering he could have received decades in jail or even the death penalty, the slap on the wrist awarded Faison was a statement that loose women, leading good men astray, would not be tolerated in Richmond. Maybe the men of the jury saw in themselves the same vulnerability to seduction and derailment. Perhaps in each face around the jury table there was the same tiny flicker of weakness.

March 22, 1928, Richmond Times-Dispatch

There were some in Richmond who were appalled at what they felt was the worst miscarriage of justice in Richmond city in decades. The lightness of his sentence of a year for the crime of manslaughter in the Faison trial was too outrageous for even the Times-Dispatch, where an editorial appeared on March 22 under the title, “Crime and Punishment:”

A man if found guilty of killing a woman and is sentenced to one year in the penitentiary. A Negro woman is given thirty years for forgeries amount in the aggregate to some $70. A Negro steals a ham and is put away for five years or ten. What is wrong with us?... If [Faison] was guilty – and the jury reported that he was guilty – sentencing him to serve until October 12 for his crime is the most astounding action ever taken by a Richmond jury.

John Mitchell, Jr., editor of Richmond’s African American newspaper, The Richmond Planet, impressed by this rare call for judicial parity, reprinted that editorial on the front page of The Planet the following week.

A Times-Dispatch reader named Arthur Weston agreed that the sentence given Faison was ridiculous and wrote to the Editor on April 2: “Elsie Snipes is dead. John Wesley Faison stands convicted of killing her. His punishment, considerably less than a year means a most stupendous liar and a murderer will soon gain his liberty to return to an exemplary life.” Faison himself, while still maintaining his innocence, confidently announced his intention to revert to “a higher life” just as Judge Wells instructed. Faison told the press, “My life before this unfortunate affair speaks for itself, and I am determined to again tread that straight and narrow path that leads along the road of upright living and good citizenship.”

Faison was released from prison in October 1928, and with his resolve to keep to the straight and narrow, he did just that. John Wesley Faison apparently thereafter led a remarkably conventional life, moving his family to Salisbury, Maryland, and converting to Catholicism. He retired after working 35 years for the Delmarva Power and Light Company, was active in his church, and joined the Knights of Columbus. When he died in 1972 after a long illness, his obituary in the Salisbury newspaper recounted Faison once taught at John Marshall High School in Richmond, but tellingly neglected to mention anything about being Secretary of the Hermitage Country Club.

The graves in Salisbury, Maryland, of John Faison, a convicted murderer, and his wife who lied to save him. (courtesy of Find A Grave.com)


His wife, Martha, who stayed the course so faithfully through her husband’s trial so many years before, died of a stroke in 1984 at the age of 92 and was survived by five children, 20 grandchildren, and 12 great-grandchildren. How many of those grandchildren knew that their grandfather was a convicted murderer and that their grandmother was complicit in the murder as well? She lied under oath that Snipes had assured her of her intention to kill herself to save the Faison household, supposedly just seconds before the gunshot. Perhaps John and Martha Faison never again spoke of their lives back in Richmond, the city where the white-haired grandfather once abandoned his family, killed his lover in cold blood, and avoided the electric chair with the help of grandmother’s perjured testimony.

Perhaps the two children of Elsie Snipes never knew their mother was shot through the head and killed by a married man with whom she was having a torrid love affair, and in death had been judged debauched and an undesirable. Snipes had been examined through the ethical lens of the city of Richmond and was punished for her excesses; her murderer protected by the sanctimonious attitudes of a city secure in its moral superiority.


- Selden.