Tales of Snow Hill

by Dana Kester-McCabe

Nestled peacefully on the Pocomoke River, Snow Hill has a storied past. Named for a small town near London, it served as a trade center during the colonial period and was made the seat of government for Worcester County in 1742.

Watch slideshow:

1757 Map Snow Hill pre 1893 Julia Purnell and her family Julia Purnell Museum Downtown Today Snow Hill Courthouse

Today visitors can see quiet tree lined streets with lovely Victorian architecture. If you ask locals who the most famous past residents of Snow Hill are they might say award winning needle pointer Julia Purnell who has a little museum named after her. Or there is William “Judy” Johnson said to be one of the greatest baseball players of the Negro Leagues and the best third baseman of his time. But there are some other interesting characters who have spent time in Snow Hill.

Take Jacob Armstrong. He was a slave who was freed in 1783 by a local planter named Charles Bishop. Armstrong, an inventive entrepreneur and farmer, became one of the biggest landowners in 19th century Snow Hill. He bought swampy land and improved it with drainage ditches. He was so successful that he started his own banking business lending money especially to other former slaves who could otherwise not get credit.

Snow Hill developed a large free black community but many nearby plantation owners still held slaves up through the Civil War. In 1863, a Colonel William Birney led enlistment raids for the Union on the Eastern Shore. He recruited slaves to run away aboard his steamship which was docked at the riverfront in Snow Hill. When volunteers arrived there they were greeted with a brass band playing in their honor. The boat’s official name was “Paradise” but blacks referred to it as the “Jesus” boat. Local slave owners seeing the writing on the wall agreed to free and pay a slave to take their own place in the Union army thereby avoiding taking sides in the war altogether.

The community has seen periods of prosperity as well as hardship. Large sections of the town have burned down twice. The first time was 1843. The second time was fifty years later in 1893. Both times the courthouse was demolished and court records were destroyed. Finally it was rebuilt with the brick structure which still stands today. Like most courthouses it has been the scene of much drama.

In the early 20th century there were two notorious murder trials centered in Snow Hill during which vigilante mobs converged on the town demanding death to the accused. Each set of proceedings had to be moved out of the county because of safety concerns for all involved. In both these cases a family was killed by an itinerant hired hand after a dispute over money. Both alleged killers confessed and were eventually executed by the state. The accused was white in the first case and black in the other. This is important to note because the second case helped bring national attention to the civil rights issue of lynching.

The story caught the eye of famed journalist H.L. Mencken of the Baltimore Sun who made accusations against local authorities. Mencken was reviled by Eastern Shore whites for his coverage and charged with encouraging communist interference. The Snow Hill Chamber of Commerce called it a “flagrant misrepresentation and an intentional gross insult to all the people living on the Del-Mar-Va Peninsula.” They drafted a resolution calling for a retraction and a boycott of the paper. You can read more about this in local author Joseph Moore’s book: Murder On The Eastern Shore.

The town attracted another murderous handyman just a few years ago who buried his young female victim in the back yard of a well known Snow Hill bed and breakfast. But not all of Snow Hill’s nefarious characters were violent. There is a not so well known legend from the late 19th century of a young man from a prominent Snow Hill family who became an accomplished counterfeiter. His tale is vaguely reminiscent of the movie “Catch Me If You Can” which is based a similar true story from the 1960’s.

The history books do not record this perpetrator’s name or even any documentation of his trial, probably because his embarrassed family did their best to hush things up. The authors of the account that I read say this story was commonly shared around town up to the middle of the 20th century. It seems the boy was a sort of criminal prodigy who developed his own printing press and produced fake twenty dollar bills with his own masterfully engraved plates.

After getting away with this for a number of years he was finally caught by an undercover detective hired to work in the Snow Hill post office. After his conviction he was sentenced to Federal prison where he brazenly had parts and supplies smuggled in to continue his operation. Another undercover operative was planted in a nearby cell in order to catch him again. He was eventually granted parole, the legend says, on the condition that he put his artistic talents to work for the U.S. Mint. ***

Snow Hill certainly has a cast of very interesting players in its history. Today the town keeps one foot in the past with rural traditions like the annual Blessing of the Combines, and one foot in the present with a burgeoning art district with popular places like Bishop’s Stock Gallery, Harvest Moon Tavern, and the Blue Dog Café. Snow Hill is a really charming town well worth visiting beyond your periodic obligation to jury duty. Either way if you visit you may hear a few other intriguing tales of Snow Hill.


*** Since this story was produced I have found additional references that may have been to the perpetrators alluded to in the history book Worcester County - Maryland's Arcadia. Baldwin S. Bredell and Arthur Taylor, master engravers, were arrested along with other conspirators April 20, 1899, as part of a sophisticated conspiracy involving corrupt lawyers, federal officials, and a Lancaster, Pennsylvania, cigar maker. They were convicted of producing and distributing silver certificates and internal revenue stamps. The case caused a national scandal including criminal attempts to influence the jury and even to secure a pardon from President McKinley for the convicted lawyers.

Taylor and Breddell were then arrested again on May 7, 1900 for passing bogus money through their attorney while they were incarcerated in Moyamensing Prison in New Jersey. They "confessed" that their printing plates were hidden in Snow Hill, Maryland. This apparently was a scheme to bargain with the government to commuting their sentence in exchange for telling where their hidden plates were. These plates and the fake money were actually produced while they were in prison. Their second trial resulted in a hung jury with no additional conviction.

To read the referenced materials visit these links in Google Books:
Dickerman's United States Treasury Counterfeit Detector and Bankers & Merchant's Journal
Detective: William J. Burns and the Detective Profession, 1880-1930
Public Ledger Almanacs For 1870-73

Story Sources:
Maryland’s Eastern Shore - A Journey in Time and Place
by John R. Wennersten - Tidewater Press - Centreville, Maryland 1992

Murder on Maryland's Eastern Shore - Race, Politics and the case of Orphan Jones
by Joseph E. Moore
History Press - Charleston, South Carolina - 2006

Worcester County - Maryland's Arcadia
Worcester County Historical Society - Dr. Reginald V. Truitt and Dr. Millard G. Les Callette 1977

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