He now turns to racial injustice in A Second Reckoning, the story of John Snowden, a black man who was hanged for the murder of a white woman in Annapolis more than a hundred years ago.
Seligman will be giving a virtual book talk at Politics and Prose on Tuesday, October 26th at 6 p.m. You can register for the event here.
He also took the time to answer our questions about his new book and focus.
How did this story find you?
I first read about the Snowden case some in 2017 when I was working on The Third Degree, which was about a case of a Chinese man convicted of murder here in DC, to which it bore some similarities. I began looking into it seriously in the middle of the next year, but then decided to work on another book, The Great Kosher Meat War of 1902. I finally took up the Snowden case in April 2019, and, since I’d already done much of the research, I completed a first draft of the manuscript that September.
It took you a while to commit to the story. Why?
I ruminated on it for quite a while. I initially walked away when I realized it wouldn’t be possible to prove guilt or innocence a century after the fact. But then it dawned on me that I wasn’t asking the right question. A person doesn’t have to be proven innocent to merit a pardon; if one is mistreated by the system, or doesn’t get a fair trial, that is also grounds for clemency. After I took a second look at the record, it became pretty clear to me the John Snowden had not been treated fairly. That’s when I took up the project in earnest.
What was some of the evidence Snowden was not treated fairly?
John Snowden was a black man accused of the murder of a pregnant white woman in Jim Crow Maryland in 1917. Blacks and whites lived cheek by jowl in Annapolis back then; in such a small town, many neighborhoods were not segregated. The evidence against Snowden was entirely circumstantial: he lived nearby, he was seen in front of the victim’s house the morning she was killed, and he couldn’t account for scratches on his face, which was particularly damning once an autopsy revealed the skin of an African-American under her fingernails.
When I reviewed the trial transcript and the press coverage, however, I became convinced that Snowden had been physically abused by the police during his interrogation, but the judge admitted everything he said into evidence anyway. He didn’t permit the defense to impeach the credibility of the two principal prosecution witnesses, even though they came forward only after a cash reward was offered. He allowed prejudicial testimony about possible rape, even though Snowden had not been charged with that crime. Perhaps most importantly, the legal gymnastics the prosecution seems to have engaged in to ensure a lily-white jury would be absolutely prohibited today.
You also write about Snowden posthumously being pardoned. When and how did that come about?
Many in Annapolis – Black and white – believed John Snowden to be a victim of a “legal lynching,” and not just at the time. That view persisted throughout the twentieth century; the case was never forgotten. It took a former alderman – an activist named Carl Snowden (no relation) to bring John Snowden to the attention of the governor’s office as a candidate for posthumous clemency. Joined by other local activists and members of Snowden’s family, he started his campaign in the 1990s. When Governor Willian Donald Schaefer refused to act on the case, Carl bided his time and approached Governor Paris Glendenning. And after the Maryland Pardon attorney investigated the case and forwarded a recommendation, Governor Glendenning issued a posthumous pardon. He didn’t declare Snowden innocent; he simply pointed out that a miscarriage of justice had likely taken place.
You have met Snowden’s niece. Could you describe your meetings and interactions with her?
Hazel Snowden, who lives here in Hyattsville, joined the effort to seek a pardon for her uncle even though she never met him; she was born decades after his hanging. She wrote a book about her life in which she discussed his case, which I found and read from cover to cover. I found her on Facebook and we eventually met. I was charmed by her. Hazel had attended meetings, written letters and phoned the parole board, and she is sure her letter to the governor was one of the reasons he acted. The day the pardon was issued was one of the most important in her life. She has since invited me to her annual gatherings of friends and others who made the pardon possible. It’s always a moving celebration: someone reads John Snowden’s last words, which were quite eloquent, and someone else reads out the text of the pardon.
You have written about Chinese Americans, Jewish immigrant women, and now a Black man. Do you see common threads among these stories and experiences?
I do think they all have something in common. I’m interested in the lives of “hyphenated” Americans. The people whose stories were not part of the sanitized version of America my generation was served up in school. And recently I’ve focused in on how minorities have been treated by the judicial system. In A Second Reckoning, I also call for more re-examinations of cases in which justice might not have been served the first time around. As Governor Glendenning said when he issued the Snowden pardon, “the search for justice has no statute of limitations.”
Want to hear more from Scott Seligman? Join his Politics and Prose virtual book talk on Tuesday, October 26 at 6 p.m. You can register here.