Fallen Heroes: Officer Richard Snow

Nelson Zoch

March 17, 1883

The tragic events surrounding the death of Officer Richard Snow have been pieced together from 1883 newspaper accounts, which contain the descriptive language common to the era. The chronology begins with March 18 and 20 reports from The Houston Daily Post.

On Saturday night, March 17, 1883, Officer Richard Snow was at the home of Austin Johnson, a colored man, in the 5th Ward, near the International Compress Company. He was at this location to keep the peace at a church festival. It is believed that this was a departmental assignment. Around 10:30 p.m., Officer Snow sensed trouble from the crowd and he sent for another officer to come help him preserve order.

Snow felt he recognized one of the troublemakers at this party and began questioning the man about his true identity. This man, a colored man named Henry Campbell, resisted Officer Snow’s inquiries. He became exasperated when he realized that Officer Snow knew his name to be Henry and the officer was persistent in his questioning.

Campbell then assaulted Officer Snow, knocking him down and thrusting him out the door. Snow returned inside and at about 11 p.m., Campbell began flourishing a pistol in this house. Snow attempted to arrest Campbell, but couldn’t control this individual. He drew his pistol and during the struggle, while being held by members of the crowd, accidentally fired a shot that struck a small girl in the hand.

Campbell fired his gun directly at Officer Snow, striking him just above an eye. The wounded officer fell, got up on his feet and out into the yard, where he fell again. It was there that other officers picked him up. Special Officer William Humble had arrived just before the tragic shooting. Pandemonium followed and the crowd was so large that Officer Humble was forced to retreat as he was pursued by a crowd shouting, “We’ll kill the other son of a b____ too.” Humble, while probably not needing to justify his actions, later did so by saying that “self preservation is the first law of nature.”

More help arrived. Deputy Sheriffs Keegan and Glasscock and Deputy Marshall Glass, along with others, went over and arrested Henry Campbell. These lawmen recovered a pistol, described as a “three barrel little .38 calibre five-shooting Ranger Number 2,” from Campbell’s room where he was arrested. Campbell also had in his possession a “hoodoo” bag, which he regretted very much to give up.

Initially, there were witnesses who did not want to admit that they had seen Campbell shoot Officer Snow. Some of them said that a white man had shot Officer Snow. However, it was later learned that Snow and Special Officer Humble were the only white men present prior to all of the other officers arriving later to make the arrest.

One star witness, John Green (colored), said he saw the suspect take deliberate aim and snap the first barrel of the weapon, then revolve the cylinder with his finger, shove the pistol almost into the officer’s face, shoot and kill him. After Green told officers what he had seen, they recalled the fact that one barrel of the recovered weapon had a cap bursted but the barrel still loaded, while the one next to it manifestly had been discharged. On the strength of this statement, Green was asked to come to the station to make sure that Henry Campbell was the right man. In an 1883 version of a lineup, all of the prisoners on the lower floor of the jail were turned into the corridor. Officers instructed Green to come see if the suspect was the right man.

Almost instantly, Green pointed to Campbell as being the proper one, even though Campbell attempted to stand behind several others in the back part of the corridor.

The Daily Post commented with the following editorial statement: “A shooting and killing under any circumstances is bad enough, but when an officer is shot down in the discharge of his duty, the affair becomes cloaked in a different garb, and the grossest indignity is perpetuated against the government in its endeavor the protect the public welfare.”

A reporter interviewed Henry Campbell in jail. Campbell denied being the shooter, saying that he didn’t know he had an enemy in the Fifth Ward and couldn’t understand why the colored people there would falsely accuse him. He told the reporter that he wanted to have a trial as early as possible.

The March 21, 1883 edition of The Daily Post reported that in a directly related incident, another tragedy occurred on Monday night, March 19, 1883, at the same location in the Fifth Ward.  At around 8 p.m., someone knocked on the door of Austin Johnson’s residence, asking him to come outside. Johnson refused to open the door as he recognized a voice among the four white men who showed up wanting to speak to him. The voice was that of Special Officer Will Humble. When Johnson did not comply, four shots were fired through the front door, one of which struck and killed Mrs. Matilda Johnson, Johnson’s wife.

That same night, Justice Bringhurst went to this location and empanelled a jury to assist him in conducting this inquest. The result was that the death of Mrs. Matilda Johnson was declared a homicide and Justice Bringhurst ordered Sheriff Fant to arrest Will Humble and place him in jail. After a hearing, Will Humble was ordered to be arrested and held without bail.

The Daily Post reported in its edition of Sunday, March 25 that the case of Henry Campbell was not placed on preliminary trial due to the absence of the city attorney prosecuting the case. The following Tuesday’s edition (March 27) said that the murder of Officer Snow was declared cold-blooded and it is believed that the police have Henry Campbell “dead to rights.” He was reported to have bold, brazen countenance and does not seem to be aware of the enormity of the crime committed.  He is likely, they say, to dance the “airline jig.”

Further developments:

San Antonio Daily Express (March 29):

In Houston, preliminary trial of Henry Campbell for killing Policeman Snow was held today, and he was held to await the action of the grand jury without bail.

Galveston Daily News (October 17):

The case was continued on affidavit of the defendant owing to the absence of attached witnesses, who were required to give a $300 appearance bond to appear in the next term of the court.

Galveston Daily News (December 15):

Houston is destined soon to have another hanging. Henry Campbell was tried for killing Officer Richard Snow. The jury was out only a half hour when they returned a verdict of murder in the first degree and sentenced Campbell to death.

Galveston Daily News (December 17):

Counsel for Henry Campbell filed an appeal. The motion will probably be argued tomorrow, and in the event of its being overruled, an appeal will be taken.

Galveston Daily News (March 7, 1884):

The action of the Court of Appeals, in affirming the death sentence passed by the Criminal Court upon Henry Campbell for the killing of Policeman Richard Snow, gives Houston the prospect of having another hanging in the near future. Final sentences will be passed at the April term of the Criminal Court, when the time of the execution will be fixed.

Galveston Daily News (April 28):

Prisoners will be sentenced on Thursday, among them Henry Campbell, who will receive his death sentence for the murder of Officer Snow.

Galveston Daily News (May 2):

While this case has gone to the upper court and the sentence has been affirmed, yet it is more than probable that Campbell’s sentence will be commuted, as the killing was not of that premeditated, malicious character necessary to make that crime murder in the first degree. The crime, though heinous enough, was perpetrated in the heat of passion at a negro dance, surrounded by more or less excitement.  It is understood that the officers of the court, the district attorney, and the court itself, if their opinion be solicited, would favor a commutation of the sentence.

Galveston Daily News (May 3):

Henry Campbell’s execution was set for Friday, July 11, 1884. When called to the bar and asked if he had anything to say why the sentence of the law should not be passed upon him, Campbell protested that he was innocent and was not there when Snow was killed; but said if he had to be hunged (sic), he wanted it to be done publicly. He was prepared to meet his God and he wanted everybody to see that he was going to die happy. The judge then pronounced the sentence, and the small audience that had gathered to see how the murderer would look when listening to his own death sentence, quietly disappeared and the court adjourned for the term.

Galveston Daily News (June 24):

Sheriff Fant received the death warrant for Henry Campbell, scheduled to be executed here next month.

 What brought about the change of attitude toward this crime? Later report indicated that the small child in the house was killed, not just shot in the hand as first reported. In retrospect, this may have been a major turning point in this case. However, at the same time, it did not change the fact that Officer Richard Snow was killed while enforcing the law and attempting to maintain the peace.

 Galveston Daily News (July 4):

A LEASE ON LIFE – Henry Campbell, the negro who stands convicted of murder in the first degree and was to be hanged on the 11th, has been granted a respite of 30 days. Governor Ireland issued and sent to Sheriff Fant an order not to hang the murderer until Friday, the 11th of August. This is probably done in order that the executive may have sufficient time to consider the merits of the case, as it is definitely one calling for the interpretation of executive clemency, as the killing was done in the heat of excitement at a ball. The crime was not attended by that premeditation and malice necessary to make the crime murder in the first degree.

Galveston Daily News (July 31):

Sheriff Fant received today a proclamation from Governor Ireland, commuting the death sentence of the negro Henry Campbell, who was to have been hanged on August 11, to a life sentence in the penitentiary. Campbell was originally sentenced to be hanged July 11, but the governor gave a respite for 30 days. The commutation gives no surprise to intelligent people here, who are conversant with all the facts connected with the crime for which Campbell was condemned to lose his life, and at the time of the sentence a commutation was predicted in these columns, as the facts in the case did not justify the verdict of murder in the first degree. Judge Cook was of the opinion at the time, and many argue from this that he should have then set the verdict aside.

The crime for which Campbell was convicted was the killing of Police Officer Snow at a negro dance in the fifth ward something over a year ago. At the time of the killing everything was in a state of excitement. Officer Snow had fired the first shot and killed a young colored child and was in turn shot by Campbell, with whom he was in a difficulty. With such surrounding circumstances the killing could scarcely be construed into murder in the first degree and the facts when laid before Governor Ireland, resulted in a commutation of the sentence. A NEWS correspondent accompanied Sheriff Fant when he went to the jail this evening to convey the intelligence to Campbell to note the effect of the good news. Campbell was brought from his cell into the Sheriff’s room and before being told of his commutation conversed quite freely and seemed in excellent good spirits, despite the fact of his being cognizant of his near approaching end. He has all along denied the killing but the proof against him is too strong to make his denials plausible, even on the part of his own witnesses, and no such plea as that of his being innocent of the killing was made by his friends in their intercession for executive clemency. The prisoner laughed and talked for quite a while in his ignorant way before being informed of his commutation, and when Sheriff Fant did break the good news to him it had scarcely any perceptible effect, he merely remarking, in almost an indifferent way, that he was much obliged.  He will be sent to the penitentiary in a few days.

Special Officer Will Humble was charged with the murder of Mrs. Matilda Johnson, who along with her husband resided at the location of the murder of Officer Richard Snow. Research into this disposition is listed from the Galveston Daily News for the following dates:

  • October 4, 1883 – Case set for trial on October 23.
  • October 23, 1883 – Case reset.
  • December 7, 1883 – Case docketed for Saturday, December 22.
  • December 22, 1883 – Case docketed for trial tomorrow in the Court of Judge Gustave Cook.

 Research may continue at a later date.  However, the fact remains that Officer Richard

Snow was killed in the performance of his duty and his killer’s death sentence was commuted.