Tuesday, June 02, 2015

The man who shot Liberty Snook

James C. Sanders, a noted prison reformer, was in his third year as warden of the Iowa State Penitentiary at Fort Madison during January of 1911 when Byron "Deak" Gwinn, age 43, died there of pheumonia on the 30th day of that month, a Monday. Deak, in the 20th year of a life term for first-degree murder, had been a model prisoner, considered by the warden to be a friend. Sanders asked if he might accompany the remains home.

Deak had arrived at the penitentiary during September of 1891, a month after he had gunned down his brother-in-law, Liberty Snook, in cold blood with two shotgun blasts at the Snook farm just north of the Lucas-Wayne county line northwest of Humeston and southwest of Derby.

Gwinn's mother, Cynthia, and sister, Mado Davidson, who had been at his bedside during the final illness, agreed. 

So that evening, the party departed Fort Madison by train, switched to the west-bound at Burlington, switched again to the southbound at Chariton and finally arrived in Humeston at 5 a.m. on Tuesday. There, the mourners and the remains were met by other family members and taken to the William and Mado Davidson farm home four and a half miles northwest of town where funeral services were held that afternoon. Burial followed in the Gwinn Cemetery.

Warden Sanders assisted the preacher in conducting the service and delivered a eulogy, declaring that "Gwinn was one of my best trustees. I had absolute confidence in him. When he came to the prison he was placed in the machinery department, and in time became an expert machinist. He was, in fact, a master mechanic. He could take the raw material and build an auto out of it. The death of such a man in such circumstances in indeed depressing."

And indeed it was, but Liberty's death had been more so --- and this was not the send-off that most Lucas and Wayne countyans would have anticipated 20 years earlier for a convicted killer when news of the fatal shooting on an early August afternoon spread across the two counties.


The years of transition from the 1880s to the 1890s had been dark and violent in southwest Lucas County and the news that Deak Gwinn and killed Liberty Snook by firing both barrels of a shotgun into his torso must have caused many to wonder what in the world the world was coming to.

Back on the 28th of June 1889 over near Freedom, just a few miles east, Sheriff William B. Ramsey had been shot and killed by a deranged Derby man, John McGinnis, who then was shot and killed himself by Henry Blouse, who had been trying to help Ramsey.

A year and four months later, a young man from Ottumwa, 22-year-old Elmer Oliver, arrived in Chariton by train, by some accounts got drunk, then hired a livery team and drove out to Freedom to ask the hand of a young woman he had been courting, Josephine Tuttle, age 20, in marriage. She was visiting there at the home of her mother, Louisa Tuttle, on that Sabbath evening, October 19, 1890.

Miss Tuttle declined, Oliver drew a revolver and shot her through the head, then fired a fatal shot into his own brain.

Two more deaths --- then 10 months later, the Gwinn-Snook tragedy.


Byron Gwinn was the youngest son among the 11 children of Samuel K. and Cynthia Gwinn, born Sept. 30, 1867, just south of the Lucas-Wayne county line in Richman Township, Wayne County. Their youngest child was Mado, Byron's little sister.

Deak married Ora E. Durand in Wayne County on Oct. 15, 1890, and they apparently were living with his widowed mother during that fatal summer.

Ten years earlier --- on 18 December 1881 and also in Wayne County --- Byron's older sister, Rachel, had married Liberty Snook, a son of John and Eliza Ann (Willey) Snook, of Derby. Liberty had arrived in Lucas County with his parents and siblings from Illinois during 1874. By 1891, Rachel and Liberty had three young children, Alma, Cora and Ralph. 

The Lucas-Wayne County line formed the north border of the Gwinn farm and the south border of the Snook farm --- the homes thereon about a quarter mile apart.

Bad blood between the brothers-in-law apparently was not a new thing. The Chariton Democrat, in its edition of Aug. 6, 1891, reported that, "Last winter, Gwinn and Snook had quarreled and indeed fought. And the difference between them had never been settled."

"Last Saturday," the Democrat continued, "Snook and his wife went to the home of Mrs. Gwinn and while there Snook and Mrs. Gwinn had quarreled over some personal matter and in the quarrel, Snook had told Mrs. Gwinn that she lied."

Deak Gwinn was away from home when the quarrel occured, probably at work as a railroad brakeman, but learned of it upon his return home Sunday evening from his wife, Ora, who may have stirred the pot a little. Whatever the conversation between Deak, Ora and Cynthia Gwinn may have been --- Deak left the house infuriated shortly after noon on Monday, August 3, with a loaded shotgun, headed north to the Snook farm.

Liberty, Rachel and their children were inside at the time; a team of horses tethered to the rear of a wagon outside.


Judge Washington Irving Babb, of Iowa's Second Judicial District, summed up what happened next on August 3 while reviewing the evidence prior to sentencing Deak in Lucas County District Court weeks later, during late September:

"The evidence showed that a bitter feeling had grown up between you and the deceased, who was your brother-in-law. Upon the evening before the encounter your wife told you of a quarrel between the deceased and your mother and other members of the family. This was again repeated to you near noon following.

"You take your gun and walk deliberately down the road to where the deceased lived, about a quarter of a mile; there you remain standing by the fence, with eye upon the house, and gun cocked for nearly thirty minutes, when the deceased comes within about thirty feet of you, where you stood, to untie his horses.

You then charge him with having called your mother a liar and demand that he take it back, which he refuses to do; and urges you to go away as he says that he wants no trouble.

What is your reply? "I came for trouble and intend to have it," and with those words you quickly draw your gun and say: "I have the drop on you and intend to kill you," and almost instantly fired.

Reeling in his tracks we hear the deceased crying to the boy near by: "Run for the doctor."

With this plaintive cry in your ear, what do you do? "G(o)d d(am)n you; I have commenced you and intend to finish you, and when I am through you won't need a doctor."

That was your reply and you immediately fired the second shot into the side of the husband of your own sister, in the presence of herself and his little children. Was there ever more heartless words uttered to a man in his condition without any means of defense. It is hard to conceive of a more dastardly act than the shot which followed those words.

"Then followed the threat to kill your own sister because she denounced that shot."

The second load of shot penetrated Liberty's heart and he died.

Deak turned and walked away.


Two boys, one a nephew, were sent immediately to Humeston to summon help; a Dr. Arnold came out to examine the body; and in the evening, a crowd gathered in and around the Snook home as Dr. Theodore P. Stanton, of Chariton, convened a coroner's jury over the remains. The jury consisted of J.W. Sprott, George Parkin and J.C. Copeland.

The inquest commenced about 10 p.m. and several witnesses were interviewed, including the widow, Rachel, and Deak's mother, Cynthia. The jury concluded that the fatal wounds "were inflicted by one Byron Gwinn with a felonious intent to kill and murder said Snook."

After the inquest, H.G. Durham took Cynthia home, using the buggy that Humeston undertaker L.M. Stanton had arrived in some hours earlier. Upon arriving at the Gwinn home, Deak came to the fence to meet them.

Deak told Durham that he would give himself up to the Wayne County sheriff if Durham and a man named Billy Gelston would accompany him to Corydon. Durham returned the Stanton buggy to the Snook farm, then met Deak and walked with him into Humeston. They found Gelston there, then continued into Corydon where Deak surrendered about 2 a.m. on Tuesday.

Gwinn then was transferred to the Lucas County jail in Chariton,

Also on Tuesday, funeral services for Liberty Snook were held and his remains were taken to the Goshen Cemetery some distance north of Derby, for burial. The Democrat described Snook as a "sober, industrious, well-to-do farmer." The Humeston New Era described him as a man "universally liked and respected." But as sometimes happens in these instances, we know far more about the murderer 125 years later than we do about his victim."

A few days later, Rachel Snook and her children moved in with her father-in-law, living near Derby, and appears to have remained more closely attached to the the Snook family than to the Gwinn family for the remainder of her life.

The editor of the Democrat visited Deak in the  Lucas County jail in search of a comment on Tuesday or Wednesday, too. "He was lively, singing, and whistling," the Democrat reported, "and the night before had been playing cards. He seemed unconcerned, and when the reporter asked him if he wished to make any statement, he turned on his heel and said he did not until he had counseled his attorney."


Deak Gwinn's trial was held at the courthouse in Chariton during the first week of September, 1891, and on Sunday evening, Sept. 6, the jury brought in a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree along with the recommendation, described as "humane" by Judge Babb, that a sentence of life in prison rather than death by hanging be imposed.

Gwinn's attorney, a Mr. Steele, apparently had attempted to build a case for self-defense and to show that Liberty had behaved abusively toward his brother-in-law for a number of years. That, however, was an uphill battle. Liberty Snook was not armed; and defendant Gwinn was described as a large and powerful man, some 6 feet in height; Liberty, slighter at 5-foot-6 and weighing perhaps 140 pounds.

Early in the week after the verdict, Babb imposed the sentence recommended by the jury and Gwinn was taken by train to Fort Madison to begin his life term.


At least two efforts were made free Gwinn, or at least commute his life sentence, during the next 20 years. In 1901, Gwinn petitioned the governor of Iowa, describing himself as a reformed man, now a Christian. In 1909, a petition for clemency was circulated and submitted.

There's every indication that Deak's prison record had been exemplary, offering every sign of reform. However, the nature of his crime and the fact Rachel Snook apparently still feared violence at the hand of her brother argued against mercy beyond that shown by the jury, which had spared his life in 1891 --- and the petitions were denied.

Lucas County newspaper editors had demonized Gwinn --- and to some extent his mother --- when the murder of Liberty was first reported. The Herald characterized him as a "thieving vagabond and desperado" instigated "to the foul deed by the vicious spirit of his mother"; the Democrat, as a "reckless desperado."

Public opinion seems to have mellowed as the years passed, and Deak's obituary in the New Era contains this characterization: "Byron Gwinn was a good hearted chap, twenty years ago, a railroad brakeman, with many friends."

Following Deak's burial, a fine stone was erected in his memory in the Gwinn Cemetery.

Rachel (Gwinn) Snook continued to live at Derby until her death at home on Dec. 29, 1948, at the age of 84, attended by her three children. Following services at the Derby Presbyterian Church, conducted by the Methodist preacher, she was buried by Liberty's side in Goshen Cemetery some 57 years after his death.

The tombstone that marks their graves there is a modest one, apparently placed after her death.

Photo by Doris Christensen
Too much time has passed to make sense of all this and such a thing may not have been possible even then. Two things are evident, however. Something about the way Deak Gwinn presented himself or about the defense presented during his trial, or both, caused a jury to spare his life rather than ordering him to be hanged. He returned the favor by living out his life as an exemplary prisoner.

On the other hand, his actions during a fit of ungovernable rage took one life, divided a family, adversely affected many other lives and destroyed his own prospects.


Ray Gwinn said...

Until I ran across his obit a few months ago, I had always pictured Deak Gwinn as the Buford Tannen (Back to the Future III) type character. Now I'm not sure what to think. My great grandfather, Amos Keller (AK or Kay) Gwinn, was one of the ones sent for a doctor and the authorities.

The murder even gained an inch and a half of print in a New York newspaper. I was emailed a copy several years ago but can't put my finger on it right now.

I am curious what is known of Deak's wife, Ora. Their marriage is mentioned in his obit but no "survived by".

Ray Gwinn said...

Again, good work, Frank. Byron Gwinn has always been a curiosity of mine.