The Professor & the Coed

Gribben, Mark. The Professor and the Coed: Scandal and Murder at The Ohio State University.  Charleston, SC; The History Press, 2010.

Does the name Dr. James Howard Snook ring a bell?  It may be a result of this reviewer not being familiar with the general history and folklore of Columbus, but Snook’s story is new to me.  He was an Olympic sharp shooter and pioneering veterinary science researcher at Ohio State in the late 1920s.  But, if remembered at all, it would be for having an affair and murdering med student Theora Hix in 1929, known as the “Crime of the Century” at the time.  Mark Gribben painstakingly puts together all of the pieces of the whole affair in The Professor and the Coed.

As mysteries go, the murder of Theora Hix would make a disappointing 48 Hours episode.  While the sordid details of the affair would fill an interesting segment or two, the Columbus police went from difficulty identifying the body to getting a confession from Snook within several days.  The trial lasted several weeks – Snook’s testimony was very explicit – but the jury deliberated and convicted Snook of first-degree murder (which by state law at the time resulted in execution for all convictions) in about thirty minutes.  There was never any doubt, or mystery, in the crime.

It is the simplicity of the case and the lack of unsolved questions that would typically leave the whole affair as little more than a foot note in a larger work of history – possibly a “Famous Murders in Columbus”.  But Gribbens does a thorough investigation and places the story within the phenomenon of a “Crime of the Century”.  Within the Columbus newspaper market, there a scramble to uncover outrageous details from the crime.  At one point, the prosecution allowed a few papers the chance to interview Snook (not a common practice today).  The other papers then scrambled to make up facts to compete for sales.

With the details of the affair becoming known, the story then became national and the cottage industry of “Crime of the Century” came to the capital.  Gribben has a nice overview of this sensational journalism, noting several recent trials and discussing some of the big name writers (Gribben follows James L. Kilgallen and the Columbus Dispatch‘s Kenneth Tooil).  I had never placed famous non-Supreme Court trials within a timeframe, but after reading The Professor and the Coed, it seems an awful lot of them occurred between the end of WWI and the Depression (Scopes “Monkey” Trial (1925), Sacco and Vanzetti (first trial in 1920), Leopold and Loeb perfect murder (1924) to name a few).

With a just-the-facts tone, sprinkled in with occasional humor, Gribben has written a quick read that will entertain Columbus history buffs, crime buffs, and those who like CSI stories – details of the murder and autopsy are quite graphic and readers will learn of coroner tactics that involve getting stray dogs from the pound high on marijuana.  The Professor and the Coed achieves what all local history writing should strive to do: it tells the story in an entertaining fashion while weaving in elements that paint (and educate the reader on) the location and culture of the time.

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Also, I’m not sure what caused (likely a coincidence) the recent interest in Hix’s murder, but there as a second book published in 2010 about the crime by Diana Britt Franklin.  As I have only glanced through this title, I won’t make any analysis, but if you are interested in comparing these titles or want more on the dealings of James Howard Snook, do check out:

Franklin, Diana Britt with Nancy Pennell. Gold Medal Killer: The Shocking True Story of the Ohio State Professor — an Olympic Champion — and His Coed Lover. Spokane, Washington; Marquette Books, 2010.

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