Historically Yours: Harry Snodgrass, King of the Ivories

Elizabeth Davis
Special to Boonville Daily News

In 1923, 27-year-old Harry Snodgrass attempted to hold up a confectioner’s shop in St. Louis. Caught and convicted, he was sentenced to three years at the Missouri State Penitentiary for assault with intent to rob.

Just under five feet three inches tall, Snodgrass had brown hair, a sallow complexion, and a seventh-grade education. He also was an exceptional piano player. This talent got him sent to join the prison band and orchestra.

In March the previous year, a radio transmitter had been installed on the roof floor of the Missouri Capitol. The station WOS, which stood for “Watch Our State,” was meant to “promote effectual and economic methods of marketing farm products,” but had soon gone much further.

Music concerts were broadcast three nights a week and the prison band and orchestra, known as the Peaceful Village Band, frequently played from the capitol dome on Mondays.

The show was very popular and the announcer often referred to Snodgrass as the “King of the Ivories.”

Soon, the band featuring Snodgrass was known nationwide, and fan mail poured in from Canada, Mexico, and all over the US. His fan mail also included cookies, cigarettes, and a number of marriage proposals.

He kept the cookies and cigarettes, but couldn’t consider the proposals as he already had a wife and son.

Warden Sam Hill decided Snodgrass had been rehabilitated and recommended a reduction of his sentence. Governor Sam Baker agreed and commuted Snodgrass’ sentence in 1925.

When the announcement was made over the air that Snodgrass was due to be released and would leave a poor man, over $2,000 was received for him at the radio station in a matter of weeks. Over a thousand people attended his final performance as an inmate. The next year Governor Baker granted Snodgrass a full pardon.

Following his release from prison, Snodgrass traveled with a vaudeville act and made several records for Brunswick Records.

Elizabeth Davis was born and raised in Cooper County, Missouri, and has written HISTORICALLY YOURS for the Boonville Daily News since April 2008, She has covered the War Between the States, US history, and Cooper County history. In celebration of Missouri’s upcoming Bicentennial, she has syndicated her column statewide and encourages readers all over the Show Me State to submit topic suggestions for future columns to HistoricallyYours.davis@gmail.com.