The Unexplained Disappearance of Malinda Snyder
For most of his 63 years on earth, Hugh Smith was a respected resident of Liberty Valley. Hugh, along with his brother Sam, owned 380 acres of land in Perry County, and he earned a handsome living renting out his lands to sawmill operators. And for 28 of those years, the respectable Hugh Smith may have carried with him the belief that he had gotten away with the perfect murder.
It was Sunday, March 14, 1869, when Malinda Snyder wandered away from her home in Liberty Valley. Her disappearance had caused little alarm at the time; the 20-year-old, described as being a "half-witted mute" of about two hundred pounds, had a habit of wandering aimlessly throughout the valley. Days passed and she never returned, and it was accepted as fact that the poor young woman had perished from hypothermia somewhere in the Tuscarora Mountains.
The fate of Malinda Snyder had been long forgotten by everybody. Everybody except for Elias Snyder, the missing girl's brother. On March 8, 1897, Elias decided to finally break his silence. He claimed to know what had really happened to his sister, and he told his story to the local magistrate, S.B. Trostle.
On the day that Malinda had disappeared, there had been a fire in the valley. One of the local sawmills had burned to the ground. According to Elias Snyder, his sister had gone to visit Hugh Smith that day, and the sawmill that had burned on the day of the girl's disappearance was one of the many that stood on his Perry County property.
There had been an accomplice, said Elias, who claimed that Malinda had been hanging around the Smith house and refused to go home. This angered Hugh, who picked up a hatchet and, in a fit of rage, drove it into the young woman's brain.
Smith was alarmed at the horrible deed he had just committed. He, with the aid of an accomplice, decided to conceal the crime. The two men set fire to the Kendig & Co. mill, thereby attracting the attention of the entire neighborhood. As every soul in Liberty Valley flocked to the scene to witness the blaze, Hugh Smith and his accomplice used the cover of darkness to transport the lifeless, bloodied body of Malinda Snyder to an old, overgrown farmstead nearby that had been long abandoned.
In the middle of the field there was a decrepit, delapidated house, and this house had a large, old-fashioned stone chimney. While the accomplice kindled the fire, Smith hacked the dead girl to bits and pieces. Before the sun had come up the next morning, all that was left of Malinda Snyder was ash.
The magistrate told this story to District Attorney Kell, who convinced Sheriff Johnson and Constable Bistline to arrest Hugh Smith for the long-forgotten crime. He was arrested and taken to the Perry County jail, where he shared a cell with a horse thief. These two men had plenty of room to stretch out their legs; for they were the only two prisoners in the county jail at the time.
Smith's oldest son Sylvester, who was around 38 at the time, was firmly convinced of his father's innocence. After a detrimental story about Hugh appeared in one of the local papers after the arrest, the son encouraged the accused murderer to tell his side of the story. From a legal standpoint this was a major gamble, and any defense attorney worth his salt would have strongly advised against it; one poorly-worded statement could be enough to send Hugh to the gallows. On the other hand, the right story could soften the hearts of potential jurors before the case even went to trial.
Hugh began his story by telling the newspaper reporter that he had been married twice and that his first wife had died some years earlier. He fathered thirteen children, ten were still living and three were dead. If the prominent Liberty Valley resident was playing for sympathy, he was off to a good start. The March 8, 1897, edition of the Harrisburg Daily Independent wrote of the jailhouse interview with Smith:
It was a touching scene as the old man, six feet more in his stockings, with matted beard and hoary locks, stood before the interviewer and, with tears in his eyes, told his version of the tragedy.
Hugh Smith stated that he knew Malinda Snyder well and that the girl's father was a good friend of his. He also claimed that he was in bed and sleeping at the time of the sawmill fire, and learned about it the following day. This statement, however, is difficult to believe, as the Kendig & Co. sawmill was only fifty rods from his house. This part of Smith's story was also later contradicted by several witnesses.
"This is all a piece of spite work," Hugh declared. "There are some neighbors of mine who think they can make something out of digging up an old charge that was gossiped about nearly thirty years ago, but there is nothing in it. I have nothing to hide."
When asked if Smith had ever ordered her off his property, he replied:
"I never spoke a cross word to her in my life. Why, see here-- I helped nurse that little girl when she was a wee little thing. Her folks all knew me and liked me.
"Young man," concluded the accused killer, "be sure to tell the people I am innocent, and I will always swear that."
After speaking to the Harrisburg reporter, Smith "lawyered up" and retianed the services of two top-notch legal experts for his defense team, a former district attorney named Luke Baker, and a former judge named Barnett.
District Attorney Kell was also feeling optimistic, and told reporters that he was confident that Hugh Smith would be convicted. Two more arrests had been made in the case, one of them was Smith's brother, Sam, and the other was a cousin. Kell hinted that Sam Smith was the accomplice mentioned by Elias Snyder.
It was also reported that a prayer meeting had been held in the home of Hugh's brother on the night of the fire and the girl's disappearance. In attendance were most of the Smith family and a family servant, a boy by the name of Jerome Valentine. Hugh Smith was suspiciously absent from the event. Sam Smith left the house immediately after the meeting was over, consistent with the time of the sawmill fire.
Local opinion over Hugh Smith's innocence was divided, but few thought that Hugh would hang for the crime of which he was accused. Too many years had gone by, and too many valuable witnesses had passed away. Those who were left were too old and too absent-minded to remember facts and details.
Others insisted that old Hugh Smith, with his largeness of heart, his extraordinary kindness and his naturally sympathetic disposition, could not have possibly killed the harmless, feeble-minded young woman known to locals as "Crazy Lindy".
Still others recalled the strange behavior of Malinda's father after the girl's disappearance. On the Snyder property was a well that provided an abundance of clear, clean water. For some unknown reason, Mr. Snyder filled in the well and dug another.
Curiosity seekers and amateur sleuths had searched Smith's property-- right down to his manure pile-- for some shred of evidence that would put the noose around Smith's neck, but they found nothing. Everything hinged on the story of Elias Snyder.
Those who believed that Hugh Smith was innocent questioned Snyder's motives. It was known that one of Hugh's cousins, John Schull, had been suspected of the crime back when Malinda first disappeared, and that this cousin was a bitter enemy of Hugh Smith. It was rumored that this cousin also had "dirt" of an unrelated nature on Elias Snyder, and coerced Snyder into fingering Hugh. Schull, who was now 73 years old, claimed that Malinda's body was first buried under a pile of leaves on the mountainside behind Hugh's home.
There was a disturbing sense that both Hugh and Sam Smith knew more about Malinda's death than they were letting on. One witness claims that he had once heard Sam Smith brag to his wife that he "knew where the hatchet was that killed Lindy Snyder." Sam Smith's wife, however, was long dead and therefore could not corroborate this claim.
Then, a few days after the arrest of the Hugh and Sam Smith, Jerome Valentine came forward and told authorities that once, when he was a "bound boy" working for the Smith family, Hugh had threatened to kill him if he ever told anybody about something that had happened on the property. Valentine didn't understand what Hugh was referring to at the time, but believed that it may have been the murder.
Other witnesses came forward who recalled that Hugh's first wife, on her deathbed, claimed that she had a statement to make before she passed away. According to witnesses, Hugh shooed them all away from his wife's bedside before she could make her statement.
On March 26, 1897, Hugh Smith was taken into court on a writ of habeus corpus, and after the district attorney failed to prove the judge with any tangible evidence connecting Smith to the supposed murder of Malinda Snyder, the accused killer was set free by Judge Lyons. The only thing that anyone could prove beyond a doubt was that Malinda had disappeared. There was no body, no murder weapon, no physical evidence whatsoever.
It is still open to debate whether or not Hugh Smith, with the help of his brother, murdered "Crazy Lindy", cut up her body, and cremated the remains in the fireplace of an abandoned farmhouse in Liberty Valley. But, if Hugh Smith did manage to get away with murder, his triumph was short-lived. He died of natural causes on September 16, 1898.
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