The Snook-Herr Wedding Tragedy
By Nettie Hance Oliver
The present house was built in l877 by Albert G. Herr on land he inherited from his father, John Herr Jr., an early Jefferson County landowner. The original house had been built as early as the 1830s. Albert G. Herr was a successful farmer who raised cattle, trotting horses and sheep. His home was called Magnolia Stock Farms. Not only was Albert successful in raising prize-winning stock, but he also played a major role in the development of the early roads in the county. In 1873 Albert was instrumental in procuring a road from Lyndon through farms to Goose Creek Turnpike and Brownsboro Road, which today is Westport Road and Herr Lane.
In 1864 Albert married Mattie E. Guthrie, daughter of James Guthrie and Fannie Smith of Henry County, Ky. Five children were born to Albert and Mattie: Aileene, Fannie Belle, Albert Gordon, James Guthrie and Ada, who died young.
On April 15, 1891, Fannie Belle, the second daughter of Albert Herr, married Winford B. Snook of Henry County at the home of her parents. Winford, well known and associated with tobacco growers in the state, was no doubt a neighbor of the Guthries in Henry County. Fannie had met him while visiting her relatives in Henry County.
The wedding was attended by a large number of guests from the city and surrounding county. After the ceremony, all of the guests were invited to partake of the wedding meal. The usual bill of fare was served, consisting of mushrooms, ice cream, cake and chicken salad. Shortly following the wedding ceremony and the meal, the couple left for their wedding trip, boarding a train bound for Niagara Falls by way of Cincinnati.
What started out as a happy and fashionable wedding occasion quickly turned to tragedy. It was only a few hours following the meal when many of those who had eaten the food suddenly became painfully sick. The symptoms were essentially identical, and it was speculated to be some type of food poisoning. The days following the tragedy met with much speculation and opinions to the cause. According to local doctors and chemists, arsenic, trichinosis, ptomaine and mushroom poisoning were all suspects to the extreme illnesses and death.
Many members of the Herr family were among the guests who were stricken ill. Sixty-five to 70 people who attended the wedding became ill, some more severe than others, on their return home from the wedding. Many of those who lived in the city, Lyndon Station, Gilmans (now St. Matthews), and as far as Eminence became violently ill from the poisoning. Throughout the city and county, physicians rode fast and often to homes to tend to the sick. For the following days newspapers reported on the conditions of those whose health was still in danger as well as those who were recovering. Many households in the region were filled with anxiety and grief.
Meanwhile the bride and groom had not been heard from and were assumed to be enjoying their wedding trip. However, unknown to their families, the groom became so ill when the couple arrived in Cincinnati that they had to abandon their trip and check into the upscale hotel The Burnet House. A few days later Fannie Belle sent a letter to Mrs. Snook in Eminence telling of Winford’s condition and assuring her new mother-in-law not to worry.
A total of seven deaths were reported in the first two weeks following the wedding and more likely occurred in the following months. The first victim to die was Mr. B. Frank Guthrie, uncle of the bride and a Louisville capitalist who lived on Third Street. One week later Mrs. Guthrie, his wife, died. Then death came to Mr. William Terry of Anchorage. Mr. Van Buren Snook, father of the groom, died five days after his son’s wedding, as well as Mrs. S.S. Hite; Jane Helen Herr, daughter of Alfred Herr and cousin of Albert G. Herr; who was followed by Frances Ruth Herr Sutcliff, sister of Albert G. Herr.
On April 19 Louisville newspaper The Critic reported that the bride and groom were both dangerously ill in Cincinnati. On April 27 The Courier-Journal reported that the bride and groom, who were still in Cincinnati, were entirely out of danger. Another newspaper account on that same day stated a gentleman had just returned from Cincinnati, bringing cheerful tidings of the condition of the bride and groom. He had seen them the preceding day and both were much improved.
The saddest news came on April 30, 16 days after the wedding. The groom, Winford B. Snook, had died. His remains were returned to Henry County, and he was laid to rest in the cemetery of his old home in Eminence, Ky. His grieving widow returned to Louisville to be with her family.
Albert Herr, father of the bride, was convinced in his grief-stricken state that the poisoning had not been an accident but a crime, the work of a cowardly enemy. One of the resulting stories was that a 15 year-old “negro boy” named Jim, who lived on the Herr place, said he knew that the marriage feast was poisoned and even told another boy named Robert Woodson not to eat the food because it had been poisoned. Mr. Herr later reported in The Post that the boy was not party to the poisoning, and nothing more is known of this theory. Yet another tale is that one of the sisters of the bride also had her eye on the groom and may have poisoned the wedding party out of jealousy. The theory of malicious poisoning seemed unlikely, and no facts were ever uncovered to substantiate any of these tales.
So what was the mysterious poison that caused so much distress and death? Several of the attending doctors and experienced chemists who witnessed the illness were convinced that it was due to arsenical poisoning.
On June 1, 1891, a study of the Snook-Herr poisoning case was presented to the Cincinnati Academy of Medicine by Dr. Giles S. Mitchell, professor at the Cincinnati College of Medicine, and Dr. James G. Hyndman, professor of medical chemistry at the Medical College of Ohio. Dr. Mitchell was the attending physician called to the hotel on the evening of April 15 to attend to Mr. Snook. As Mr. Snook’s illness had not improved by the next morning, Dr. Mitchell called in Dr. Hyndman. After the death of Mr. Snook, Dr. Long of the Marine Hospital and Dr. P.S. Conner of Cincinnati performed a post-mortem examination and a chemical analysis. In all opinions the cause of death was, in all probability, the ingestion of some irritant poison.
For some years after the sad passing of her husband, Fannie Belle lived with her mother, Mattie Guthrie Herr. Her father, Albert, died in 1899, and her mother died in 1912. When Mattie Herr died, she left her estate to her surviving children: Fannie Belle Snook, James Guthrie Herr, Albert Gordon Herr, and Aileene Marshall Watkins. Fannie Belle Snook remained in Louisville and was listed in the Louisville city directories as the widow of W. Snook as late as 1916. Through new research it has been determined Fannie Belle remarried in 1917 in New York at the home of her sister, Aileene Watkins, to well-known physician Robert Burns Waddy of Lexington, Ky. Sadly, however, Dr. Waddy died only four years later at Mt. McGregor Sanitarium in New York, leaving Fannie again without a husband. Fannie continued to live in Lexington without children or family. On Feb. 8, 1930, Fannie was found dead in bed at the home of Mrs. S.D. Turner on Maxwell Street in Lexington. Fannie was buried next to her deceased husband Dr. Waddy in the Lexington Cemetery, both in unmarked graves.
Many decades have passed since this tragic event occurred, but the story that has been handed down through the years deems the chicken salad as the likely culprit of so much disaster.
For more information, consult the Snook-Herr Wedding folder in The Filson Historical Society library, which contains the following: newspaper accounts from Fannie Woolfolk scrapbook; “A Study of the Snook-Herr Poisoning Case,” by Dr. Giles Mitchell, published in The Medical News, June, 1891; History of the Ohio Falls Cities and Their Counties, L.A. Williams & Co., 1882; correspondence from Suzanne Herr of California, whose husband is a descendant of Albert Gordon Herr, brother of Fannie Belle; and other collected documents found while researching this story.
The Filson Historical Society