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Jean Ghent never saw her mom, kill a York County policeman at a traffic stop on July 17, 1932, outside Fort Mill, but she was there.
For that matter, Ghent never saw the faces of the York County jurors some five months later who convicted the late Baetrice Snipes of the crime. She never heard Judge Thomas Sease bang the gavel that day when he sentenced Snipes to death by electrocution for the murder of officer Elliott Harris, but she undoubtedly felt her mom’s heart rate quicken. After all, she was only inches away.
On Jan. 10, 1933, when Capt. H.H. Kester of the prison guard at the state penitentiary in Columbia told Snipes that Gov. I.C. Blackwood had commuted her sentence to life in prison, Ghent never saw her mother’s smile of relief after learning that prison will now be “your home.”
It was about to become Jean’s, too, for the first seven months of her life, when “Baby Snipes” was legally adopted by Hyacinth and Ray Summey of the Tabernacle community in Lancaster.
Born on Jan. 17, 1933, to Beatrice Ferguson Snipes at the State Hospital, it would be years before Ghent really learned her true identity. She was the daughter of the first woman ever placed on death row in South Carolina.
Ghent’s amazing birth and the story of her life have been chronicled by Dr. Felder Dorn in the book “Death of a Policeman; Birth of a Baby: A Crime and its Aftermath.”
Ghent, who now lives on High Rock Lake near Lexington, N.C., and Dorn will be at Fort Mill History Museum from 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 30, to sign copies of the book. They started working on the book in 2009.
“I’ve relived my life over again in the last three years,” the 79-year-old Ghent said. “I can remember every detail.”
Dorn, a former chemistry professor and dean emeritus of Kean University in Union, N.J., said he learned about Beatrice and Jean in the late 1990s while writing “The Guns of Meeting Street: A Southern Tragedy, ” which surrounds a series of family feud-based murders that rocked Edgefield County in the 1940s. Dorn said Sue Stidham Logue, who was executed for that crime on Jan. 15, 1943, was in prison the same time as Snipes and another woman who had originally been sentenced to death.
When Jean Ghent’s granddaughter saw Snipes’ name in “Guns,” she e-mailed Dorn, which led to the writing of the book.
“She (Ghent) is a very nice and open person and is as honest as the day is long,” Dorn said. “She wanted to tell her story and needed someone to help her organize it.”
Fatal traffic stop
The story begins on July 17, 1932, on U.S. 21 near the North Carolina state line after Harris pulled over Clyde Snipes for reckless driving.
Beatrice, who was pregnant with Jean, intervened and snatched Harris’ pistol from his holster and used it to fatally shoot the officer.
Dorn said Clyde Snipes was a Prohibition-era moonshiner, who ran afoul of the law most of his life.
“He was a bootlegger who just couldn’t keep himself out of jail,” Dorn said. “Clyde was in the army before World War I. If he had stayed in, he would’ve made a good soldier.”
At her trial in late 1932, Beatrice Snipes testified that she was about to give birth to her second child but a jury showed little mercy and she was convicted of killing Harris on Dec. 7.
Having an expectant mother on death row raised such a public outcry that a petition was circulated and Gov. Blackwood commuted her sentence seven days before “Baby Snipes” (Jean) was born.
On June 29, 1933, Jean was made a ward of the court. Some two months later, the S.C. Children’s Bureau arranged for a secret adoption by Hyacinth Hilton Summey, who was Beatrice Snipes’ older sister.
According to state law, the agency issued an amended birth certificate showing that Summey was the adoptive parent and Ghent’s prior birth certificate was placed in a permanently sealed file. No information was ever released about her whereabouts, or that of an older brother, Clyde Snipes Jr., who was placed at the state training school in Clinton.
Breaking the silence
For 12 years, Ghent thought she was the Summey’s daughter.
In January 1945, Gov. Olin Johnston received a petition circulated in Lancaster County asking for an early release. Johnson, on his last day in office, issued an order to reduce Snipe’s sentence and she was released on April 10. Beatrice Snipes was actually released on March 31, the day before Easter.
Though Jean had been taken to see Beatrice in prison before her release, the 12-year-old had no idea she was her mom.
That day, when Jean returned from an Easter egg hunt, the woman she had met in prison – “Aunt Bea” – moved in with the Summey family.
A few months later, Ghent said Beatrice Snipes told her who she really was and made her daughter promise not to tell anyone.
“She sure did,” Ghent said of Beatrice Snipes. “I have a white birthmark on my lower stomach that looks like a head of cabbage and she knew all about it. I had always been told it was a scar made by a diaper pin when I was a baby. I had no reason not to believe what she told me.”
The news, Dorn writes, turned Ghent’s world upside down. Hyacinth and Ray Summey had purposely kept newspapers out of their home to shield Ghent from her true identity.
“It had to be quite a shock,” Dorn said. “A lot of people in the community knew, but just didn’t talk about it, especially in front of Jean. To her credit, she didn’t run from her roots. Jean didn’t approve of what they did, but she wanted and had a relationship with her biological parents.”
Dorn said Jean Ghent left the Tabernacle community in 1950 at the age of 17 to marry her husband, Howard Ghent.
The second part of Dorn’s book deals with the impact Ghent’s biological roots had on her adult life.
The Ghents eventually settled in China Grove, N.C., to raise a family and went to work for Cone Mills, but she continued to maintain relationships with her parents, as well as Hyacinth and Hyacinth’s second husband, Ganson Flynn. That marriage, Dorn said, is a story in itself.
“Hyacinth had quite a string of relationships,” Dorn said.
The Ghents raised six children – Howard Jr., Mary, Glenda, Betty, Jerry and Ronnie. The Ghents both retired in 1995 and Howard died in 2006.
Dorn said Ghent’s father, Clyde Snipes Sr., committed suicide in December 1961. Her mother, Beatrice, died April 26, 1980, in Charlotte from stroke complications. Ghent quit hearing from her biological brother, Clyde Snipes Jr., in 2004.
Ghent now lives at High Rock Lake, but still has strong ties to this community. Her son, Howard Jr., and his wife, the former Sue Merritt, live here with their family.
Jean Ghent said she hopes to see a familiar face or two at Sunday’s book signing, including a few childhood friends mentioned in the book.
“I should be ashamed of myself, but I don’t drive anymore and haven’t been to Lancaster but three times in the last five years, or so,” she said.
“Thank the Lord, my health is still pretty good,” she said, laughing. “I hurt a little bit, but my goal is to live until I’m 100. My doctor tells me if I keep it up, he believes I will.”
Contact Gregory A. Summers at (803) 283-1156