Families come together 80 years after infamous killing for book signing

jmarks@fortmilltimes.comOctober 2, 2012 

— Time, it appears, has indeed healed one of Fort Mill’s most notorious wounds.

The Harris and Ghent families spent a Sunday afternoon posing for each others’ pictures and signing one another’s copies of the book detailing perhaps the most sensational crime in the township’s history. It’s a story eight decades old now, but one that just won’t stop twisting and turning.

“I wanted the world to know what happened to Beatrice’s baby,” said Jean Ghent, a key figure in T. Felder Dorn’s “Death of a Policeman; Birth of a Baby: A Crime and Its Aftermath.”

The book describes a July 17, 1932, incident in which rural policeman Elliot Harris pulled over a car on Hwy. 21 near Fort Mill. Harris attempted to arrest driver Clyde Snipes for reckless driving when an altercation ensued. His wife, Beatrice Snipes, left the car, took the officer’s pistol during the tussle and fatally shot Harris.

Beatrice was convicted of murder and sentenced to electrocution – the first woman in South Carolina to receive that penalty. But Beatrice was pregnant. She was in her eighth month at sentencing, so the death penalty date was set for three months after the child’s birth.

Protests followed and the governor changed her sentence to life imprisonment, where Beatrice kept the baby for her first seven months before a secret adoption separated the two. Ghent wasn’t told until age 12 that she was that daughter, and wasn’t allowed to say so while her biological mother was alive.

“I’ve got a lot of things to thank God for,” said the mother of six, grandmother of 15 and great-grandmother of nearly 30. “I’m 79 years old and proud of every day of it. I have my aches and pains, but who don’t?”

For the author, the point of the book and others he writes isn’t necessarily to hash out every lurid detail of the crime itself, but to explore ways in which key players dealt with its aftermath. Like fellow Sunday signatories Ghent and Gettys Harris, who was six months old when his father was killed.

“It’s about people and how and why they responded to the circumstances,” said Dorn.

Harris only remembers his father through hero stories told by older brothers. He heard accounts of how rural officers in the Great Depression lost life insurance coverage shortly before his father’s shooting, and remembers his family moving in with a grandmother.

“It’s almost like science fiction,” Harris said. “It’s like something somebody would’ve dreamed up, but it actually happened.”

The Harris and Ghent families, both extended and a few hours apart in North Carolina, spent about three years with the author detailing events used in the book. Both say it’s a fair representation. Harris is as at peace with the situation as one can be, particularly given two things he hopes emerge from the book:

Any making of heroes should begin and end, he said, with the two woman – his mother and grandmother – left to “pick up the pieces.”

“That was one side of the story,” Harris said. “The fact that she had a baby in prison was another story.”

Harris also hopes that Ghent will be seen not in light of what her biological parents did, but on her own. In a way she was a victim too, Harris said.

“I have just relived my whole life over,” Ghent said. “I was never allowed.”

Beatrice pulled Ghent aside at age 12 and started by describing a birthmark on her stomach “that looks like a head of cabbage,” Ghent said. Beatrice then told Ghent who she was and swore the girl to secrecy. In time Beatrice met many in the Ghent family, including Ghent’s children.

Betty Shoemaker and Mary Bruce are daughters of Ghent who attended the book signing at the Spratt Building on Main Street. Both have read the book and couldn’t put it down. The history wasn’t talked about until their father died in 2006, but now they’re glad to have the family story told.

“We’re OK with whatever,” Shoemaker said.

Since word of the book spread, Ghent is reconnecting with long-lost family members and friends on social media. She even heard and received a visit from a woman right about her age, who thought all these years that she was the Beatrice Snipes baby.

That meeting took place two weeks ago.

“It just keeps on going,” Bruce said.

Ghent survived a heart attack, quadruple bypass, multiple surgeries and all else that life throws at a woman in almost 80 years. She’s a woman thankful for the life she’s been given. Harris brought his own family to the signing, several generations well removed from his father’s killing. He, too, expressed thanks. For his own family, and for the healing since.

“In a way,” Harris said, “the book brought a lot of things together.”

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