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Who killed Monroe Snyder? The ultimate cold-case file of Victorian Bethlehem

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Sep 30 2011 06:44:12 PM CDT

Dig into the annals of the Lehigh Valley's unsolved murders and you'll stumble upon one of the coldest of the cold cases.

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -

The Bethlehem diaries of Robert H. Sayre, right-hand man to Lehigh Valley Railroad  founder Asa Packer, now in the archives of the National Canal Museum in Easton, are small, limp-leather volumes designed for a busy man who had little time for anything but a brief notation of the day’s events.

But on February 22, 1873, Sayre picked up his pencil to record something outside the realm of the usual L.V. Railroad and Lehigh University board meetings. “Monroe Snyder,” he began, “a very estimable citizen of Bethlehem, was murdered last night at the Monocacy Bridge and his body thrown into the creek, no trace whatever of the murderers.”

It is impossible to know how frequent murders were in the Lehigh Valley of almost 140 years ago. Newspaper accounts suggest deaths as a result of barroom brawls and what a later generation came to call “domestic disputes” were not infrequent.

But the murder of “a very estimable citizen” was highly unusual. That Sayre breaks out of his routine to record Snyder's murder speaks volumes about how unusual it was.   And press coverage of the never-resolved crime, the ultimate cold-case file shows that in the gaslight and shadow of the Victorian era, no less than today, murder is not always what it seems.

At 8:45 p.m. on the cold, damp foggy evening of February 21, 1873, two men emerged at the Lehigh Valley Railroad’s depot. They had just arrived on the 4 p.m. train from New York.

Bethlehem Anyone in Bethlehem could have told you the stout man in the broad-brimmed hat was Monroe Snyder, a businessman and investor who lived on Broad Street. Bethlehem was a small enough that many people knew about his struggle with increasing deafness, the declining health of his frail wife, and the business deals in which Snyder had lost a fair amount of money. In fact the deafer he got, the louder he was when discussing his woes.

Next to him, urging Snyder to lower his voice was Oliver Worman, a long time friend. Snyder had gone to New York to visit a doctor about his deafness, Worman to pay a bill for the Chapman Slate Company, his employer.

Just before they parted, Worman was surprised to hear Snyder say, because it was so cold and damp, he was going to take the station omnibus back into town rather than walk. He knew his friend, who kept a tight hand on his purse strings, had never taken it before.

It was 10 p.m. before Snyder was seen again. “Gus” Belling, the bridge tender on the covered bridge that spanned the Lehigh River was lowering the wicks in the oil lamps that lined the bridge when he saw a body lying face up in the center of the bridge.

“I went to the body and shook him gently,” Belling was later to testify, “not knowing then who it was, and said ‘Get up, here, you’ll freeze to death.’ ’’ Getting no answer and assuming he was dealing with a drunk, Belling shook the body more vigorously and repeated what he had said. Then he heard a voice say, “I cannot.  I am stabbed.”

Seeing no blood Belling helped the man to stand. It was only then that he recognized him. “Why, you’re Monroe Snyder,” he said.

Snyder made no reply but kept complaining he was wounded. Belling looked but could find nothing. At last Snyder agreed that he was all right and would walk home. Belling saw him cross the bridge into the fog. The toll taker looked again but saw no sign of Snyder.

At 7 the next morning, Snyder’s body was found floating in the Monocacy Creek. His head was crushed and there were numerous wounds on his left side. His pockets were empty and all of his money taken. Once the local press, particularly the Allentown Daily Chronicle, then the region’s largest newspaper, got a hold of the story, it was major news. “Horrible Murder in Bethlehem, Prominent Citizen Stabbed and Robbed,” screamed the headlines in the largest, blackest type available.

Bethlehem map Since Snyder’s head was found resting on the Lehigh County side of the border between Lehigh and Northampton County, it fell to Lehigh County Coroner Americus V. Moser to conduct the case.

The inquest lasted a little over a month. A string of witnesses came forward who claimed to have seen suspicious characters following Snyder on the night of the murder. But these suspects all proved to have legitimate reasons for being there. One was a Catholic priest from Philadelphia who had been visiting his mother in the Easton area and was spending the night in South Bethlehem at the rectory of a fellow priest. Two other men proved they had merely come to town to take part in sleighing party with a lady whom they gallantly refused to name.

There was a stir when toll taker Belling testified. And when a doctor who examined Snyder’s body attributed his death to his skull fracture from his fall from the bridge and not his knife wounds, insurance companies complained it was a suicide and argued they did not have to pay any claims.

Snyder’s son Lewis noted his father had a will and private documents, but Moser said he would not make them public until after the coroner’s jury had reached a verdict. That verdict was death by “person or persons unknown.”

When Monroe Snyder’s papers were made public, they showed he was deep in debt, but had not enough insurance to cover them. Despite requests by the insurance companies that the case be re-opened, it was not.

On July 23, 1873, a Philadelphia insurance company paid Lewis Snyder $500, the full amount of his father’s policy. And that is where the Monroe Snyder case rests, 138 years later.