The Honorable William Preston Snyder was known for his signature “happy smile” and soft-spoken kind words for “foe and friend … There was probably never a man in Chester County that had a more pleasing personality than Dr. Snyder.” [i]
Senator Snyder was born October 7, 1851 at East Vincent Township, Chester County. His parents were George and Maria Shenkel Snyder of Spring City, his father, a farmer, brick manufacturer, Whig, early Republican, and third generation descendant of Pennsylvania-German immigrants.[ii] William attended common schools, Millersville State Normal School, and Ursinus College, Montgomery County. He taught for a brief period after college, graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with an 1873 medical degree.[iii] After leaving Penn, Dr. Snyder married Elisabeth Friday, daughter of John Friday of Lancaster.[iv] He established a successful Spring City practice, followed by an 1886 appointment as medical examiner for the Schuylkill Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
Snyder embarked on his impressive political career with an 1883 appointment as hometown postmaster, later becoming county prothonotary. A devout Republican, William served as chair of the county committee in 1890, represented Chester as a delegate to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1891-92, and secured a seat in the state Senate from 1893 through 1904. Apart from his service as president pro tempore, 1899-1901, the senator chaired the Committee on Health and Sanitation and served on the Appropriations, Congressional Apportionment, Railroads and Street Passenger Railways, Counties and Townships, Education, New Counties and New Seats, and Finance and Insurance committees.[v]
In 1898, the Pennsylvania National Guard received activation orders from the federal government, units deployed to Puerto Rico and the Philippines at the outset of the Spanish-American War. With the end of hostilities, Snyder passed an organization bill designed to refit and refinance Pennsylvania’s militia. Snyder supported the 1899 Retail License Tax Bill, served as joint caucus chairman during the same session’s controversial Matt Quay U.S. Senate election, and was pro tem as the State Department of Forestry bill passed. Snyder signed two proposed 1901 constitutional amendments concerning election reform, supported the 1897 state Free Election and convention-fraud bills, promoted the abolition of poll taxes, the Joint Appeals Bill, a state labor arbitration measure, and the Brewers and Distillers Bill. Snyder advocated women’s rights and supported the 1895 Wrongful Injury Act.
On February 26, 1901, Senator Snyder guided the “District Attorney-Jury Bill” to passage.[vi] The measure deemed it unlawful for district attorneys to stand aside jurors. Snyder supported the legislation, proscribing the district attorney’s prerogative to expel jurors during a trial’s empanelling process. The bill “regulated the challenging of jurors by the Commonwealth and defendants in such cases,” limiting the types and number of questions that might be asked to six, if a misdemeanor; eight, if a felony case. Preceding statute subjected courts of Oyer and Terminer 20 questions, relevant to felony charges.
Snyder played key roles in the 1878 and 1882 state convention nominations of governors Hoyt and Beaver. Up for re-election in 1900, the senator faced substantial opposition from Democratic and Independent candidate Plummer Jeffries, the incumbent Snyder winning by a plurality.[vii] From 1904 through 1907, he served as state Auditor General during the Pennypacker administration, also occupying a key (proving controversial) seat on the New Capitol Commission. William belonged to several fraternal organizations, particularly the Spring City Lodge F&AM, Royal Arch Masons, Jerusalem Commandery, and Knights Templar of Phoenixville.
A conspiracy conviction in the state capitol “furniture affair” marred the senator’s notable legislative career. The Superior Court convicted Snyder on December 18, 1909, sentencing the former pro tem and three others to two years at Eastern Penitentiary for conspiracy to defraud the state, demanding payment of a $500 fine.[viii] He was declared innocent on a second count.[ix] Snyder adamantly denied his guilt until the day he died. The Honorable William Preston Snyder passed away after a lingering illness, June 18, 1920, at his Spring City estate.[x]
[i] Daily Local News (West Chester), June 19, 1920.
[ii] Biographical and Portrait Cyclopedia of Chester County, Pennsylvania, ed. Samuel T. Wiley (Philadelphia: Gresham Publishing Company, 1893), 326.
[iii] McAtee, 1895.
[v] James S. McCartney, Prominent and Progressive Pennsylvanians of the Nineteenth Century: A Review of Their Careers, vol. II (Philadlephia: McCartney, 1898), 397.
[vi] Legislative Journal, February 26, 1901, 470.
[vii] Rodearmel, 1901-1902, 3.
[viii] Inquirer (Philadelphia), May 1, 1910. The three others were contractor John Sanderson, Superintendent of Building and Grounds James Shoemaker, and former state treasurer William Matthues. Matthues and Sanderson died before serving their sentence. Other convictions followed, including that of architect Joseph Huston.
[ix] Intelligencer (Lancaster), May 25, 1910; and Beers, 19..
[x] Daily Local News.