Becoming “King of the Ivories” in Missouri State Penitentiary’s Peaceful Village Band.

Early in the penitentiary system, reform advocates operated on the theory that with the right training and programs, individuals could become productive members of society despite their crimes. Reflection was the original method of choice, as officials believed it would lead to creating remorse within the inmate. Under this thought, the prison library was the primary provision. However, it was constantly underfunded, and it soon became evident that new options were necessary.

In 1899, the Missouri State Penitentiary (MSP) chaplain created an inmate orchestra, not only to keep prisoners busy but also to provide a new and creative outlet. The group soon became a staple, performing for fellow inmates, on the radio, and at official state functions.

“A good song is better than a sermon,” one reporter stated after listening to the orchestra.

He went on to praise music as a means of reform, serving a vast number of needs amongst the prisoners. As music at MSP continued over the years, smaller bands formed. Then, on June 21, 1923, a man named Harry Snodgrass was received at the MSP to serve a three-year sentence for assault with intent to rob a St. Louis confectionary shop. He was 27 years old at the time with a seventh-grade education. Soon after his arrival, his musical talent was discovered, and he was assigned to play in the penitentiary orchestra and band. Harry was a skilled piano player, and his time with the MSP band would prove beneficial for the rest of his life.

Broadcasting the band, the dome of the Missouri State Capitol housed a radio transmitter, the seventh of its kind in the United States. Located at the highest point of Jefferson City, the transmitter was installed in March of 1922 to establish a way for the Missouri Board of Agriculture Marketing Bureau to communicate agricultural information to farmers throughout the state. Overseen by state marketing commissioner Arthur T. Nelson, it did not take long for those involved with the radio station to realize the radio could do much more than simply broadcast market information. Professors from the University of Missouri College of Agriculture began giving lectures on various topics, and musical concerts aired three times a week.

Soon, MSP’s Peaceful Village Band, featuring Harry Snodgrass on keys, became a hit on Watch Our State (WOS) airwaves. The band became well known across the country, and a fanbase grew for the man dubbed the “King of the Ivories.” He received hordes of fan mail in addition to cookies, cigarettes, cash, and marriage offers.

Snodgrass’ popularity spurred efforts for his early release. Eventually, MSP Warden Sam Hill officially recommended a sentence reduction. The prison population soared in the early 1920s, and officials were hopeful that the possibility of early release would inspire good behavior amongst the inmates. In January 1925, Governor Sam Baker commuted Snodgrass’ sentence before granting a full pardon the following year. Harry had served just over 18 months of his three-year sentence.

Following the commutation decision, it was announced on WOS airwaves that Snodgrass was not only due to depart MSP but would be doing so as a poor man. Within a few weeks, over $2,000 was received for him at the radio station. At Harry’s fi nal performance as an inmate, a crowd estimated at over 1,000 people gathered on the Capitol lawn to bid him farewell. Following his release, Snodgrass traveled with a vaudeville act for many years, and released several records under the Brunswick record label.

Harry Snodgrass
Harry Snodgrass (pictured at the piano) with MSP Peaceful Village Band.