Jacob Snell was a large man. Snell also loomed large in politics in Montgomery County and New York state in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When he died, newspapers called him “one of the best known Republicans in the state.”
Boss Snell’s girth made him an easy target for political cartoonists. The New York Journal in 1901 showed a seated Snell with a diamond stickpin on his tie. The caption said, “Jacob Snell, whose diamond looks him square in the face.”
According to newspaper obituaries, Jacob Snell was born in Stone Arabia in the town of Palatine in 1847 and lived on a farm with his parents until about 1870, when he moved to Fonda. While in Palatine, he was elected supervisor and town clerk running as a Republican in a Democratic town.
Two of his ancestors — an earlier Jacob and an Alexander Snell — had been elected county sheriff. Jacob Snell ran for sheriff in 1884 and lost but was elected in 1886, serving three years. He also became the chairman of the Republican County Committee, was a state committeeman and president of the village of Fonda.
He was superintendent of a section of the Erie Canal for a time. He had a company that did roadwork and was president of Mohawk Valley Broom Company of Fonda. He owned a downtown hotel in Fonda, later known as the Hotel Roy. He was president of the County Agricultural Society for two years.
He was a popular and powerful leader. The Amsterdam Recorder reported there was “prolonged cheering and hand-clapping” when “Uncle Jake” entered a 1903 Republican county convention.
Although both were Republicans, Snell and Gloversville U.S. representative and Fulton County glove industry mogul Lucius Littauer were at odds over the years. Snell had threatened to run against Littauer for Congress in 1902 but dropped out of the race, reportedly to improve his chances of getting an appointment to be a prison warden.
Snell had wanted the post of warden at Dannemora prison but didn’t get the job. Finally, in 1904 Gov. Benjamin Odell named Snell the warden of the 4-year-old Napanoch Reformatory in Ulster County.
Snell died at the reformatory on Dec. 22, 1905 at age 58. “An abdominal abscess and acute kidney disease, surgical treatment of which was not practicable because of his immense girth, were the primary causes of his death,” wrote the Schenectady Union.
There is an oft repeated story that when Snell died, the door of the room where he perished had to be enlarged to get his body out.
Amsterdam’s Democratic paper, the Morning Sentinel, came to Republican Snell’s defense on the subject of his size. The Little Falls Times reported that Snell weighed 500 pounds and that 12 men were needed to carry his casket. The Sentinel scoffed at the Times report, saying Snell did not even weigh 400 pounds and that “six small men” had no trouble handling the casket.
At the funeral in Fonda, Rev. Washington Frothingham paid tribute to Snell’s Revolutionary War ancestors, saying seven of them had given their lives for their country. After the funeral, Snell’s body was taken by train for burial in the Canajoharie Falls Cemetery. He had married Nancy Nellis of Palatine in 1867 and they had two sons and three daughters.
The Canajoharie Courier editorialized that Boss Snell was “unceasing and unrelenting” on behalf of the Republican Party. “A campaign once begun was waged until the polls were closed on election day, so in case of a narrow defeat he never felt the chagrin that he had not made his best and most ardent fight.”
Bob Cudmore is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Anyone with a suggestion for a Focus on History topic may contact him at 346-6657 or [email protected]