When an editor for Wikipedia decided to permanently remove the entry for former Alexandria Mayor John K. “Tilly” Snyder late last month, he affixed a note explaining that the page was “presumptively deleted” because one of its authors, Billy Hathorn, had been banned seven years prior for repeatedly violating the online encyclopedia’s terms of standards. In fairness to the editor, it is understandable why someone who had likely never heard of Snyder would presume the story about his life was fabricated or plagiarized. Without question, Snyder certainly meets Wikipedia’s criteria for inclusion; a person must have achieved a level of public “notoriety” to qualify, and Tilly Snyder was nothing if not notorious.
While the now-deleted entry contained passages that merited attention, the truth is that, if anything, Snyder’s Wikpedia page was actually underwritten.
In 1986, during Snyder’s final year as mayor, his attorney, Eugene Cicardo, told the Washington Post, “Oh yeah, (Snyder)’s flamboyant. He likes to think he’s Earl Long.” It was a characterization shared by then-Chief of Police Glenn Beard, a man Snyder twice tried and failed to fire. “I think he thinks he is Earl Long reincarnated,” he told the Post. (Snyder once brazenly appropriated one of the Police Department’s cars from Chief Beard and had used it as his personal vehicle).
There are many reasons why Tilly Snyder easily ranks as one of the most eccentric, controversial, and polarizing politicians in Louisiana history. His legacy is also one of the the most complicated. ”History is going to prove how we did,” he said in an exit interview with the Town Talk during his final days as mayor. “I’d rather leave it up to history. I think history will vindicate what we’ve done.”
Like Huey P. Long’s brother Earl, he had been involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital during his final year in office. He was erratic, mercurial, and often conspiratorial, if not outright paranoid. In 1984, he went “missing” from City Hall for more than a month. He once called an African American City Councilman a “chimpanzee,” sparking national outrage and calls for his resignation.
Yet Tilly Snyder, whose nickname (a spin on the game Tiddly-Winks) had followed him since childhood, was also the first mayor in Alexandria to promote African Americans into key leadership positions. During his final election for mayor, he won more than 88% of the vote in the city’s twelve majority African American precincts, and when he passed away in 1993, the councilman he had once called a “chimpanzee,” Columbus Goodman, told the Town Talk that he had never had a “cross word” with Snyder personally and called his death “a loss for the community.”
Today, Alexandria is led by Jeffrey Hall, the first African American mayor in the city’s history. 45 years ago, Hall began his career as an accounting clerk hired by Tilly Snyder. City Council President Joe Fuller, who is also African American, first launched his political career after serving as Snyder’s Director of Community Development. This is not to suggest that either of the two men “owe” Snyder a debt, only that as with many chapters of his biography, the story is filled with contradictions and controversies, most of which you wouldn’t have found on Wikipedia.
Alexandria was once the second-most populated city in Louisiana; it had been home to William Tecumseh Sherman; it was burned to the ground by the Union during the Civil War. It’s the birthplace of the acclaimed Harlem Renaissance writer Arna Bontemps and the childhood home of the legendary blues musician Little Walter. It was where Omar Bradley and George Patton and Dwight D. Eisenhower trained nearly a half a million troops in preparation for World War II.
And yet often the only thing that people from other corners of Louisiana know about the city is a decision made by Mayor John K. Snyder. The true, full story is even wilder than the one now repeated as a comical piece of Louisiana trivia.
Tilly Snyder believed he knew the engine that would transform Central Louisiana’s economy and soon become one of the most profitable industries in the state. He had been so confident that he made a significant investment in a start-up company in Ouachita Parish, and in the spring of 1985, he announced his ambitious plan to raise revenue for the city of Alexandria: Catfish farming.
At a press conference in April, Mayor Snyder claimed he had lured in investors willing to spend millions of dollars on building a massive catfish farm operation at the city’s industrial park. If Alexandria agreed to become a partner, it would take a share of all of the future profits. The sky was the limit.
He recognized that his plan may have sounded too good to be true, so he knew it’d be important to educate the public on the catfish farming business. And what better way to do that than to provide citizens with a free and convenient opportunity to gain first-hand, practical experience in catching catfish?
At the time, the John Knox, Sr. Natatorium, the city’s public swimming pool, which had been abandoned only a year prior due to a botched painting job, required around $50,000 worth of repair work, and it had always been challenging to line up the political support for a public pool. He had an elegant solution: Some friends of his from Wisner, Louisiana had offered to provide the city with 1,000 pounds of catfish. Instead of paying to repair the Knox Natatorium, Alexandria could become a national leader in the development of the catfish farming business by turning the pool into a pond.
The mayor envisioned a program that first allowed local schoolchildren to fish the pond for free, but eventually, he believed the city-owned operation could become yet another profitable component of its nascent Department of Catfish Farming. Because the old natatorium was located in proximity to the Alexandria Zoo, he suggested providing the zoo with the revenue.
As Snyder had predicted, the City Council, with the exception of Councilman Goodman, hadn’t raised any objections, and on Wednesday, April 3rd, 1985, Alexandria fire trucks began pumping the old pool full of well water. They were done before noon on Friday.
The City of Alexandria officially entered into the catfish farming business on Wednesday, June 19th. Children 13 and under were allowed to fish at the pond, as long as they brought their own bait and tackle and were accompanied by an adult, who were suggested to donate 50 cents toward a fund established to benefit the zoo. Snyder’s friends came through with the promise of 1,000 pounds of free catfish, and he’d even managed to convince two local banks to contribute $500 each toward the program.
Even if you haven’t already heard the story of the mayor who decided to turn the city swimming pool into a catfish pond, it probably seems self-evident this was a comically absurd idea that was guaranteed to fail, and to be clear, there were plenty of people living in Alexandria in 1985 who pointed out the obvious, including, most notably, the city’s beloved Zoo Director, the late Les Whitt, and its championship swimming coach, Wally Fall.
Snyder’s Director of Public Works, Tony D’Angelo, had been insistent the renovations to fix the pool, as is, would cost at least $50,000. Fall believed these projections were exponentially inflated, arguing that it’d require a fraction of that amount, $5,000, to ensure the pool was operational and safe.
“The pumps are in excellent condition,” Fall, who is white, presciently stated to the Town Talk in early April. “That’s a beautiful place there. It really could be nice. The truth is, the mayor and the city just don’t want to fool with a pool that will be used mostly by blacks.”
Whitt had privately expressed his own concerns about the efficacy of the pool’s pumping system, knowing the distinct possibility it could become a sadistic slaughterhouse for the bottom-dwellers. He had first attempted to convince Snyder not to stock the pond with 1,000 pounds of catfish because of concerns about the level of oxygen in the water; Snyder dismissed those concerns.
On the morning the pond had been prepared to finally become stocked, Snyder located two additional large fans; however, they didn’t have blade covers.
When KALB, the local NBC affiliate, showed up to record a segment on the new city catfish pond, Whitt found himself attempting to block the camera during an interview from recording what was occurring directly behind him: Every time a new bucket of fish was dumped into the pond, “It looked like we were chumming for sharks,” Whitt recalled later.
Only two days after the 1,000 pounds had been stocked, the pool’s supply had been nearly cut in half, literally.
It was the Great Catfish Massacre of 1985.
The city exited the catfish farming business less than a week after it launched. For the three dozen or so catfish that somehow survived the Great Catfish Massacre of 1985, they were rewarded with a new residence in Bayou Hynson.
And the clean-up and repair project Wally Fall claimed he could do for $5,000 and D’Amico said would’ve been $50,000 (or ten times as much) would now cost $500,000 to fix. The city, instead, decided to fill in the old swimming pool-turned-catfish pond.
Tilly Snyder would never recover from the debacle, which resulted in him and his city becoming the punchline of jokes told all across the nation. The city’s white establishment class had been particularly embarrassed by the story, and to a certain extent, it became a way in which his political opponents attempted to discount each and every decision he’d ever made.
To some, the Great Catfish Massacre of 1985 wasn’t Snyder’s biggest mistake. Instead, they pointed to his decision, during his first term, to annex the majority African American neighborhoods known as Samtown and Woodside and a pocket of homes located near Horseshoe Drive. For Snyder, the annexations were based on social and economic fairness; Alexandria had been rapidly expanding to include suburban, predominately white residential neighborhoods, while snubbing parts of the city that needed infrastructure investment the most.
The Resilience of the Bottom-feeder:
John Kenneth Snyder was born on August 29th, 1922 at Baptist Hospital (now Rapides Regional Medical Center) on the banks of the Red River in Alexandria, Louisiana. One week after his 38th birthday, Snyder’s political hero, former Gov. Earl K. Long, a man whose legacy and antics would later animate much of approach to campaigning and governing, passed away at the same hospital. Snyder was raised in Pineville but educated at Alexandria’s Bolton High School. Later in life, he’d return to Pineville. During his second of two nonconsecutive terms in office, Snyder had spent most of his time actually living in Pineville, despite the Alexandria City Charter’s requirement that the mayor reside within the city limits.
After graduating from Bolton High School, Snyder joined the U.S. Army, serving as an aviation cadet for two years during World War II and earning an education with the Army’s V-5 program. He later attended classes at the University of Georgia, and perhaps most tellingly, Hollywood’s Palmer Institute, where he learned rhetoric and creative writing. Prior to a brief stint as a deputy director of Louisiana’s Office of Economic Opportunity, he had served as a consultant for Sargent Shriver and as an aide to Congressman Gillis Long.
In 1969, when he was 47 years old, he sought political office for the first time, running for Alexandria mayor against Ed Karst, a New Orleans-born lawyer who had moved to town only two years before. Against a field of two other Democrats, Karst narrowly finished ahead of Snyder, forcing a runoff for the party nomination. When Karst edged out Snyder again, Gov. John McKeithen canceled the general election; no member of another party had qualified.
Snyder’s campaign, though, had been unusually ugly, particularly on the radio station KSYL, and following his loss, he was charged with and indicted for fourteen counts of defamation by a parish grand jury. The case was ultimately thrown out by the Louisiana state Supreme Court, which ruled the District Attorney should have recused himself. Several prominent businessmen were among those named, including Joe D. Smith, the publisher of The Town Talk, and Harry B. Silver, the owner of the department store Weiss and Goldring and currently, at the age of 97, a member of the Alexandria City Council and the oldest elected official in the state of Louisiana.
Almost immediately after his defeat, Snyder challenged incumbent Congressman Speedy O. Long for the 1970 Democratic primary. He lost again. But he was not deterred. The next year, he challenged incumbent Rapides Parish Sheriff Marshall Cappel in the primary. And again, he lost.
In 1972, John K. Snyder caught a break. Mayor Karst decided to defect to the Republican Party, the modern version of which was still in its infancy in Louisiana. Karst hired Kent Courtney, a far-right segregationist and provocateur from New Orleans, as his executive assistant. The two decisions effectively ended Karst’s political prospects, and ultimately, he decided not to seek reelection in 1973.
When Tilly Snyder launched his fourth campaign in as many years, he squared off against former state Rep. Buzzy Graham, the hand-selected candidate of House Speaker Bubba Henry and the so-called “Young Turks.” This time, though, Snyder finally prevailed, and like clockwork, he was once again indicted for defamation. And again, another case named State v. Snyder made its way up, down, and then back up to the Louisiana state Supreme Court, which eventually sided with Snyder and provided a robust explanation of the “actual malice” requirement necessary to find defamation against public figures aligned with the New York Times Co. v. Sullivan decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“You don’t have to run against Tilly to fear him— just to have him talk about you is enough,” the legendary Louisiana political writer John Maginnis wrote in The Last Hayride. “Tilly’s an attacker from the Uncle Earl school— he delights in picking apart the personal foibles of his political enemies. Earl Long is the past master of personal attacks in public. Yet Earl laced his stinging barbs with brilliant humor (often turned against himself) and the rich imagery of his peapatch vernacular. By his folksy delivery and populist fervor, Tilly is in ways a throwback to the Earl Long-style campaigner, but absent any subtleties, wisdom or humor.
“Tilly throws all his energy into the attack. When Snyder, trying to pay a compliment, introduces Edwin Edwards at a testimonial this night as someone ‘who’s been called just about everything you can call someone,’ Edwards corrects him. ‘You haven’t heard or can’t imagine the worst thing you can be called until you get into a race with Tilly Snyder.’,” Maginnis recalled in the book.
Maginnis was a brilliant writer, a collector of confidential sources and their secrets, but by the time he got around to writing about Tilly Snyder, the man had already been spiraling downward and was at the end of his career. During his first term, however, while he may have been loathed, for good reason, by his political nemeses, Snyder managed to accomplish a great deal of his agenda, using his own power under the soon-to-be-extinct commission form of government to chip away at the institutional control of the exclusively white business establishment.
When he decided to annex Samtown and Woodside, people believed that it was merely a short-term, cynical ploy to ensure he politically benefitted by increasing the number of African American voters. But at the time, the city was preparing to transition away from a commission form of government to a council-mayor form. He wasn’t shoring up his political base. In fact, he lost his bid for reelection in 1977. Instead, he was helping to guarantee more equitable representation on the City Council.
By the time he returned as mayor in 1982, he was combative, vindictive, and erratic. Only a year after winning the race for mayor, Snyder decided to run for state Senate against incumbent Ned Randolph. His entrance into a field that already included former state Sen. Cecil Blair and Woodworth businessman Joe McPherson seemed, to many, as nothing more than a cynical political ploy. He didn’t seem as interested in the state Senate as much as he was in disrupting the race for the state Senate.
Snyder finished in fourth in a campaign that would otherwise be forgotten except for the fact that he handed out records featuring a local musician’s version of Snyder’s campaign theme song, appropriately titled “John’s Song.”
Incidentally, Snyder had used the same gimmick in his failed bid for Rapides Parish Sheriff, offering a $250 reward for musicians who could provide the best version of his theme song.
Snyder may have finished in last place in 1983, but he proved to be disruptive, undercutting Randolph’s support in Alexandria. Snyder’s 12.8% share of the vote would have been enough to prevent Randolph from a runoff election against McPherson. McPherson would prevail and eventually become one of the state’s most powerful legislators (His Wikipedia page has also been removed). And in a twist of fate, Ned Randolph would take City Hall from Snyder (who did not seek reelection) and hold onto the office for five consecutive terms until his retirement in 2006. Randolph, who passed away in 2016, was beloved by the city he led; in his final act as mayor, his successor, Jacques Roy, renamed the city’s riverfront center after Randolph.
Today in Alexandria, there are no public buildings or lasting tributes to Tilly Snyder.
After all, the “business community” loathed him, including the publisher of the local newspaper.
And while he certainly provided ample material for local reporters, Tilly Snyder had a legitimate point to be made about the Town Talk, which was owned and published by Joe D. Smith, a childhood friend of Snyder whose claims of defamation had been struck down twice by the state Supreme Court.
The outsized role of the Town Talk- the city’s official “paper of record”- also complicates the retelling of his story: There are allegations that he removed the door of a private bathroom at City Hall because he was convinced Commissioner Jack Rosenthal had been spying on him, and there’s a great story about Snyder being seen rummaging through a trash container while mumbling about Russians controlling the price of diamonds and city police officers driving drunk, for example. In many cases, the Town Talk is the one and only source that documented some of the most outrageous and bizarre details.
That said, it’s unlikely history ever ultimately “vindicates” Tilly Snyder, because, despite the advances made during his first term, John Maginnis is right: He’s no Uncle Earl. At the very least though, he deserves to be listed on Wikipedia, immortalized as the mastermind of the Great Catfish Massacre of 1985.