Howard Cooper (c. 1867-1885)
MSA SC 3520-13733
Lynched in Towson, July 12, 1885
Howard Cooper, an African American resident of Towson, Maryland, was
accused of the assault, rape and attempted murder of a 16-year-old white
girl, Miss Kate Gray, on April 2, 1885. Cooper, who said he was 17
years old, but was reported to be about 20 or 24, encountered Miss Gray on
a county road near her house six miles from Towson. He apparently
knew her, or at least knew her name because she claimed that he called
to her. After she ignored him and continued walking along, Cooper allegedly
pursued her, beat her and dragged her into the woods and assaulted her
over a three-hour period until he was frightened away by one of her dogs.
He was discovered four days later hiding in a barn near Towson and was
jailed at Baltimore City and after June 30 at Towson.
Cooper's case was tried in the Criminal Court of Baltimore City on May 20, 1885. The jury found Cooper guilty and the judge sentenced him on May 21, 1885 to die by hanging. Governor Henry Lloyd issued the death warrant for Cooper, and he was scheduled to be hanged on July 31, 1895. Cooper confessed to the crime, and his lawyers, William George Weld and A. Robinson White, reportedly believed him to be guilty. However, Cooper had been sentenced by an entirely white jury, a fact that his lawyers viewed as a violation of his civil rights. They appealed to the Maryland Court of Appeals, where they argued that the verdict should be set aside because of the partiality of the jury. When the Court of Appeals upheld the lower court's ruling, Cooper's lawyers then declared their intention to appeal to the federal courts and to try to take the case to the United State's Supreme Court, where they would argue that Cooper's civil and constitutional rights had been violated based on the 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. An African American organization called the Progressive Association then drafted a circular letter to interested members of the African American community asking them to contribute to Cooper's legal expenses so that the case could be taken to the Supreme Court. The Baltimore Sun printed a copy of the letter several days later, which alarmed certain members of the white community who were convinced of Cooper's guilt and feared that an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court could mean that he could go unpunished on a technicality. Howard Cooper was lynched, they would later say, in order to prevent the case from going to the Supreme Court and thereby being extended for more months. They would justify the murder on the grounds that Miss Gray should not be subject to "the anguish of another recital of the crime" if the case were remanded back to the Baltimore court and she should be called to testify a second time.1
On the evening and early morning of July 12 and 13, 1885, about 75 men wearing black muslin masks and handkerchiefs over their faces approached the jail where Howard Cooper was being held. They used an old flagpole to break in the back door, then smashed the lock on Cooper's jail cell and forced it open. They immediately put a cotton rope around his neck and led him out through the back door into the jail yard, where they hanged him from the nearest tree. It was reported that Cooper was not otherwise tortured or mutilated. Because the sheriff was able to catch a glimpse of the faces of several of the lynchers and claimed not to recognize them, The Maryland Journal reported that nearly all of the lynchers had come from outside of Towson and were probably not residents of Baltimore. The Baltimore County Union reported that the men came from the third district, where the Gray family resided.2 After Cooper's body was removed from the tree about ten hours later, his mother came and claimed the body and buried it on Bare Hill, near Falls Road.
The reaction to the lynching by members of the African American community was anger and disappointment that the issue of civil rights had been prevented from being heard in the U.S. Supreme Court. They condemned the lynching as part of a growing tide of violence, and dying with Cooper was the chance that his case would bring attention to the necessity of African American jurors to ensure fair trials. A meeting took place on July 14, 1885 at Bethel A.M.E. Church in Hagerstown, attended by about 50 people. Those assembled drafted a resolution condemning the "growing spirit of lawlessness toward the colored people of the State of Maryland" and declared that "the great number of colored men accused as criminals who have been lawlessly slain in this State within the last few years is a stigma upon the fair name of Maryland."3 Judge William Shepard Bryan of the Maryland Court of Appeals expressed little sympathy-- and notably, condoned the circumvention of the courts by mob violence-- and was reported to have said that "the summary disposition of the case would not have occurred if the friends of the condemned man had not resorted to the extreme measures they took to raise funds."4
1. "Howard Cooper Lynched!" The Maryland Journal, 18 July 1885.
2. "The Lynching of Howard Cooper, The Baltimore County Union, 18 July 1885.
3. "Howard Cooper Lynched!"
4. "The Lynching of Cooper," The Baltimore Sun, 14 July 1885.
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