Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Thin Black Line

Townsend Cook
MSA SC 3520-13732
Lynched in Westminster, Carroll County, Maryland, June 2, 1885


Townsend Cook was lynched on June 2, 1885 after being accused of the assault and rape of Mrs. Carrie V. Knott of Mt. Airy, Carroll County. Cook was around twenty years old when he was murdered; he had grown up in the area and was well known. He stood about five feet eight or ten inches tall, and was described as being stout and strong, with a light complexion and "heavy features."1 Knott's husband was away from home the afternoon that she claimed Townsend Cook entered her house. She said it was around four o'clock on Saturday when he entered by the back door with a club and asked her for food. She gave him bread and a tin cup, telling him to get water from the spring. She alleged that Cook then struck her with the club knocking her unconscious. Knott further alleged that when she awoke she found that Cook had raped her.  Then she said he threatened to kill her if she told anyone of what had happened, and asked for directions to the railroad, and left out the back door. Knott went to the house of her neighbor, Mr. Pinkney Davis and told of the assault. She gave Davis and Constable Philip Detrick a description of the perpetrator, which they determined was Townsend Cook. Contemporary newspaper accounts state that Dr. B. H. Todd treated Knott, and told the newspaper he observed that she had suffered "a very severe blow on the left side of the head...the muscles of the neck severely strained from choking, and the neck discolored by the man's fingers. There were also other evidences of the man having accomplished his purpose."2

Cook was apprehended at his mother's home on Justice George A. Davis's farm. Newspaper accounts do not include whether George Davis and Pinkney Davis were relatives. Cook denied the crime, but Davis took him to the Knott's house, where Carrie Knott allegedly identified Cook by a small wart on the lid of his right eye. He offered an alibi, but it was reportedly found "to be almost wholly untrue."3 Davis heard the case at the Knott house, with Knott and her husband, Cook, and a number of local residents present. At that time there was some discussion of lynching Cook, but he was safely transported to the Westminster jail the following morning. Footprints had reportedly been left along the road the night before at the place where a mob could have intercepted the carriage, had local officials not waited until morning.4 The Baltimore Sun went on to state that the jail was of a strong build and "Sheriff Shower a determined man" thus making it a challenge for a mob to get at a prisoner. 

Nonetheless, at around one o'clock in the morning on June 2, around forty men wearing masks broke through the front jail door.5  They reportedly overpowered and bound Sheriff George Shower.  They broke the cell doors with a crowbar and placed a rope around Cook's neck, dragging him into an open wagon. While several men reportedly remained guarding the sheriff, the other lynchers rode towards Mt. Airy. Several men stayed behind to guard the sheriff.  When the wagon was out of sight, the men guarding the sheriff rode away as well.6  Reportedly "half of the town, some on horseback, many on foot and not a few driving driving substantial teams" went to the scene of the lynching.7 Cook was stripped of his shirt and vest and hanged from a white oak tree near the road. He was also shot twice in the neck. The lynchers nailed a note to the tree, claiming that Cook had confessed to the assault of Mrs. Knott. The note was written on the letterhead of the, "law office of Milton G. Urner, of Frederick Md.".8

Witnesses who claimed to have seen the lynchers passing by said several of the men were black.  However, this claim is not credible and is included in many contemporary accounts of lynchings. Charles B. Roberts, Attorney General, allegedly spoke with several of the lynchers along the road:

"'Oh, yes! we know you Mr. Roberts,' they answered, 'and we voted for you, but that is another matter, and we do not need any protection.' 'Yes you do. Before tomorrow's sun will set you will regret this. For heaven's sake, gentlemen consider your action. You know as well as I do that if you take that negro and kill him you are committing murder.' 'That is all very well', one of them spoke up, 'we have our wives and daughters to protect.' I grant that [he] answered, 'but the very thing you are about punishing this negro for is what you are doing-- violating the law, taking into your own hands the supreme authority vested only in the courts.'"
According to contemporary accounts, the men let Roberts pass, but did not heed his advice and proceeded with the lynching.9 Several newspaper articles condemned Cook's lynching. Newsapers such as the Baltimore Sun and the Democratic Advocate called the lynching a murder and an injustice. They called for citizens to let the courts do their job instead of taking the law into their own hands.  However, there were no official reports found documenting the reaction of the State of Maryland or of Carrollhere was also no investigation into who was responsible for Cook's murder.

1. "Another Outrageous Assault," Baltimore Sun, June 1, 1885.
2. "Another Outrageous Assault."
3. "Brutal Assault," The Democratic Advocate, June 6, 1885.
4. "Another Outrageous Assault."
5. "Townsend Cook's Fate," Baltimore Sun, June 3, 1885.
6. "Cook Taken from Jail," Baltimore Sun, June 2, 1885.
7. "Townsend Cook's Fate."
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.

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