Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Thin Black Line

Howard Cooper (c. 1867-1885)
MSA SC 3520-13733
Lynched in Towson, Maryland, July 12, 1885


Howard Cooper, an African American resident of Towson, Maryland, was accused of the assault, rape and attempted murder of a sixteen-year-old white girl, Kate Gray, on April 2, 1885. Cooper, who said he was seventeen years old, but was reported to be about twenty or twenty-four, encountered Gray on a county road near her house six miles from Towson. Gray claimed Cooper called to her by name, implying that he knew her. She alleged that after she ignored him, Cooper pursued her, beat her, 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 initially jailed at Baltimore City, and then, after June 30, at Towson.
    Cooper's case was tried in the Criminal Court of Baltimore City on May 20.  The jury found Cooper guilty and the judge sentenced him on May 21, to die by hanging. Governor Henry Lloyd issued the death warrant for Cooper, and he was scheduled to be hanged on July 3. 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 declared their intention to appeal to the federal courts and to take the case to the United States' Supreme Court, to 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 drafted a circular letter to interested members of the African American community asking them to contribute to Cooper's legal expenses in pursuit of an appeal. The Baltimore Sun printed a copy of the letter several days later, alarming 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. 
    On the evening and early morning of July 12 and 13, about seventy-five men wearing masks over their faces approached the jail where Cooper was being held. The mob used a flagpole to break in the back door, then smashed the lock on Cooper's jail cell forcing it open. They immediately put a rope around his neck and led him out through the back door into the jail yard, where they hanged him from the nearest tree.  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, burying her son on Bare Hill, near Falls Road.
    The reaction to the lynching by members of  the African American community was anger and disappointment that the argument for the violation of Cooper’s of civil rights had been unheard in the U.S. Supreme Court.  They condemned the lynching as part of a growing tide of violence, and regretted that Cooper’s case was not used to bring attention to the necessity of including African American jurors to ensure fair trials. A meeting took place on July 14, at Bethel A.M.E. Church in Hagerstown, attended by about fifty 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 condoned the circumvention of the courts by mob violence by reportedly saying "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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