Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Thin Black Line

Nicholas Snowden
MSA SC 3520-13735
Lynched in Ellicott City, September 18, 1885


Nicholas Snowden was arrested September 13, 1885 for allegedly assaulting Alberta Fischer, a nine-year-old African American girl.  Snowden, a 36-year-old African American was arrested by Sheriff N. T. Hutchins in Ellicott City, Howard County.  It was reported on Saturday, September 19, 1885, that a group of 24 African American men entered the Howard County Jail, intending to lynch Snowden for his crime. Mr. John T. Ray, warden of the jail, told The Sun that the men came to the back door of the jail around 2:00 a.m. the morning of September 19. The men told the warden on duty they had a prisoner and were directed to enter the front door. The warden got the jail keys and opened the front door. Twelve of the lynchers came in and asked for Nicholas Snowden.  Warden Ray noticed that even though the men were masked, he could see parts of their faces and concluded that all were African Americans.
    The men scared several of the female prisoners as they searched the jail looking for Snowden.  The men told the warden they did not intend to harm anyone.  Warden Ray told the men that Nicholas Snowden was on the second floor, but that he did not know where the keys to the cell were located.  Upon finding Snowden's cell, the men broke the lock with an ax. Two men brought Snowden down the stairs by his collar, carrying in their hands a long piece of plow rope.  The men returned the keys to the front jail doors and the lock to the corridor as they exited the jail house.  The lynchers were also seen with three or four guns in their possession.  The warden dressed quickly and reported the incident to Sheriff Hutchins.
    It took the lynchers 15 minutes to remove Snowden from the jail. Sheriff Hutchins claimed the men were a mixture of African Americans and whites.  According to the prisoners, the white men present did not participate directly in the lynching.  The men drove around the outskirts of the town before stopping at a location called Cat Rock. The men marched Snowden through the African American neighborhood before they approached a white oak tree in a grove of about a dozen trees where Snowden was hanged.  His body was found later that morning by a youth who lived in the city.  There was an ax, a bottle of whiskey and several masks located at the scene.
    Coroner James D. Cooke summoned a jury of inquest.  Authorities removed the body of Nicholas Snowden from the grove, and the remains were placed in a stained pine coffin.  Snowden is buried at Locust Cemetery in Ellicott City.  The jury ruled that Nicholas Snowden was hung to a tree by persons unknown to the jury, and that he died from strangulation.1  The black community expressed little sympathy for the lynching of Snowden. The father of Alberta Fischer rejoiced in the lynching. Mr. Fischer told the Sheriff if he had not been convicted when tried, then Snowden should have been shot.  Regardless to the sentiments of those in the town, The Sun's supplement condemned the act on September 19, 1885:

"The lynching of a colored man at Ellicott City early yesterday morning by men of his own race is another instance of a kind of violation of law and interference with the course of justice against which The Sun has too often found it necessary to protest. In this case there was no reason to believe that the culprit would not be speedily brought to trial, and, if guilty of the revolting crime charged upon him, would be properly punished."2


1. The entirety of the narrative above was provided by information found in "Lynching in Howard." The Baltimore Sun, 19 September 1885

2. "The Lynching of Snowden at Ellicott City." The Baltimore Sun, 19 September 1885.


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