Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Thin Black Line

Jacob Henson, Jr.
MSA SC 3520-13743
Lynched in Ellicott City, May 28, 1895

Biography:

Jacob Henson, a young African-American store clerk, walked over to his employer's country store during the closing hours of February 19, 1895 to enjoy a few beers.  Henson and his employer, Daniel F. Shea, enjoyed the beverages as they were locking up the store for the evening, when all of a sudden a fight broke out between the two men.  Mr. Shea reportedly struck Jacob Henson in the chest with his fists three times.  Enraged, Henson picked up the first thing he saw on the ground, a hatchet, and proceeded to hit Daniel Shea in the head with it a number of times, causing Shea to collapse in the corner of the room.  Frightened, Henson ran away from the store, but not before neighbor John Dorsey caught sight of him fleeing the scene.  Mr. Dorsey then entered into Daniel Shea's store and found him dead.  When Shea's body was examined, doctors found over 20 distinct gashes in the skull of the store keeper.
    Authorities found Jacob Henson at his home in Ellicott City, Howard County, and arrested him for the murder of Daniel Shea.  Henson explained that his actions were in self-defense, explaining that Mr. Shea struck him in the chest first.  Detectives found blood on both Henson's clothes and the hatchet used to kill Shea.  While in custody, Henson confessed these events to Deputy Warden Robert H. Hollman, emphasizing that it was an act of self-defense.  Henson was held in the county jail on Ellicott City's Main Street until a trial date was set.1
    On March 28, Jacob Henson was in court for the murder of Daniel Shea the previous month.  Henson's representation, an experience African American lawyer named W. Ashby Hawkins, argued that Henson was of unsound mind, and he pled to the jury not to sentence his client to death by reason of insanity.  Detective Herman Pohler of Baltimore also heard the confessions given by Henson while he was in custody in Ellicott City, and although he agreed that Henson was slow, and "stupid" at times, he was still competent enough to realize his actions.  This conclusion was confirmed by a number of doctors who interviewed Jacob Henson while he was in jail.  Chief Judge Roberts heard the case, and the jury only needed 25 minutes to deliberate and returned a verdict of guilty to the first-degree murder charge.  The jury claimed that the attack was premeditated and organized by Jacob Henson the night before.  First-degree murder was a capital offense and Henson was sentenced to death by hanging, which was scheduled to take place on June 7.  Henson's attorney immediately asked for a suspended sentence because he was going to file for appeal based on the grounds that Jacob Henson was of questionable mind, and did not know the difference between right and wrong.2  The next day, Mr. Hawkins argued his case, and although praised by State's Attorney McGuire for his articulate appeal, the amount of submitted evidence stacked up against Henson was too much to overturn the verdict. On April 2, Judge Jones found that Jacob Henson was guilty of the murder of Daniel F. Shea.  This was the first time that Justice Jones handed down a death sentence in any case he had heard in his career.3
    There were a number of doctors from the Maryland Lunacy Committee that interviewed Henson while he was in custody, and found that he knew what he was doing, and therefore should be held accountable for his actions.4  Mr. Hawkins stated that council would appeal to Governor Brown for at least an executive clemency decision because of Henson's lowered mental capacity.  This is the point when tensions began to rise among the community.
    Jacob Henson could do nothing but wait June 7 arrive and accept his sentence.  On the night of May 27, citizens of Howard County were afraid that the governor would be lenient on Henson and grant his lawyer's wish of clemency and reduce the sentence, most probable to life in prison.  Just after midnight on May 28, 1895, 15 or 20 armed and masked men approached the Ellicott City jail where Henson was held.  Warden Lilly's son-in-law, Robert Hollman, and an African American worker named Joe Geurus were on watch that night, and at gun point, the two men could do nothing more to protect their inmate from the angry mob.  It took the men a short while to enter the jail using an iron bar to break through the wooden door.  Jacob Henson heard nothing until the men used a sledgehammer to break the iron lock of his cell door.  Ordered to get dressed, Henson screamed for the men to take mercy on him.  The masked men then tied a rope around his neck, bound his hands, and gagged him as they dragged Henson out of the jail.  The mob then led Jacob Henson to Merrick's Lane beyond the Patapsco Heights area, a short walk up the hill from the jail.  Afraid of what awaited him, Jacob Henson fainted, and was dragged the rest of the way to a dogwood tree on the property of A.B. Johnson, where Jacob Henson was hanged.  A placard was left under the body with the statement "Governor Brown forced the law abiding citizens to carry out the verdict of the jury."5
    By daybreak, the body of Jacob Henson was still in the tree, and Undertaker Hillsinger was ordered to place the body in a coffin, bring it to the jail, and get an interment for the body somewhere in Ellicott City.6  Unable to find a plot, the undertaker then looked into some of the African American cemeteries in the vicinity, but with no luck.  When the relatives of Jacob Henson were contacted, they originally planned to give their son a proper burial, but since he was lynched, they wanted nothing to do with the body.  As a last resort, Sheriff Flower agreed to take the victim's body to his farm, and buried Henson in a cemetery located there.  During this time, the dogwood tree that Henson was lynched on had been cut down and relic-hunters took pieces of it as souvenirs to commemorate the spectical.7
    Governor Frank Brown, upon hearing what happened in Howard County, condemned the mob that lynched Henson, stating that the actions of few reflected the community.  But right after that sentence, he stated "...the actions of the lawless mob breaking into the jail and hanging the prisoner cannot be too strongly condemned," assuming that a hanging would have been carried out either by the community or the state.  The governor put together a team of doctors to determine the sanity of Jacob Henson Jr., and if they would have just waited a few more days, they would have known that the conclusion of the interviews revealed that Henson did know what he was doing, and was of sound enough mind to commit the crime with reason.  Justice Wallehborst summoned a jury of inquest to look into the matter, and unfortunately, like a number of other lynching inquiries, the jury concluded that "he died at the hands of persons unknown to the jury."  It was at this moment that Governor Brown ordered from that day forward, any person awaiting execution would be tried locally, then transferred to the State Penitentiary in Baltimore City, and the execution would be carried out there, citing that local jails were not secure enough to prevent interference, as it had been proven many times before.8

Footnotes

1. "The Shea Case at Ellicott City."  The Baltimore Sun, March 28, 1895.

2. "Henson Convicted." The Baltimmore Sun, March 29, 1895.

3. "Sentenced for Crime." The Baltimore Sun, April 3, 1895.

4. "Henson Lynched." The Baltimore Sun, May 28, 1895. And "Henson's Mental State." The Baltimore Sun, May 28, 1895.

5. ibid. And "The Lynching of Jacob Henson, in Howard County." The Baltimore Sun, May 29, 1895. And "Henson Lynched." The Ellicott City Times, June 1, 1895.

6. "The Lynching of Jacob Henson, in Howard County"

7. "Hard to Find a Grave." The Baltimore Sun, May 30, 1895.

8. "The Lynching of Jacob Henson, in Howard County"


 
 
 
 

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