Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Thin Black Line

James Bowens (c. 1872-1895)
MSA SC 3520-13745

Biography:

James Bowens, a 23-year-old African American resident of Frederick, was lynched on November 17, 1895, after he allegedly attempted to rape and murder a local white girl the previous day. Bowens had spent most of Saturday, November 16 drinking with several of his friends. The men started for home on foot at about 4:00 p.m. along the Cemetery road near a farm owned by Hamilton Geisbert. Bowens went into Geisbert's house asking for something to eat, and there he encountered 22-year-old Lillie Long, an employee and resident of the Geisberts. Miss Long gave Bowens some bread and meat, which he ate, and seeing that she was alone in the house, it was reported that Bowens offered her a dollar and made "an indecent proposal."1 When she screamed and ran out of the house, Bowens chased her into the garden, knocked her down to the ground, cut her neck with a pair of scissors, and stabbed her in the chest several times. She screamed and fought Bowens, who tore her clothes off and supposedly threatened to kill her. Hamilton Geisbert and one of his sons were working in a cornfield near the house, heard Lillie's screams and chased Bowens away. Several neighboring farmers joined in the pursuit of Bowens, armed with rifles and shotguns. It was reported that if the group had found him, they would have killed him on the spot. Instead, Bowens was arrested a short time later, given a preliminary hearing before the county magistrate Edward Hewes at the mayor's office, and put in the Frederick County jail.  When interrogated, Bowens maintained his innocence in that he could not have attacked the young girl because he was working in Buckeystown for Mr. Padgett loading wheat, and that at the time of the assault he was at the home of Hiram Brown's brother. Bowen said he was walking around All Saints Street to the south and was walking on South Street when arrested. Once placed under arrest, Bowen continued to plea that he was not the man who committed the assault and said that all the men "had it in for me" because he was a Republican and they were all Democrats. It was at this point when Bowen was placed in a wagon to be transferred to the county jail, where the sheriff found the blood-stained pair of scissors in his hip pocket. Bail was set at $300 and another hearing was scheduled for the following Monday.2
    News of the assault on Lillie Long quickly spread throughout the county. Many Frederick County citizens had already grown increasingly alarmed at the high number of assaults that had taken place in the county over the previous months; the assault on Miss Long being the fourth in six months. Early Saturday evening, a crowd of several hundred men gathered on the streets where they discussed the distressing trend and the conversation of possibly lynching Bowens grew. At about 11:30 p.m. that night, it was reported that Lillie had died from her wounds. Although the report was later proven false, it enraged the men further and prompted them to start for the Frederick County jail to get Bowens.3 Armed with revolvers and knives, the mob broke into a blacksmith shop along the way and helped themselves to sledgehammers and crowbars before arriving at the jail at about 12:45 a.m. on Sunday, November 17, 1895.  The jail was more lightly guarded than usual because the Sheriff Zimmerman, Lillie's uncle, was spending the night at his farm near Woodsboro. Deputy Sheriff James Crum and his wife were present however, but unable to stop the mob from smashing down four heavy doors and five big locks and entering into Bowens' cell. There are reports that Bowens was shot in the leg while still in his cell as the men were attempting to break the cell lock. The same story reports that Deputy Sheriff Crum and his associate actually fired upon the mob in an attempt to prevent them from entering the cell, but to no avail.4 The men took Bowens and led him to a tree in a privately-owned field about a half-mile outside of Frederick along Jefferson Pike. Only a few of the mob members wore masks.
   While the crowd urged him to confess, Bowens protested that he was innocent and begged not to be lynched. As the crowd quieted, a voice was quoted as saying "We want you to confess Bowens. Do not die with a lie on your lips, you have got to go anyhow, so tell the truth and be done with it." In a weak voice, Bowens responds "Indeed I didn't do it, I'm not the man." Bowens said no more and at the same time two men from the Salvation Army, Captain Eugene Mott and Lieutenant Williams Anthem requested to pray with him. They each prayed for Bowens and then led him and the lynchers in a recitation of the Lord's Prayer.5 Another unidentified speaker addressed the crowd and asserted that the lynchers were "gathered not in a spirit of malice toward the colored race, but to set an example for the protection of homes and firesides and to teach the lesson that the women and children of Frederick county must be saved from the fear of assault."6 The lynchers hanged Bowens from the tree until he was dead, then quietly disbursed. It was reported that several "Kodak" friends witnessed the spectacle and took pictures of the location and victim. An autopsy later confirmed that Bowens died of strangulation. The body was taken to the home of his father, Simon Bowens, on Locust Alley, and buried at 2:00 p.m. the next day at an African American cemetery north of Frederick.7
    A few days after the lynching, it was reported that Miss Lillie was recovering from her attack. When she was interviewed to recall the events, Miss Long confessed that she was attacked and cut with a butcher's knife with a brown handle. After a brief investigation, authorities confirmed that the neighbor Mrs. Warner saw Bowens just 15-minutes prior to the attack on Miss Long, as she was walking towards the garden to cut some cabbage. Mrs. Warner said that no one was at home, and that no food was available for James Bowen. She then saw him jump over her fence and headed in the direction towards the Geisbert's farm. Mrs. Warner then realized that her butcher's knife with a brown handle was missing, convinced that Bowen took the knife.8 This version is contradictory to the initial findings that Bowen used a stolen pair of scissors during the attack, and the fact that a bloody pair of scissors were found on his person when he was arrested.9 Like many of the lynchings that have occurred in the state, a jury was summoned to hear the testimony of many witnessed, deliberated for some time, and brought in a verdict that "James Bowens came to his death on the night of November 16, 1895 in Frederick county, of strangulation, at the hands of parties unknown to this jury."10

Footnotes

1. "By a Maddened Mob.  James Bowens, Colored, Lynched at Frederick."  The Baltimore Sun, 18 November 1895. And "Lynched in Frederick."  The Brunswick Herald, 22 November 1895.

2. "Lynched!"  A Colored Assailant Summarily Dealt With."  The Frederick News, 18 November 1895.

3. "Lynched in Frederick."

4. ibid.

5. ibid. And "Lynched!"

6. ibid. And "Lynched!"

7. "Lynching Echos."  The Frederick News, 19 November 1895.

8. "Miss Long is Better."  The Frederick News, 20 November 1895. And "By a Maddened Mob."

9. "Lynching Echos." And "By a Maddened Mob."

10. "Lynched!"

Link to Lynching Profile Questionnaire

Return to James Bowens' Introductory Page


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