The night before half a dozen men found 15-year-old Howard Cooper hiding in a barn under a pile of corn husks, begging for his protection, an angry white mob had surrounded the Towsontown jail for miles away, demanding to know if the black teenager were inside.
Cooper had been accused of brutally beating a young woman named Mary Catherine Gray days earlier. Gray was the daughter of a prominent farmer who lived on land owned by Baltimore Sun founder AS Abell, according to an April 1885 account in the newspaper. In this article, The Sun described Cooper as much older than he was – “about 24” – “fat”, standing around 5ft 9in and “well known” as a criminal offender, although the authors gave no details.
As rumors swirled that Cooper was in custody, a mob gathered, demanding to search the jail, with revenge clearly on the mind. When they finally left, young Cooper was brought in, having been discovered in another town’s barn, while rioters gathered in Towson.
“He was terribly scared and scared at every step of being ripped out of our care and thrown out of a tree,” Sheriff Joseph Knight told The Sun, which published a long, dramatic article from the officer’s perspective.
When Katie Gray’s father found out Cooper had been arrested, he vowed to make the boy’s fear a reality. “I’ll be the executioner myself,” Daniel Gray reportedly said, adding that “every father in Maryland will say that was right and that was right.”
A month later, The Sun noted that no lawyer had “yet been appointed to defend Howard Cooper” and said the teenager “assaulted Miss Grey”. When the attorneys finally came forward, they asked that the case be sent to federal court on the grounds that black men were excluded from jury service in municipal courts, in violation of the 14th Amendment in the United States.
The motion was denied, however, and days later Cooper was found guilty by an all-white jury that did not bother to deliberate, delivering their verdict without ever leaving the jury box. Most said they had formed an opinion before the start of the trial. The police were stationed outside to control the crowd.
This time, the Sun writers described Cooper as looking like “a scared boy”, about 5ft 5in tall and muscular, instead of chunky. Cooper’s attorneys offered no evidence, but asked for a guilty verdict on a reduced charge. When that failed, they promised to appeal the verdict based on the violation of the 14th Amendment, a move white onlookers said they saw as delaying Cooper’s punishment.
Meanwhile, less than two weeks later, a mob of at least 30 masked men on horseback in Westminster dragged another black defendant, Townsend Cook, from his jail cell a day after his arrest, put a rope around his neck and left him there as they took him to Mount Airy, hung him from a tree and shot him twice. He had been stripped of his clothes from the waist down and a sign affixed to his chest read, “This man has confessed to his crime.” He was accused of breaking into the home of a white woman, demanding food and assaulting her.
The Sun would later report that Cook’s murder was a direct result of Cooper’s call. “Holding such a matter indefinitely in abeyance for the sole purpose of establishing a moot point would, it is natural to suppose, have the effect of lending such encouragement to the law of lynching in similar cases,” wrote The Sun. The same story, published June 24, 1885, noted that Cooper had lost his appeal and would be put to death by the state.
But on July 13, 1885, Cooper also became a victim of mob rule, as the teenager feared. He was taken from his prison cell and lynched by dozens of masked townspeople.
Accounts of these racial terror lynchings — and make no mistake, that is what they are, regardless of the charges against the two victims — run long in this newspaper. They are full of startling details that reveal how open the attackers were about their plans and how free, even proud, they felt to share them with community members and Sun writers. The articles chronicle the harrowing circumstances law enforcement faced and the righteous anger of the white community, but they offer little to no balance. Almost nothing is said on behalf of Cooper or Cook, the lack of due process they were granted, or the effects of their killings on black communities. This is a glaring omission by today’s standards.
On Saturday, the Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established in 2019 to investigate racial terrorist lynchings in the state, will hold a public hearing in an effort to paint a fuller picture of what happened to Howard Cooper and the roles played by the media and the law. law enforcement played into his death.
The hope is that members of the public with some knowledge of the murder – perhaps through family lore or preserved diaries – will come forward to testify to the details and impact of the lynchings, and to make recommendations. of repairs.
While it’s unlikely anyone will have direct information to share 137 years after Cooper’s murder, it’s critical that the state undertake the review effort. A 15-year-old child was murdered by a bragging mob of 75 people. The record must be corrected, the boy’s humanity restored, and the terror revealed for the healing to begin.
The hearing will be held from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday in the Baltimore County Council chambers (400 Washington Avenue, Towson). Pre-registration is required (bit.ly/3933rn9). A link to a virtual version of the hearing will be posted Friday on the commission’s website (available here: bit.ly/3m5pGvF). Those wishing to submit a written testimonial can do so by emailing email@example.com.
The Baltimore Sun’s editorial writers offer opinion and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the press room.