Newspapers around the country were covering this riveting story on October 8, 1926. However, the original crime for which mob justice was rendered on that day hadn’t received much more than regional coverage the year before when three members of the Lowman family were accused of murder. On April 25, 1925 Sheriff Henry H. Howard of Aiken County, South Carolina had been shot and killed while he and his deputies were executing a liquor raid at the home of Sam and Annie Lowman. Although the following story is detailed and long, it’s important to give an adequate account of what happened that day in 1925 which led to the tragedy which occurred on October 8, 1926.
Accounts varied as to exactly what happened that day. Here is a sampling of reported details, beginning with the one told in Toward the Meeting of the Waters:
Sam Lowman had arisen early that Saturday morning in April 1925 and set off for nearby Monetta with a load of corn. His son Damon and nephew Clarence were plowing a field; Annie was making soap and Bertha his twenty-seven year old pregnant daughter was sweeping the backyard with her cousin Naomi. Another cousin, Eleanora, was cleaning the back porch and Damon’s wife Rosa was preparing lunch while her sister-in-law Bridie fed Rosa’s newborn child.
Sometime between 9:00 and 9:30 a.m. two unmarked vehicles approached Clarence and Damon (note: various accounts referred to Damon as “Son”, “Demmond” or “Demon”), inquiring whether Sam Lowman lived in the house just up ahead. The two men asking questions were Sheriff Howard and his deputy Nollie Robinson. As soon as they received confirmation of Sam’s residence, they proceeded to the house with two other deputies, Arthur D. Sheppard and Robert L. McElhaney; Damon also “broke on to the house.”
Upon arrival the sheriff and his deputies immediately got out of their vehicles and split up – Howard and Robinson heading along the side of the house toward the backyard and Sheppard and McElhaney preparing to enter the front door. Annie and Bertha, frightened, headed for the back porch while Naomi and Eleanora fled. Rosa heard the commotion, grabbed her baby and she and Bridie were preparing to exit via a side door just as Sheppard was about to enter.
McElhaney entered through the front door and followed the sounds of commotion on the back porch to find Howard and Robinson scuffling with Annie and Bertha who were protesting as to whether the sheriff and his men had any right at all to enter their home. Meanwhile, Damon had entered the house and picked up a .45 Colt revolver from a cupboard.
McElhaney heard Damon enter and the two began to scuffle. Robinson left Sheriff Howard to assist McElhaney and then heard shots, allegedly fired “in the rear of the house”. Here is where accounts begin to conflict, but these ensuing events occurred: Annie was shot above her left eye, instantly killed by Sheppard; Bertha was pistol-whipped and shot in the abdomen, right breast and arms by Robinson; Clarence was shot in the shoulder and legs as he fled into the woods. Damon had exchanged gunfire with the three deputies before fleeing toward a relative’s home with a wounded shoulder. Robinson only received scratches from his struggle with Bertha.
While Damon and Bertha were scuffling inside the house, someone had shot the sheriff at close range. The sheriff apparently never entered the home but either died in the back yard or at the right side of the house. Robinson later told a reporter Howard had cried out, “O, Lord they’re killed me!”
Residents were stunned and many rushed to the scene. Lynching was discussed. However, Clarence and Damon were taken to the state penitentiary in Columbia. Bertha, thought to have been near death, was taken to an infirmary in Leesville. Her baby had been killed but she eventually recovered.
The following day, Sunday, Sheriff Howard’s hearse was personally escorted by one hundred Ku Klux Klan members to the county courthouse for a public viewing. That afternoon the funeral was held, overflowing the Aiken Baptist Church. Five days later the Aiken County Court of General Sessions indicted Clarence, Damon, Bertha, Rosa and Bridie Lowman for the murder of Sheriff Howard.1
The Standard reported a Mr. Jones had seen the Sheriff and deputies approach the Lowman house, but before he (Mr. Jones) could get there the shooting had begun. A number of bird shot had been found just above Howard’s body while the rest had entered his body. First reports indicated he had been shot in the face, but that proved false. The newspaper account continued:
During these intense moments the officers shot a number of times and when they saw their brave Sheriff drop to the ground, they came out of the house and went to his rescue. Robinson had rushed into the front of the house and there he was in personal combat with several women, and he was beaten over the head by one of them with a pistol.
Bertha Lowman was possibly shot in this melee, as she has a bullet through her body, and is not expected to live. Annie Lowman, the mother of the family, rushed upon Deputy Robinson with a drawn axe. Robinson retreated some distance as his pistol was empty, and then she turned on Deputy Arthur Sheppard, and to save his life, he shot her through the head, and she fell dead near a small barn across the road.2
Meanwhile Clarence and “Son” had come running from the field and “evidently took part in the shooting.” As Clarence fled the officers pursued, then captured and took him to Monetta where they were transported to Aiken. Governor McLeod asked for blood hounds to trail “Son”, but he was captured before the dogs were used. Upon his return from Monetta, Sam Lowman was also taken to Aiken.
Clarence, “Son” and Sam were interviewed in jail but provided few details. Clarence claimed to know nothing of how Sheriff Howard was killed. Sam, of course, pled innocence as he wasn’t even present. The newspaper provided a description of the scene, claiming liquor had been found in a small alcove between the back and front rooms. Some had been poured out and the slop jar had liquor in it – “evidently the whiskey had been poured out at the approach of the officers.”3
Before concluding the full front-page article the newspaper seemed to offer its own indictment:
The Lowman family bear a bad reputation. Dozier an older son was tried in Batesburg some months ago for violation of the Prohibition law, and it is stated that others [sic] members of the family have been offenders against the law.4
Another account was published in the Index-Journal (Greenwood, South Carolina) on April 26:
Sheriff Howard in company with Deputies Robinson, Robert McElhaney and Arthur Sheppard went to the home of the Lowman family about 9:30 o’clock in the morning. Calling the Lowmans to the door, Deputy Robinson proceeded to read the search warrant to them. Just at that time a shot rang out, coming either from inside the house or from around the corner. Sheriff Howard fell mortally wounded with a charge of birdshot in his back, which penetrated his vital organs.5
According to the Index-Journal’s account, Robinson then entered the home and was fought by two women, beaten over the head with a pistol. In the melee Bertha was shot which prompted Annie to rush toward Robinson with an axe. Deputy Sheppard shot Annie in the head but she fled and died across the road near a small barn.
At this time Clarence and Son Lowman were reported to have heard the shots and ran toward the house. “They took part in the shooting according to the officers.”6 Another newspaper reported Clarence and Son Lowman “are said to have fired at the officers as they came.” The headline of that article was “Aiken Sheriff is Slain by Negress – Latter Killed by His Deputy”7 – perhaps implying Annie had shot the sheriff(?).
On May 6 it was reported Clarence was showing signs of pneumonia since perhaps the bullet had lodged in one of his lungs. Still, the case was expected to be called the following week following an indictment of five members of the Lowman family. It was expected that at least four of them would be tried.
On May 12 the trial began at 11 o’clock, the courtroom filled to capacity with Judge Hayne Faust Rice presiding. The Lowmans (all five as were originally charged) were without counsel and each assigned a defense attorney by Judge Rice, with Clarence supposed as the principal defendant. After an all-white jury of males was selected, the first witness was called.
Dr. Wyman had examined Sheriff Howard’s body and found ninety-three wounds in his side and back. Following the noon break, Deputy Sheriff Sheppard was called to testify. He described the arrival on that day as Robinson and Howard went to the right of the house, he to the left and McElhaney to the front door.
Sheppard described how he exchanged shots with Son Lowman and then how Annie charged Robinson with an axe, then turned on him, before he shot her dead. Newly appointed Sheriff Robinson followed Sheppard with a corroboration of his deputy’s testimony. He further described how shots were exchanged with Son Lowman and the fight in which he shot Bertha in the stomach. He claimed Bertha had made an effort to shoot him but he had grabbed the pistol from her.
Robert McElhaney testified next just as the newspaper was going to press. His testimony was the same as that given at the coroner’s inquest the day of the incident. Just as the newspaper was closing its forms the State had several more witnesses to examine, presuming with whatever testimony the defendants might offer and the speeches to follow, the case would likely finish the following day.
Elizabeth Robeson’s article entitled “An ‘Ominous Defiance’” provided more details about the un-reported testimony. Apparently before the trial began, both Clarence and Damon, independent of one another, stated their belief that Annie had killed the sheriff. Yet, under direct examination by his defense attorney, Damon testified that Clarence had confessed the night before the trial began to shooting Howard. When asked who shot Sheriff Howard, Damon pointed to Clarence.
However, when Clarence’s defense attorney cross-examined him, Damon panicked and made conflicting statements under oath. Judge Rice, before handing the proceedings over to the jury, made a statement as to the opinion that a Negro was presumed to be unable to get a fair trial in South Carolina courts. He brushed that notion aside by saying, “If there is any place in the world where a Negro can get a fair trial it is before a jury of South Carolina white men.”8
Judge Rice dismissed the charges against Rosa and Bridie by rendering not guilty verdicts since they had apparently both fled the scene prior to the shooting. Robeson believes the judge skirted some issues since he didn’t seem to have adequately addressed the question as to whether Sheriff Howard and his deputies had identified themselves properly before executing the warrant.
The deputies had also finally admitted that no whiskey was found that day either. Yet, Judge Rice seemed to imply to the jury that if one of the parties was guilty, “then all that took part in that are guilty.”9
The jury deliberated for one hour and twenty minutes before returning the verdict. Although Bertha’s life had hung in the balance through several rounds of balloting, ultimately she was recommended mercy and a life sentence. Clarence and “Son” Lowman were found guilty and sentenced to death.
Sam Lowman had been convicted after a Monetta law officer found two jars of corn whiskey on April 27 buried in the ground behind the chicken house. This was, of course, two days after the incident when hundreds of people, police, reporters and spectators had walked through the crime scene. Sam, never having been in trouble with the law, was sentenced to two years of hard labor with the county chain gang.
Clarence and “Son” were scheduled to be electrocuted on June 12, but on June 2 it was reported they were possibly planning to appeal the conviction (their defense attorneys had uttered nary a peep following the verdict). An organization in Philadelphia had raised funds and paid for the services of Charleston attorneys to appeal their case to the state Supreme Court in Columbia. Immediately upon filing an appeal the execution would automatically be stayed.
On May 27, 1926 the South Carolina Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of the defendants and ordered a new trial. The court believed sufficient time had not passed following the sheriff’s death to allow natural feelings of hostility towards the defendants to subside. In fact the justices believed Judge Rice had gone too far in his remarks which may have in fact been prejudicial at the beginning of the trial.
The court also noted that just because the lawmen had a search warrant was not sufficient to deny defendants the right to resist the search. Clearly, the justices believed Judge Rice had overstepped the boundaries of proper courtroom procedure, perhaps even prejudicing the jury with his statements.
On October 5, 1926 the second trial began. Clarence, Damon and Bertha had remained incarcerated following the high court’s decision and were returned to Aiken. Lawrence Southard, a white Spartanburg attorney, had been hired to assist in their defense. When Southard cross-examined Deputy Sheppard (who had killed Annie), he asked whether Sheppard could produce the original warrant. When Sheppard produced the document Southard immediately declared it “an illegal paper”, citing the warrant was for Sam Lowman (who wasn’t even there at the time) and the vagueness of the affidavit section of the warrant that stated a “reliable source” had accused Sam of storing liquor illegally at his home.
The move by Southard, a white man defending black clients, was a shock to say the least. Southard immediately asked Judge Lanham to throw the warrant out, however the judge after some deliberation decided to let it stand. The following day, October 7, the trial resumed and by 11:00 a.m. the state had rested its case. Thereupon, Southard rose and motioned for the judge to direct a verdict of not guilty, again pressing the issue of the illegal warrant.
The prosecution rose to oppose and a long and heated debate ensued. Surprisingly, the judge directed a verdict of not guilty for Damon and recessed the court until nine o’clock the next day. One might think this would have portended a not guilty verdict for Clarence and Bertha — that is, had Damon not been immediately re-arrested on a lesser charge of assault and battery with the intent to kill. All three were again locked in a cell that night.
The governor had been kept abreast of the trial proceedings and assured that Aiken remained calm. However, according to Ms. Robeson, no precautions were taken to ensure the safety of the Lowmans. In fact, the New York World published an account several weeks later stating a prominent aging attorney had stopped prosecuting attorney Carter on the sidewalk outside the courthouse and remarked, “There’s a lynching in the air.” Reportedly, Mr. Carter then “sniffed, looked about him sarcastically as if searching for something, and replied, ‘Hush, I don’t see it,’ and thereupon turned on his heel and strode off.”10
Indeed, a lynching was in the air. Sometime between three and four o’clock on the morning of Friday, October 8, a group of men, which also included Sheriff Robinson and his deputies Sheppard and McElhaney, entered the Aiken jail with flashlights. After unlocking the Lowmans’ cells they took the prisoners downstairs and put them in waiting cars.
The prisoners were driven outside of Aiken to a pine thicket and ordered out of the vehicles — then shot execution-style. One sensationalized account later stated they were told to run and shot in the back for attempting escape. The New York World reported that Bertha didn’t die promptly and crawled along begging them not to kill her. They shot her through the head with a pistol and her body with a shotgun. Clarence died from a shotgun wound to his throat; Damon died from a revolver shot to the chest.
Judge Lanham reconvened the trial later that morning, received the jury’s verdict of not guilty for Damon, announced the three prisoners’ deaths and adjourned the session. He called upon the Aiken County grand jury to meet at noon to begin a thorough investigation. The Lowmans were later buried in one large grave by county convicts, since the negroes of Monetta refused to have anything to do with their burial. Did Sam help bury his own family?
By the end of October a report had been given to Governor McLeod which listed the names of those who executed the Lowmans, including Aiken County’s officers of the law. However, the grand jury declined to issue any indictments, nor would the Governor remove Nollie Robinson from his duties as Sheriff. By this time, newspapers all over the country were printing details of the grand jury’s findings.
Indeed it appears everyone in the community was willing to turn a blind eye to the tragedy. Robinson himself seemed a bit cocky when a reporter asked about his investigation of the lynchings (they called it that even though the Lowmans had been shot and not hanged). Reportedly, he tipped his hat back and said, “I ain’t got no idea at all who done it. If I had I would sure enough swear out a warrant for ‘em an’ don’t you mistake.”11
The reporter pressed Robinson with questions about allegations of the other prisoners to the contrary. Robinson, a Baptist deacon, took the Lord’s name in vain and swore he would never do something like that – why, he was going to heaven!
Did Robinson actually participate in the execution-style deaths of the Lowmans? The Augusta Chronicle seemed to cast doubts by stating in 2002 that “under darkness, four men sat on the new sheriff, Nollie Robinson, and the jailer as others whisked away the prisoners to their death.” 12 Robinson did, however, lose his bid for reelection in 1928.
Had the Lowmans been unfairly targeted? According to Elizabeth Robeson it seems so. Various accounts had described the Lowmans as poor sharecroppers living in squalor. The truth was, Sam Lowman had been a successful farmer since 1897 and had faithfully and regularly paid substantial taxes on property worth several hundred dollars. Over the years he had gradually increased his land holdings. Sam could read and write and indicated to census takers his children had been educated as well. His oldest sons Dozier and Lester had both served honorably during World War I.
Ms. Robeson believes the warrant had been issued after someone had accused the Lowmans of supplying liquor illegally. It seems an unnamed white man had been unable to repay a loan to the Lowmans’ landlord Will Hartley. Hartley foreclosed on the mule and sold it to Sam. The disgruntled man started the unsubstantiated rumor about the Lowmans which led to the warrant.
In March of 1927 Sam was released having served all but seventy-two days of his sentence. As one account stated, “his real crime was that he was the father of Demon and Bertha Lowman.”13 Upon his release Sam headed for Philadelphia remarking, “I can’t live among these people.”
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!
© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2015.
- An “Ominous Defiance”, article by Elizabeth Robeson, Toward the Meeting of the Waters: Currents in the Civil Rights Movement of South Carolina during the Twentieth Century, edited by Winfred B. Moore and Orville Vernon Burton, 2008, pp. 68-70)
The Aiken Standard printed their version later that day, beginning with:
Henry Howard, the fearless, energetic and much beloved Sheriff of Aiken County, met his death this morning at the hands of a family of bootleggers near Monetta, about a mile from the Columbia-Aiken highway. Deputy Nollie Robinson was badly beaten in the head by an infuriated woman. The family of bootleggers were named Lowman, and of this family the mother, Annie, is dead, shot through the head, Bertha, a daughter, is shot through the body, and will probably die, and Clarence, shot through the left shoulder, and Son shot through the arm.[note]Aiken Standard, 25 Apr 1925, p. 1
- Aiken Standard, 25 Apr 1925, p. 1
- The Index-Journal, 26 Apr 1925, p. 1
- The Gaffney Ledger, 28 Apr 1925, p.5
- Towards the Meeting of the Waters, p. 75
- Ibid., p. 81
- Ibid., p. 84
- August Chronicle
- Aiken Standard, 24 Jan 2009, p. 5A