top of page


Howard County’s History of Lynching


By Kevin Leonard  |  February 12, 2021

A few years ago, I became aware of an ambitious research project to document all the horrific lynchings from Maryland’s past. High school students from the Park School of Baltimore, under the direction of teacher Daniel Jacoby, published a remarkable 45-page pamphlet in 2017 that summarized five of the lynchings and described their project, methodology, and resources.

According to Shawn Gladden, Executive Director of the Howard County Historical Society, there were three documented lynchings in Howard County (in 1884, 1885, and 1895) and a few near-lynchings, including one in 1908 that was averted by a catastrophe. Efforts are ongoing to discover other undocumented lynchings in Howard County’s past. This column describes the last documented lynching in 1895 (which was also part of the Park School narrative), as well as the near-lynching in 1908.

1895: Jacob Henson is Lynched

In almost every newspaper account, Jacob Henson was described as a “young colored man” without specifying his age. Police, prosecutors, and even his own “colored” lawyer (as part of his defense) said he was “stupid,” “slow,” and “half-witted.” He worked as a store clerk for Daniel Shea, 51, an Irish immigrant who owned a general store and tobacco room on Main Street in Ellicott City.

At closing time on Feb. 19, 1895, Henson, who had been drinking for a few hours, came by the store with some beer to drink with Shea. Later, neighbor John Dorsey testified that he saw Henson running away from the store. Shea was dead inside, a victim of numerous head wounds.



Hanson Indictment.jpeg


Henson was arrested that night and charged with murder. Blood was found on his clothes and on a hatchet left in the store. He was brought to the Howard County Jail in Ellicott City.

The only written account of what happened was provided by Henson while he was in jail. “He wrote it out in a neat hand,” according to the Baltimore Sun. In his account, parts of which were disproved at trial, he admitted to killing Shea.

Ellicott City, February 19, 1895. — I went to Mr. Shea’s store that night about 8 or 8.30 with some beer and he had his shutters closed and the blind in the door. Mr. Shea closed the door, locked it and put the bar across the door. I was standing up against the wall. I and Mr. Shea drank the beer together and had a little quarrel over the beer. Then Mr. Shea struck me three times in the breast, stunning me for a while, and I picked up the hatchet and struck Mr. Shea with the handle part of it. The first time I can remember striking him he was nearly at the end of the counter and the last time I can remember of striking him he was leaning over the counter. Afterward he fell with his head in the corner, and then I started to go upstairs. Before I went upstairs I took a long pocketbook off the counter and put it in my hip pocket of my old pants and when I came to look for it it was not there. It was a five dollar bill in it. I am most sure I lost the money that night, that’s the candid truth. When I went upstairs my nose commenced to bleed. I left the hatchet on the chair. Emann Cole was not to be seen. John Dorsey was the only person to be seen. I did not do the deed on purpose. I did it in self-defense. Washed my hands before I left the room. Left bright light burning downstairs. There was no light at all upstairs. It was all done through drunkenness and excitedness. Did not hear any knocks at the door. More excited than anything else. First time arrested, first time before any court, fair reputation in Ellicott City and surroundings, and also beg the mercies of the court. This is a true statement.

J. Henson, Jr.
E. City, Md.

Anyone else getting on the stand at the courthouse and making statements thereon, except Detective Pohler, are not true. I did not strike him after he fell.

The supposedly “stupid,” “slow,” and “half-witted” Henson also wrote poetry while jailed:

A many a day have I sat
Inside these prison walls,
A waiting for the day to come
That I may see my doom.

At Henson’s trial spectators “filled every foot of space in the courtroom” in the Howard County Courthouse, reported the Sun. Baltimore City Detective Herman Pohler, who was brought in to investigate the crime, testified that Henson’s confession “was obtained without extorting it from him by any threats or by offering him any sort of reward.”

The prosecution had doctors testify that Henson was “a little stupid and slow … but not unsound in mind.” W. Ashby Hawkins, Henson’s prominent Black lawyer, also “contended that it had been shown by numerous witnesses that the prisoner was regarded as a poor half-witted creature, incapable of any crime. The many so-called confessions and the verses he wrote, the counsel contended, all proved the prisoner’s unsound mind.”

Prosecutors challenged some of Henson’s written confession. Apparently, Shea was missing almost $200 from his store, not $5 as told by Henson. That was advanced as motive for the killing. The money was never found.

Henson claimed that he “struck Mr. Shea with the handle” and “did not strike [Shea] after he fell,” but testimony revealed that in preparing Shea’s body for burial “twenty-five distinct gashes” were in his head from the hatchet.

The trial was over in one day. The jury took just 25 minutes to convict Henson. According to the Sun, “One of the jurors said the verdict had been agreed upon unanimously at the first ballot taken, and that the jury had remained out to take a little rest.”

Six days later, Henson was sentenced to be hanged for the crime. Hawkins made an appeal to Governor Frank Brown for executive clemency. For almost two months, Henson sat in the Howard County Jail awaiting word on his appeal.

On May 27, a team of doctors, including two from the Maryland State Lunacy Commission, examined Henson “inquiring into the mental condition of the condemned murderer,” reported the Sun. The doctors told the Sun that their examination would “show that Henson is considered sane and responsible for his actions,” permitting his sentence to be carried out.

But word spread through Ellicott City of the doctors’ visit. Rumors abounded that the Governor, who did not support the death penalty, would set Henson free.

The day after the doctors examined Henson in his cell, mob rule took over. The Sun ran a very detailed account of what happened next—so detailed that the reporter had to have been there, even though it didn’t say so.

At the jail a few of the lynchers wore hoods, others had on long garments that hung over their heads and down to their waists, and others still improvised a disguise with nothing more than a pocket handkerchief.

He was taken, after being bound and gagged, to Merrick’s Lane, beyond Patapsco Heights, and there was hanged to a dogwood tree. … A placard was left pinned to his breast, on which was written:

We respect our court and judges. Governor Brown forced the law-abiding citizens to carry out the verdict of the jury.


The Buffalo Commercial headline.jpg




According to Matt Reimann on, White Caps “members had long practiced their own kind of law and order in the country, as part of a decades-long tradition of vigilantism and violence in the United States known as whitecapping. … The moniker derives from the white coverings its bandits would wear on their nocturnal rides. … [Historians] trace the origin of Whitecaps to 1887, as partial inheritors of vigilante traditions as established by runaway slave patrols and anti-horse-thief committees, and of codes of secrecy and obedience inspired by the Klan of Reconstruction (which was around from the late 1860s to the early 1870s).”

In the decades after the Civil War, attitudes in Ellicott City mirrored those in the rest of border state Maryland: divided between Union and Confederate sympathy. In Ellicott City, this division was represented by two of the most prominent residents: James Melvin, the publisher of the Ellicott City Democrat, continued to be pro-slavery, and Frank Oldfield, an official in the county’s Republican party, was against both slavery and the death penalty.

Oldfield, who a year later would become the Howard County Sheriff, is famous for his later career with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, which was then the highest-ranking federal law enforcement agency. He is credited with ferreting out corruption in government and taking on the Mafia’s Black Hand Society, resulting in the 1909 imprisonment of 16 members of the society.

In Inspector Oldfield and the Black Hand Society, a biography of Oldfield written by his great-grandson William Oldfield and Victoria Bruce, Frank Oldfield’s outrage about the lynching is described.

Oldfield knew precisely who was leading the call to lynch Henson. In a later hearing, Oldfield described how James Melvin … came to him after the trial. Melvin asked Oldfield to join a gang that planned to break Henson out of jail and hang him.

Many Ellicott City southern Democrats despised free blacks and had no moral qualms about taking matters into their own hands and lynching Henson, whether he was guilty or not. It was a fact about his fellow citizens that Oldfield despised. It made him feel as if the South had not really accepted its loss. He knew organized cowards were out to recruit gang members from sympathetic white neighborhoods. They called themselves the “White Caps,” and they loathed Republicans and northern Democrats supportive of free blacks like Governor Brown, who won his election with nearly 100 percent of the black vote. The Ellicott City Democrats were sure the governor would grant Henson clemency.

Henson’s family declined to claim the body because of the nature of the heinous crime. But, according to the Sun, the undertaker “was not able to get permission for the internment in any land about Ellicott City, and the sheriff found himself compelled to bury the corpse on his farm, eight or ten miles distant.”

Also, according to the Sun, “The tree upon which Henson was hanged has been cut to pieces by relic-hunters.”

1908: Catastrophe Precludes a Lynching

Lynchings may have ceased in Howard County after Jacob Henson was killed (documented lynchings, at least), but the bigoted bloodlust apparently never waned.

In December 1908, well-to-do Clarksville farmer Charles Hill “was attacked by a negro, whom he was giving a ride in his farm wagon, and robbed of a purse containing $40. The negro, leaving his victim for dead, escaped,” according to the Cumberland Evening Times. But Hill recovered consciousness and was taken home to recover from a fractured skull caused by a rock thrown by his assailant.

Using the description of his assailant provided by Hill, Catonsville Police arrested a Black man, William Hatwood, who was well known in Ellicott City, having worked there for some time. “News of the arrest of Hatwood spread quickly through the county seat [Ellicott City] and a large crowd was on hand to await his arrival” at the Ellicott City Jail, reported the Evening Times. The same Ellicott City Jail from which Jacob Henson was abducted with no resistance by a mob 13 years ago.

This time, there was no doubt as to what Hatwood’s fate would be.

The Evening Times described the crowd waiting for Hatwood’s arrival: “While the crowd is orderly there is evidently an undercurrent of feeling which needs only a leader to start an assault on the little stone jail. Cooler heads are counseling against such course, at least until the man has been fully identified as the assailant of Mr. Hill.”

The next day, December 29, 1908, the small courtroom in Easton Hall in Ellicott City was overflowing by residents “attracted by the rumor that there would be a lynching,” according to the Baltimore Afro American Ledger. “Residents of the county packed the hall until there was hardly room to move.”

After the warrant was read aloud by the County Sheriff, Mr. Hill was called to the stand by Justice Bernard Wallenhorst, who asked Hill, “Is that the man?”

The Laurel Leader described what happened next:

“Yes, it is,” replied Mr. Hill with emphasis, pointing towards the negro, who sat on a bench beside Sheriff Howard shaking with fear.

The moment Mr. Hill made his identification the crowd surged forward toward the middle of the room. Angry threats were heard. … Many threats to lynch had been heard before the trial was called. Excitement was expected the moment the identification was made, but the scene actually presented was different from the one anticipated.

The crowd pressing forward, faces flushed with varying emotions; the magistrate with hand raised protestingly; the trembling negro staring at his accuser, and then—an awful cracking sound.

The floor split from one end to the other, in the middle, and both halves opened downward as if swung from hinges at the walls. The moment the floor caved in everyone was jammed toward the middle of the room, and the concentrated weight made the fall all the more violent.

Media reports said about 100 men and boys (women weren’t allowed in the courtroom) fell 20 feet to the concrete first floor below in a mass of people, debris, and furniture. “Those on the outside jumped through windows to the ground or clutched remaining uprights to support themselves,” reported the New York Tribune.

Among the list of the most seriously injured in the fall were Justice Wallenhorst, both the Howard County Sheriff and Deputy Sheriff, attorneys, at least four policemen, and numerous residents of Howard County. “Among the worst sufferers were William Hall, a reporter for a Baltimore newspaper, who had both legs and his jaw broken,” reported the Tribune.

Amazingly, Hatwood was uninjured. It’s unclear who brought him back to the jail.

The catastrophe may have put a halt on the proceedings, but it had no effect on the prevailing attitude of some of the citizens. “The fact that the entire police force of the place had been disabled was commented upon and used as an argument that it would be easy to rush the jail and hurry Hatwood to a convenient tree. Sober counsel prevailed, however,” according to the Tribune.

State officials, well aware of the lynching talk, and given the shortage of police after the crash, moved Hatwood to another location out of the county to await the continuation of his trial.

At least three men died from injuries sustained in the crash, including Justice Wallenhorst.

Shawn Gladden, who helped research this story, is a member of the Laurel History Boys’ Board of Directors.


Frank Oldfield.


bottom of page