Aiken, South Carolina disgraced October 8, 1926 with the lynching of three members of the Lowman family.
American lynch law come 1926 was into its decline phase; the 30 lynchings in that year across the country have never been equalled in the nine decades since, but were also 50% below the rates at the beginning of the 1920s, and very far from the peak 1890s where triple-digit counts of mob murder were the perennial norm.
One might say that both the phenomenon and its pracitioners had matured. If exhortations to better refer justice to the law were the authorities’ running strategy for quelling lynch mobs, then the mobs themselves became complicit with the barristers — and could reserve recourse to extrajudicial means for occasions when the courts failed to work Judge Lynch’s will. Leo Frank’s case a decade prior to this is an excellent example: though there was a virtual lynch atmosphere at his trial, it was only after the man’s death sentence had been commuted by the governor that a lynch gang systematically extracted the man from prison to slay him.
Something like this pattern appears to distinguish the Lowman lynchings.
This dreadful case began with an exercise in that other grand tradition of racialized justice, the drug war — Prohibition-style. On April 25, 1925, the Lowmans’ tenant farm near Monetta was raided by police on a bootlegging tip.* The Lowmans resisted and a firefight broke out, leaving two dead: Annie Lowman, and Sheriff Henry Hampton “Bud” Howard.
Annie’s killing would of course never be punished. But inside of three weeks, fourteen-year-old Clarence Lowman was death-sentenced as Sheriff Howard’s killer, along with his cousin and “conspirator” 21-year-old Demmon Lowman. Bertha Lowman, Demmon’s older sister, received a life sentence.
And so Judge Lynch might rest easy.
Except that one year later, the South Carolina Supreme Court surprisingly threw out the Lowmans’ sentences as prejudicially obtained. The second trial began in October and right away the state suffered a setback when Judge Samuel Lanham threw out the murder case against Demmon Lowman.
Judge Lynch was wide awake now.
That very night — October 7 — white vigilantes organized a new verdict. According to the NAACP’s investigation, “within one hour of [Lanham’s] decision, news had been sent to as distant a point as Columbia that the three Lowmans were to be lynched that night.”
At 3 o’clock in the morning of October 8, and aided by the local constabulary, the mob stormed the jail and dragged Clarence, Demmon and Bertha Lowman away to a pine thicket outside of town where they were gunned down.
“On the way Clarence Lowman jumped from the car in which he was held,” the NAACP investigator would later report in the summation of his interviews.
He was shot down and recaptured, in order to prevent telltale blood marks, a rope was tied to the back of the car and the other end of it around Clarence’s body. In this manner he was dragged about a mile to the place of execution. The members of the mob sated that Bertha was the hardest one to kill. She was shot but not killed instantly. She dragged herself over the ground and as one member of the mob put it, ‘bleated like a goat.’ Another member of the mob, slightly more decent, said that she begged so piteously for her life and squirmed about so that a number of shots had to be fired before one found a vital spot and ended her agony.
Although the NAACP supplied South Carolina’s governor with the identities of 22 alleged members of the lynch mobs (including the sheriff himself) and 11 other witnesses to its actions, no man was ever sanctioned for this event, and an all-white grand jury declined to forward any indictments.
A distant Lowman relative was quoted in the Augusta Chronicle recollecting the stories his grandmother told about that horrible night, and the impression those stories had in his own life.
“She [grandma] talked about it all the time,” William Cue said. “Took them out of jail — drug them out like dead mules. When I drive past, I think about it — it happened in that house. … I learned something from that. … There was a lot of times where a man mistreated me and it kept me from doing anything.”
* It’s been argued by latter-day researchers that the tip itself was bogus, and supplied to police further to a personal vendetta — which, if true, would make the Lowmans victims of the 1920s version of SWATting.