The news of the Lowmans’ deaths stirred a firestorm of state and national outrage.
In the early hours of Friday, October 8, 1926, Bertha, twenty-seven years old; Demon, twenty-one; and Clarence Lowman, fourteen (a brother and sister and their first cousin, respectively), were taken from their cells in the Aiken County jail, herded into several “fully loaded” vehicles, and driven to a pine thicket on the outskirts of Aiken, where, according to one account, one thousand persons and several hundred cars waited. The Lowmans were ordered out and shot down by a fusillade of bullets. Demon and Clarence died immediately, but Bertha did not. Charlton Wright, editor of the Columbia Record, conjured the grisly image of the woman “clinging to her wretched life, squirming and dragging herself like a broken worm through the bushes, until killed by a merciful bullet through her head.” “The negroes,” reported the Aiken Standard, “were not swung up. Their bodies fell where they stood.” According to the coroner, Clarence died from a gunshot blast under the chin, Demon from a .38 revolver shot to the breast, and Bertha from a .38 revolver shot through the left ear. Eyewitnesses said that Aiken County sheriff Nollie Robinson administered the deathblow to Bertha.
Prisoners quartered in the Aiken County jail that night later swore that the Lowmans were forcibly taken from their cells by Sheriff Robinson, his deputy Arthur D. Sheppard, the jailer Rupert Taylor, state constable J. Percy Hart, and local traffic officer John B. Salley. Robinson and Taylor claimed to have been overpowered and knocked unconscious in the jail by a mob that cut the town’s electrical line. The darkness, they said, rendered their ability to make identifications impossible.
Eighteen months before, on April 25, 1925, then Aiken County sheriff Henry Hampton Howard, accompanied by his deputies Robinson, Sheppard, and Robert E. McElhaney, had raided the Lowman household near Monetta in search of illegal liquor. Howard and Annie Lowman, the mother of Bertha and Demon, were killed in the incident. No whiskey was found, and no one witnessed Howard’s death, but Sam Lowman, the patriarch (who was not home at the time), received a two-year sentence of hard labor for prohibition violation, while Clarence and Demon were sentenced to death, and Bertha to life imprisonment. N. J. Frederick of Columbia, one of a few practicing black attorneys in South Carolina at that time, appealed the sentences of Clarence, Demon, and Bertha to the S.C. Supreme Court and won a retrial. On October 7, 1926, at the close of a third day of testimony, presiding judge Samuel T. Lanham of Spartanburg directed a verdict of not guilty for Demon Lowman. It was widely suspected that Bertha and Clarence might be acquitted the following day.
The news of the Lowmans’ deaths stirred a firestorm of state and national outrage. Walter White, assistant secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, went to Aiken posing as a New York newspaper reporter. There he gathered startling information from two white residents of the Horse Creek Valley, home to Howard, Robinson, and Sheppard, that implicated the officers as Klansmen and the lynching (and possibly the 1925 liquor raid) as an act of Ku Klux Klan retribution. White convinced Herbert Bayard Swope, editor of the influential New York World, to send his own investigative journalist to Aiken to ferret out the details. On November 5, 1926, Oliver H. P. Garrett began filing a long series of sensational front-page accounts that portrayed Aiken County– home to an anomalous population of cotton mill workers, winter colonists such as the Vanderbilts and Whitneys, and a black majority population of agricultural laborers– a corrupt community managed with a heavy dose of Klan brutality.
In spite of Garrett’s revelations, South Carolina governor Thomas G. McLeod and his successor, John G. Richards, chose not to remove Sheriff Robinson from his post, nor to call a special grand jury to hear the state’s corroborative evidence. The recalcitrance of Aiken’s white citizens was starkly manifest in the county grand jury’s refusals to indict anyone for the murders. The Lowmans, the jury insisted, met their deaths “at the hands of parties unknown.”
Johnson, James Weldon. “Three Achievements and Their Significance.” Crisis 34 (September 1927): 222–23.
White, Walter. “I Investigate Lynchings.” American Mercury 16 (January 1929): 77–84.