Howard Cooper was an African American resident in Towson, Maryland, who was accused of the assault, rape, and attempted murder of Kate Gray, a sixteen-year-old white girl, on April 2nd, 1885. According to the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project, Cooper was about fifteen years old, but he was reported to be between twenty to twenty-four when he was captured. The crime reported to the authorities was that Cooper encountered Gray on a country road in Towson and called her by her name, indicating the two knew each other. After Gray ignored him, she claimed that Cooper followed her and beat her, then proceeded to drag her into the woods where she reported that he assaulted her over a three-hour period. According to the Archives of Maryland, the assault supposedly came to an end after Cooper fled the scene due to one of Gray’s dogs finding them in the woods and scaring Cooper away.
Cooper was found four days later and jailed in Baltimore City. His trial took place in the Criminal Court of Baltimore City on May 20, 1885. Cooper was found guilty after only one minute of deliberation and was scheduled to be hanged on July 3rd. On June 30th, he was moved to the Towson jail to await execution. Even though Cooper confessed to the crime and accepted his sentence, his lawyers, William G. Weld and A. Robinson White, believed that his civil rights had been violated since he was found guilty by an entirely white jury, who immediately gave its verdict. Cooper appealed to the Maryland Court of Appeals, which upheld the original ruling. This led to his lawyers trying to take the case to the Supreme Court, arguing that there had been a violation of Cooper’s 14th and 15th Amendment rights, as well as his civil rights, but the case never reached this instance.
While Cooper’s lawyers were in the process of taking his case to the Supreme Court, the members of the white community were enraged and demanded that the hanging be carried out before the case reached the Supreme Court. They were afraid that the Supreme Court would rule in Cooper’s favor, and he would be set free. According to the Maryland Journal News published on July 18, 1885, groups of masked men were seen in Towson around eleven o’clock on Sunday, July 12. It was reported that the mob consisted of seventy-five armed and masked men, and most of them were not from Towson or Baltimore. The Baltimore County Union reported that the men came from the third district, where Gray’s family lived. The mob used a flagpole to break in through the back door of the jail. Sheriff Knight and watchman William Nelson were largely overpowered. The lynchers broke into Cooper’s cell and dragged him out with a rope around his neck. As it was described by a reporter from The Baltimore Sun who was at the scene, they hanged Cooper from the nearest tree right outside of the jail, with as many as forty men pulling on the rope.
On May 8, 2021, the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project placed a historical marker right outside of the old Towson jail, where Cooper was lynched on the early morning of Monday July 13, 1885, to publicly acknowledge the injustice of one out of the more than forty racial terror lynchings that took place in Maryland between 1854 and 1933.