The Hanging of Solomon Sudler

Author’s note: This story is true, and I tell it to the best of my ability. Any assumptions made are denoted as such, and any facts have been taken from court records, census data and newspaper reports. Where possible I link to sources, and where it is not I cite them in the text. I clearly separate facts from opinion. This is not a scholarly history and will likely always be a work in progress.

There are some questions about where—and how—our story starts, but we know
where it ends. On April 14, 1916, at 6 a.m., Solomon Sudler1, an
18-year-old black man, was led from the stone building that served as
the Carroll County, Md. jail to a recently-constructed scaffold. His
arms and legs were bound and a hood was placed over his head. A
chaplain said a prayer, and at 6:05 a.m. the trapdoor fell away.
Fifteen minutes later Sudler was pronounced dead. He was the third
person to be executed in Carroll County and would be the last.

 Who was Solomon Sudler?

We don’t know much about Sudler. He was born in 1898 in Baltimore and
by 1900 was living with his aunt and uncle in the third Ward, which is
roughly the area now known as Little Italy. An
American Sentinel article on his execution referred to him as an
orphan survived by a sister, brother and
grandmother
.
Sometime before 1916 he was sent to the House of Reformation &
Instruction for Colored Children, which is now the Cheltenham Youth
Facility
.
After that he ended up working for William F. Brown, a farmer in
Carroll County. Several newspaper stories suggest that Sudler was
paroled from Cheltenham

to work for Brown, but none mention what crime put him in the
reformatory in the first place.
At his execution he was described as about 6 feet tall and well-built, as one might expect from a young man who’d spent at least two years working as a farm laborer.

I’ve only been able to find one photograph of Sudler, and sadly it is not available online. It shows a handsome, sad-eyed young man. There’s no date on the photo, which was published alongside a newspaper account of his execution, but it seems likely that it was taken during his captivity in Westminster.

 The murder

On Jan. 1, 1916, Brown was found dead on his farm in Silver Run, Md.,
a small community a few miles away from the Mason-Dixon line, which
serves as the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania. The Adams
County News
, a paper based in nearby Littletown, Pa., said Brown was
28, successful and well-liked by
neighbors
.

Newspapers reported that he was killed with a cobblestone or possibly
an axe. Sudler was captured a few days later. Witnesses said they saw
him riding the horse that was used to drag Brown’s body into a thicket
on the farm, and once apprehended, Sudler gave a written
confession

in which he said he stuck Brown with a stone because Brown had cursed
him the day before for not getting out of bed on time. The Democratic
Advocate
, a long-defunct paper that isn’t available online, asserted
that Sudler later said he murdered Brown because Brown had made him
wash the baby’s
diapers
.

A newspaper account expressed fear that Sudler might be lynched. This
was no idle worry. In 1885 a black man accused of assaulting a white
woman was dragged from the county jail in Westminster and hanged from
a tree. The New York
Times
reported on that case in detail. In fact,
Sudler was held in the Baltimore jail until his trial began, even
after he was indicted

for first-degree murder. He didn’t return until late
January
,
when his trial was set to begin, though the judge’s illness pushed
back the start date.

 The Trial

The indictment handed down by a grand jury also said Sudler used a
stone to kill Brown, but shortly before the trial began, Brown’s
father-in-law had the body exhumed and re-examined. The autopsy
determined that Brown had been killed with a shotgun. The Sentinel
alone makes the claim that Sudler confessed once
more
,
this time explaining how he lay in wait for his employer and shot him
in the back of the head. It’s difficult to understand how a doctor in
the early 20th Century, even in as rural a place as Silver Run, Md.,
could miss a dozen or more pellets of shot, but no mention is made of
a previous autopsy.

Sudler’s trial began in mid February in what’s now the Carroll County Historic Courthouse. From 1838, when Carroll was formed from parts of Frederick and Baltimore counties, until 1979 when the county built a new courthouse complex, it was the only courthouse2. Built in the Greek Revival style with a cupola and broad colonnaded front porch, the imposing brick edifice contrasts sharply with the rough stone jail that resembles a farmhouse, but the two buildings were at the time the seat of justice for the county.

The courthouse porch still serves as the location of property auctions today, and until 1865, when slavery ended in Maryland3, it was the site of slave auctions, as well. Sudler’s trial took place in the courtroom upstairs, a room with high plaster ceilings, rows of benches for spectators, a curved, ornate wooden bar to separate the lawyers and judges from the spectators and a high, carved wooden bench from which judges could preside over cases.4

The trial was short. Prosecutors produced witnesses to testify to the
Brown’s cause of death, his body’s discovery and Sudler’s flight from
the region. The defense produced an alienist5 to testify Sudler was
of below-average intelligence and maturity. They also offered the fact
he was young6 , but the judges found him guilty of first-degree
murder, and sentenced him to death. Several newspapers call that the
“automatic punishment” for the crime, and indeed it once was, but in
1908, judges were given discretion and allowed to impose life
imprisonment
.

Sudler didn’t testify in his own defense, and the Frederick County
News
noted his strange demeanor.

Sudler’s demeanor since his arrest has been a puzzle to all who have seen him. In the jail he played the mouth organ and frequently sang, while now and then he would indulge in a dance. The trial did not in any way break down this bold attitude.

Between late January and mid-April, when he was executed, Sudler was
held in the Carroll County Jail, a stone building dating to 1837. It
has thick stone walls with narrow windows still covered by wrought
iron bars. The basement still contains a cellblock, with thick bars.

 The Execution

There was no appeal for Sudler. On March 8, the governor issued a
warrant that called for Sudler to be hanged in “as private a manner as
possible.” This would prove to be difficult. On March 24, the
Gettysburg Sun-Sentinel reported that the hanging might not be
public and that many citizens were applying for permission to view
it
.

And, indeed, the sheriff had an enclosure built behind the jail, with
a high fence surrounding it to keep the execution private. It proved
ineffective.

The night before his execution Sudler was visited by his grandmother
and a preacher, had a cigar and slept
soundly
.
As he and the inhabitants of the jail slept, however, a crowd was at
work dismantling portions of the fence surrounding the gallows. By 5
a.m. a crowd of more than 200 was
present
.
The Adams County News reported that the sheriff considered calling
off the execution, but convinced the crowd to be well-behaved and then
had Sudler brought out.

Newspaper reports
agree that Sudler was stoic as he faced the hangman. His arms and legs
were bound, a hood was slipped over his head and the noose was put in
place. A prayer was said, the trapdoor was released and he fell. His
neck snapped and he likely died instantly. His body spun after it fell
until a guard stopped its
rotation
.
His sister took his body back to Baltimore for burial and, according
to the Adams County
News

the general feeling was that justice had been served.7

No one present could have known, of course, but Sudler would be the
last person hanged in Carroll County8 . Starting in 1922 all executions
in Maryland took place in the state
penitentiary
.
And 20 years later another black man, Rainey Bethea, would become the
last person publicly executed in the
U.S.
.

 What we don’t know

The first question, of course, is whether Sudler was guilty. There’s
no definitive answer to that question. He confessed, but that
confession—-at least the one published in newspapers-—lacked details
and got the method of killing wrong. If the murder had taken place
today he would still be a prime suspect, but without a complete
forensic investigation, it’s impossible to know the truth of the
matter. It’s entirely plausible that Sudler found the body and fled in
a panic, believing he would be blamed. It’s equally plausible that he
did, indeed, kill Brown. His lawyers certainly never suggested that he hadn’t committed the murder, and no report ever offered another suspect. But one thing is clear: If the murder had taken place today, he almost certainly would not have been executed, if for no other reason than he was 17 at the time of the crime.

Other questions are equally unanswerable: What was Sudler’s mental
state? Was he, as his lawyer and a doctor claimed, immature or even
mentally disabled? Were the singing and dancing manifestations of
callousness, not understanding what was going on around him or of some
kind of mental illness?

There are no objective answers to many of these, especially given our
evolving notions of justice and culpability.

And none of these touch on the topic of race. Did the fact that
Sudler, who was black, was accused of killing a white man have any
impact on the case or the sentence handed down? How did it affect
public perception of the crime and punishment at the time?9

Then there’s the question of why Sudler was working for Brown in the
first place. Why was he sent to Cheltenham, and why was he paroled to
work on a farm? Our notions of proper juvenile justice have evolved,
as well, which makes it hard to understand what happened 96 years ago.

And finally, we know absolutely nothing of Sudler’s interior life. We have descriptions of him and his actions—filtered, of course through the racial prejudices of the turn of the century—but we have no words we know to be authentically his. Even when he was in court, newspapers reported that he signaled he didn’t want to make a statement before sentencing, but didn’t quote him—if, indeed, he said anything. We don’t know what Sudler thought about his life or the charges he was facing.10

There is one thing we know for sure: Anyone who knew what happened
that New Year’s Day in rural Maryland is dead. Brown, Sudler, Sudler’s
lawyers and friends are all long dead, as are everyone who had
anything to do with the case, and, likely anyone who would have any
memory of the hanging itself.

And as unlikely as it would have seemed at the time, Sudler, a young
black man who convicted of murder, became part of
history when he died, and nearly 100 years later at least some people
remember his name.


1: There is some confusion about the spelling of his last name, with some newspapers and court records rendering it “Sutler” while most newspapers and all census records render it “Sudler.” I’ve chosen to use the latter, but without a birth certificate (and possibly not even then), it’s impossible to tell the correct spelling.

2: For more on the history of the courthouse, an article written by yours truly is available online.

3: Maryland was a border state, and since it did not secede, the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t apply and slavery wasn’t outlawed until the 13th Amendment took effect in December 1865.

4: More than 20 years later, that courtroom would be the site of the case that led to Betts v. Brady, in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that indigent defendants did not have to be provided counsel in non-capital cases. That would be the law of the land until 1963’s Gideon v. Wainwright.

5: That is, a psychiatrist.

6: Census records indicate he was 17 and would turn 18 in March 1916, but some newspapers give his age as 19 and others report that he claimed to be 16.

7: And in the ever-parochial manner of local papers, it also noted the gallows used had been purchased from Adams County for $25.

8: There were two other hangings in the county, Rebecca McCormack, a slave, was hanged in 1859, and a white man named Joseph Davis was hanged in 1874. Carroll County native Jesse Glass wrote a free e-book about slavery in Carroll County in general and the McCormack case in particular. There is a terribly garbled OCR transcript of the proceedings in the Davis case available at archive.org. No such record is available for the Sudler case, and it’s unclear if a transcript survived. The one in the Davis case survived because the conviction was appealed. Despite the newspaper’s praise of Sudler’s lawyers as doing an able job, it appears they didn’t appeal the case. Perhaps because it was heard by a three-judge panel instead of a jury an appeal would have been more difficult. I was able to obtain some records, including the grand jury indictment and certification that the death sentence was carried out, through the kindness of Donald Sealing, the Clerk of the Carroll County Circuit Court. I was also able to obtain some newspaper records through the hard work of Kevin Dayhoff.

9: I spent five years as a journalist in Carroll County, and have a somewhat dim view of race relations in the extremely conservative, almost entirely white county, but that pertains to early 21st century America, not early 20th century America. That is not to excuse the self-evident racism that shows up in newspaper reports and likely reflects the mood of the time.

10: For that matter, black voices are entirely absent from nearly all of the coverage of the murder, trial and execution. We know a black woman notified police that she’d spotted Sudler, and we know his sister and grandmother were in Westminster to retrieve his body, but none of these were interviewed, or if they were, their words were not published.

 
12
Kudos
 
12
Kudos

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