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Local History: The Killing of Mack Howlett

By Ron Hall

David Calfee Howlett was born in Randolph County, NC and came to Carroll County with his parents before the Civil War. He served in the 29th Virginia Infantry and after the war, married Margaret Jennings in 1866. In September of 1867, their first child was born and according to the census record, they named him Floyd McP. Howlett, but he went by the name of “Mack.” Today, no one seems to know what his middle name truly was. He grew into a powerful man, six-feet-four and about 235 pounds.

Mack married Missouri Emmazetta Cox in 1889 and they had two children; Jeremiah, born in 1889 and Elbert, born in 1896. They lived on a small farm some four miles from Hillsville, their land adjoining that of Carr Allen in the Piper’s Gap District. Allen was a first cousin to the father of Floyd, Sidna and Jack Allen, who would later figure in the famous Courthouse Tragedy of 1912.

Carr Allen, born in 1842, served in the 51st VA during the Civil War. He was wounded in the ankle and captured by the Federals at Waynesboro on March 2, 1865. He was sent to Fort Delaware and kept until the end of the war. In December, 1865, he married Mary Ann Jones and by 1890 had fathered some ten children.

Allen had to pass along a road that went through Howlett’s property and there was a gate apparently separating the two. Stories later told of Allen or some of his family failing to keep the gate closed and Howlett’s cows would wander off.

Descendant stories vary as to the actual event and newspapers of the day did not go into great detail. According to local legend, Howlett’s wife said something to Allen one day about leaving the gate open and they had words which ended up in Allen slapping Mrs. Howlett. However, the ring of truth is not in this story because Mack Howlett was of short temper and was a physically imposing individual. This writer believes that Howlett would have sought physical retribution shortly afterward had this been the case.

What Howlett did, was to pass the word to Allen that he could not use the road anymore. Allen responded that he would take him with a warrant. In fact, Allen and his oldest sons, Lemuel and Lawrence, went to town to file a complaint on Sunday, May 29th 1898 and Howlett somehow got wind of it. Likely they did not encounter any legal authorities, it being Sunday; at least no record of their complaint has come to light.

Meanwhile, Howlett and his younger brother, Andrew, cut brush and piled it in the road, effectively blocking passage. Then, armed with shotguns, climbed a tree and watched for Allen’s return.

When Allen and his sons came to the roadblock, they began to clear the brush. The two Howlett brothers came out of the woods and Howlett told him, “Carr Allen, if you all do that, you do it at your own risk."

"I reckon I been doin’ things like that all my life,” retorted Allen, who continued to clear the brush. Mack Howlett raised his gun and shot Carr Allen, the shotgun blast nearly severing his arm at the shoulder. Some of the pellets scattered and wounded his two boys beside him. Then Howlett grabbed for his brother’s weapon to kill the two boys, but his brother, who was then twenty-two, wouldn’t let him have it. So the Howlett brothers left and went home.

Allen only lived a few minutes and then the boys went to town to seek the sheriff. Sheriff Jim Mitchell arrested the Howletts the next day and brought them into town where they were locked in the jail.

The killing was the subject on many a tongue that week and stories began to circulate of a possible lynching by Allen’s relatives. On Saturday, Sheriff Mitchell feared a mob might get liquored up and make an attempt to get to the Howlett men, so he moved them to the lower floor of the courthouse and hid them out. No mob came that night, so Mitchell returned them to jail on Sunday morning.

That night, or rather about 2:00 o’clock in the morning, a mob of about twenty men appeared at the jail and demanded the Howletts be brought out. The jailer was Thomas Burnett who refused to comply. He was struck on the head with a pistol and the keys were taken. Also present was another jailer, Thomas Wilburn Morris, whose first wife was a daughter of Floyd and Sidna Allen’s brother, Anderson. It is not clear what his response to the mob was, but the newspapers of the day hinted at some sympathy with the mob on his part.

Some versions of the story say Andrew Howlett climbed up between the chimney and an adjacent wall and was not discovered. Some versions say his brother pushed him up there to save him from the mob. Yet another version says the mob did not take him because he had tried to keep his brother from shooting the two young Allen men.

Howlett gave no resistance as they took him from the jail, so no rope was placed around his neck at that point. However, once in the jail yard, he began a "fight to the death," and being a powerful man physically, and in the prime of life, he knocked his assailants right and left.

He was wild and fought like a tiger. The lynchers tried in every way to down him, but they could not. The leader of the mob finally gave orders to shoot Howlett. He was about to escape when one man shot him through the head with a pistol and another through the heart with a shot-loaded hunting gun. Then the rest of the mob filled him with bullets. The appearance of the body afterwards showed that nearly all of the wounds were inflicted at close range.

The mob then quietly disbanded, leaving Howlett dead in the jail-yard. His remains were dressed the next morning and sent to his wife and children.

A coroner’s inquest was held and determined that Howlett had met his death by “unknown assailants.” The testimony of jailer Burnett was of no consequence, as he said it was dark and he could not recognize anyone of the mob. Burnett moved to West Virginia shortly afterward, but later returned to Carroll County.

Mack Howlett was buried in an unmarked grave at the Elijah Ogle Cemetery on route 52 between Hillsville and Coon Ridge. Old people say he was buried outside the fence, but the fence was later moved to include his grave.

His widow remarried Floyd Washington Robinson in 1906 and lived until 1947.

The newspapers of the day stated that this was the only lynching ever in Carroll County, but doubtless they were not considering the number of black people who were illegally killed in the county before the abolishment of slavery.

No one was ever prosecuted for the killing of Mack Howlett, but many locals believed that Floyd Allen was most certainly the leader of the mob who killed him. Fourteen years later, Floyd would be involved in the courthouse tragedy at Hillsville and Andrew Howlett, a spectator in the courtroom that day, was wounded in the shooting.

He moved to West Virginia afterward and died in 1948 in Versailles, Indiana.

Thus ended one of the most horrific episodes in the county’s history.