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100 years later: Sensationalized Fountain case appears consigned to obscurity

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EASTON — “Isaiah Fountain will be executed at Easton on Friday, July 23.”

That is the entirety of the item published in the Kent News on July 17, 1920. One sentence, including one name, one action, one place and one date — there is no “why,” no context.

The case of Isaiah Fountain, a Black man from the unincorporated village of Williamsburg just south of Easton, made national headlines. Accounts were published out west in Utah and Arizona, and parts in between. New England papers picked it up, as did their counterparts in the South.

“Isaiah Fountain will be executed at Easton on Friday, July 23.”

More than 30 miles north of Easton in the days of Model T Ford, readers were expected to be so familiar with Fountain’s case that no more needed to be said about it than a single sentence stating that he would be executed in a week.

Ask around today though about Fountain’s story — a case that included an attempted lynching, two escapes, a retrial, treatment that led to an inquest about the sheriff and finally his death by hanging — and the common refrain is, “I’m not familiar with that case.”

Richard Potter grew up and attended public schools in Talbot County. Now he is the head of the county’s chapter of the NAACP. Being approached to discuss Fountain’s case as the anniversary of his death neared, was the first Potter had heard of it. It made him curious to learn more about the case and raised questions for him as to how it faded from local history.

“Why did it get erased from the history books?” he said in an interview Tuesday, July 21.

Modern references to Fountain’s case include “On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century” by Sherrilyn A. Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund; “Injustice on the Eastern Shore: Race and the Hill Murder Trial” by former Kent County News editor Kevin Hemstock; and as part of a timeline included in an appendix to the Port Street Small Area Master Plan for Easton.

Opinions issued by the Maryland Court of Appeals, one in Fountain’s favor and one against, can be found online. A search of a Library of Congress site aimed at preserving historic newspapers yields 158 editions from a host of different newspapers — from The Star Democrat in Easton to The Phoenix Tribune out in Arizona — between 1919 and 1922 telling the story of Fountain’s case.

“The Isaiah Fountain case was one of the most notorious on the Shore during the early part of the twentieth century, and it threw Talbot County into the state spotlight,” Ifill wrote in her 2007 book.

To begin at the end, Fountain was hanged in Easton at 3 a.m. July 23, 1920 — 100 years ago today. He had been found guilty of sexually assaulting a 13- or 14-year-old girl, the accounts vary between papers, near Trappe on April 1 or 2, 1919.

In her book “On the Courthouse Lawn,” Ifill writes that Fountain “was no cowering, timid farmhand.”

“He hired himself to work on white-owned farms, yes, but he also owned a small farm himself, a horse, some livestock, and a buggy,” she wrote.

While a doctor reportedly confirmed that the girl was raped, Fountain maintained his innocence saying that he was in New Jersey at the time.

As reported by The Washington Times on April 3, 1919, Sheriff James L. Stitchberry named Fountain as the suspect based on the girl’s description and “traced” his whereabouts to Camden, N.J.

“I expect to hear of his arrest at any time,” Stitchberry said.

Meanwhile, The Washington Times reported, “posses, armed with shotguns and revolvers, scoured and beat the woods in the vicinity in search of the girl’s assailant.”

Stories of Fountain’s arrest vary between publications. On April 8, 1919, The Washington Times reported his arrest in Camden, while on April 12, 1919, the Kent News said he was taken into custody in West Chester, Pa. Discrepancies such as the girl’s age and where Fountain was arrested continue throughout the historical coverage.

What is not disputed is the threat to Fountain’s safety that arose immediately upon his being named a suspect — a threat that came to very real fruition less than a month after he was arrested. In an effort to ensure his protection in the days following Fountain’s arrest, the sheriff had him held in Baltimore rather than Easton.

“A net of circumstantial evidence has been woven around Fountain, and feeling against the alleged assailant was so strong in Easton that the sheriff deemed it safer to have the man placed in a local police station,” the Kent News reported April 12, 1919 of the decision to hold Fountain in Baltimore.

On April 14, 1919, a grand jury indicted Fountain.

“The grand jury examined witnesses and found an indictment against Fountain. The little girl, although she did not know Fountain, picked his photograph from seven or eight thrown on the table. The court set next Wednesday for his trial,” reported The Evening Journal of Wilmington, Del. on April 14, 1919.

Fountain’s trial was set to start April 21, 1919. The Baltimore Sun described Talbot County being “at fever heat” the day prior.

“Hundreds of persons from the lower end of the Eastern Shore peninsula arrived in Easton this afternoon for the trial, and it is expected that practically every resident of Talbot county will come to this city tomorrow morning,” The Sun reported.

Fountain reportedly had to be “smuggled” to Easton from the Baltimore jail by way of “a clever ruse.”

According to The Sun, Fountain laid out his defense stating that he had gone to Philadelphia, just across the Delaware River from Camden to search for his wife, who he said had deserted him and taken his money. The article states that Fountain went to the chief of police in Talbot County and asked him to accompany him on his trip and arrest his wife.

“State’s Attorney Charles J. Butler today said he has 15 witnesses who will testify as to the guilt of Fountain, in addition to the testimony of the child,” the article states. “State’s Attorney Butler says Fountain knew he was liable to be arrested at any time and charged with the crime and was planning his defense when he asked the chief to accompany him to Philadelphia, knowing full well that the local policeman would not go.”

According to the Kent News, the girl’s testimony of her attack was made in private, “given in the presence of the court, counsel and newspaper men.” The report said she did not “falter in her accusation” and under cross-examination “her testimony was unshaken.”

It should be noted that the girl’s name is listed throughout the articles on the case.

“She picked Fountain out of eight photographs shown her and then picked him out in the room. She studied him (in) a death-like silence for three minutes before she said, ‘That’s the man.’ She said there was a difference in his appearance and that he had shaved off his mustache and this was true,” the Kent News article states.

Ifill, who also is a law school professor, questions much of the testimony against Fountain, citing a June 6, 1919 article by the Afro-American. Ifill argues that the girl’s identification of Fountain “is so filled with contradictions that it would not stand up in court today, or perhaps even in 1919, but for the fact that Fountain was black.”

Ifill wrote that the buggy the assailant was driving was new, while Fountain’s was old and ramshackle. She wrote that when the girl was taken to view buggies, she picked out one belonging to another man, Andrew Mills, who had loaned it to someone else, Richard Wells, on the day of her attack.

“Wells was never arrested, according to the sheriff, because ‘popular clamor was for Fountain,’” Ifill wrote, quoting the Afro-American. “Fountain reportedly told black reporters of the Afro-American that he had a history with the white state’s attorney, who months earlier had threatened to ‘get’ Fountain after he was released from serving a one-year term for driving an unshod horse.”

Ifill also wrote that Fountain maintained his innocence during the trial, that he was not shaken on cross-examination.

“But as it was during the Jim Crow era, Fountain’s self-possession probably worked against him with the all-white jury, and certainly with the townspeople of Easton,” she wrote. “Fountain did not play the role of the frightened black defendant in a script that was familiar to whites during this period.”

It was at the end of the trial’s first day — no verdict, just a courtroom identification — that Fountain made his first escape with a lynch mob having formed as he was being led from the Talbot County Courthouse to the sheriff’s house behind it.

An Associated Press report offered details of the lynching attempt and Fountain’s escape in a news brief that ran in papers throughout the country. Officers reportedly pushed Fountain into the sheriff’s house while holding back the mob. He then escaped through an open window.

“He got several hours’ start of his pursuers, owing to the fact that the mob refused to believe he had gotten away,” the AP reported.

A $5,000 reward was offered for Fountain’s capture, unharmed.

Jumping ahead a bit, Fountain’s case appeared before the Maryland Court of Appeals twice. His first appeal sought a new trial. The lynching attempt and the handling of his escape were the major thrusts of his attorneys’ arguments.

The opinion in the first Court of Appeals case offers greater detail of the attempted lynching that occurred April 21, 1919.

It states that the court in Easton did not adjourn until 10 p.m. and while Fountain was being taken through the crowd of 2,000 people to the jail, “a determined effort, accompanied by personal violence inflicted upon him, was made to take him from the custody of the officers of the law and lynch him, this purpose being openly declared by members of the crowd some of whom were armed with various weapons and provided with ropes.”

Court records state that the “Presiding Judge of the Court” in Easton, Chief Judge William H. Adkins, offered the reward for Fountain’s recapture and “suggested to the Sheriff in open court the swearing in of all assembled as deputy sheriffs for that purpose.” Among those reportedly sworn in was Fountain’s attorney, Eugene O’Dunne of Baltimore.

Stories of the manhunt for Fountain ran far and wide. The Washington Times — again with no verdict rendered — had already taken to referring to Fountain as a “fiend” in its headlines as in “Escaped fiend still eludes big posses,” published April 22, 1919 and “Hunt for fiend in Washington,” which ran the very next day.

On April 23, 1919, news spread, with even the Topeka Daily State Journal of Kansas picking it up, of Fountain’s capture in Hartly, Del.

The April 26, 1919 edition of the Kent News offered a detailed account of Fountain’s capture. The report lauded a former Kent County resident, Officer Frank McCloskey of the Baltimore police, for his role in returning Fountain to custody.

According to the report, Fountain ran from the sheriff’s house a couple of blocks, making it to “the open country.” There, a Black man driving a carriage agreed to take Fountain about 12 miles toward the state line. Fountain reportedly hid during the day and walked at night before arriving at the home of a Black farmer near Hartly.

Search parties reported to officers that a Black man had “appeared for alms” at the house. While officers did not find Fountain in the house, he was discovered hiding in hay in the barn.

“A frightened look was in his eyes as he quaked: ‘Please don’t let them hang me!’” the Kent News reported.

The Kent News described Fountain’s return to custody as a “thrill that extended from one end of the Eastern Shore to the other,” stating that with every town in a 200-mile radius on the lookout, “a feeling of relaxation came with the word of the re-arrest.”

Fountain’s trial resumed, with added the protection of troops sent in by Gov. Emerson Harrington. The Evening Public Ledger of Philadelphia reported that martial law had been declared.

The Evening Journal of Wilmington reported April 25, 1919, that the jury was out nine minutes before returning with a guilty verdict. It reportedly took the judges presiding that day, Adkins and Lewis W. Wickes of Kent County, about 10 minutes before they agreed to sentence Fountain to death.

“I’m as innocent of this crime as any man in the courtroom,” Fountain said, adding that he knew the jury would never believe the word of a Black man, according to The Evening Journal. “I don’t blame the court and the jury, and I pray to the good God that he will bless them both. They are not to blame, and I am sure that I can make my peace with my Maker.”

While the article describes him as being stoic in the courtroom, it goes on to describe Fountain being overcome by emotion upon reaching his cell.

“He threw himself down on the long, narrow wooden cot and wept bitterly,” The Evening Journal reported.

Fountain’s attorneys sought and were granted by the Court of Appeals a new trial for their client. They argued that Fountain could not have received a fair trial upon his return to court. They said the lynching attempt and the announcement of his escape to the jury prejudiced any further proceedings.

The Court of Appeals agreed to a retrial in an opinion issued July 17, 1919.

Judge Hammond Urner wrote in the court’s opinion that all of it — “the menacing crowd,” “the flight of the defendant,” “the unusual measures taken by the Court to insure his safety when recaptured” — “combined to create an atmosphere and environment incompatible with the right of the accused to a fair and impartial trial.”

“It is natural that popular wrath and indignation should be aroused by such an atrocious offense as this record discloses. But the identification and punishment of the criminal must be left to the careful and regular processes of the law, however deep and just may be the public sense of horror at the crime,” Urner wrote.

A petition to change the venue of the retrial was denied by the Court of Appeals on Oct. 29, 1919.

Judge John R. Pattison opined that the court was not authorized to allow for a change of venue under current statue. Pattison’s opinion argues that indictments are not included within the definition of court “actions” the law allows for a change in venue upon the granting of a retrial.

Ultimately, the case did receive a change in venue, as the Talbot County court sent Fountain’s new trial to Baltimore County, with fears of mob violence being reported.

Testimony in the new trial, held in Towson in May 1920, included a farrier who spoke about how the hoof prints found at the scene of the crime matched horseshoes he made for Fountain; they likewise matched the shoes he had made for other horses.

A woman described as the common-law wife of Fountain’s brother testified as well. She reportedly said that while Fountain was at his brother’s home in West Chester, Pa., he “showed unmistakable signs of fear and nervousness,” according to a report in the May 8, 1920 edition of The Washington Herald.

“When asked about the cause of his nervousness, she said the defendant asserted that he had ‘run over a white girl and did not know how badly she had been hurt,” the paper reported.

Another guilty verdict was returned and he was again sentenced to die.

“The prisoner laughed as sentence was pronounced,” The Washington Herald reported May 9, 1920.

Charles M.T. Soulsby had at this point succeeded Stitchberry as Talbot County sheriff. Soulsby debated whether Fountain’s hanging should be public or private as preparations for the event got underway.

“The scaffold which has been used for several hangings in Caroline county has been borrowed by Sheriff Soulsby, of Talbot county, to be used in the execution of Isaiah Fountain,” reported The Midland Journal of Rising Sun on June 11, 1920.

Days after that report, three circus workers in Duluth, Minn. were lynched. Fountain shared headlines the next morning, July 16, 1920, with the announcement of his second escape from the Easton jail.

According to a June 19, 1920 Kent News report, a trusty of the Easton jail passed a steel file to an inmate that was then passed it on to Fountain, who used it on the bars of his window.

As the search wore on, threats against Fountain grew. One newspaper reported a member of a posse threatening to shoot him; another wrote that the sheriff may need to bring more men under his command to protect Fountain from lynching.

Fountain was recaptured June 22, 1920 after being spotted by a little girl in Queen Anne and then chased to a swamp by the nearby Tuckahoe Creek, according to The Daily Banner of Cambridge.

“Isaiah Fountain will be executed at Easton on Friday, July 23,” reported the Kent News on July 17, 1920, offering no more information than that.

In the preceding month, Fountain’s name and stories of his second escape and capture made national headlines. In July, the date of his death was approaching.

Fountain reportedly sought to die on his own terms, rather than face the gallows.

The Washington Times, which erroneously named him as a “slayer” in a July 17, 1920 headline, reported that he sought poison from family members. The Evening Capital reported that Fountain tried to cut his own throat and attempted to hang himself in his cell prior to his execution.

Fountain’s execution, held at 3 a.m., was private. He maintained his innocence.

“Fountain was hung on a gallows in the Talbot County jail on July 23, 1920, the jail where Frederick Douglass had been held eighty-three years earlier as a runaway slave,” Ifill wrote in “On the Courthouse Lawn.”

Citing a Baltimore Sun report, Ifill wrote that even with his execution imminent, Fountain was at risk of mob justice.

“On the night before his execution, a crowd of three to four hundred men again assembled on the courthouse lawn and made their way to the jail. Some used a log as a battering ram and unsuccessfully attempted to storm the jail to get at Fountain,” Ifill wrote.

Fountain’s death on the gallows was not the end of the matter. A month later, calls came for an inquest into Soulsby’s treatment of Fountain. Gov. Albert Ritchie was among those who wrote Adkins seeking an inquest.

“It has been alleged that Fountain who denied having committed the assault, even as the noose was being placed on his neck a few seconds before the trap was sprung, was beaten by Sheriff C.M.T. Soulsby because he persisted in saying he was innocent of the crime,” The Evening Journal reported Aug. 26, 1920.

Adkins, according to a Nov. 16, 1920 report in The Evening Journal, said that if the stories were true, Soulsby should face “the highest punishment the law affords,” while adding that the sheriff denied the allegations. A grand jury was convened to investigate.

In 1922, Soulsby was sued by six members of Fountain’s family.

“The six were arrested following Fountain’s escape from the Easton jail on June 15, 1920, and held until after his capture in Hillsboro, on June 22. They were believed at the time to have aided in his escape, but later were exonerated,” The Washington Times reported April 29, 1922.

In his book “Injustice on the Eastern Shore,” Hemstock wrote that Fountain’s case played a role in Maryland ending local executions, with legislation passed in 1922 moving them to a gallows in the state penitentiary.

Fountain’s case received a mention in a Star Democrat article dated March 18, 1938 with the headline “Type of men for sheriff is criticized.” The article is about a speech given by then State’s Attorney Oliver S. Mullikan to local Rotary Club members about men leading law enforcement offices while having little legal knowledge.

The reference to Fountain comes as Mullikan complains that the case reportedly cost the county $7,500.

On April 24, 1981, The Star Democrat ran a story in the Weekend Magazine that offered a longtime Talbot County resident’s reflections on Fountain’s case. The man was Jospeh Sutton, who had provided an oral history of his 95 years in Talbot County to anthropologist and author Shepard Krech III.

Sutton is quoted as saying he did not know if Fountain was innocent or guilty, nor did he know anything about whether he received a fair trial.

“But he didn’t get fair treatment. If he was supposed to be hung, he should have been hung. He was killed in Easton before they ever put him on the gallows. Man bust his head with a stick just as he was ready to go on the gallows,” Sutton reportedly said.

The article states that Sutton’s memory is not entirely accurate on this episode. But what of that inquest into the sheriff’s treatment of Fountain? Could this be what was referenced but not stated in the letters and articles?

And this is where the trail of memories grows cold.

In discussing the case July 21, Potter said he could see through various lenses how “dust kind of covered” Fountain’s case over as the decades rolled on.

He said that among the African American community, it could have been a story that died out over time as members did not want to relive that experience.

“It’s one of those experiences that is just suppressed. And then as those older members died out and they did not talk about it, it just faded away with the recesses of time,” Potter said.

He said it also could be that since the lynching attempts were unsuccessful, the story failed to retain its traction, again leading it to fade from consciousness.

But to bring it back up, to learn the history of the case, can inform discussions today of the Black Lives Matter movement and the issue of whether to take down the Talbot Boys statue. The latter is the Confederate monument, erected just three years before Fountain’s case began. It stands in front of the courthouse where Fountain stood trial, on the lawn where a mob of 2,000 tried to lynch him before he was ever found guilty.

“Between 1900 and 1935 courthouse lawns on the Eastern Shore were routinely sites of lynchings or near lynchings, involving the participation of hundreds and sometimes thousands of white onlookers,” Ifill wrote in her book.

Ifill also wrote about the complicity of local newspapers in their coverage of lynchings on the Shore, failing to condemn such actions.

“When a black person was accused of a violent crime against a white person, local papers placed these stories prominently on the front page,” she wrote. “The more brutal the crime alleged to have been committed by a black assailant, the more whites could feel justified in subjecting the black defendant to the barbarity of a lynching.”

Just a glance at some of the headlines in Fountain’s case highlight that. Remember The Washington Times headline that referred to him as a “slayer” despite the fact Fountain was never alleged to have killed anyone?

Potter said that while lynch mobs are thought to have belonged in the South, they were prevalent in the North as well. He said residents in Talbot County had a very Southern behavior as evidenced by the Talbot Boys statue and the attempts against Fountain to enforce mob justice through lynching.

“And yet that Confederate monument on the courthouse lawn continues to perpetuate that ideology and that notion,” Potter said. “You take a look at that and you take a look at the monument and you take a look at the Black Lives Matter movement and I think it all goes hand in hand.”

In her book, Ifill discusses earlier Talbot Boys’ debates and the fight to get a statue of Frederick Douglass, the famed abolitionist and statesman who was born into slavery in Talbot County, placed on the courthouse lawn.

“Public spaces have yet to become part of the formal reparation or racial-reconciliation conversations for black Americans. It is a curious omission because in towns all over the United States, and not only on the Eastern Shore, public spaces were used to enforce the message of white supremacy, often violently,” Ifill wrote.

Kent County News Editor Daniel Divilio’s brother serves on the Talbot County Council, which is facing renewed calls for the removal of the Talbot Boys statue.

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