Alabamiana: The Murder of Sloan Rowan, 1912

According to the Atlanta Constitution‘s coverage of his murder, Sloan Rowan was sitting on a stopped train in Montgomery’s Union Station, waiting to head home to the small community of Benton, in Lowndes County, when C. Walter Jones boarded the train, found Rowan, and unloaded both barrels of a shotgun “at close range.” As one could guess, “Rowan died almost immediately.”

At the time of the murder, in July 1912, Sloan Rowan was a merchant in Benton and a grand jury witness in an arson case against Jones, who was accused of burning several stores there. The accused man’s opposition to Rowan’s participation is evident in its degree of violence. That startling and grisly image of the shotgun-blast killing from the ominously titled article, “Hunted His Foe and Killed Him,” leads into an explanation of Jones’ next move, which may be even stranger than the first: rather than flee or try to shoot his way out, Jones then “walked to the county jail and gave himself up.” He was charged with murder.

I found the narrative about this startling event in Alabama history when I was thumbing through The Heritage of Lowndes County book in the Alabama Department of Archives & History’s Research Room. My mother’s maternal family line, the Taylors and the Deans, lived in Lowndes County through half of the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century, and I was fishing for information about them when I went right past the bold heading “The Murder of Sloan Rowan,” and flipped back. Though the tale of Rowan and Jones has nothing to do with my family, it was too compelling to ignore.

That section in The Heritage of Lowndes County is fairly short, only spanning a little more than one half-page column, and its content is heavily laden with quotes from news sources of the time. Jones, it says, was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death within two weeks, and his was “the first execution of a white man in Montgomery County since the Civil War.” Toward the end of the section, I learned that C. Walter Jones must’ve been a man to steer way clear of. Jones had killed another unarmed man from Benton, Charles Miller, in 1901, and he had shot a black man (but not killed him) in Montgomery in the 1890s. He was also known for “selling illegal whiskey.”

Despite his criminal predilections, Jones occupies an unenviable and fortuitous place in Alabama history: his botched hanging was a catalyst for Alabama’s use of the electric chair. When Jones was executed in April 1913, hanging was the method that Alabama used to carry out a death sentence. However, in his case, the rope that was used was either too long or it slipped, and Jones’ feet touched the ground. Rather than having his neck snapped by the impact the taut rope, which would have meant a quick and sudden death, Jones was strangled by the noose for more than thirty minutes.

According to coverage from Winston County, Alabama, at the time, that scene was common:

Under the system now in vogue, condemned men are hanged by the sheriff of the county in which they are convicted.  Very often the hanging is a failure and the victims die horrible deaths.

I don’t know how smart a person has to be to cut a piece of rope seven feet shorter than the distance to the ground, but it seems that some lawmen couldn’t do that math. Seeking a “more humane” way to execute convicted criminals, then-governor Emmet O’Neal called for the use of the electric chair, which was supposed to be better.

It was ten years after the botched execution of C. Walter Jones before Alabama’s legislature yielded to O’Neal’s suggestion. In 1923, the state’s governing assembly changed the form of execution, though the change was not implemented until 1927, and the so-called Yellow Mama become Alabama’s preferred tool for officially sanctioned ending of human lives. (According to al.com, Yellow Mama was painted that color because the highway department that constructed it used its abundant supply of road-striping paint.) Use of Yellow Mama continued until 2002.

Among its plethora of ongoing legal quagmires, Alabama’s continued employment of the death penalty is another questionable and still-unresolved matter. If news sources from a hundred years ago are to be believed, the logistical realities of the death penalty have long been recognized as flawed. While we must recognize the tragedy of the murder of an unarmed father and husband who was trying to play his role in serving justice against a well-known menace to society, the state’s role in carrying out justice for Sloan Rowan was no less tragic. (Remember, in 1913, Alabama was still in the thick of its cruel and highly immoral convict-lease system, which wasn’t abolished until 1928— roughly the same time as Yellow Mama was brought on the scene.) C. Walter Jones may have been a bootlegger, arsonist, and murderer, but what was done to him at the hands of the law was not much better than what he did to others.

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