The case of John Langster, or Lancaster, turned up in a search through ProQuest Historical Newspaper database for killings in the District involving police. On August 16, 1885, “a small policeman” shot and killed “a powerful black man” — see this 1885 story — and coverage mentions a previous incident: “the death of Police Officer Fowler, who was shot by the colored man Langster with the policeman’s own pistol” (The Evening Star story of August 17, 1885).
In 1884, Langster/Lancaster was charged with killing a police officer after an attempted escape from a chain gang. This is first reported on page 4 of The Evening Star, September 9, 1884. Several additional stories appear about John Langster and John H. Fowler, the officer who was killed. The Washington Post also covers the story, with a slightly different focus (more below).
The New York Times mentions the Langster case briefly: “A Policeman Murdered” (September 10, 1884) and “John Langster Hanged. Policeman John H. Fowler’s Death Avenged” (May 15, 1885), plus a few short notes on the trial. Papers in Milwaukee, St. Louis, San Francisco, and other cities mentioned the case as well. All reports stress that a “negro” was convicted of killing “an officer” (whose whiteness is unmarked).
Most reports stress that John H. Fowler was “doing his duty” as a “dedicated officer.” The Evening Star, in particular, describes Fowler as a family man from the west end; the name of his father-in-law is invoked often. The accused is called “brutal” and both “insane” and “playing crazy.” He is described as a “negro desperado,” a “rough,” and/or a “vicious looking mulatto.” Only near the close of the first Evening Star article do we learn anything about the accused: He was just out of St. Elizabeth’s, educated only through reform school, and is either 21 or 18 (both are reported, no corrections).
The good news: Reporting as far back as 1851 is available on-line for free. The challenge: Older articles are available only as PDFs, which makes sharing a little difficult. Plus, the material, while widely accessible, is copyrighted. Sharing a few pieces here for educational purposes. Plenty more available with a library card or student ID.
The Evening Star began in 1852. The Washington Post in 1877. New York Times in 1851. Historic Black papers go back to the early 20th Century.
(DCPL has The Evening Star archive as well as the broader NewsBank, which includes The Evening Star; the Washington Post is also available as a separate archive and in the NewsBank regional database. DCPL also has 19th Century Newspapers and Historic Black Newspapers databases. )
THE EVENING STAR, September 9, 1884. Find the original Evening Star article through DCPL or your library.
Shot Dead by Negro Rough
A Policeman Brutally Murdered
Officer Fowler killed in the performance of his duty by a negro desperado in the presence of numerous by-standers, who were vainly appealed to to aid him.
This morning, about 10:00 o’clock, Officer John H. Fowler of the Metropolitan police force, was shot and killed by John Langster, alias “Guinea” Lancaster, alias Robinson. Officer Fowler was in charge of the chain gang, which was at work cleaning alleys near the Baltimore and Ohio railroad depot. Lancaster managed to get away from the others, and he was pursued to an alley between E and F and 1st and 2d streets northeast, by Officer Fowler, who found him in the outhouse, and called on him to surrender. Lancaster defied arrest, and Fowler said then he would have to shoot, when Lancaster told him that he would have to shoot, when Lancaster told him that he could shoot, too. Officer Fowler then seized him and started to take him out, when a negro named Wilson rushed up. Lancaster then struggled to get away, and Officer Fowler drew his pistol, for the possession of which the prisoner struggled with him, during which time the officer fired one shot in the air. The prisoner then got possession of the pistol and at once fired at the officer, the ball passing through the right hand and into the right side of the policeman, in the region of the liver.
While the officer was struggling, he vainly called for help, but although there were several men about none went to his assistance. A number of boys — Joseph L Pearson, W.S. Chesley, Thornton Chesley, A. Hamilton and E. Holmes — were playing baseball in the neighborhood, and one of them offered his bat to a man to go to the assistance of the officer, but the man refused.
Immediately on receiving the shot Mr. Fowler put his hand on his side, and fell near the corner of 1st and E streets, and said: “I am dead,” and the prisoner during the excitement got away.
THE MURDERER CAPTURED
He was pursued to No. 311 D st. by Officers Bland, Boyle and Slack, with Lieut. Kelly. The fugitive threw away the pistol in his flight. The first-named officer found him in a basement in the act of pulling his clothes — the striped ones — off. When told there was one more load in the pistol, he said: “I am sorry I did not know it, for I would have given him that, too.” He was taken to the seventh precinct station, where he refused to give his name, and he was locked up.
Some of the officers and citizens bore Mr. Fowler to the room of Lieut. Kelly at the seventh precinct and Mr. Stockstil, a medical student, and Dr. Magruder were soon at his side, but he died within a few minutes. Officer Fowler was regarded as one of the best officers on the force, and resided with his family at the corner of 9th and C streets southeast, where he leaves a wife and three small children. He was born and reared in the west end, and his wife is a daughter of Mr. Joshua Lloyd.
The affair drew to the neighborhood of the station an immense crowd, but only a few, other than the witnesses, were allowed to enter.
TWO MEN ARRESTED FOR REFUSING TO ASSIST THE OFFICERS
Officers Coghill and Roland selected from the crowd Robert Jackson and John Miller, two colored men, and charged them with refusing to assist the officer, and they were locked up. Both of them protest that they are innocent of any charge.
COOLNESS OF THE MURDERER
Soon after they were locked up Lancaster commenced to sing as if he had nothing on his mind. Several parties gathered about his cell, and the prisoner, recognizing one in clerical garb, said to him: “God told me to kill him.”
“Did God tell you to shoot him twice?” he was asked.
“No,” said he, “I am a good shot; one shot is enough. What did he shoot at me for? One shot sang right past my ear, and when I got it I shot.”
“Yes,” said one of the prisoners, “you shot at the officer twice, aiming the first shot right at his head.”
“No, I didn’t” said the prisoner, “I am a dead shot.”
His manner was such that even the clerical gentleman remarked, “I can hardly look at the officer and hear this ribaldry without wishing for lynch law. In such a case lynch law would not be out of place.”
THE PRISONER PLAYING CRAZY AND MIMICKING THE WIDOW OF FOWLER IN HER GRIEF
Mrs. Fowler arrived at the station at 11:30 o’clock with a lady friend and was nearly frantic with grief. A short time afterward Mr. Mitchell, the undertaker, and Mr. Joshua M. Lloyd, her father, were sent for, and in the meantime the prisoner disrobed himself, and attempted to play crazy, and mimicked Mrs. Fowler in her grief.
THE CORONER’S JURY
Dr. Patterson, the coroner, and Dr. Townshend, the health officers, were soon at the station. The former directed a jury of inquest to be summoned, and the following were sworn: Daniel Sheehan, J. Fred. Kelley, Henry H. Hoff, C. P. Shettle, W. O. Patton and Charles Speht. In consequence of the prevailing excitement the inquest was adjourned til ten o’clock to-morrow, and the witnesses were directed to appear at that time.
LANCASTER’S RECORD OF CRIME.
Some three years ago Lancaster, after being committed to the Reform school, made an attack on Mr. Newman, foreman of the chair shop, for some fancied wrong, and the foreman had to knock him down before he could quiet him. His acts on this occasion were disgraceful, and recently he made an attack on Mr. Farnham, one of the teachers, and head of a colored family of the reform school. He had to be severely punished for this attack. Some time since he was fined $50 in the Police Court for cutting a man with a razor. He was arrested for assault and battery with intent to kill his father by shooting him. The charge could not be sustained, and he was sentenced to three months for carrying concealed weapons.
THE WASHINGTON POST, September 10, 1884. Find the original Post article through DCPL or your library.
A POLICEMAN MURDERED: OFFICER FOWLER SHOT DEAD BY A NEGRO ROUGH IN DISCHARGING HIS DUTY. Fatal Attempt to Re-Arrest an Escaping Member of the Chain Gang Yesterday — How the Crime was Committed — The Murderer a Man of Bad Character.
Among differences in Post reporting, note the final paragraph in which readers are assured that no chain gang members are at large:
The portion of the chain gang with which Langster was working did not attempt to escape during the excitement and shortly afterward, Officer Barnes, who had charge of them in company with Officer Fowler, conveyed the gang back to the workhouse.
— Post, September 10, 1884, p.4
More Evening Star Reporting
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John Lancaster (or Langster) appeared earlier in the Washington Post in a one-line police blotter report, December 23, 1881, when he “pleaded guilty to carrying a razor and was fined $20 or 30 days.” He appears in The Evening Star the following year when arrested as “An Ungrateful Rogue,” as reported November 4, 1882:
An Ungrateful Rogue. –A young colored man named John Lancaster was in the dock at the Police Court for the larceny of an overcoat from Chas. Eckles, who stated that the prisoner came to his house begging for something to eat, and he gave him food and employment as a servant. The next day he stole an overcoat and left. He was sentenced to 60 days in jail. He was also charged with carrying a dangerous knife, and judgment in this case was suspended.
The murder trial is reported on September 10, page 1 and on September 17. Additional articles ask for funds to support Officer Fowler’s family, report on jury selection, and more. Langaster was found guilty on October 30, sentenced November 17
The sentencing article includes the content of two notes from Langster. One is quoted as follows:
These policemen they are all like Mr. Fowler and they did not tell the truth on me. I hear several of them say I oughter to be killed and one of them say he would like to poison me if he could and some men come in and threaten to shoot me and they said we’ll lynch you and hang you to a lamp post…I heard officer Boyle say to two white boys do not tell true on him. Mr. Wylie this man went round and go up above 12 witnesses who was not there. All the men was there was 3 colored men. If there had been there they would have come and help Mr. Fowler to take me. You honor I am telling the truth before God the most high. John Langster— from November 17 1884 Evening Star piece
A second note includes a statement saying, “…I am insane and I have spels once in a while,” and asks the judge to look into his stay at “the Insane Asylum,” naming Mr. W.W. Godding, who was superintendent at St. Elizabeth’s.
Later, a letter from Langster to President Chester Arthur tries to explain how what he did was different from murder by using famous examples, including the shooting of President Lincoln. A December 12 1884 story reports him asking the president: “Please get me saved from the rope.”
In a November 29 1884 letter to the editor, attorney S. M. Davis writes about the outrage of the public and also the need to consider mitigating circumstances for the convicted, concluding: “When the life of a human being is at stake, justice demands that the inquiry should be a broad one.” In an article of April 25, 1885 the attorney is quoted as saying that the young man is insane, experiences epileptic fits, and should have his sentence commuted.
Sharing the attorney’s words is the closest to sympathy the paper gets. Many articles mention Langster’s odd and disconnected behavior without quoting anyone who expresses understanding or compassion. The April 25 piece just cited includes a note that “he has not among the prisoners any one he can call a friend,” has threatened most of the jail staff, and listens to the parish priest but doesn’t express “religious feeling” or repentance. Family members are mentioned occasionally, and his father attended the hanging, but the paper reports no real support for Langster.
…On the other hand, in comparison with Post coverage, The Evening Star appears more sympathetic in that it does include the defense attorney’s words and entertains the possibility that Langster is mentally, emotionally, and/or physically challenged.
Fowler’s Father in Law
Officer John H. Fowler is identified as the son-in-law of “Mr. Joshua M. Lloyd.” No further information, except the street address is offered, about Lloyd in reporting on this incident or trial. But the reader is clearly expected to know who Lloyd is.
Separate Evening Star reports reference a Joshua Lloyd as an “additional patrolman of the Metropolitan police.” Someone of this name is cited a number of times as witness in incidents involving police reports. For example, Joshua Lloyd and a police officer encounter a man “up in one of the tall maples, giving a speech to the surrounding trees” (Evening Star, October 23, 1876 page 4).
In addition, someone of this same name is included in various reports (in the Post as well) in the context of some civic groups and as a business owner at the Center Market (replaced in 1931 by the National Archives building). The boundaries described for Joshua Lloyd’s patrol area overlap with a Center Market merchant’s interests, so these people might be one and the same. Moreover, there is a report in 1870 of “Joshua Lloyd, well known to our citizens and the public” taking over and refitting a saloon on 6th & Pennsylvania, NW. Again, the overlap of location and commercial interests suggests these might be the same individual.
If Fowler’s father-in-law was indeed “well known to our citizens and the public,” and associated with the police department in some way, that might explain why The Evening Star readers were expected to know him. It would also establish a strong relationship between reporters who had been covering these matters and the family of the officer who was killed.