The Shooting of “The Ohio Whirlwind”

18 Jul

In May of 1896 Cuban Giants, owner John M. Bright sent a letter to several East Coast newspapers.  Bright was writing to “set the public right” regarding his team—and to gloat

Two months earlier a letter had been published from Edward B. Lamar in The New York Sun which said, “The original Cuban Giants will be known this season as the X Cuban Giants.”

By the beginning of the season, the team was called the Cuban X-Giants and consisted of most of the stars of Bright’s 1895 Cuban Giants who had defected to play instead for Bright.

Despite the star power, the X-Giants got off to a poor start, dropping several games to minor league clubs

Bright’s letter informed fans that:

“Owing to the fact that there is a club (colored) calling themselves the Cuban (X) Giants, and getting most terribly defeated everywhere, and when defeated they send in their scores, calling themselves the Cuban Giants, thereby injuring the Genuine Cuban Giants great reputation.”

Bright claimed the “Genuine Cuban Giants” had “won seventeen out of the last twenty-three games played.”

Among the players mentioned in Bright’s letter was “The Ohio Whirlwind;” pitcher Charles “Doc” Howard.

The earliest reference to Howard’s baseball career —he was born Charles Allen in East Liverpool, Ohio, and adopted by his cousin’s family as an infant–is found in The Sporting Life in 1893.  The paper’s East Liverpool correspondent wrote: “Charles Howard, our famous colored player, has an offer from the Cuban Giants” for the 1894 season.

Howard pitched, and occasionally played outfield, for the Cuban Giants from 1894 to 1897 and was one of the few members of the 1895 team that chose not to follow Lamar and stayed loyal to Bright—he eventually did join the X-Giants as a pitcher and outfielder in 1898 and 1899.

The East Liverpool Evening Review said Howard was set to return to the X-Giants in the spring of 1900 when he became ill:

“The many friends of Charles Howard, the colored ball player, are taking subscription to send him to the hospital.  It is feared he has consumption.”

It is unclear whether it was tuberculosis or another illness—rheumatism, among others, was mentioned– that kept Howard sidelined all season, and spent most of the summer hospitalized in Pittsburgh.   A “benefit game and field day” was organized in his honor in August, the paper called it “an immense success” which raised the sum of $135.

Charles "Doc" Howard

Charles “Doc” Howard

Howard recovered, but never played professionally again; he did make a comeback with an integrated semi-pro club in Liverpool in July of 1901.  The Evening Review said of his performance in one game:

“(Howard) had the players of the opposing aggregation tearing great swaths in the atmosphere in a vain effort to connect with the ball.”

He continued to play occasionally with local teams and worked as an umpire in local leagues through 1903.  Reports in The Evening Review that he would be re-joining the Cuban Giants in 1902 and 1903 proved untrue.

In 1904 Howard was working as a porter at Guthrie’s saloon in East Liverpool.  On the evening of August 13, he arrived at the home of his adoptive parents shortly after midnight, when, according to The Evening Review:

“(He was) Murdered with a revolver in the hands of Lottie Skiles, a well-known character of questionable reputation.  The popular colored man was killed instantly in his home (in the early morning hours of August 14—his death certificate lists the date of death as August 13)”

The two lived together at the house, and, according to the paper “The killing of Howard was the result of a long series of quarrels between himself and the woman.”

It was not lost on the press that Lottie Skiles—whose given name was Vincent Lottie Skiles– was white.  And despite her “questionable reputation” and Howard’s status in the community as a “popular colored man,” the local paper allowed the shooter to get a sympathetic airing of her story into print less than 48 hours after the shooting:

“Lottie does not attempt to deny that she killed Howard, but does insist that it was done in self-defense.”

The paper said, “she broke down and cried bitterly” when she found out Howard was dead.”

She told the paper the two had been living together for four months, and called Howard “The most jealous man I ever saw.”

She said the fight that evening started when Howard saw her sitting with another man at a Chinese restaurant.   She said when they arrived home, “he flew at me and struck me on the back of the neck with the flat of his hand.”  She said she told Howard “If I were a man you would not dare strike me in that manner.”  At that point, she said Howard went for a gun on a shelf behind her:

“I was afraid he would kill me and I grabbed the gun before he got to it.  I turned as quickly as I could and pulled the trigger.”

Skiles told the paper neither her nor Howard had been drinking.  The paper said the coroner had concluded that Howard had “started to turn and flee” before the shot was fired.

The paper also said, “(Skiles’) story of the affair is generally believed,” and said

Two days after the shooting Skiles was charged with murder.  When she appeared in court, The Review said:

“She had had a refreshing night’s sleep and looked exceedingly bright for one who has passed through such a tragic scene.”

The paper was clearly impressed with the defendant:

“She was well dressed, wearing a black straw hat, covered with a pretty blue veil, giving to her a rather dashing appearance.  She wore a gray skirt and jacket and patent leather shoes that were purchased for her by the man she killed.”

Lottie Skiles

Lottie Skiles

Everyone who testified at the preliminary hearing agreed on one thing: the relationship was extremely volatile, and at times violent. Howard’s adoptive parents refused to admit that the couple lived together in the room in their home—while Ohio overturned their anti-miscegenation law in 1887 the paper said if cohabitating, the two would have “lived together unlawfully…for immoral purposes,” suggesting that a local ordinance was still in place.  The police officer who took Skiles into custody told the court that she used to a racist epitaph to describe Howard.

Skiles went on trial on December 5th, 1904.  Her attorney said the shooting was the culmination of long-term abuse at the hands of Howard and described a number of alleged incidents.

As for the events of the evening of the shooting, Skiles said in the newspaper interview after the shooting, Howard struck her once on the neck with “the flat of his hand;” the defense now claimed Howard had delivered several “sledgehammer blows” earlier in the evening, and a “powerful blow on the neck” in the room.

The story from the defense of how the fatal shot was fired was also very different from Skiles’ newspaper interview, and not in keeping with the findings of the coroner.  Her attorney told jurors:

“She was afraid of his next move and grabbing the revolver from the shelf intended to throw it at him and run.  He grabbed her by the arm and waist and in the tussle the gun was discharged.”

The prosecution said despite her statement to the contrary, Skiles had been drinking that night, while Howard hadn’t had a drink “for six weeks,” and produced a witness who claimed Skiles told her she would kill Howard “if she ever caught him with another girl.”

Skiles took the stand in her own defense.  She repeated the story of long-term abuse her attorney had told in his opening argument.  She also gave a version of the story of the shooting that was closer-–but not the same in every detail she claimed for example, she planned to “throw the gun under the table,” not at him–to the version her attorney gave in opening arguments than it was to the one she gave to the paper in August.

The Evening Review, and the prosecution, never mentioned the inconsistencies in her story, but the paper said of her testimony:

“Her story very much impressed the crowded courtroom, which at times was a solid mass of humanity.  Though she had shown some signs of nervousness prior to this time, she apparently realized the need of absolute self-control and it was stated by a jurist of many years’ experience that no woman charged with the same offense ever acquitted herself in better form.”

The jury returned after eight hours.  Lottie Skiles was found not guilty.  The Evening Review said initially five jurors voted to convict her of the lesser included charge of manslaughter, but after several ballots voted to acquit.

Skiles, just 21-years-old on the night she shot Howard, had been arrested several times, and at the age of 15, she was held in custody along with three other suspects after a man was shot in East Liverpool—although she was never charged in the incident. Her attorney told The Evening Review, his client vowed, “I’ll never go back to that life again.”

The following day she told the paper she was finished with her “old haunts” and finished with East Liverpool.

Lottie Skiles appears to have kept her word about staying out trouble; she relocated to Youngstown, but eventually returned to East Liverpool, where she died in 1947.

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