A Sacrifice Rememered
On July 3, 1937, thirty-nine year old Lancaster police officer Benjamin Franklin Sowell slipped quietly out of the home he had built at the corner of Barr and Catawba Streets. The time was probably about 11:30 p.m. Sowell had most likely looked in on his sleeping children: Frank, Jr. was 12, Jewel was 8, Reba Anne was 6, and Jimmy was only 3. He kissed his pregnant wife, Sula, good night and probably walked the two blocks to work.
No one in Sowell's family would ever see him alive again.
According to Bob Huey who would take Sowell's place at the Lancaster Police Department there were four men and Chief H. A. Montgomery on the tiny South Carolina force at the time. There was only one car and the men worked two twelve hour shifts. Officers worked seven days a week and Chief Montgomery didn't believe in vacations. The men earned one hundred dollars a month.
Bob Huey 1970's
During the early morning hours of Sunday, July 4, 1937, Sowell and his partner, E. Hoyt Barton spotted a suspicious car sitting under a light at the corner of Main Street and Chesterfield Avenue. Officer Barton was driving and Sowell stepped out to check the car. He saw that there was a man and a red-haired woman in the car and that there was a bottle of liquor between them on the front seat.
As Sowell pulled on the door handle, the car sped away down Main Street. Sowell jumped back in the car and the chase was on!
The officers were quickly outdistanced by the suspect's big V-8 Ford and only caught glimpses of the car's tail lights during the seven mile pursuit that carried them north on U. S. Highway 521. Suddenly, the suspect's car sideswiped a car coming in the other direction and the Ford ran off the road, turned completely over and landed back on it's wheels.
Officer Barton stopped his cruiser after passing the wreck and Sowell jumped out. His concern then for the passengers. He carried his flashlight with him as he headed for the wrecked vehicle.
The Suspects Wrecked Car
The suspect in the car pulled a 12 gauge shotgun from his Ford as Sowell approached and apparently fired two rounds. The first shots tore into Sowell's stomach and chest area. The second shot struck him in the back near his shoulder.
There were no back up officers to call and no radio. Barton sped back toward town carrying the mortally wounded Sowell.
Another car, driven by a Mr. Stroupe, stopped at the wreck to give aid. He and his family were immediately threatened by the suspect:
From The Lancaster News dated July 6, 1937:
" The stranger, pulling what Mr. Stroupe described as a machine gun, ordered the family out of the car, pointed the gun and shouted, though quivering 'You don't think I'd kill you, do you?"
The suspect and the red-haired woman then fled the scene in Stroupe's car.
Meanwhile on the road back to the city, the police car carrying Sowell and Barton had overturned. Barton rushed to the home of Fred Thompson and the two of them had to kick out the windshield of the car to get Sowell out. Sowell was loaded into Thompson's car and the trip to Lancaster began again.
About two miles later, Thompson's car ran out of gas.
Stroupe had walked to the gas station of Ben Culp, who gave up his own car. Mr. Stroupe was driving south on 521 when he saw Barton, Thompson and Sowell on the roadside. He drove them into the city of Lancaster.
Sowell was taken to the hospital on Main Street which was located at the time in the upstairs portion of the building that is now occupied by Kimbrell's Furniture. The only building between the Lancaster Police Department and this building was the Lancaster County Courthouse. Sowell was attended by Dr. J. D. Pittman.
From the Lancaster News dated July 6, 1937, in Sowell's own words:
"We thought he'd wreck so we followed. We passed the wreck. I got out and started back and he shot me like a dog, Chief. I'd know him again if I ever see him but I never will.......I'm dying."
Officer Sowell died about twenty minutes later.
Gravesite of Frank and Sula 2011
Lt. Leo Jenkins and Chief Montgomery investigated Officer Sowell's murder. Mr. Stroupe's car was recovered near Rutherfordton, N. C. On July 10, 1937. Later, in Lancaster, a laundry ticket from the New Way Laundry of Myrtle Beach was discovered in the suspect's car. The laundry ticket provided the clue which led officers to the man who would be charged with murder.
Following this lead, the officers found that a cottage in Myrtle Beach named Cherry Law had been rented by a man named Robert S. Smith. At about 1 a.m. the suspect was again the subject of a police chase.
This time the officers knew who they were dealing with. Smith had escaped from the Caledonia Prison Farm in North Carolina on February 15 along with six other prisoners. He had been serving a sentence of 18 to 24 years for murder and robbery.
From The Lancaster News dated July 16, 1937, Horry County Sheriff W. C. Sessions stated: "We opened up with everything we had.....It sounded like a battle of the World War."
Smith crashed his car in Georgetown and pulled a pistol as officers approached. He appeared too weak to use the gun and was arrested. Later, when his car was checked the officers found that forty bullets struck the car. None of them hit Smith.
Lt. Jenkins told The Lancaster News that Smith was believed to have been involved in several bank robberies and hold ups since his escape from the prison farm. Smith was sent under heavy guard to the prison in Columbia, SC to await trial as the investigation continued.
The trial of Robert S. Smith took place under tight security. Rumors of an attempted rescue by fellow North Carolina escapees became known after his arrest and continued throughout the trial. On September 23, 1937, Smith was found guilty of the murder of Frank Sowell. The jury was only out about two and a half hours when they returned the guilty verdict. They recommended mercy and Smith was given a life sentence.
On November 3,1947 Robert Smith and another man tried to tunnel under the prison walls in Columbia. They were missing twenty-four hours before being discovered under the administration building still on the prison grounds. They were armed with a butcher knife and a meat cleaver.
Robert S. Smith died in his eighties in prison.
Life, of course, was never the same for the Sowell family. Frank Sowell's daughters, Jewel Steele and Reba Ann Hallman, still live in the Lancaster area. They say that the Fourth was never celebrated in the Sowell home. Instead, it was a time of great sadness for them all.
Frank Jr. may have taken his father's death worse than the others. He joined the Navy and left the area. Eventually, he returned home and died tragically in 1976.
Jimmy Sowell, the youngest son, moved to Stanly, N. C. and has the family's scrapbook.
Francine Sowell Killough was born five months after the death of her father. She only knew her father through the memories of the rest of her family.
Frank Sowell's widow, Sula, eventually remarried. For years she carried a hatred of Robert Smith deep inside and cried every Fourth of July. Sula never wanted her children to leave home on the Fourth for fear of something happening to one of them. Tragically, she had also lost a brother on the Fourth.
Sowell was a well-known and respected officer according to articles in The Lancaster News and the people who knew him. Chief Bob Huey gave him a cop's compliment when I talked to him back in 1993:
"He was a good policeman. You weren't going to scare him."
Benjamin Franklin Sowell is gone, but he is not forgotten.
First name on stone: "B. Frank Sowell"
When I joined the Lancaster Police Department in 1972 a couple of the old timers asked me if I was related to Frank Sowell. As far as I can determine, I am not. I finally did some research at our local county library where I found The Lancaster News was archived on microfilm.
The story was fascinating to me and I wrote a piece that was published in The Lancaster News the first week in July 1993. For this hub, I returned to the library, pulled the file and photographed some of the photos from the original article from 1937. Then I surprised myself by remembering where B. Frank Sowell's grave was located after 18 years.
This story is true and accurate except for the first paragraph. I simply imagined that scene based on interviews I had with Frank's surviving relatives back in 1993.
Here's what I've always said about those of us who have chosen to wear the badge:
"We may be overpaid for what we do, but there's not enough money in the world to pay us for what we might have to do."
I suspect Benjamin Frank Sowell would agree.
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