Jail escape undetected due to lack of a whisker

Published 3:51 pm Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Little Bill Howard was not the son of Big Bill; he was a cousin. He was given the nickname because of his small, but stout, frame that made him stand out from Big Bill.

He was in his early 20s and had just a dusting of fuzz instead of a beard when he was arrested for killing a government distiller named Ben Ross.

Shots had been fired through the window of Ross home that killed him while he was lying on the floor in front of the fireplace.

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Little Bill confessed to being outside the house when the shots were fired, but said that Big Bill had pulled the trigger. He said Big Bill had talked with him many times about killing Ross for him, but that he always refused.

This time, Big Bill threatened to kill him if he didnt help in killing Ross. He went to the house with Big Bill who had a double-barreled shotgun. He said he stood nearby while Big Bill fired into the house.

Both men were charged with murder, but at the trial in July, 1890, Big Bill was acquitted. Little Bill was sentenced to be hanged on September 26.

A stay of execution was obtained and he was kept in Greenville County jail to await execution.

Early on the morning of Monday, October 6, he escaped through a clever ruse pulled on the jailer.

On Saturday afternoon, Mary Howard, his wife, and their baby daughter visited him in his cell. She had requested special permission from Sheriff Gilreath for the visit, and the jailer was instructed to allow it over the weekend.

When the jailer came in to turn out a trusted prisoner named Rube Hinson for some assigned work around the jail, he heard Little Bill call to him that his wife and daughter were ready to go home.

After giving Rube his daily assignment, the jailer came to Little Bills cell and opened it to allow his wife and child to leave. In taking them to the front door, the jailer snook a quick peek under the large sun bonnet. Little Bills beardless face did not betray the ruse.

About an hour later, the jailer came with breakfast and learned that he had released Little Bill himself dressed in his wifes clothes.

Mary was kept in the cell until the afternoon, but she would not shed light on where Little Bill had gone.

He left the daughter and his wifes clothes at a friends house nearby and hightailed it back to the Dark Corner, where he successfully avoided capture for about four months.

In February, 1891, Sheriff Gilreath and two of his lawmen sons discovered Little Bill at the home of James Ross. He refused to come out, but finally did after Ross persuaded him to do so. He was taken back to the Greenville County jail.

The Supreme Court of South Carolina granted Little Bill a new trial. By that time, the chief witness had been killed and the States case against him was weakened. He was acquitted.

As Little Bill left the courtroom, sitting on the back row was his wife wearing her sun bonnet and holding their daughter.

Dean Campbell, a native of the Dark Corner, has become its most prominent and energetic historian.