Documentary recalls tragic ballad of killing of Holland Howard in a distillery

Published 2:26 pm Wednesday, May 26, 2010

While researching and graphically recording the factually-accurate documentary DVD on Dark Corner, a once often-sung ballad of the 1924 killing of Constable Holland Howard in a Hogback Mountain distillery saw resurrection, to the delight of many middle- and older-aged residents.

Few people have sung the ballad in the past 50 years. Lyrics were not available in printed form; they existed only in the subconscious minds of a handful of older folks.

Set to a familiar tune, lyrics telling the tragic story were written by Charlie Nelson, son of Luther Nelson, who ran a cotton gin on the Walter Gibson property in Gowensville.

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A casual listen to the singing of the ballad could prove confusing. There are two Hollands among the characters in the story: Holland Howard, the victim, and Holland Pittman, who was accused, tried and convicted of the murder, along with his father, Alex Pittman.

So, listen carefully with your eyes as your read the lyrics here.

Ballad of the Killing of Holland Howard

On the 31st day of January,

The clouds were hanging low;

Holland Howard and Reuben Gosnell

Went to raid a still, did go.

They went upon Hogback Mountain

To the top of Chestnut Hill;

And just beyond a little hollow

They found the fatal still.

Reuben Gosnell hid behind some bushes,

Told Holland the crowd to flush;

He heard the voice of an angry man cursing,

And soon the voice hushed.

He heard some shots and a call, Come, Reuben,

And that was all Holl said;

For when he reached the fatal distillery,

Poor Holland was lying dead.

Reuben called to Holland before he reached him;

Holl was lying on his face and head;

Holland Pittman said, He will not answer,

Cause hes already dead.

Reuben then drew his gun on Holland Pittman,

Said, Tell me, or you will die.

Holland Pittman said, It was Henry Lindsey,

Lord knows it was not I.

Reuben took Holl Pittman on to jail,

Said, Ill be a coming back.

He came back and got Wade Plumley,

To swear to Alex Pittmans track.

They brought the Pittmans into court,

It was on one Thursday morn.

Alex Pittman said, Im an innocent man;

I was at home shucking corn.


Alex Pittman wore a neat dress shoe,

The color of it was tan.

Reuben Gosnell said, Thats the first fine shoe

Ive ever seen on that man.

They brought the Pittmans back to court,

Both father and son were there.

Judge Mauldin said, You two men

Will die in the electric chair.

On the twenty-seventh day of June,

Nineteen hundred and twenty-four,

You will both pay the penalty for killing Holland Howard,

And youll never still anymore.

The Pittmans were tried, in a case based on circumstantial evidence, and found guilty on May 17, 1924. Their death sentences were upheld by the S.C. Supreme Court on Sept. 23, 1926. Death warrants were signed by Gov. Thomas G. McLeod on Oct. 11, 1926, but on Oct. 26, he commuted their death sentences to life in prison.

The commutation order came in response to letters in support of clemency from the prosecutors and a prohibition agent who was on the fatal raid.

Both men served nine and one-half years in prison and were paroled on Oct. 5, 1933, then pardoned on Jan. 12, 1935. Alex Pittman lived another four years, and Holland Pittman died on Mar. 25, 1981, at the age of 78.

Most of the ballad is sung underneath the final portion of credits at the end of the documentary.


Be sure to catch Kaye Solesbee in the Dark Corner exhibit at Greer Heritage Museum on Saturday, June 5, from 10 a.m. to noon. She will display her extensive collection of pottery from the Jug Factories of Blue Ridge, and will answer questions about the factories and the pottery. For more information, call 864-877-3377.