Another One Beats the Chair

Julia Maude Lowther

Continuing with our review of women who seemed to get special treatment by the courts simply because of their gender, let’s consider the case Julia Maude Lowther of Ashtabula, Ohio, a 23-year-old single mother who killed her lover’s wife in 1930. She was sentenced to die by electrocution, something Ohio had only done one time before.
 
Julia was luckier than her lover, 28-year-old Tilby Smith. Her “hot Indian blood” (she was one-quarter Native American) managed to save her from being Ohio’s first woman to die in the electric chair. Tilby ended up frying while Julia enjoyed a better fate.
 
There isn’t anything in the court records that indicate Clara Smith, mother of two, was anything other than a person for whom Tilby’s love had waned. She was a homemaker with no wealth that would make her better dead than alive. When all was said and done, it just appeared that Tilby liked or loved or was besotted with Julia more than he was with the mother of his children. Most likely he was swept up in the intensity of a new affair, because Tilby and Julia had known each other just 10 days when the murder occurred.
 
The night of May 29, 1930 was colder than normal thanks to a steady rain that was falling throughout Ashtabula County, Ohio. It was just about 9 p.m. when Tilby put the absolutely awful and too common “unknown gunmen killed my spouse but left me alive” plan into effect.
 
He told authorities that the couple had been driving along with their two young children when the truck was blocked by two men who stepped out into the rutted dirt road. The men demanded the Smiths turn over whatever money they were carrying. Tilby said Clara told the men that they had no money, so the gunman standing on the driver’s side of the truck told them to turn over any jewelry. Again, Clara said they had none.
 
As Tilby leaned down inside the cab looking for a weapon of any sort, the gunman on the driver’s side fired, striking Clara, he said. The robbers, panicked by the apparent murder, then fled. Tilby told Sheriff Frank Sheldon that he grabbed the two crying children, carried them about a quarter-mile back to his brother’s service station and reported the murder.
 
Tilby SmithSheldon took Tilby back to the scene where the odd-job hauler put on a solid performance as the husband of a murdered wife. Weeping, he tried to clear the clotted blood from her hair and kissed her lips several times.
 
There were few clues at the scene thanks to the rain which had been falling all day. Even so, the sheriff was sure there should have at least been wheel ruts from the car Tilby said the men had parked nearby. Instead there were none. Sheldon and his men began casing the area and soon located a set of women’s footprints near a culvert. A continued search turned up a pair of women’s rubbers, which Sheldon took back to the police station where Tilby was awaiting an interview.
 
For five hours Tilby stuck to the story about the two holdup men before Sheldon showed him the rubbers. Tilby quickly changed tack and for the first time mentioned that there was another woman in his life. He called her Marie and said that was all he knew about her — except that she was married as well.
 
Tilby kept his story simple, telling Sheldon and Prosecutor Howard Nazor he met Marie “a few weeks ago” and that they spent time together riding around in his truck. Then he blamed the entire thing on “Marie’s furious jealousy.”
 
During one of the rides “Marie” saw Tilby’s .32-caliber revolver and had stolen the gun, he claimed. Then earlier that night she confronted the Smiths during their drive and killed Clara.
 
The story seemed plausible, but one of the sheriff’s deputies recalled seeing Julia Maude Lowther earlier in the evening walking along a road near the murder scene.
 
Julia was a twice married mother of a 7-year-old son and stepmother to two more boys from her second marriage to a farmer who was 25 years her senior. At the time she met Tilby she was separated from her husband and working as a live-in domestic servant.
 
She was brought in for a third-degree and quickly folded once she was presented with the evidence and with Tilby’s story blaming her for everything. She met Tilby at a local movie theater during a day-time double-feature.
 
“He sat down next to me and we ‘visited,'” she said. “Later we met again.”
 
She then went into details about the killing.
 
Clara SmithJulia, sitting in a black raincoat beneath a large bush along Ohio Route 45, saw her paramour and his wife stop near the prearranged spot. Tilby told his 28-year-old wife that it appeared their truck was having engine problems.
 
“I jumped out of the bushes and pointed the gun right at them,” she said. “I stood on the side near Mrs. Smith. I did just what Smith told me to do: I asked them for money and when they replied they had none, I ordered Smith out of the car. When he walked out, I held the gun near Mrs. Smith’s head and pulled the trigger.”
 
The baby held on Clara’s lap and his older brother, asleep between his parents were unhurt, but Clara died instantly. The shot — fired from less than 3 inches away — passed through her hat and into her right temple. Once the deed was done, Julia said Tilby’s attitude changed.
 
“The love that flamed briefly burned out when the victim’s body tumbled to the roadway and Smith and Mrs. Lowther now hold nothing but bitterness for each other,” is how one reporter wrote it.
 
Arrests followed soon after and within days the grand jury returned two indictments for first-degree murder.
 
Tilby was tried first — six weeks after he killed Clara — and used the defense that he was an imbicile and incapable of planning a crime.
 
The prosecution presented a straight forward case, while witness after witness for the defense testified how Tilby had failed in school and as a business man, until he was left demolishing old homes and hauling away the refuse to make a living.
 
Of course there was the duel of the alienists.
 
“Tilby Smith is feeble-minded, has the mental age of an 81/2-year-old child and cannot distinguish the difference between right and wrong,” the five defense psychiatrists reported. The state alienists disagreed.
 
“Smith is normal, not feeble-minded,” the prosecution’s psychiatrists wrote in their opinion. “The murder plot was intelligently conceived, intelligently carried out, and was the act of an intelligent man.”
 
The jury agreed with the state and returned a verdict of guilty without recommendation of mercy. Judge Charles R. Sargent handed down the first death sentence since he took the bench.
 
Julia went on trial in June 1931. Unlike Tilby, she took the stand in her own defense. Julia did not try to blame Tilby for the crime, but tried to convince the jury that she was not guilty of first-degree murder. She admitted that she shot Clara Smith out of her love for Tilby, but that it was love based on the lies he fed her.
 
“I killed Clara because I loved Tilby, she told the 12 men on her jury. “He told me that I would not have to work again, and that he would take care of me and my boy and that we would go to Florida after this thing blew over.”
 
Once again a jury sided with the prosecution and returned a verdict of guilty without a recommendation of mercy. Julia Maude Lowther made the front pages across the country as the first woman in Ohio sentenced to die in the chair. The state had only executed one woman before: Lifer Esther Foster who was hanged in 1844 for killing another prison inmate.
 
The death sentence was problematic for the State of Ohio for it had no death row for women.
 
“We have four possibilities,” said Ohio Penitentiary warden P.F. Thomas. “We may block off a cell somewhere inside the wall of the prison, send her to Marysville Reformatory, place her in the county jail or the city prison.”
 
The sentence did not phase the West Virginia native — in fact, Julia welcomed it.
 
“I’d rather go to the chair than spend the rest of my life in prison,” she told reporters after the sentencing. “My life has been a failure but I’m not afraid to die.”
 
According to the press, 10 minutes after the sentence was handed down, Julia was laughing and joking with jail staff. A few hours later the sheriff agreed to allow photographers to visit Julia in her cell.
 
“Hello, boys,” she said when photographers and reporters were admitted to the jail. The photographers busied themselves arranging various poses, but Julia was doubtful about how she would appear.
 
“I have posed for enough pictures to paper this room with,” she said. “The pictures never look good anyway. No, I won’t smile for you.”
 
Then she asked her attorney Frank L. Marvin and Sheriff C. H. Blanche to pose with her.
 
“Get right up close to me, I won’t mind,” she told Blanche.
 
Marvin was confused by his client’s attitude. “I can’t understand her, she’s certainly a puzzle,” Marvin said.
 
While Tilby was preparing for his execution after his appeals failed, attorney Marvin was busy trying to save the life of his client. He filed an appeal that argued there was fatal error during jury selection. When it was revealed that five jurors said they had already formed opinions about her guilt, and admitted so during voir dire, the appeals court ordered a new trial.
 
The ruling came about a month before Tilby was to be executed, but the trial was not scheduled to take place before he faced the chair.
 
On Friday, Nov. 21, 1931, a weeping Tilby Smith was led into the death chamber at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus, still claiming complete innocence for Clara’s murder. He was penitent, but for his wasted life, not the killing. He also refused to exonerate Julia.
 
“I will not die with a lie on my lips,” he told the warden’s wife. She also presented a written statement to the reporters present.
 
“I Tilby Smith, truthfully say that I had nothing whatever to do with he plotting or slaying of my beloved wife, Clara. I wish everyone to know am innocent of this crime and before my God I will be honestly judged and my innocence will be proven.”
 
His strength appeared to fade once inside the death chamber, but knowing there was little to be done to save himself, he spoke out to witnesses.
 
“May God bless every man in this room,” he said as he was led to the chair. “I hope none of you will ever have to face what I am facing today.”
 
As guards fastened the straps across his chest and affixed the cap atop his head and the electrode to his ankle that would complete the circuit, Tilby began to pray.
 
“God forgive me for my sins,” Smith sobbed, “And take me to heaven to be with my grandfather, my sister, and my dear wife whom I…”
 
His final words were drowned out by the loud buzzing as the current flowed.
 
Tilby never knew that in her second trial — this time before a judge, not a jury — Julia was once again convicted of premeditated murder, but with a recommendation of mercy. She was sentenced to life in prison and disappeared into the Women’s Reformatory in Marysville.
 
In 1954, Ohio Gov. Frank Lausche gave Julia an “Easter commutation,” reducing her crime from 1st degree murder to 2nd degree, which made her immediately eligible for parole. She moved to an eastern Ohio city to live with a sister and told reporters upon her release that she hoped to get a job in a hospital. She had plenty of experience: for the last 17 years of her incarceration, Julia worked in the prison maternity ward.
 
Whether she got her wish is a fact lost in history.