Duke C. Bowers was a Memphis businessman, philanthropist, and fervent opponent of the death penalty. Bowers was born in 1874 in Mobile, Alabama; his family moved to Kentucky when he was a young child. After a failed attempt in the grocery business in Kentucky, Bowers moved to Memphis in 1902 and opened a grocery at the corner of Polk and McKinley. On his first day, Bowers sold only eight cents’ worth of groceries, but after this slow start, his business flourished. Bowers sold goods at lower prices than his competitors; he was able to do so because he did not sell on credit or provide free delivery of small orders. Bowers did not sell tobacco or liquor in his stores.
Duke Bowers advertised his grocery stores in the newspaper, calling them “Temples of Economy.” His trademark was a muzzled puppy; the accompanying slogan read, “You won’t get bit if you buy of Mr. Bowers.” Within ten years, there were thirty-nine “Mr. Bowers’ Stores” in Memphis. Bowers achieved commercial and financial success and became a highly respected and admired businessman.
Bowers was a humanitarian and philanthropist with a special concern for children. He built a wading pool in Overton Park; the pool had a plaque reading, “Presented by Duke C. Bowers, to the Children of Memphis, 1913.” On a visit to Hot Springs, Arkansas, Bowers took thirty-nine orphans with him to the circus. Bowers was an enthusiastic booster of Memphis. On a trip to London, he hired men to wear sandwich boards reading, “Memphis, Tennessee, wants citizens.” Bowers was also active in politics, being selected as a delegate to the National Republican Convention in 1916.
After ten years in the grocery business, Bowers’s health failed. He turned the management of the groceries over to a firm that expanded to 114 stores before selling to Kroger in 1928. Bowers moved to Dresden in Weakley County, Tennessee, where he lived with his wife, Ethel, until his death in 1917.
The great work of Duke Bowers’s life was his effort to abolish the death penalty in Tennessee. A first attempt at gaining passage of an abolition bill in 1913 failed in the House. In 1915, Bowers gathered the support of influential persons for the bill, including members of the clergy, educators, lawyers, businessmen, two prison wardens, and several newspapers. These supporters, however, tended to praise Duke Bowers rather than to address the policy implications of ending the death penalty. Letters sent to Governor Thomas C. Rye by members of the public indicate that Bowers’s efforts did not have widespread popular support.
The abolition bill of 1915 substituted life imprisonment for the death penalty in cases of murder, except for convicts serving life terms. The bill retained capital punishment for rape. The General Assembly passed the bill by a vote of fifty-one to forty-four in the House and twenty to eleven in the Senate. Bowers and his wife were present for the vote and wept with joy when it was passed. The bill was generally called the Bowers Bill in recognition of Duke Bowers’s influence in gaining its passage. The bill was unique: no other state that belonged to the Confederacy has legislatively abolished capital punishment either before or since the passage of the Bowers Bill.
Governor Rye vetoed the Bowers Bill on grounds that it would increase crime and lynching. Rye’s veto was too late, however, coming well after the five days provided him by the Tennessee Constitution to veto legislation. The bill thus went into effect despite the governor’s opposition.
The effort to restore the death penalty began almost immediately, with a bill to repeal abolition first proposed just two months after passage of the Bowers Bill. In 1917, a reinstatement bill passed the General Assembly. Although Tennessee officials appear to have believed at first that the repeal act was valid and that the death penalty was back in force, the 1918 compilation of Tennessee statutes noted that the act was unconstitutional due to its improper title. In 1919, one week after taking office, Governor Albert H. Roberts requested repeal of the Bowers Bill. The legislature acted promptly, reinstating the death penalty for murder within days of Governor Roberts’s request.
Duke Bowers’s death on December 22, 1917, at the age of forty-three, was widely regretted. The Commercial Appeal ran a long obituary under the headline, “Philanthropist of Nationwide Fame Has Passed to His Rest.” All businesses in Dresden were closed for the funeral. Duke C. Bowers and his wife are buried in Sunset Cemetery in Dresden.
Duke C. Bowers et al., Life Imprisonment vs. the Death Penalty (c. 1913); Margaret Vandiver, Lethal Punishment: Lynchings and Executions in the South (2006)