Lynching of Ed Johnson

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The grave marker of Ed Johnson.

In 1906, a young black man named Ed Johnson was murdered by a lynch mob in his home town of Chattanooga, Tennessee. He had been sentenced to death for the rape of Nevada Taylor, but Justice John Marshall Harlan of the United States Supreme Court had issued a stay of execution. To prevent delay or avoidance of execution, a mob broke into the jail where Johnson was held and lynched him.

During Johnson's incarceration there was much public interest in the case, and many people including court officers feared a possible lynch attempt.[1] The day after his murder saw widespread strikes among the black community in Chattanooga. Two thousand people attended his funeral on the next day.[2]

Following the murder, President Roosevelt made it his goal to have the members of the mob put in jail by getting the secret service men in on the investigation.[3] Sheriff Joseph Shipp, who had arrested Johnson, was found guilty of contempt of court in United States v. Shipp, the only criminal trial ever held by the United States Supreme Court.

Johnson while in jail, made a Christian profession and was baptized. He publicly forgave those who were about to kill him. On Johnson's tombstone are his final words "God Bless you all. I AM A Innocent Man." at the top. On the bottom is written "Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord"

Rape and trial[edit]

On 23 January 1906, Nevada Taylor was attacked while walking home from a streetcar stop to the cottage at the Chattanooga Forest Hills Cemetery, which she shared with her father, the cemetery's caretaker.[4][5] She lost consciousness during the attack, and afterwards could remember little beyond the fact that her assailant had been a black man who approached her from behind and wrapped a leather strap around her neck. A doctor who examined her shortly after the attack determined that she had been sexually assaulted.[4]

The search for her attacker was led by Hamilton County Sheriff Joseph Shipp. He arrested James Broaden, a black man fitting Taylor's description of her attacker who worked in the area, the morning after the attack.[4] The next day he arrested Johnson after receiving a report that he'd been witnessed holding a leather strap near the streetcar stop on the night of the attack.[1][4]

Johnson was indicted by grand jury on 26 January.[1] Sheriff Shipp, fearing the possibility of a lynching attempt, had both Johnson and Broaden transferred to a jail in Nashville to await trial. The evening after the transfer a mob approached the Chattanooga jail and demanded that Johnson be handed over to them, along with two other black men accused of capital crimes. The mob dispersed at the urging of several local business leaders, but not before causing significant damage to the jailhouse doors.[6]

Johnson was returned to Chattanooga for his trial, which began on February 6 with Judge S. D. McReynolds presiding.[1][7] During the trial, Taylor said that she recognized Johnson as the man who assaulted her by his voice, face, and size, as well as a hat he'd worn on the night of the attack and again in the Nashville jail when she'd been brought to identify him.[8] However, Miss Taylor repeatedly refused to swear that he was the assailant, stating instead that it was her belief that Johnson was the assailant.

The trial concluded three days later with Johnson's conviction; he was sentenced to be put to death on 13 March. His defense attorneys considered the possibility of an appeal but decided against it, believing that it would be unlikely to succeed and, in any case, an acquittal might incense the public to try another storming of the jail, killing Johnson possibly along with other prisoners.[9]


Although Johnsons's court-appointed attorneys had decided not to pursue appeal, two local black attorneys, Noah Parden and Styles Hutchins, took up the case and requested an appeal of McReynolds on February 12. This was denied, as was their subsequent request to the Tennessee Supreme Court.[9] On 2 March, the same day of the unfavorable Tennessee Supreme Court ruling, Parden filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus with the United States circuit court at Knoxville, arguing that Johnson's trial deprived him of rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. This move was highly unusual, since federal courts were traditionally held to have no jurisdiction over state criminal proceedings. The District Court Judge, C.D. Clark, dismissed the petition on these grounds on 10 March; however, he suggested in his ruling that McReynolds petition the Governor of Tennessee for a 10-day stay of execution, allowing time for an appeal of the District Court's decision.[10] A stay was granted by Democratic Governor John I. Cox, taking the scheduled execution date to 20 March.[10][11]

Parden used this stay to travel to Washington, D.C., where he met on 17 March with U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, the circuit judge of the Sixth Circuit which contains Tennessee. Harlan agreed to have the Supreme Court hear the appeal, and on 19 March the Court ordered a second stay in order to allow this.[10]


Johnson was murdered on the evening of March 19. A group of men entered the virtually unguarded jail between 8:30 and 9:00 pm and broke through a door using an ax and a sledgehammer, which took over an hour. They then took Johnson to the nearby Walnut Street Bridge, and hanged him with a rope hung over a beam. Around a dozen men, believed to be Sheriff Joseph Shipp and some of his deputies, were actively involved in the lynching, while more spectators gathered around the jail and followed to the bridge.[12][13] The measure was to act as a deterrent to the city's blacks that resided on the opposite side of the bridge who walked the Walnut Street Bridge daily to go to and from their jobs in the downtown Chattanooga area.


The lynching of Ed Johnson led to United States v. Shipp, the only criminal trial ever held by the United States Supreme Court. Sheriff Shipp and several other men were convicted of Contempt of court and sentenced to 90 days imprisonment. In the court's words, "Shipp not only made the work of the mob easy, but in effect aided and abbetted it."[14] However, when Shipp was released he still swore innocence and was welcomed back like a hero.[15]

Ninety-four years after the lynching, Hamilton County Criminal Judge Doug Meyer overturned Johnson's conviction after hearing arguments that Johnson did not receive a fair trial because of the all-white jury and the judge's refusal to move the trial from Chattanooga, where there was much publicity about the case.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Waldrep, p. 144
  2. ^ Waldrep, p. 74
  3. ^ "Ocala Evening News". Newspaper. March 23, 1906. Retrieved September 23, 2014. 
  4. ^ a b c d Rushing, p. 64
  5. ^ Waldrep, p. 143
  6. ^ Rushing, p. 65-66
  7. ^ Rushing, p. 66
  8. ^ Rushing, p. 68
  9. ^ a b Rushing, p. 70
  10. ^ a b c Rushing, p. 71
  11. ^ Tennessee Government and Politics: Democracy in the Volunteer State p. 43, John R. Vile and Mark E. Byrnes. 1998, Vanderbilt University Press
  12. ^ Waldrep, p. 146
  13. ^ "Read about the lynching of Ed Johnson in Chattanooga.". Tennessee 4 Me. The Tennessee State Museum. 
  14. ^ Curridan, p. 286, 333, 335
  15. ^ "Read about the lynching of Ed Johnson in Chattanooga". Tennessee 4 Me. The Tennessee State Museum. 
  16. ^ Green, Amy (February 25, 2000). "1906 Tennessee Conviction Overturned". Associated Press. Retrieved 2010-06-13.