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et al. United States v. Shipp: 1907-09

A Guilty Verdict And Lynching

On February 9, 1906, the jury returned a guilty verdict. In a surprising move, Johnson's defense attorneys decided against an appeal. Two of Johnson's attorneys, W. G. M. Thomas and Robert Cameron, concluded that an appeal would be futile. Lewis Shepherd disagreed, but was outvoted. That same day, Johnson was sentenced to hang on March 13, 1906.

Soon after the sentence, Johnson told his father that he did not want to die and that he wanted to appeal the verdict. Johnson's father hired Noah Parden, Chattanooga's most highly respected African-American attorney, to lead the appeal. After both the Tennessee Supreme Court and a federal district court upheld the verdict, Parden brought the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. On the morning of March 17, 1906, Parden and attorney Emanuel Hewlett presented Johnson's case to Supreme Court justice John Marshall Harlan. The justice listened to their arguments and nodded without giving them a word of encouragement.

In the hours after his meeting with Parden, Harlan read the transcript of the federal court appeal and became convinced Johnson's case raised serious constitutional issues. At Harlan's request, a majority of justices gathered on Sunday morning at the home of Chief Justice Melville Fuller to hear his plea for intervention. After debating the issue for an hour, the justices agreed upon their unprecedented action of staying the execution and granting Johnson's appeal. Harlan ordered telegrams sent to all the parties involved, including Sheriff Shipp, informing them of the Supreme Court's action.

The news that the Supreme Court had stayed Johnson's scheduled execution did not sit well with many in Chattanooga. About 8 P3.M. on March 19 a group of men carrying guns descended on the Hamilton County Jail where Johnson was being held. Only a single guard, jailer Jeremiah Gibson, was on duty. Sheriff Shipp had given his other deputies the night off. The mob entered the jail and began their search for Johnson. Soon the mob made their way up the spiral staircase to the third floor where Johnson was being held. It was not until 10:35 that the last bolt on the heavy outer door gave way to the pounding of the mob. The men tied Johnson's hands with rope and dragged him from the cell. The crowd made its way to the Walnut Street Bridge that spanned the Tennessee River, where Johnson was lynched. A leader of the mob pinned a sheet of paper to Johnson's body. The note read: "To Justice Harlan. Come and get your nigger now."

Word of Johnson's lynching soon reached the justices of the Supreme Court. The justices expressed their outrage to the press. President Theodore Roosevelt promptly ordered a federal preliminary investigation, with the understanding that the findings could be used by the U.S. Supreme Court should it choose to bring criminal contempt charges against members of the lynch mob.

On May 28, 1906, the U.S. Justice Department filed papers accusing 27 men of conspiring to lynch and murder Ed Johnson, including Sheriff Shipp, Deputy Matthew Galloway, and jailer Jeremiah Gibson. Eventually, charges would be dropped against most of the 27 men, but in addition to Shipp, Galloway, and Gibson, six members of the lynch mob—Nick Nolan, William Mayes, Henry Padgett, Alf Handman, Bart Justice and Luther Williams—were charged with criminal contempt.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1883 to 1917et al. United States v. Shipp: 1907-09 - An Arrest Is Made, A Near Lynching And A Trial, A Guilty Verdict And Lynching