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

A Long Road To Justice

Before the Court would allow evidence to be taken in the Shipp case, it needed to resolve the question of jurisdiction: Did the Court have the power to try Shipp and the others for criminal contempt? The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the jurisdictional issue on December 4, 1906. Solicitor General Henry Hoyt argued that the Court did have jurisdiction. Hoyt contended that Johnson's right to be heard on his application for habeas corpus was protected by the Constitution and that the Court acted appropriately in staying his execution. Judson Harmon, a Cincinnati lawyer representing Sheriff Shipp, countered by arguing that none of Johnson's federally protected rights had been violated and that therefore the Court improperly granted its stay. On Christmas Eve, the Court, in a unanimous decision written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, ruled that it had the jurisdiction to try Shipp and the others.

On February 12, 1907, United States v. Shipp et al. opened in the United States Custom House in Chattanooga. (The Court decided that witnesses could more easily be gathered there than in Washington.) Having neither the time nor inclination to travel to Tennessee to hear weeks of testimony, the justices appointed James D. Maher, deputy clerk of the Supreme Court, to preside at the trial and prepare an evidentiary record which they could review.

Assistant Attorney General Terry Sanford presented the prosecution's case. His first witness was J. L. Chivington, a reporter for the Chattanooga Times, who had witnessed Johnson's lynching. Chivington testified that "there were normally six or seven deputies on guard every night" at the jail—except the night of March 19. Edward Chaddick, manager of the Western Union telegram office, testified that he had hand-delivered to Sheriff Shipp a telegram from the United States Supreme Court on the afternoon of the lynching.

A key witness for the prosecution was John Stonecipher, a Georgia contractor who had talked with some leaders of the mob at a saloon just hours before the lynching. According to Stonecipher, a man named Frank Ward said to him as he stood on a curb waiting for a car to go home, "We want you to help us lynch that damn nigger tonight." Stonecipher replied, "I believe Sheriff Shipp would shoot the red-hot stuff out of you." "No," answered Ward, "it is all agreed. There won't be a sheriff or deputy there."

In all, the government produced 31 witnesses over five days. Maher then recessed the trial until June. On Saturday, June 15, the defense began to present its case. Friends, relatives, and coworkers took the stand to offer alibis or attest to the high moral character of the defendants. Some of the defendants testified, but only one, Luther Williams, admitted being present at the lynching. He claimed to have been only a spectator.

Sheriff Shipp was the last witness called by the defense. He testified: "I never conspired with any living man, my deputies or anyone else; and I had no knowledge, not the slightest, that there would be any effort on my part or anybody to interfere with Johnson." Shipp claimed to have "run most of the way and walked rapidly the balance of the way" to the jail as soon as he learned that a lynching was in progress. At the jail, Shipp told the court, "I was seized from behind by several men." They "stood over me with a guard." On crossexamination, Shipp claimed not to have recognized any of the mob members at the jail, even though he was held there—without blindfolds—for 30 minutes.

On June 29, 1907, the defense rested. It wasn't until March of 1909 that the trial moved to the Supreme Court in Washington, where both sides presented closing arguments. U.S. Attorney General Charles Bonaparte told the Court that he believed the issues involved in the Shipp case to be so important that he decided to deliver the final argument himself. In his six-hour summation, Bonaparte reviewed the evidence of the trial and made the case for a guilty verdict. Judson Harmon presented the closing argument for Sheriff Shipp the following day. Harmon conceded that his client did not, in retrospect, handle the situation properly. But certainly, Harmon argued, "Captain Shipp cannot be convicted of contempt by this Court simply because, in the performance of his duties, he exercised bad judgment." After listening to brief arguments from lawyers for the other defendants, the Court adjourned to consider its verdict.

On May 24, 1909, the Supreme Court met to announce its decision. In his quiet voice, Chief Justice Fuller read his opinion. Fuller said that Sheriff Shipp "resented the necessary order of this court as an alien intrusion" and believed it to be "responsible for the lynching." The Court concluded: "Shipp not only made the work of the mob easy, but in effect aided and abetted it."

Shipp was found guilty of criminal contempt. The Court also declared jailer Jeremiah Gibson and four members of the lynch mob—Nick Nolan, William Mayes, Henry Padgett, and Luther Williams—guilty. Evidence was found insufficient to convict Deputy Matthew Galloway, Alf Handman, and Bart Justice. Justices Holmes, Harlan, Brewer, and Day joined Chief Justice Fuller's decision. Three dissenting justices voted to acquit all defendants.

Shipp, Williams, and Nolan were sentenced to 90 days imprisonment, while Gibson, Padgett, and Mayes were sentenced to 60 days.

On January 30, 1910, after completing his three-month sentence, Sheriff Shipp returned to Chattanooga, where he received a hero's welcome. As he stepped off the train from Washington, A crowd of more than 10,000 people singing "Dixie" greeted him.

Doug Linder

Suggestions for Further Reading

Fiss, Owen. History of the Supreme Court of the United States, Vol. 8. New York: Macmillan, 1993.

Additional topics

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