In 1906, a young African American 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. The day after his murder saw widespread strikes among the black community in Chattanooga. Two thousand people attended his funeral on the next day.
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.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 execute 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"
Johnson was the second African American to be lynched on Walnut Street Bridge, Alfred Blount being the first, thirteen years earlier, in 1893.
During December 1905, the Chattanooga area experienced what local newspaper referred to as a black "crime wave." Between December 11 and 23, black suspects allegedly committed one rape, one assault and burglary, and one isolated assault. On Christmas Eve, a black gambler fatally shot a Chattanooga constable, and on Christmas Day, police received reports of eight robberies or assaults committed by black suspects. In each instance, the victim was white. Although police arrested several suspects for these crimes, including the man who admitted to killing the constable (he claimed that he had acted in self-defense), Chattanooga residents made no attempts to lynch the alleged criminals. As news of the crime wave spread, however, racial fear and tension in the city dramatically increased.
The Ed Johnson case occurred within this atmosphere of heightened racial fear. On January 23, 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. 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.
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. 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.
On the night that Ed Johnson was arrested, a mob of 1500 white Chattanooga metropolitan residents surrounded the prison in an attempt to lynch him. Anticipating such an attempt and desiring to protect the prisoner, Sheriff Joseph F. Shipp and Hamilton County Judge Samuel D. McReynolds had evacuated Johnson to Nashville earlier that day. For his safety, Johnson was kept there until the trial commenced. After McReynolds spoke to the mob and promised swift justice through the legal system, the mob reluctantly dispersed.
Johnson was indicted by grand jury on January 26. 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.
Johnson was returned to Chattanooga for his trial, which began on February 6 with Judge S. D. McReynolds presiding. 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. 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 March 13. 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.
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. On March 2, 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 March 10; 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. A stay was granted by Democratic Governor John I. Cox, taking the scheduled execution date to March 20.
Parden used this stay to travel to Washington, D.C., where he met on March 17 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 March 19 the Court ordered a second stay in order to allow this.
Johnson was murdered on the evening of March 19. Although multiple deputies usually guarded the prison each night and Sheriff Shipp's chief deputy recommended that extra guards be posted around the jail to prevent mob violence, Shipp excused all law enforcement officials, except for elderly nighttime jailer Jeremiah Gibson, from duty. Additionally, the deputies moved all prisoners except Ed Johnson and Ellen Baker, a white woman, from the third floor. A group of men entered the virtually unguarded jail between 8:30 and 9:00 pm and broke through a set of three third-floor doors using an ax and a sledgehammer, which took nearly three hours. During this time Shipp arrived at the jail and pleaded with the mob to cease their violence and allow the rule of law to remain in effect. He did not draw his revolver or attempt to physically restrain any member of the mob. When the mob became annoyed at Shipp's protests, several members escorted him to a bathroom and instructed him to remain there. Though the mob left Shipp unguarded, he did not attempt to leave until the lynching concluded. They then took Johnson to the nearby Walnut Street Bridge, and hanged him with a rope hung over a beam. After Johnson had been hanging for over two minutes, several lynchers grew impatient and began shooting Johnson. According to one report, he was hit by over fifty bullets. One bullet severed the rope, and Johnson fell to the ground. When Johnson moved, one member of the mob, later identified as deputy sheriff, placed his revolver against Johnson's head and fired five additional shots. Following this act, another leader of the mob pinned a note to Johnson, which read "To Justice Harlan. Come get your nigger now." Around a dozen men, believed to include some of Shipp's deputies, were actively involved in the lynching, while more spectators gathered around the jail and followed to the bridge. 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 mob's actions, especially the note addressed to Justice Harlan, and Chattanooga law enforcement's lack of prevention or response directly challenged the Supreme Court's authority over state criminal proceedings. In a Birmingham News interview following the lynching, Sheriff Shipp explicitly blamed the Ed Johnson's death on the Supreme Court's interference. As a result, 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. Shipp and two others were sentenced to 90 days imprisonment, and three other defendants were sentenced to 60 days imprisonment. In the court's words, "Shipp not only made the work of the mob easy, but in effect aided and abbetted it." However, when Shipp was released he still swore innocence and was welcomed back like a hero.
Ninety-four years after the lynching, in February 2000, 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.