Ed Johnson, a #black man was convicted of raping a young white woman, Nevada Taylor, in 1906 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Justice John Marshall Harlan of the United States Supreme Court issued a stay of execution, but to prevent a delay in the death sentencing a mob broke into the jail and lynched him. Johnson’s case received wide public interest. The year before Johnson was convicted newspapers across the state were reporting that a black “crime wave” was happening. Allegedly, between December 11 and 23, black suspects committed one rape, one assault and burglary, and there was also 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. All the victims were white, and although the black men were arrested, none of them were lynched.
However, the Ed Johnson case came at a time when racial fear was at its highest in the state. On January 23, 1906, Nevada Taylor was walking home from a streetcar stop to a cottage at the Chattanooga Forest Hills Cemetery, which was where she lived with her father, the caretaker of the cemetery. During Taylor’s attack, she supposedly lost consciousness. She later identified her attacker as a black man, ‘who approached her from behind and wrapped a leather strap around her neck’. She was later examined by a doctor and found to have been indeed sexually assaulted.
The police began looking for her attacker which led to Hamilton County, where James Broaden, a black man fitting the description of Taylor’s attacker was arrested by Sheriff Joseph Shipp. He later arrested another black man, Ed Johnson, because someone witnessed him holding a leather strap near the streetcar stop the night of the attack.
Not long after Johnson was arrested, word spread about the rapist being in custody. A mob of about 1500 white Chattanooga residents surrounded the prison in an attempt to get Johnson. But, Sheriff Shipp and Judge Samuel D. McReynolds had already evacuated Johnson earlier during the day for his safety.
Although, Taylor said she recognized Johnson as the man who assaulted her by his face, voice, size, and a hat worn on the night of the attack; she refused to swear to him being the assailant. Taylor only said that it was her ‘belief’ that Johnson was indeed the man who attacked her. The trial lasted for three days with Johnson’s being found guilty; 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. Two black local attorneys, Noah Parden and Styles Hutchins, took the case and requested an appeal on February 12, but it was denied.
Johnson was murdered on the evening of March 19. Normally, there would have been multiple deputies on guard to watch the prison every night. But, this particular night, Sheriff Shipp excused all law enforcement, except for an elderly jailer Jeremiah Gibson from duty. What was strange is that deputies moved all prisoners except, Ed Johnson and Ellen Baker, a white woman from the third floor before going home. Later that evening, a mob entered the jail; they broke through three sets of doors using an ax and sledgehammer. Sheriff Shipp arrived during this time and supposedly pleaded with the mob crowd to go home. Allegedly, the mob grew tired of Shipp’s pleading; they put him in a bathroom, where they instructed him to remain.
Apparently, Sheriff Shipp never drew his gun, or attempted to leave the jail until after the lynching was over. As the mob grew impatient waiting for the lynching, some of them began to fire shots into Johnson’s body. It was reported that before Johnson was hit with over fifty bullets, he looked at the white mob, and told them, “God bless you all. I am innocent.” One bullet severed the rope, and he fell to the ground. When Johnson moved, one member of the mob, later identified as a deputy sheriff, placed his revolver against Johnson’s head and fired five additional shots. It was believed that quite a few of the mob members were Sheriff Shipp’s deputies. The lynching of Ed Johnson led to the United States v. Shipp case, the only criminal trial ever held by the United States Supreme Court during that time. Shipp and two others were sentenced to 90 days imprisonment, and three other defendants were sentenced to 60 days imprisonment.
Sheriff Shipp made it easy for the mob to murder Johnson, he aided and abetted in the crime. But, when Shipp was released from jail, he was welcomed back into the community as 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.