Right before Ed Johnson was lynched for the rape of Nevada Taylor on March 19, 1906, he said "God bless you all. I am innocent." These are almost certainly his last words.
They are, however, not the last words attributed to Johnson in the papers. According to the Daily Times and the Nashville American, Johnson’s final last words came in a séance the evening of Jan. 15, 1907, and were "I am Ed Johnson. I want to talk to the judge, too. I want to tell you all that I was guilty and that they hanged the right man."
Let’s be clear. When Johnson was hanged from the Walnut Street Bridge by a vigilante mob in defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court, he was innocent. Taylor was raped near Forest Hills Cemetery. Johnson was working at the Last Chance Saloon, down on the state line, where dozens of witnesses had seen him. As Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "This was a case of an innocent man improperly branded a guilty brute and condemned to die from the start."
Because Johnson wasn’t guilty, the séance would hardly be worth mentioning, except for who was in attendance. The Nashville American article about the séance says, "Gathered in a circle within a prominent lawyer’s office were five attorneys. With them was a medium in whom spiritualists in this section believe implicitly. Among the lawyers was Judge Lewis Shepherd, who defended Johnson and is now defending 11 of the alleged lynchers; Martin Fleming, attorney for the other lynchers; T.C. Latimore, one of Shipp’s attorneys; and Judge Snodgrass, former chief justice of Tennessee."
Now, that’s weird—the lawyers for the lynchers and the lawyer for the sheriff sitting around a law office with a medium contacting the guy their clients are implicated in the death of. Weirder still, Shepherd was Johnson’s old attorney as well, so he knew Johnson was innocent. It’s so weird, in fact, that in their definitive book about the lynching of Johnson, "Contempt of Court," Mark Curriden and Leroy Phillips assume it’s a joke. They write, "Many drinks into the night, the attorneys decided to conduct a comedy. With Lewis Shepherd leading the way, they gathered around a table, dimmed the lanterns, lit a few candles, and announced they were conducting a séance. The whole thing was designed to poke fun at Ed Johnson and his claim of innocence."
This doesn’t gibe with the newspaper accounts from back then. Neither the Nashville American nor Chattanooga’s Daily Times mentions any drinking. Shepherd didn’t lead the séance; local medium Raymond Harkins did. Like all séances of the time, it was held in pitch black, which we know because the Daily Times article mentions that Harkins had some problems on a previous Tuesday, "when three facetious young men turned on the lights and exposed the whole thing." Yes, the Daily Times article describes the séance as "great fun" and "a night’s amusement," but we have fun and are amused by watching football. That doesn’t make football a joke.
Let’s entertain the idea that the séance was serious. Even if we don’t believe Harkins contacted the spirit of Johnson, let’s grant that the people in that room thought it very well could have been him. Spiritualism, though not as influential as it was right after the Civil War, was still very popular among white people, especially among well-educated, wealthy white people. The idea of directly addressing the dead, instead of just speculating about their well-being, and gleaning knowledge from them was very appealing at the turn of the century, especially among people who may have thought they were a little too sophisticated for the "simple" Christian faith of their neighbors. These were such men.
And these were men under a lot of stress. Three weeks before the séance, the United States Supreme Court decided that it could try Shipp and the lynchers who could be identified for contempt of court. Three weeks after the séance, James Maher, deputy clerk of the Supreme Court, would begin taking evidence in the case. The lawyers involved in that séance were in an unprecedented legal battle—it is the only criminal trial to have ever taken place in the U.S. Supreme Court.
In the past when black men were lynched, the black community would be outraged—as they were in Johnson’s case—and maybe some white do-gooder would fret about the importance of the rule of law, but in the end, white people would go on like nothing terrible had happened and the lynching would remain, as far as white America was concerned, a local incident.
But the Sunday after Johnson was lynched, Dr. Howard E. Jones, the minister at the white First Baptist Church, preached, "They [the mob] are not in pursuit of justice, but lawless revenge. Their business is to brutalize a community." Don’t misunderstand Jones. He was a racist. The brutalized community he was talking about here were not the black Chattanoogans who bore the brunt of white racism, but the white community.
After all, the main tenet of white supremacy is that white people are superior to other races, in this case, black people. Chattanooga had the social order it did—with white people running the city—because it was a simple, accepted fact that they were capable of doing it. A city had to be run by civilized people, and everyone knew black people were uncivilized.
But if white Chattanoogans rejected the rule of law—a big part of a civilized society—then they were proving themselves to be uncivilized, no better than the people they oppressed. This mortified many in the white community. And to add insult to injury, the whole country’s attention was turned to Chattanooga.
And it wasn’t like this was the first time anyone in that little group had some troubles with the rule of law. The strangest guest at the séance would, at first glance, seem to be Snodgrass. Why would a former Tennessee Supreme Court justice be sitting around commiserating with the lawyers for a bunch of people who had participated in this extralegal action? Turns out that Snodgrass had had a little trouble along these lines himself.
Back on Dec. 16, 1895, while he was the chief justice, Snodgrass walked into the law offices of Brown and Spurlock and shot John R. Beasley, a local lawyer who had written unfavorably about Snodgrass in the Daily Times. He was eventually acquitted, but everyone knew he’d done it, and the case left a lingering shadow. The Nashville Banner summed up the Snodgrass problem thusly:
"It is bad enough, heaven knows, for mobs that have been goaded to fury by outrageous crime against helpless innocence, to defy the law, and in mad passion make an assault upon human life, but when the chief justice of Tennessee sets the example of disregarding all laws and of wreaking private vengeance with a deadly weapon we may well pause aghast.
"What can we say in reply to the charge that is buried against the South—that we are a lawless people—when even the highest judicial officer of Tennessee, wearing the sacred ermine of office, murders the law?"
Now the séance starts to make sense. The men sitting around that table were representing men (or were men) who believed that the rule of law came second to the passions of individual white men. This had been, mostly, an in-state debate—whether men not particularly committed to the law ought to be responsible for upholding it. But now, they had embarrassed white Chattanooga in front of the whole country. There were only two ways to rectify that—to prove that the country had no business looking into the affairs of Chattanooga or to show that the mob was justified in its actions and was, in fact, providing justice when the court system could not.
The first way had already failed. The Supreme Court didn’t buy the lawyers’ arguments that their clients shouldn’t be tried for contempt. The second way was difficult because the mob had acted before the case had worked its way through the appeals process, but if Johnson would say he was guilty, it might reaffirm to uncertain whites that justice had, in an unorthodox way, been served.
The Times account gives some credence to this interpretation:
"'I am Ed Johnson. I want to talk to the judge, too. I want to tell you all that I was guilty and that they hanged the right man.'
"Things were becoming interesting. All the party expected to hear something that a community long-desired to know. But Baker, with that awful voice, broke into the proceedings."
What else could the community desire to know but details that would definitively prove Johnson’s guilt?
This is, perhaps, the weirdest thing about the evening—that the lawyers who were representing the white people who were most committed to the old ways of keeping social order, which included completely disregarding the testimony of black people, wanted to hear from Johnson details of his guilt. Now, his word was the thing that was supposed to count.
For all practical purposes, the ghostly last words of Johnson aren’t very important. He wasn’t guilty, and it doesn’t matter that some, as the Daily Times put it, "black spirit which claimed to be Ed Johnson" said otherwise. It’s just a strange footnote in a more important historical narrative.
But, if as the Nashville American says, "Some of the more credulous really believe it was a genuine appearance of the negro’s spirit," then it tells us that, by 1907, there were circumstances under which a black man could speak to white authority figures in Chattanooga and be believed. In this case, it’s macabre because it happened after death. But it’s the start of a huge crack in the pristine veneer of white supremacy.
And for that reason, it’s worth not writing the incident off as a joke.
Betsy Phillips writes for the Nashville Scene's political blog, Pith in the Wind. She lives in Whites Creek, Tenn. Her fiction has appeared in Apex Magazine, Qarrtsiluni and Betwixt. Her hobby is tracking down Tennessee's occult history. You can follow her on Twitter @auntb. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.
Updated @ 11:21 a.m. on 10/23/13 for clarity.