And The Ed Johnson Seance Continues

So, I went and grabbed Contempt of Court out of the library to see what Curriden and Phillips had written about the seance. I’m going to quote it at length from pages 289-290:

One evening, after several hours of working on the case, a group of the lawyers st around a law office drinking whiskey. Many drinks into the night, the attorneys decided to conduct a comedy. Witch Lewis Shepherd leading the way, they gathered around a table, dimmed the lanterns, lit a few candles, and announced they were conducting a seance. The whole thing was designed to poke fun at Ed Johnson and his claim of innocence.

With an audience that included a newspaper reporter, several local residents, and a handful of visitors from West Virginia, the lawyers sat around a table, held hands, closed their eyes, and began chanting. Within a few minutes, the people in the room heard a whisper.

“I want to speak with Judge Shepherd,” the voice supposedly said. Those present claimed the voice was that of a well-known policeman who had died several months ago.

“I know everybody in the room except three,” said the whisper. But before the voice could say anything more, another, stronger voice chimed in. This second alleged spirit also wanted to talk to the lawyer.

“I am Ed Johnson,” said the man’s voice. “I want to talk to the Judge [Shepherd], too. I want to tell you all that I was guilty, and they hanged the right man.”

A few seconds later, the whispering spirit of the police officer supposedly interrupted, denouncing Johnson’s spirit and commanding him to depart.


“Fly you away!”

“Get you back, you evil spirit, whence you came. How dare you?”

“I repeat to you, Skiddoo!”

And with that, witnesses said, the spirit of Ed Johnson disappeared into the night and his voice was never heard from again. Everyone in the room received quite a laugh from the skit. Shepherd would later contend that the entire episode was unplanned and unstaged. But then again, Shepherd was a known prankster who would never be handicapped by the truth.

The reviews I’ve read of Contempt of Court point to an obvious problem–in order to make the book readable, they render events into understandable prose and reconstruct scenes in order to give historical facts a narrative.

And here we are. There are red flags in this account That’s not what a seance would have looked like in 1907. They would have been held in pitch black. There would have been a medium. In fact, the Nashville American story says there was a medium. I haven’t seen the Chattanooga Times story yet, but let me just say that this rendition of the seance leaves me with more questions.

My concern is that it seemed so obvious to Curriden and Phillips that a seance was stupid and self-evidently fake that they could only guess that this strange event was a joke.

And yet, the least likely people to joke about seances at that time would have been rich white people–they’re the people who took seances most deadly seriously during the Spiritualist movement.

Curriden and Phillips conclude their discussion of the incident thusly:

This very attitude was the primary reason Parden said he would never return to Chattanooga. That Lewis Shepherd, a lawyer whom Parden respected and loved, would participate in such inappropriate shenanigans greatly disappointed him. The even demonstrated how even liberal-minded people like Shepherd would do certain things and act in different ways to remain politically and socially popular in a racially prejudice community.

Nothing in the notes says there they got this information–that Parden thought the seance was somehow emblematic of Chattanooga’s problems and that Shepherd’s participation disappointed him. I have no way of judging whether that’s an accurate interpretation. If the seance was a joke–and maybe the Chattanooga Times story will make it clear that it was–then it was a slap in the face for Shepherd to participate. But if it wasn’t a joke, I fail to see why it would be inappropriate for Shepherd to participate. And, in fact, if it wasn’t a joke and, considering that Shepherd worked hard to get Johnson some kind of justice, it’s not hard to see how the seance could have been a way to ease Shepherd’s guilt at failing.

Dr. Parnassus blah blah blah

We watched that Dr. Parnassus movie which started out so intriguingly and then kind of petered out into nonsense. Beautiful nonsense, but still nonsense. I was trying to decide if it would have been better had Ledger lived, but the truth is that it called for such a weird change of Tony’s character from scamp to evil-doer that I don’t think so. How could anyone make that work?

Still, I can’t stop thinking about it. It was so beautiful and just the right kind of strange.

A Little More on the Ghost of Ed Johnson

1. I need to find a way to search the Chattanooga Times archives to see if it also has the story. There’s just an appreciable difference between such a story being reported in Nashville only and in Nashville and Chattanooga.

2. U.S. v. Shipp was heard in Chattanooga. Rather than hauling everyone to Washington, they held the trial at the Customs House and the dude who heard it wrote up notes and sent them back to the Supreme Court to deliberate on. Look at this website, with the chronology:

December 24, 1906
In a unanimous opinion authored by Justice Holmes, the Court announces that it has jurisdiction to try the 26 defendants.

February 12, 1907
James Maher, deputy clerk of the Supreme Court, begins taking evidence in the United States Custom House in Chattanooga in the trial of Shipp and the other defendants.  Testimony from 31 government witnesses concerning the lynching continues for five days, then the trial is recessed until June.

According to ProQuest, the seance was held either January 15 or 16 (the story says “the night before” but the dateline is unclear whether the day the story ran was the 16th or the 17th). This fills in a hole, timeline wise, and suggests that the seance was for the “benefit” of the people of Chattanooga–to convince them that the lynching had been deserved and that the national shitstorm that was about to descend on the city was because of justified actions. I think it also suggests something VERY interesting. It suggests that Ed Johnson was believed. That his last words, when he proclaimed his innocence, made some white people uncertain about this being the correct course of action.

This is an important turn of events–though god, poor fucking Johnson–because the way white supremacy worked in the Jim Crow South was that the word of black people didn’t count. We even see this at Johnson’s trial–he says he was someplace else, he has a ton of witnesses that say he was someplace else–and it isn’t enough to save him from a guilty verdict. Black people’s testimony literally wasn’t enough to clear someone’s name.

But Johnson’s profession of innocence at his lynching must have had some weight within the white community in a way that the white establishment found threatening. After his death, his word that he didn’t do it carried such weight that it had to be counteracted. They’d already killed Johnson and that hadn’t shut him up. So, I think, they had to commandeer his soul in order to give the white doubters the voice they’d believe. But this still shows you the shift–Johnson’s voice now carried weight in white society. It wasn’t enough for the courts and the lynchers to say that he was a liar, the lynchers’ lawyers needed him to say it.

Still, I’m left with this lingering question of whether the lynchers’ lawyers needed it for themselves as well.

In other words, does the ghost show up in order to scare the doubts about this white supremacist social order away?