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?

3 thoughts on “A Little More on the Ghost of Ed Johnson

  1. You’re raising a lot of interesting issues. First, what was the status of “dying words” as evidence in a court of law in early 20th c Tennessee? Not my area of expertise, but in an earlier period, there was a strong legal presumption that words spoken in pain/under torture or duress/during a fatal attack were true. What I’ve found in other places is that the letter of the law (what written law says) is often not very important to what folks think should be law or “the justice of it”…could be that while the lawyers feel certain they can disregard Johnson’s denial, the rest of Chattanooga is not so sure. The rule of law only works when the two realms — popular ideas about what is just and the institutional implementation of justice — bear a reasonable correspondence. After a lynching, when the rule of law has suffered a pretty bad setback, I wouldn’t be surprised to see an attempt to get the two worlds of law back on speaking terms, even if it needed a seance to do it. Second, I think you’ve called this right. It suggests that there is an emergent black personhood — that Johnson is both listened to and believed, believed to an extent that those responsible for his lynching cannot be certain that they are seen as unquestionably right by other whites.

  2. I also want to bring Reverend Ferguson into this a little bit. Remember that he was mercilessly raked over the coals by northern white Spiritualists for contacting dead Abolitionists and never finding any that still gave a shit about slavery. Now, granted this is some fifty years before, but it shows, I think, that Tennessee spiritualists did use Spiritualism to try to give their racial beliefs a sheen of “endorsed by the dead, who know all mysteries!!!!”

    (And it seems to me that, in Ferguson’s time,this would have been an incredibly necessary step to take–as a Southern spiritualist, you’d have to stake out some non-abolitionist, non-suffragist Spiritualist territory and considering how closely those three movements were aligned, you’d have to be damn clear that you were just sipping from one stream, not all three.)

    I’m annoyed about Contempt of Court now and I’m trying to refrain from being straight up pissed until I read the Chattanooga Times article, but I just feel like their latching onto “this was a joke” means they missed a lot of the important shit at stake here. I mean, in some ways, even if it was a joke, those things are still there, but I just don’t like their interpretation while, at the same time, I’m not sure my desire to read it as more serious is any better founded.

  3. This is such an interesting thing to think about. I can’t wait to see what you write about it.

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