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.