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United States v. Shipp, et al.: 1907-09

United States v. Shipp, et al.: 1907-09

Defendants: Joseph F. Shipp, Matthew Galloway, Jeremiah Gibson, Nick Nolan, William Mayes, Henry Padgett, Alf Handman, Bart Justice, Luther Williams
Crime Charged: Criminal contempt of court
Chief Defense Lawyer: Judson Harmon
Chief Prosecutors: Terry Sanford, Charles Bonaparte
Judges: Melville W. Fuller, John Marshall Harlan, David J. Brewer, Edward D. White, Rufus W. Peckham, Jeseph McKenna, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William R. Day, William H. Moody; James D. Maher was appointed by the Court to oversee initial arguments
Places: Initial Arguments: Chattanooga, Tennessee; Closing Arguments: Washington, D.C.
Dates of Trial: February 12-June 29, 1907; March 1909
Verdicts: Shipp, Gibson, Nolan, Mayes, Padgett and Williams: Guilty; Galloway, Handman, and Justice: Not Guilty
Sentences: Shipp, Williams, Nolan: 90 days imprisonment; Gibson, Padgett, Mayes: 60 days imprisonment

SIGNIFICANCE: In the long history of the U.S. Supreme Court, this was the firstand onlycriminal trial tried by the Court.

On a dark January evening in 1906, a 21-year-old woman named Nevada Taylor left her bookkeeping job in downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee. She boarded an electric trolley for her ride home. Stepping off the trolley, Taylor began the short walk to her home, a cottage in Forest Hills Cemetery where her father was the groundskeeper. As she approached the cemetery gate, she felt her throat grabbed from behind and a voice say, "If you scream, I will kill you." Taylor was raped and left unconscious.

An Arrest is Made

When Nevada Taylor regained consciousness, she walked home and told her father, William Taylor, what had happened. Her father called for Sheriff Joseph F. Shipp. When Shipp arrived at the Taylor house he asked Nevada Taylor what she could remember of the attack. She couldn't recall much. Shipp asked, "Was the man white or Negro?" Taylor answered at first that she did not get a good look at the attacker, but then added that she thought he was black.

An investigation of the crime scene turned up a black leather strap that perfectly matched red streaks around Taylor's neck. Will Hixon, a man who worked at a medicine company near the cemetery, reported that he had seen a black man "twirling a leather strap around his finger" shortly before 6 p.m. on the evening of the rape. Hixon called Shipp later to say that he had just seen that same man walking north toward town with a tall black man. Finding the tall black man alone, Shipp learned that his companionand now prime suspectwas a drifter and sometimes carpenter named Ed Johnson. Within hours, Shipp spotted Johnson riding on the back of an ice wagon. Johnson was seized, handcuffed, brought to jail, and identified by Hixon as the man he had seen with the strap.

A Near Lynching and a Trial

Word of Johnson's arrest spread quickly. A large crowd gathered at the front of Hamilton County Jail, where they thought Johnson was being held. Men with sledgehammers smashed at the hinges on the heavy front door of the jail, but the men were not able to get in. In fact, Johnson had been sent to Nashville earlier that evening.

On January 27, Nevada Taylor traveled to Nashville and identified Ed Johnson as her attacker. However, it was a less than certain identification. That same day, a grand jury was convened and an indictment was returned within two hours. Through it all, Johnson maintained that he was innocent.

The trial of Ed Johnson opened on February 6, 1906. Three local attorneys, including Lewis Shepherd, one of Chattanooga's most prominent defense attorneys, defended him. The first witness for the prosecution was Nevada Taylor. Prosecutor Matt Whitaker asked Taylor if the man who attacked her was in the courtroom.

"I believe he is the man," said Taylor, pointing to Ed Johnson.

Will Hixon also testified and told the jurors that he saw Johnson "with a strap in his hand near the scene of the crime." The state also called Sheriff Joseph Shipp, who recounted the investigation for the jury.

The defense opened their case with Ed Johnson taking the stand. Johnson denied raping Taylor and said he spent the evening of January 23 working as a pool room porter at the Last Chance Saloon between 4:30 p.m. and 10 p.m.The defense then called 13 witnesses to the stand who swore they saw Johnson at the Last Chance Saloon around the time that the rape occurred. The defense also called several witnesses to the stand who attacked the credibility of Will Hixon.

The most dramatic event of the Johnson trial occurred on its last day. At the request of jurors, Nevada Taylor was recalled to the stand. Juror J. L. Wrenn stood and asked Taylor, "Miss Taylor, can you state positively that this Negro is the one who assaulted you?" Taylor answered, "I will not swear he is the man, but I believe he is the Negro who assaulted me." Wrenn, still not satisfied, asked again: "In God's name, Miss Taylor, tell us positivelyis that the guilty Negro? Can you say it? Can you swear it?" With tears streaming down her face, Taylor replied, "Listen to me. I would not take the life of an innocent man. But before God, I believe this is the guilty Negro." At that point another juror rose and lunged in the direction of Johnson. As fellow jurors restrained him, he shouted out, "If I could get at him, I'd tear his heart out right now."

A Guilty Verdict and Lynching

On February 9, 1906, the jury returned a guilty verdict. In a surprising move, Johnson's defense attorneys decided against an appeal. Two of Johnson's attorneys, W. G. M. Thomas and Robert Cameron, concluded that an appeal would be futile. Lewis Shepherd disagreed, but was outvoted. That same day, Johnson was sentenced to hang on March 13, 1906.

Soon after the sentence, Johnson told his father that he did not want to die and that he wanted to appeal the verdict. Johnson's father hired Noah Parden, Chattanooga's most highly respected African-American attorney, to lead the appeal. After both the Tennessee Supreme Court and a federal district court upheld the verdict, Parden brought the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. On the morning of March 17, 1906, Parden and attorney Emanuel Hewlett presented Johnson's case to Supreme Court justice John Marshall Harlan. The justice listened to their arguments and nodded without giving them a word of encouragement.

In the hours after his meeting with Parden, Harlan read the transcript of the federal court appeal and became convinced Johnson's case raised serious constitutional issues. At Harlan's request, a majority of justices gathered on Sunday morning at the home of Chief Justice Melville Fuller to hear his plea for intervention. After debating the issue for an hour, the justices agreed upon their unprecedented action of staying the execution and granting Johnson's appeal. Harlan ordered telegrams sent to all the parties involved, including Sheriff Shipp, informing them of the Supreme Court's action.

The news that the Supreme Court had stayed Johnson's scheduled execution did not sit well with many in Chattanooga. About 8 P3.M. on March 19 a group of men carrying guns descended on the Hamilton County Jail where Johnson was being held. Only a single guard, jailer Jeremiah Gibson, was on duty. Sheriff Shipp had given his other deputies the night off. The mob entered the jail and began their search for Johnson. Soon the mob made their way up the spiral staircase to the third floor where Johnson was being held. It was not until 10:35 that the last bolt on the heavy outer door gave way to the pounding of the mob. The men tied Johnson's hands with rope and dragged him from the cell. The crowd made its way to the Walnut Street Bridge that spanned the Tennessee River, where Johnson was lynched. A leader of the mob pinned a sheet of paper to Johnson's body. The note read: "To Justice Harlan. Come and get your nigger now."

Word of Johnson's lynching soon reached the justices of the Supreme Court. The justices expressed their outrage to the press. President Theodore Roosevelt promptly ordered a federal preliminary investigation, with the understanding that the findings could be used by the U.S. Supreme Court should it choose to bring criminal contempt charges against members of the lynch mob.

On May 28, 1906, the U.S. Justice Department filed papers accusing 27 men of conspiring to lynch and murder Ed Johnson, including Sheriff Shipp, Deputy Matthew Galloway, and jailer Jeremiah Gibson. Eventually, charges would be dropped against most of the 27 men, but in addition to Shipp, Galloway, and Gibson, six members of the lynch mobNick Nolan, William Mayes, Henry Padgett, Alf Handman, Bart Justice and Luther Williamswere charged with criminal contempt.

A Long Road to Justice

Before the Court would allow evidence to be taken in the Shipp case, it needed to resolve the question of jurisdiction: Did the Court have the power to try Shipp and the others for criminal contempt? The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the jurisdictional issue on December 4, 1906. Solicitor General Henry Hoyt argued that the Court did have jurisdiction. Hoyt contended that Johnson's right to be heard on his application for habeas corpus was protected by the Constitution and that the Court acted appropriately in staying his execution. Judson Harmon, a Cincinnati lawyer representing Sheriff Shipp, countered by arguing that none of Johnson's federally protected rights had been violated and that therefore the Court improperly granted its stay. On Christmas Eve, the Court, in a unanimous decision written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, ruled that it had the jurisdiction to try Shipp and the others.

On February 12, 1907, United States v. Shipp et al. opened in the United States Custom House in Chattanooga. (The Court decided that witnesses could more easily be gathered there than in Washington.) Having neither the time nor inclination to travel to Tennessee to hear weeks of testimony, the justices appointed James D. Maher, deputy clerk of the Supreme Court, to preside at the trial and prepare an evidentiary record which they could review.

Assistant Attorney General Terry Sanford presented the prosecution's case. His first witness was J. L. Chivington, a reporter for the Chattanooga Times, who had witnessed Johnson's lynching. Chivington testified that "there were normally six or seven deputies on guard every night" at the jailexcept the night of March 19. Edward Chaddick, manager of the Western Union telegram office, testified that he had hand-delivered to Sheriff Shipp a telegram from the United States Supreme Court on the afternoon of the lynching.

A key witness for the prosecution was John Stonecipher, a Georgia contractor who had talked with some leaders of the mob at a saloon just hours before the lynching. According to Stonecipher, a man named Frank Ward said to him as he stood on a curb waiting for a car to go home, "We want you to help us lynch that damn nigger tonight." Stonecipher replied, "I believe Sheriff Shipp would shoot the red-hot stuff out of you." "No," answered Ward, "it is all agreed. There won't be a sheriff or deputy there."

In all, the government produced 31 witnesses over five days. Maher then recessed the trial until June. On Saturday, June 15, the defense began to present its case. Friends, relatives, and coworkers took the stand to offer alibis or attest to the high moral character of the defendants. Some of the defendants testified, but only one, Luther Williams, admitted being present at the lynching. He claimed to have been only a spectator.

Sheriff Shipp was the last witness called by the defense. He testified: "I never conspired with any living man, my deputies or anyone else; and I had no knowledge, not the slightest, that there would be any effort on my part or anybody to interfere with Johnson." Shipp claimed to have "run most of the way and walked rapidly the balance of the way" to the jail as soon as he learned that a lynching was in progress. At the jail, Shipp told the court, "I was seized from behind by several men." They "stood over me with a guard." On crossexamination, Shipp claimed not to have recognized any of the mob members at the jail, even though he was held therewithout blindfoldsfor 30 minutes.

On June 29, 1907, the defense rested. It wasn't until March of 1909 that the trial moved to the Supreme Court in Washington, where both sides presented closing arguments. U.S. Attorney General Charles Bonaparte told the Court that he believed the issues involved in the Shipp case to be so important that he decided to deliver the final argument himself. In his six-hour summation, Bonaparte reviewed the evidence of the trial and made the case for a guilty verdict. Judson Harmon presented the closing argument for Sheriff Shipp the following day. Harmon conceded that his client did not, in retrospect, handle the situation properly. But certainly, Harmon argued, "Captain Shipp cannot be convicted of contempt by this Court simply because, in the performance of his duties, he exercised bad judgment." After listening to brief arguments from lawyers for the other defendants, the Court adjourned to consider its verdict.

On May 24, 1909, the Supreme Court met to announce its decision. In his quiet voice, Chief Justice Fuller read his opinion. Fuller said that Sheriff Shipp "resented the necessary order of this court as an alien intrusion" and believed it to be "responsible for the lynching." The Court concluded: "Shipp not only made the work of the mob easy, but in effect aided and abetted it."

Shipp was found guilty of criminal contempt. The Court also declared jailer Jeremiah Gibson and four members of the lynch mobNick Nolan, William Mayes, Henry Padgett, and Luther Williamsguilty. Evidence was found insufficient to convict Deputy Matthew Galloway, Alf Handman, and Bart Justice. Justices Holmes, Harlan, Brewer, and Day joined Chief Justice Fuller's decision. Three dissenting justices voted to acquit all defendants.

Shipp, Williams, and Nolan were sentenced to 90 days imprisonment, while Gibson, Padgett, and Mayes were sentenced to 60 days.

On January 30, 1910, after completing his three-month sentence, Sheriff Shipp returned to Chattanooga, where he received a hero's welcome. As he stepped off the train from Washington, A crowd of more than 10,000 people singing "Dixie" greeted him.

Doug Linder

Suggestions for Further Reading

Fiss, Owen. History of the Supreme Court of the United States, Vol. 8. New York: Macmillan, 1993.

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