The prize winning novel, Contempt of Court written by authors Mark Curriden and Leroy Phillips, describes the well-known unfortunate story of the hanging of Ed Johnson from the Walnut Street Bridge in Chattanooga in 1906.
The earlier hanging of Alfred Blount in 1893 for the rape of a white woman was just as sensational, more brutal, but not as well known. A comparison of the two tragic events needs to be written.
Ed Johnson maintained his innocence to the end and exclaimed to the mob that hung him “God bless you all, I am innocent.”
Alfred Blount also proclaimed his innocence when he was dragged onto the Walnut Street Bridge at approximately 250 feet from the south end of the structure where the lynching took place.
One of the leaders in the lynch mob urged the young Negro to admit the crime and tell the truth but Blount replied: “I didn’t do it.” He then was hung from a steel girder and, after his body stopped twitching, he was shot over 100 times.
The Chattanooga Daily Times in its February 15, 1893, edition carried a full description of events from the report of the crime that allegedly occurred the morning of February 14 at approximately 9:00 a.m. The paper also included an interview with a reporter for the Times who admitted that “he endeavored to get a confession” from Blount.
Initially the young Negro “doggedly refused to acknowledge his guilt and vehemently protested not only his innocence but denied being at the locality where the crime was perpetrated.”
He would later be quoted as saying at the last minute before he was hanged “I did go into her house but I didn’t do anything.” This statement was allegedly corroborated by two other of the ringleaders of the crowd after the hanging.
Who was Alfred Blount? He was allegedly 27 years of age who had come to Chattanooga from Augusta, Georgia, and had been employed as a laborer at the construction of several buildings, working for a at least two local contractors. At the time of the alleged crime of rape on the 51-year-old white victim, who was the mother of four children, Blount was doing odd jobs carrying coal and cutting wood in different sections of the city.
He had been married twice, with his first wife dying in Georgia and he remarried two months before the hanging. Although claiming to be a sober, industrious man, he was described by the paper of having the “physical appearance of a shiftless vagabond.”
The victim in the rape initially did not identify Blount as her attacker but eventually did say that he was the Negro that had violated her several hours after the rape in a one on one face-to-face show up identification presently outlawed as a violation of due process of law. After failing to identify two Negroes brought before her at her home, she first stated upon seeing Blount, “That’s the man, that’s the man.” However, a moment later she exclaimed, “No, I am not so sure.” Blount replied, “I swear 'fore God, ma’am, I ain’t been near your house since this snow.”
However, his position was refuted by a next door neighbor of the victim who stated that a short time before the crime took place that Blount was at their house asking for work.
One of the victim's sons was interviewed by another Times reporter around 11:00 p.m. and he exclaimed that his mother was initially hesitant to identify Blount as the perpetrator of the rape because “she feared the vengeance of the Negroes. However, after claiming that he had talked to neighbors who said that they “had seen Blount run from the house (victims) after committing the assault” and “were unanimous in declaring that Blount was the same person." A comparison of Ed Johnson’s case in 1906 and Alfred Blount’s in 1893 should be made.
Both men were forcefully removed from the Hamilton County Jail by a mob of 25-40 active participants with the event being observed by several hundred other spectators.
Ed Johnson received a trial, was convicted, and sentenced to death but received a reprieve by the United States Supreme Court by granting a stay of execution, but the lynching took place by aroused citizens in defiance of the ruling of the high court.
Alfred Blount was summarily executed without an opportunity to defend himself in a court of law.
Sheriff Joseph Shipp was found guilty of failing to protect Johnson while in his custody and was sentenced to 90 days in a federal prison in Washington, D.C. When he returned to Chattanooga after serving a reduced sentence because of good behavior he was met by a cheering crowd of more than 10,000 citizens.
Although he never ran for another political office he received numerous honors and appointments to several state positions by governors and state officials.
Sheriff John Skillern was never strongly criticized for his failure to protect Blount and not charged with any dereliction of duty. He would serve out his term in 1896 and then moved to Bessemer, Alabama. After a short return to Chattanooga, he moved to Boise, Idaho, where he developed a prominent sheep and cattle business as a rancher.
Ed Johnson’s hanging, through the published works of Mark Curriden and Leroy Phillips plus the decision of the United State Supreme Court on the issue of federalism, has achieved a prominent place in a dark part of the history of Hamilton County. Alfred Blount remains a relative unknown character in that same historical period of 1893-1906.
Recent efforts by African American politicians and public leaders are attempting to bring this unfortunate experience to the attention of the modern day public by initiating a campaign to more prominently identify the locations of the two hangings on the Walnut Street Bridge.
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Jerry Summers can be reached at email@example.com