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This Day in Legal History--United States v. Shipp, 214 U.S. 386 (1909)

On May 24, 1909, the U.S. Supreme Court announced a verdict in its first and only criminal trial, U.S. v. Shipp, 103 years ago today. The resulting trial and decision provide what many acknowledge as the foundation for federal habaes corpus actions in state criminal cases.

The facts leading to this unusual proceeding commenced on January 23 1906, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, when Nevada Taylor, a young white woman, was raped by an unknown man. Within days of the attack, pressure mounted to find the assailant, and  a reward of $375 was issued and reported in the Chattanooga News. The next day, a white man, Will Hixon, came forward and placed Johnson near the scene of the crime near the time of its occurrence. Arrested on January 26, Johnson was secretly moved to Nashville pending trial by order of the state criminal court judge, for fear he would be lynched before the proceedings could begin. That very night, a large mob attacked the jail at Chattanooga, believing Johnson was still detained there.

Johnson continually proclaimed his innocence, and provided names of a dozen men who could account for his whereabouts. Despite this, on February 9, Johnson was convicted by a jury of twelve white men in the criminal court of Hamilton County, and sentenced to death by hanging, to take place on March 13.

With the assistance of Noah W. Parden and Styles L. Hutchins, the leading black attorneys in Chattanooga, a motion for new trial was filed and summarily rejected, as Johnson's previously appointed attorneys missed the 72 hour filing deadline required under the local  rules.

Johnson and his new attorneys next filed a petition in the in the U.S. District Court in Knoxville, Tennessee, under the 1867 Habeas Corpus Act (alleging deprivation of his constitutional rights) on March 3. On March 10, the petition was dismissed and writ denied, with Johnson remanded to the custody of the Sheriff Shipp of Hamilton County, with execution stayed for 10 days to allow for appeal. On March 17, the emergency appeal was made to Justice John Marshall Harlan, who was assigned to hear emergency appeals from within the 6th Circuit. Justice Harlan, already known for his scathing dissent in Plessy v. Fergueson in 1896, granted the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

With Johnson's execution stayed, the Chattanooga News headline on March 19 read, "An Appeal is Allowed. Ed Johnson Will Not Hang To-morrow," (214 U.S. at 412). That evening, a number of men entered the county jail in Chattanooga without apparent resistance, and with a sledge and ax, broke the bolts to the corridor door leading to Johnson's cell. By this time an estimated crowd of 150 had gathered, and continued to the bridge over the Tennessee River, where Johnson was lynched. His last words were reported to be: "God bless you all, I am innocent."

After learning about the lynching, U.S. Attorney General William Moody sent Secret Service agents to investigate the lynching, and concluded a conspiracy among the sheriff, deputies, and mob members had formed to kill Johnson. Upon his findings, Sheriff Shipp, six deputies, and 19 members of the mob were charged with contempt of court.

The trial began on February 12, 1907 in the Supreme Court, after witnesses were presented and cross-examined by the lawyers in the Chattanooga federal courthouse, where the justices were not present. At the Supreme Court, each side was given one day to summarize its case. On May 24, 1909, Chief Justice Fuller found Shipp, one deputy, and four mob members guilty of contempt. Justice Fuller explained that ". . . if the life of anyone in the custody of the law is at the mercy of a mob, the administration of justice becomes a mockery. . . [a]nd when its mandate issued for his protection was defied, punishment of those guilty of such must be awarded." (214 U.S. at 425).

This unusual case contributed to our understanding of what it means to have the right to a fair trial, one free from violence, and that this right is a federal right of state criminal defendants, protected under the Constitution.  The first and only criminal trial in the U.S. Supreme Court is historic not only in its rarity, but for its continuing impact on the constitutional guarantee of due process and the rule of law in the United States.


  1. A fascinating moment in US history. Thanks for contextualizing it in terms of both legal precedent and race relations.

    I wish I were shocked that Shipp et al. weren't charged with anything more serious than contempt of court.


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