Hugh Johnson (Reported Lynching of)

Very little is known about Hugh Johnson, who was allegedly lynched by a group of white men in the summer of 1865 (some sources say 1866). Information on such events is scarce due to the widespread confusion and disorganization following the end of the Civil War. Military records do indicate that an African American man named Hugh Johnson enlisted in the Eighty-Third regiment of the United States Colored Troops at Fort Scott, Kansas, on September 14, 1863. A native of Kentucky, he was twenty-two years old and was working as a waiter at the time of his enlistment. He served as a private in Company I, and his regiment was posted in Little Rock (Pulaski County) late in the war. He reportedly deserted their camp on June 10, 1865. Public records indicate that he may have married Charlotte Johnson in Little Rock on April 8, 1865, the day before Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. According to Freedmen’s Bureau marriage records, they already had one child together.

The most thorough account of this reported lynching was published by Joshua C. Youngblood in the spring 2021 issue of the Pulaski County Historical Review. A white woman near present-day Scott (Pulaski and Lonoke counties) reported that she had encountered two hostile Black men along the road as she was returning home in the summer of 1865 or 1866. Johnson was soon captured by a group of white residents, held for two days, and then tried in a kangaroo court. Johnson’s captors then set off toward Little Rock, supposedly to turn him over to the authorities to be tried. There were some questions about their story, however, as they never turned Johnson in and returned too soon to have traveled to Little Rock and back. Testimony in a later trial indicated that Johnson’s body was found two months later.

In June 1867, Warren Drake, Burt Couch, and Jeff Fowler were indicted for first-degree murder, supposedly having killed Johnson “by hanging or by some sharp weapon, gun or pistol.” Court records indicate that two and a half years later, in January 1870, the court held a hearing and issued a call for witnesses. Nine different witnesses were called, including Drake. In May 1870, the defendants asked for a change of venue, and in November Drake asked that the case be dismissed. He based his request on the pardon and amnesty act that the Arkansas General Assembly had passed in 1867. He claimed that Johnson’s murder was part of a fight between warring combatants, even though the Civil War was over by the time of the alleged murder.

A number of other witnesses testified, and while their testimony sometimes conflicted, the gist of the matter was that after hearing about the white woman’s accusations, Drake captured Johnson and took him to “the Gilchrist place.” There, his hands and elbows were tied, and a stick was placed behind his back and behind his arms. The next morning, he was taken to the home of John Ringstaff, where he was “tried.” Several witnesses identified Drake, Couch, and Fowler as the men who held Johnson and later took him away. Two others identified Nute Smith and a man named Allen as part of the mob; they had died by 1870. A white neighbor who discovered Johnson’s body hanging from a tree two months later not far from Drake’s home had also died. A witness named Mary Ann Castor, who worked for Drake, reported bringing food to Johnson’s captors, including Smith and Allen, at Drake’s place after the “trial,” after which they started off for Little Rock. They returned only four to five hours later, too soon to have traveled all that way.

Another witness, Dr. Powell Hogue, testified that Johnson had escaped from Fowler, Smith, and Allen about five miles from Drake’s house after going off to relieve himself. When he asked Nute Smith about the prisoner’s whereabouts, Smith replied that “I would bet you by God he is broke of sucking eggs.” Hogue interpreted this to mean that Johnson had probably been killed.

Drake testified at length. According to Drake, Tom and Hugh (or Hughy) Johnson met a young woman named Susie Ann Evans on the road, and Hugh Johnson tried to grab her horse’s bridle. He missed, and she whipped her horse and refused to stop. Hugh drew a knife, but she whipped her horse again and escaped. She went to Captain Jim Craig of the Home Guard, who pursued the Johnsons. Hugh was arrested, and Tom was released. Craig ordered Drake to guard them and then saw them the next day at John Ringstaff’s home, where a trial was being held. He claimed that the trial, on the charge of assault with attempt to rape, was conducted by William Campbell, then an acting justice of the peace. Hugh Johnson was found guilty of trying to restrain Evans’s horse, and Drake and the others were chosen to take him to Little Rock to appear in court. Johnson was briefly untied on the way, and when he ran, Fowler and Forbes fired at him. That was reportedly the last time they saw him.

On April 19, 1871, the Prairie County Circuit Court, to which the case had been transferred from Pulaski County, considered the case of Drake, Couch, and Fowler. According to the Arkansas Gazette, the three were accused of “the murder of a colored man in 1866.” Based on the fact that two “respectable witnesses” claimed to have seen Johnson several weeks after he had been in the accused’s custody, the prosecuting attorney dismissed the charge.

For additional information:
“Tried for Murder.” Arkansas Gazette, April 20, 1871, p. 4.

Youngblood, Joshua C. “‘Broke of sucking eggs’: The Murder of Hugh Johnson, Race, and Law in Post–Civil War Pulaski County, Arkansas.” Pulaski County Historical Review 69 (Spring 2021): 2–15.

Nancy Snell Griffith
Davidson, North Carolina


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