On Trial at Greenville

Feb 14, 1905

10 mins read

The John Henry Johnson Murder Case.

A Dramatic Incident

Prisoner Demands His Own Lawyers Be Jailed.

Severance of Indictment Against Father and Two Daughters Secured and Trial of the Former is Postponed

By Will T Sheehan

Greenville, Feb. 14. –(Special Correspondence.) – “I demand that my case be tried. If you continue it, I insist that you make these two men who are responsible for the continuance, take my place in jail and set me at liberty.” John Henry Johnson, one time a prominent farmer of Butler County, but now a prisoner charged with the murder of Special Deputy George Bryan, made this sensational declaration before Judge J. C. Richardson, in the Circuit Court of Butler County, before which he was arraigned to answer the charge of murder. The men to whom he pointed and whom he demanded should be made to take his place in jail were his own attorneys. Judge Terry Richardson of Montgomery and R. B. Smyth of Greenville. In the jury room out of sight of the old man and the court room of spectators, were his two daughters, Katie Johnson and Maggie Johnson, young women 22 and 24 years of age. And like the violent old man, they, too, were charged with the murder of George Bryan, a popular citizen of Greenville, and a Special Deputy, named for the special service in assisting his brother, Oliver Bryan, in the arrest of John Henry Johnson for murder. And like their father, they had been in jail since last June for killing the deputy sheriff, as he, with his brother, attempted to place the old man under arrest for burning Mt. Olivet Church, ten miles from Greenville A severance of the indictment had been secured. The father was to be tried first and the two daughters later. The time had come for the old man to answer for the death of George Bryan. He had been insane. He had spent twenty-three months in the asylum at Tuscaloosa. It is claimed by his attorneys that he was released from the asylum only on a probative period of six months and during that six months, moved by some violent religious mania, he burned the neighborhood church, a church which he himself had built and given to the Baptist denomination. They claim, the attorneys of Johnson, that impelled by this violent religious mania Johnson killed one of the deputies who came to arrest him for the crime of burning the church.

Plea of Defense

This insanity, this violent religious mania was the basis of the defense that Johnson’s attorneys have erected to prevent him from paying on the gallows the penalty the laws of Alabama provide for murder. This morning as the case was called for trial the attorneys claimed that there was unfortunately a technical lapse in the defense they had provided and because of which they asked a continuance. Speaking for the defense Judge Richardson pointed out that the commissioner who had been named to take the deposition of Dr. Partlow, a member of the medical board of the Alabama Hospital for the Insane at Tuscaloosa, had failed to sign the paper. This he submitted for himself and associate counsel was most important. It might seriously effect the rights of their client in this trial for his life. Solicitor Charles R. Bricken, for the prosecution, posted against a postponement. The prosecution he declared was willing to admit the deposition of Dr. Partlow as if it had been signed. “Would the prosecution admit all the statements contained in the depositions as to Johnson’s sanity or insanity?” the defense asked. Speaking for the prosecution Solicitor Bricken declared that it was unwilling to make any such admission, a statement which indicated that these same depositions would be the subject of an attack later on. John Henry Johnson, the defendant, sat nervously and impatiently through the legal sparring. As it progressed he jumped to his feet to address the court. His eyes were fiery and excited. They roved the court room as he balanced himself upon his one sound leg with the other foot maimed and drawn, to where it scarcely touched the floor. “I protest against this postponement,” he exclaimed excitedly. He was persuaded with difficulty to take his seat. Judge J. C. Richardson, after considering the matter, ruled that the case should be postponed until the next term of the circuit court of Butler County in order that the deposition of Dr. Partlow might be completed according to the forms of law. The defense regards that statement as of the highest importance in that it is made by a physician who was in charge of John Henry Johnson when he was committed to the State Insane Asylum by the authorities of Butler County as an insane person.

An Alleged Pyromaniac.

It is said that this deposition contains the statement that Johnson was a pyromaniac, a man with a passion for fire and suffering from a most dangerous form of insanity. But hardly had Judge Richarson announced his ruling before Johnson again sprang to his feet and made his sensational protest against the continuance, a protest in which he declared “If you insist on a continuance make these men (his attorneys) who are responsible for it take my place in jail.” A quiet painful silence followed. Johnson, muttering and protesting, was pulled back in his seat. The sheriff was ordered to remove him to jail. With his unfortunate daughters he was carried back to the cells they had occupied since last June. Tomorrow the unhappy young women will stand up in court and answer to the laws of Alabama the charge that they assisted John Henry Johnson in doing to death Deputy Sheriff George Bryan. The prosecution solicitor is ready for the trial of the case even as it was ready to try the father. The defense, so Judge Richarson says, is ready to go to trial at 10 o’clock. It is a strange pathetic tragedy that was enacted in a country neighborhood ten miles from Greenville last summer, a tragedy that has left penniless a widow and a family of small children and which has brought to the bar of justice a gray haired father and his two daughters, young women scarcely out of girlhood. The train of sorrows and of misfortunes were undoubtedly born of the wild religious impulse of the father that he was commissioned by God as an ambassador to save humanity and show them the true way to worship the Almighty. There is no admission in the case of the prosecution that Johnson was irresponsible and insane. That he was a violent crank they admit, but that his mind was so disordered that he was not responsible for his acts they deny.

Line of Presecution

The line the prosecution will follow is summed up in the words of one of the prosecuting attorneys. “Johnson is a wild crank, sane when he wants to be and insane when it serves his purpose.” Colonel Claude Hamilton is assisting the solicitor in prosecuting Johnson but not his two daughters. He was a man of means in his community, this man Johnson who is to answer the charge of murder, but he was a violent man, particularly upon the subject of religion and so feared by his neighbors. He built the Mt. Olivet Church and gave it for the use of the Baptists of his community. In the meanwhile he was declared to be insane by the authorities of Butler County and sent to the asylum at Tuscaloosa. After remaining there for nearly two years he was permitted to return home for a probationary period of six months. Some member of his family had had trouble with the congregation of Mt. Olivet Church and it is said church membership had been withdrawn from this member of the Johnson family. The Church was burned to a heap of ashes one day last June. The neighbors who hurried to the burning church found pinned to a tree a sheet of foolscap paper on which was written: “I am directed by God Almighty to burn this church. I gave and I have burned away. I am responsible for the sins of the world. Done this day by “John Henry Johnson, “I Are God.” A Warrant was sworn out charging Johnson with arson. It was known that he was a dangerous man and that care was necessary to effect his arrest. The warrant was placed in the hands of Deputy Sheriff Oliver Bryan. He summoned to help him his brother, George Bryan, who was street overseer of Greenville and who was known as a cautious, courageous man, one who was highly esteemed in his town and his country.

Invited to House.

The Bryan brothers with the demand of the law for the person of John Henry Johnson, charged with arson, met Johnson in the road as he rode a horse from a field where he had been plowing. To The officers’ demand that he stop Johnson replied: “If you want to see me, come down to the house.” They followed him to his home. As to what happened there it may be the subject of conflicting testimony when Katie and Maggie Johnson are arraigned for murder tomorrow. The general story is that Johnson snatched out a long and murderous knife, a knife which he had himself made, and slashed unsuccessfully at the officers. Whereupon they seized his wrists. As the two officers struggled with Johnson one of his daughters ran up and knocked George Bryan away with a heavy piece of scantling. Partly freed, Johnson snatched a pistol from his shirt and shot George Bryan through the stomach. It was a fatal wound, a wound from which the deputy died the following day. The case of Katie and Maggie Johnson has already been to the Supreme Court of Alabama. It went there to secure their release on bail through a writ of habeas corpus. The application for the writ was based upon the claim that Johnson being insane was not responsible for the means he took to defend himself and that for that reason his daughters, who had the right to defend him even as he should defend himself, could not be held for murder. The Supreme Court, however, set aside this contention and dismissed the application for a writ.