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Dee Burris Blakley ([personal profile] dee_burris) wrote2011-09-27 01:45 pm

Murder or self-defense?

Last Saturday, I took a field trip to Jefferson Co., AR with my brother-in-law and his parents to find more information about his great grandfather, Robert Lee Rutherford.

Robert Lee Rutherford was shot to death on Tuesday, 17 Sep 1916 in Pine Bluff, Jefferson Co., AR. Below is a news article which appeared in the Pine Bluff Commercial the same day - I assume in an evening edition.


Aaron Johnson Charged with the Murder and Another Negro Probably Aided


Negro Who Used Shotgun Upon R L Rutherford Said to Have Been Angered Because He was Upbraided for Spending Money for Whiskey Instead of Paying Debts

Robert L Rutherford, a resident of Pine Bluff for the past 24 years and formerly owner of a plantation about 6 miles east of town which still is known as the Rutherford place, was shot and killed at 11 o'clock this morning by a negro named Aaron Johnson who was a tenant on the place. Another negro man about 21 years old named Charles Corprue, son of Joe Corprue, another tenant on the place is missing from the plantation with Johnson and is suspected of using a revolver in aiding Johnson to kill Mr. Rutherford. Joe Corprue, his father, was one of the eyewitnesses of the shooting. He is also being held, as the officers think he may know more than he will tell. According to him the negro, Johnson, cursed Rutherford this morning, using an unforgivable term. Mr. Rutherford is said to have pulled his revolver out and fired at Johnson, none of the bullets hitting a vital spot. Johnson is said to have gone to his cottage which lay about 200 yards from the road and secured a shotgun. From the examination of Rutherford's body, the white man must have thrown up both hands as the bullets were being fired at him, as both arms were punctured by shot. Shot also took effect in the neck and face and the back was scarred with what officers say is a revolver bullet.

Left Trail of Blood

A trail of blood led from the field where the shooting occurred to the road and it is presumed that Johnson fled toward the road after the shooting. Joe Corprue said that Johnson appeared wounded in the hand and shoulder, judging from the distance he was standing from the men when the fatal duel took place. It is practically certain that Johnson will not escape without some mark of the shooting.

Constable Clint Green, Deputy Constable Jim Reidinger, Deputy Sheriffs J L McBurnett and Tom Stewart, Coroner H E Williams and a large number of Rutherford's friends visited the scene shortly after the noon hour and viewed the body as it lay in a little house near the oil well on the Rutherford place. The head and chest of the dead man were covered with scarcely dried blood and the face bore a plethoric and horrible expression. Indignation ran high at the murder of one of the most chief promoters of the Jefferson Oil COmpany, especially when the cause of the trouble between him and Johnson had originated over a debt.

Was Reprimanded Monday

A J Stockwell, manager of the Rutherford plantation, stated that Johnson told him that he (Johnson) had been severely reprimanded by Mr. Rutherford Monday because he got drunk Saturday night with money he derived from the sale of cotton seed, instead of turning the money over to Mr. Rutherford as part payment for some mules he had bought from him. "I don't guess he would have talked so harshly to me if he hadn't been so near his office," Mr. Stockwell quoted Johnson as saying. From this statement, it is believed that Johnson yesterday planned to kill Mr. Rutherford today.

Reported Dead Negro Found

Shortly after noon L A Baker, a grocer of Twenty-second and Main Streets notified Justice C C Brewster that a dead negro had been reported found a quarter of a mile off the Main street pike on a portion of the Alexander place worked by Jim Taylor, a negro. The report was to the effect that the body had been discovered on that part of the Alexander place which is about four miles from the city limits. The idea immediately gained credence that the body was that of Aaron Johnson who could have had a chance to flee through the woods to the Alexander place and there die from loss of blood incurred by wounds which Mr. Rutherford's pistol inflicted.

The young negro, Charles Corprue, was not located by the officers at 4:30 o'clock this afternoon and officers are completely in the dark as to his whereabouts. Opinion is divided as to whether he had a hand in the killing.

Deputy Constable Reidinger left immediately for the Alexander place in hearing report of the dead negro. His report may do much toward clearing up the mystery.

Holderness' ambulance brought Mr. Rutherford's body to town at 3:30.

Mrs. Rutherford Notified

Mrs. Rutherford was told of the death of her husband shortly after 1 o'clock by Deputy Circuit Clerk Sam P Vaulx, who was associated with Mr. Rutherford in the lumber business for a number of years. Besides his widow, Mr. Rutherford is survived by four children, Miss Ruth, who is now visiting relatives in Waco; Miss Louise Hoshall; and Nannie Rutherford, who are at home with their mother at 1502 West Second Avenue.

Mr. Rutherford was a brother of the [late] John F Rutherford, the prominent capitalist and lumber magnate who died at his home here several years ago. He owned a big farm southeast of the city for a number of years but is said to have recently sold the property, retaining an interest in the land on which the Jefferson Oil Company has been boring for oil for some time with prospects of soon striking oil. Mr. Rutherford was greatly interested in the efforts to strike oil at this place and had been working for several years on plans which he believed would result in finding oil in paying quantities in this section of the county.

Was Threatened Monday

Monday afternoon Mr. Rutherford had a dispute with a negro on East Fourth Avenue over a settlement for some cotton seed. Mr. Rutherford was on his way to G B Wheat's barber shop when he met a negro who is said by those who were near to have abused Mr. Rutherford and made the threat that he would "get him tomorrow." It is not known whether or not this was the same negro who killed him today.

Aaron Johnson is a well known negro farmer and was at one time a deputy constable when Frank Stewart was constable. He lived on the Barrow place at Noble Lake for a number of years. Several years ago when the county owned some bloodhounds, this negro was used by the officers in training the hounds. He would run over the county and the bloodhounds would be trained to follow him.

The home where Robert Rutherford lived at the time of his death.


Subsequent news articles revealed that a $200 reward was issued for the capture of Aaron Johnson, and he was caught and brought to trial in January 1917.

Johnson's attorney successfully got a change of venue for the trial, which ultimately was held in Arkansas City, in Desha County.

The trial lasted one day. Aaron Johnson was found guilty of the murder of Robert Lee Rutherford, and sentenced to die in the electric chair, which had only been in use for executions since 1913 in Arkansas.

Aaron Johnson was executed on 22 Jun 1917.
There are several things which trouble me about this story. I think my brother-in-law has some of the same questions - most of which will never be answered, even if we had the circuit court record to review. Since there was no appeal, I can't imagine there would be a transcript of the proceedings.

Was this a case of murder or self-defense? According to the news article above, Aaron Johnson cussed Robert Rutherford out, and Rutherford shot him in the hand and shoulder for the insult. Johnson went and got his shotgun and returned to take his own shots.

One could argue that the shotgun blasts were sufficient to kill Rutherford, and there would be no need to then shoot him in the back with a revolver - we don't know if he was shot in the back when turning to flee, or after he had fallen, mortally wounded.

I can't imagine - change of venue notwithstanding - that Aaron Johnson got a trial by a jury of his peers in post Civil War Arkansas in 1917. A trial of one day's duration just doesn't suggest that to me. Equally disturbing is the news article's attempt to give the reader some insight into Aaron Johnson by including how he had "helped" law enforcement in the past by serving as live bait for bloodhound training...

I think there must have been plenty of tragedy to go around in the fall of 1916 and summer of 1917 in Jefferson Co., AR.
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[identity profile] 2011-09-30 02:10 am (UTC)(link)
WOW! I can certainly understand all of your questions about this case. I just hate that Johnson ran home and got his shotgun, because when he came back "true" anger over the dispute and confrontation (and he probably thought about the years of abuse by this man and others) with Rutherford removed any rational thinking and judgment he might have had regarding this problem. But one thing I'm sure of . . . after he shot Rutherford, Johnson knew he was a dead man -- trial or no trial!

Aaron Johnson's defense

(Anonymous) 2013-03-20 08:08 pm (UTC)(link)

I found your interesting post in the course of doing research on criminal justice in the South in the Jim Crow era. You might be interested to know that Aaron Johnson was able to bring an appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court in February 1917 but lost. The case is Johnson v. State, No. 192, Feb. 26, 1917.