Benedictine Professor Uncovers 1870 Lynching in Atchison

Benedictine Professor’s Research Leads to Confirmation of 1870 Lynching in Atchison

Dr. Josh Wolf

On Dec. 31, 1869, in Atchison, Kan., George Johnson, a black man, accidentally shot Patrick Cox, a white man, in a hunting accident. Although injured, Cox would recover and live a full life, dying of natural causes years later. However, word began to spread throughout the region that a black man had killed a white man.

Four days later, the rumors and gossip created a frenzy within the town and the surrounding countryside, leading to a violent, armed mob attacking Johnson in the Atchison city jail, beating him, dragging him down the street, and hanging him from a bridge on Fifth Street. Arrest warrants were sworn, but perpetrators were warned and fled the area. One arrest was made, but he was provided an alibi by another person, who was very likely another member of the mob. City leaders expressed outrage and provided Johnson’s widow with a healthy cash payment before she left town.

Then the story was essentially lost to history. For over 150 years, nobody wrote or spoke of it again. The incident is not referenced in history books. There is no historical marker in the area.

But that is about to change.

“As sad and disturbing as the George Johnson story and that particular history is, we have to tell it,” said Dr. Joshua Wolf, assistant professor of History at Benedictine College. “We cannot just forget that this kind of terrorism took place in America after the Civil War and continued for almost another 100 years.”

In 2016, Wolf began doing research for a book he is writing about the history of slavery and racial violence in America. He was prompted to explore Atchison’s history when asked by students in his U.S. History class if there had ever been a lynching in the town. While researching to answer that question, Wolf uncovered the story of the George Johnson lynching from archival newspaper accounts of the time. He began building an evidentiary base to accurately recreate what happened in 1870. Wolf presented his initial findings and arguments at a Benedictine faculty colloquium and two years later a more refined presentation for Benedictine College’s Martin Luther King Day events.

In March 2020, Wolf submitted his research to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a non-profit organization that is actively engaged in a campaign to recognize the victims of lynching by collecting soil from lynching sites, erecting historical markers at the locations, and creating a national memorial that acknowledges the horrors of racial injustice. In 2018, EJI opened the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, as a memorial to lynching victims.

Wolf recently received word that EJI had accepted his research and would add George Johnson to the list of victims remembered in the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. EJI is particularly excited about Wolf’s work because the organization has had difficulty uncovering enough evidence to verify lynchings prior to 1876. EJI has ordered an official historical marker for George Johnson, which it has donated to the City of Atchison. That marker will be installed in the new sculpture garden at 5th Street and Commercial Street at 7:00 p.m. on June 19, 2021, for the Juneteenth remembrance. Also known as Emancipation Day or Freedom Day, Juneteenth commemorates the June 19, 1865, message from Union troops in Texas that the Civil War had ended, and slaves were freed.

Wolf worked in collaboration with the Atchison Art Association and Atchison United on this project. Both groups were instrumental in gaining the City Council’s approval to install the historical marker. Additionally, the Art Association commissioned an abstract sculpture to accompany the plaque in memory of George Johnson. The aim is not just to document Johnson as a victim of racial violence, but also to foster meaningful dialogue about race and justice today.

Founded in 1858, Benedictine College is a Catholic, Benedictine, residential, liberal arts college located on the bluffs above the Missouri River in Atchison, Kansas. The school is proud to have been named a Top 15 college by U.S. News & World Report, the best private college in Kansas by The Wall Street Journal, and one of the top Catholic colleges in the nation by First Things magazine and the Newman Guide. It prides itself on outstanding academics, extraordinary faith life, strong athletic programs, and an exceptional sense of community and belonging. It has a mission to educate men and women within a community of faith and scholarship.

See an archival image of Jan. 6, 1870 Atchison Daily Champion with coverage of the lynching. View Image