George Johnson


The Ithacan
The Ithaca Journal
Pre Trial
The Trial
Furguson to be Hung
Business Locals
The Hanging
Three Hangings
1870 Census
1872 Ithaca City Directories
The Sentinal
Henry Murray Jr.
George Johnson
Goodwin Point
Yates County



This article appeared in the Ithaca Journal on Saturday February 10, 2007 in the Then and Now section by the History Center of Ithaca. The article was written by Mary White who has assisted me for many hours with my research. George Johnson was the first African American juror in Tompkins County. He served on the jury that convicted Mike Furguson.


Johnson assisted many on the Underground Railroad

George A. Johnson (1835-1919) has long been revered in Ithaca as a prominent figure in the Tompkins County branch of the illegal organization known as The Underground Railroad.

He was born free in Canandaigua, moved to Ithaca with his family and learned the barber's trade from his father. He may have used his skills as a barber in assisting to disguise persons as they escaped to freedom. He is credited with assisting at least 114 people. He was active in gathering funds and clothing from supporters and placing former slaves aboard the Simeon DeWitt, a Cayuga Lake steamer with a sympathetic captain.

The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1868, guaranteed the rights and responsibilities of citizenship with the equal protection of the laws to all persons born in the United States. The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in February 1870, declared that race would no longer be a legal obstacle to voting. A few months later, in September 1870, George Johnson would become the first African American juror in Tompkins County.

The case he served on was an unpleasant one. Mike Ferguson was accused of killing an elderly couple that lived near Taughannock Creek, in today's park area, and running away with their unwilling 14-year-old daughter. The couple was found murdered with a shotgun and an axe, and their home was burned over them. The man fled across the lake with the girl in a skiff, spent the night in a haystack and attempted to travel to his family home in Pennsylvania. An innkeeper near Newfield, “did not like the appearance of things,” separated them, and sent the girl towards Ithaca on a stagecoach. They were both apprehended by the sheriff. The girl's story was believed and she remained in the sheriff's household until the trial rather than in the jail.

Ferguson's lawyer did his best by questioning his client's sanity, but George Johnson and the rest of the jurors agreed within 26 minutes that he was guilty as charged. Ferguson was sentenced to death. After an appeal to the governor failed, he was executed by hanging in the jail yard next to the old courthouse on Court Street.

George Johnson was employed as a barber for most of his life. In 1871 the Ithaca Hotel, in which Johnson's barbershop was located, was destroyed by fire. He went to Albany assuming the position of doorkeeper for the State Senate during 1872 and 1873. He returned to Ithaca and resumed his occupation at 121 East State Street. His home was at 10 West Clinton Street in the 1870s and later at 326 South Cayuga, in Ithaca. He was survived by two children, a daughter, Jessie M. Johnson, and a son, C. Herbert Johnson.

Mary White is the archival assistant at The History Center in Tompkins County

Originally published February 10, 2007




Photograph courtesy The History Center in Tompkins

George Johnson, the first African American to serve as a juror in
Tompkins County, is pictured here in the mid 1870s.


BILL WARREN/Journal Staff

George Johnson Bridge over Six Mile Creek on South Plain Street.




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