Robert Johnson & VD
Thu Jan 27 03:06:16 EST 2000

R. L. Eagle writes:

<<There is a severe problem with Honeyboy's account.

Although there was no doctor who saw Johnson before his death, nor
presumably afterwards, the death WAS investigated - hence the report on its
reverse.  (It's a shame that the investigator failed to name places or names
of informants, apart from Jim Moore, or indeed to investigate in any depth).
  Notwithstanding, the fact an investigation was held lends weight to the
"facts" stated in the certificate.>>

You don't buy Honeyboy's account that Robert Johnson was murdered because the
death certificate doesn't support it. Fair enough. But, as you note, the
'investigation' was superficial. So, why would we believe then certificate
'facts' without any supporting evidence? Remember, the investigator also
uncovered the 'fact' that Robert Johnson was a banjo player. That's not
accurate, is it?

<<The prime stated fact which contradicts Honeyboy is that Johnson died
outside City limits.  Honeyboy has given an address for Johnson's place of
death which is about 200 yards from the railroad station!>>

So? Was Baptist Town, the black neighborhood in which Honeyboy says that
RJ died within the official city limits of Greenwood in the 1930s? I'd love
to see a period map. Was the railroad station built downtown or on the edge
of town (as it then existed)? The death certificate also states that RJ died
on a plantation (Jim Moore's?). That statement also doesn't rule out the
location where Honeyboy says he died. I bet that a white man owned the land
on which Baptist Town stood, renting it or using it for his sharecroppers. I
really doubt if there were many black lot owners in those days. I could be
wrong, of course.

<<The other problem with Honeyboy's account is that it suggests foul play.
Surely that is the aim of an investigation into a sudden death?>>

Surely? Sudden? He lingered two or three days. The investigation might have
been the result of someone saying he had been murdered. It might have been to
fill some required blanks in the certificate. Regardless of the aim, the
investigation didn't go into any depth, as you note.

<<Yes, I know the stories that black lives were not worth much in the south,
but if any of the black informants thought that poison was involved, surely
they would have told the investigator?>>

Why on earth do you assume that the investigator talked with any black
informants? He was white man. He talked to a white land owner, who apparently
told him that Johnson was a banjo player that entertained his people and that
had died of VD. That appears to have answered all the investigator's

<<One of Johnson's schoolmates, interviewed for Bob Mugge's "Hellhounds" film,
recalled a number of people going to the funeral, and thought the death was
due to a respiratory problem.  There was no question in his mind that
Johnson was murdered.>>

Johnson might not have been poisoned. Johnson might have been poisoned
(intentionally or unintentionally) and still have died of pneumonia while he
was bedridden in a weakened condition. If he was poisoned, it didn't kill him
immediately. We'll never know one way or the other. Honeyboy thinks he was
murdered. He might be right; he might be wrong. But I don't see how that has
anything to do with Honeyboy Edward's accuracy in saying that RJ died in a
certain house in a certain black neighborhood. Honeyboy could only guess as
to the cause of death.

<<Unless the "murderer" was white, and thus regarded by blacks as being
outside the laws of the time, there seems no good reason to believe that
foul play was involved.  (If the "murderer" were white, and the poison story
were true, the woman would have to be white, too, or else a black woman with
whom the white man was having an affair).>>

Well, that's a pretty complicated line of argument and not really to the
point. It doesn't matter if some blacks thought RJ was murdered or not. What
matters is whether a law enforcement officer or your investigator thought he
was or really cared if he was. If you read those 'stories' of how little the
lives of African Americans were valued, you'll note that white officers
didn't always chase down every black man who killed another black man. If a
plantation owner got upset that one of his workers was killed, something
would come of it because the white landowner was seen to have suffered a
loss! Also, I would love to see some statistics about the length of sentences
given to blacks for that period. My bet is that a black man sentenced for
killing another black man often would get a short sentence. I bet a black man
sentenced for robbing a white man would serve a longer sentence. My point is
that the whites involved in filling out parts of RJ's death certificate
probably cared nothing about the death of a 'banjo player.' It was just a
job. If a black person came to them and said RJ was poisoned, it couldn't be
proven. So, why would they bother?


We'll never know the exact cause of death. But I wouldn't consign the baby
with the bath water just yet.


More information about the Blues-l mailing list