Robert Johnson & VD
Thu Jan 27 10:32:53 EST 2000

I've been off blues-l for a month now because of serious computer problems and
the failure of Toshiba to do what they say they'll do (long rant supplied on
request); someone emailed me about this thread and I thought I'd make a couple
of points.  I don't normally think much of posts from folks who are nomail, but I've
read the thread in DejaNews and do think I have some things to add.

I'm mostly responding to some observations by Bob Eagle in this thread.  Mr.
Eagle is in a position to speculate in an informed way on this subject; as I
understand it, he represent's Steve LaVere's interests on issues of international
licensing, including with the Johnson songs and the like.  I know he's a friend &
associate of LaVere's.  Both Mr. Eagle and Mr. LaVere have been known to use
ham-handed threats involving lawsuits for libel; for that and other reasons, I view
Mr. Eagle's presense in this discussion as somewhat dampening. In spite of that,
here goes:

-Bob Eagle mentioned that the issue of whether Robert Johnson had syphillis
came up in the estate trial. It was raised (sort of) by the attorney for Johnson's
half-sister's heir. I say sort-of because of the extremely weak nature of the proof
offered.  A doctor testified about the rates of syphillis in the area and in the black
community at the time, and said that syphillis is one of a number of conditions
that could have caused Johnson's eye to have the appearance it had in the
photos.  He made it clear he could not do a probable diagnosis. He also testified
that a plantation owner could possibly have made the observation reported on the
back of the death certificate.  This testimony was extraordinarily weak-- it never
rose above the level of "could have".  Johnson's half-sister's half-sister (yes, it
gets confusing) did say he did not syphillis, but she wouldn't have known, either.
The trial added exactly nothing to this issue.

-Answering another question: I don't believe the trial record is available online. I
have reason to think that excerpts may become available, about which more later.
 As Bob Eagle noted, it was a four day trial; it also involved a number of separate
depositions, so in fact involves more than four days of testimony.  I can tell you
that obtaining a copy is expensive.  If you buy it from the court reporter or the
court itself, figure $1 a page, and that it may come close to 1000 pages.

-The appeal is pending.  The reply brief of the appellant (the loser in the trial court,
Johnson's half-sister's heir) was filed in October, I think; that's the last brief. It's
hard to say how long a decision will take; first the court has to decide whether to
allow oral argument.

-I view the information on the death certificate as much more dubious than Eagle,
and Honeyboy's testimony as more interesting, for a number of reasons.  There is
a problem with Honeyboy's story that Eagle did not point out:  Honeyboy places
the "Three Forks" store west of Greenwood, not near Quito.  There are
eyewitness accounts (supposedly) that Johnson was fed the fatal drink at Quito,
some of which are reported in the LIVING BLUES issue on the "Death of Robert
Johnson."  However, there are widely contradictory "eyewitness" accounts all over
this part of Johnson's story.  That aside, here are some observations on the info
on the death certificate:

I disagree with Eagle that it would be unlikely for a plantation owner to cover for a
black murderer.  One of the widely remarked upon abusive aspects of the Jim
Crow era was the way the white powers would protect blacks within their
patronage; it is common to read about the protection of thugs (including
murderers) who were doing the plantation owner's bidding otherwise.  I've read
about and heard about protection of juke owners who were cutting the plantation
owner in on the proceeds from the juke.  I *know* of a killing here in Lafayette
County where a black murdered a black and was protected from the
consequences by his white boss; ultimately both the black and the white boss
got their comeuppance after they murdered a couple of white federal marshalls.
(This, btw, was early in the century).  I'm almost sure there is talk of this sort of
abuse in Hortence Powdermaker's study of race relations in Sunflower County in
the thirties.  I believe it also comes up in the early parts of Nicholas Lehman's

In fact, I would expect that if there was an odd death of a black on a plantation,
the owner would have been as likely as not to give answers that would put an end
to further questions.  That seems to be what happened here.  Of course, thinking
that is so doesn't tell me what *did* happen, it just makes me look at the
information on the certificate with a certain dubiousness. To call it "an
investigation" to go to one person and ask a few questions grossly exagerrates
what appears to have occurred.

Eagle points out that Honeyboy very positively places Johnson's death within the
city of Greenwood. That of course does not square with the information on the
back of the death certificate.

I doubt that there is ever going to be enough information about Johnson's death to
do more than informed speculation.  I do think that the stories of poisoning are too
widespread to discount entirely, and that idea Johnson died of syphillis doesn't
seem likely.

Tom Freeland

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