By: Justin Marcus Johnston, a Nova Scotian author, writer, and historian. Justin is the author of James Robinson Johnston: The Life, Death, and Legacy of Nova Scotia’s First Black Lawyer (Halifax, NS: Nimbus Pub, 2005).
In 2005 I wrote the biography of James Robinson Johnston (1876–1915), Nova Scotia’s first Black lawyer. I am also his collateral descendant—his youngest brother was my great-grandfather.
Since my initial research in the early 2000s, I am left with more questions than answers about the rise of the “colored barrister” from the working-class, North End of Halifax to the academic halls of Dalhousie University and the legal profession. His work with the Conservative Party as a stump speaker, his involvement in freemasonry, his support of the African Baptist Association churches, and even his links with the international Pan-Africanism movement show that Johnston was ahead of his time when few, if any, opportunities existed for African Nova Scotians.
I wish to avoid repeating the biographical details of Lawyer Johnston’s life. Numerous writers and historians have informed the public about his significance to Nova Scotian history. However, few have speculated on the reasons why he was murdered, or perhaps assassinated, and the forces inimical to his life. I believe I am best qualified to answer these questions being both his biographer and descendant.
The most plausible homicide theory, in my opinion, is that Johnston was the target of a murder-for-hire. This theory is based on the police reports, trial transcripts, and remission case file of his brother-in-law and killer Harry Allen, who was known as a ne’er-do-well and drunkard. Allen shot Johnston five times at point-blank range in the family home. Family sources indicate that Johnston and Allen never got along. In court, Allen never disclosed his reasons for killing his brother-in-law except “drunkenness.” Johnston provided Allen with food, lodging, and employment at the request of his wife Janie, Allen’s sister. Allen was the brother-in-law of a successful lawyer, who lived in a nice house in a respectable neighbourhood well outside Halifax’s North End slums (including Black districts) where he had grown up. His life was far better than that of the average working-class black or white man at the time. Why Allen would have wanted to kill his only benefactor is a mystery.
On March 3, 1915, Johnston was ambushed and killed by Allen in his home before the family meal. In the aftermath of the murder, Allen had two criminal trials and was twice convicted of murder. The first trial ended with jury nullification. In the second trial, he was sentenced to hang but was eventually given a life sentence and early ticket of leave (now known as parole). Automatic parole considerations did not apply, as they came many years later, in 1959.
It is possible that the tearful letters of Janie Johnston, a widow, pleading for mercy on behalf of her troubled brother to the Minister of Justice and the Head of Penitentiaries was enough to save his life. However, I believe Allen escaped his death sentence and was eventually freed because there were powerful people working behind the scenes, who planned the killing and used Allen as the willing assassin. Allen’s daily access to Johnston provided the opportunity. The sequence of events before and after the murder suggests that Allen was being used.
I think that those responsible for planning Johnston’s murder were after more than just money: They wanted to settle a score. They harboured a grudge that money could not settle. Johnston’s wealth was not extraordinary to those in the legal profession at that time. Jealousy is a minor motive. To those close to Johnston, his wealth likely seemed enormous—but to his white competitors downtown, his wealth was average at best. It is therefore naive to believe his enemies were only out to claim his assets. I believe that Johnston’s enemies wanted to destroy him and his reputation, erasing him from the annals of history because they took personal offense at his courtroom triumphs. I believe Allen was a front for a larger conspiracy. He was manipulated by others, perhaps for a promise of personal gain. Perhaps, a black man killing another black man provided just the right cover to hide the true identity of all those involved.
This real-life story has elements of Shakespearean tragedy: We see a noble hero rising in the profession and in community circles, only to be ambushed in his own home. However, his murder was likely made possible, in part, because of Johnston’s own tragic flaws. He did not appreciate how determined his enemies were, and how dangerous and resourceful Harry Allen was. Allen had nothing to lose and very little to gain, but the allure of easy money and the death of his arch-nemesis may have been just enough to motivate him to carry out the murder.
Allen spent less than two decades in prison and was known to be a model prisoner. His sister Janie, the person most affected by the ordeal, lived a long life into the late 1950s, with no surviving heirs and rendered penniless because of her brother’s actions. In her last known photos, her natural, light skin beauty has long faded, and she has become a wraith of ghostly white hair and wrinkles, due to the ordeal of losing her husband, fighting her in-laws in court, suffering poverty, and defending her deranged brother. She aged prematurely. She was no longer the wife of the “colored barrister,” but now just an ordinary Black woman, resigned to a hard existence doing domestic chores in the homes of white people, a stereotypical role in those years. Totally subservient and loyal, she was completely dependent on white folks’ “charity.” Who would have believed her former life? The places she visited, the people she met, and the luxuries she and her husband enjoyed.
In a twist of fate, Allen’s freedom was short-lived. Shortly after his parole in 1935, he moved to Montreal to be near family but was bitten by a rabid rat and succumbed to hydrophobia—a slow and painful death. He took the secret of who hired him to kill his brother-in-law to the grave. Allen left behind a widow and a stepson. Oral tradition in the family has it that Johnston returned from the grave in the form of a rat to avenge his death because justice was not served.
Elders, no longer with us, likely knew the real reasons why Allen killed his brother-in-law and also knew the identities of his co-conspirators. They choose silence over the truth. Out of respect, I will not name them here. These elders were the guardians of our history, trusted with every story, rumour, and family secret. Always dependable and reliable, their minds were a treasure trove of stored information spanning back generations, and capable of remembering—with precise detail—events and persons from long ago. Nothing escaped their watchful eye. They passed their knowledge down to other trusted persons via the sacred oral tradition. Our tight kinship bonds and degrees of intermarriage mean that nothing is ever a secret among us African-Nova Scotians. We laugh, eat, sing, worship, and cry together. Collectivists in spirit, we share each other’s pain, fears, traumas and sorrows. One family’s loss is also another family’s loss. The loss of the paramount leader, a native son, a brother, and the circumstances surrounding his death were just too painful for all to bear.
Ultimately, Allen’s backers benefited from the Black community’s desire for self-preservation by maintaining a studious silence. Even now, it is often the community’s lack of cooperation and an overall distrust of authorities that allows actual killers to go free.
A worthy study is of the number of commutations and early releases granted during the 20th century in Canada for capital murder. Capital punishment was not abolished in Canada until 1976. I believe the record will show that the likelihood of any condemned individual, especially a person of color, escaping the death penalty and then receiving early release from prison is akin to an individual winning the jackpot lottery twice in a row. Yet, this was Allen’s fate—or reward. It was an unlikely occurrence, and a statistical improbability at a time when most persons—Black, white, or Indigenous—hanged for murder, with convictions often based on little evidence. The racial otherness and destitution of criminal defendants charged with murder also almost certainly meant hanging. The only logical conclusion to be reached in the Johnston case is that Allen was more than lucky: He had help from powerful men who sought Johnston’s death.
I know of hopeless causes involving Black defendants, such as R v Farmer (1937). Everett Farmer was accused and convicted of killing his half-brother Zachari, who threatened to rape Farmer’s wife and kill his family. Farmer acted in self-defence, surrendered himself to the authorities, and fully cooperated with them, but his efforts were in vain. His trial lasted one afternoon, and his death sentence was not commuted to life in prison.
Another case of great importance to Nova Scotian justice is Sampson’s case. In 1935, Daniel Perry Sampson, an unskilled labourer and World War One veteran, was convicted of the 1933 murders of two white boys. After two trials, Sampson was hanged behind the Halifax courthouse in March 1935.
There are many striking similarities between the Allen and Sampson cases. Both Allen and Sampson were Black men, twice convicted of murder and sentenced to death by all-white juries of that day. However, their interactions with the criminal justice system and the legal outcomes differed because of who their victims were.
Allen killed his brother-in-law, another Black man, a prominent leader in the community, but in the end was rewarded with his sentence reduced to life-in-prison and then with early release. In the other case, Sampson was accused and convicted of killing two white boys, allegedly because they provoked him with racial slurs and threw stones at him near the Rockingham railway tracks on the outskirts of Halifax.
In the Allen case, criminal responsibility was clear: Allen murdered Johnston and never hid the facts from the authorities. There were witnesses to his crime, including his sister Janie and a few neighbours. Moreover, the murder weapon was Allen’s firearm, which he kept in the family home. Allen’s clothing was covered in blood following the murder. Allen even turned himself in.
Sampson’s guilt was in doubt from the very beginning. He had no clear motive and a “feeble” mental state (he suffered from PTSD). There was a police-written confession, which the illiterate man allegedly signed “with an X” in custody, but which disappeared before his first trial and was found again in time for the second. There was also a lack of corroborating witnesses. Sampson’s only mistake was that he was known to the police as a “retarded” Black man who walked the railway tracks where the boys were found dead. If he was guilty of murder, it could only have been on a charge of manslaughter, for there could have been no premeditation, especially if it is true that he killed the boys after they pelted him with stones and the “n-word.” (And even that “confessed” motivation seems unlikely. In 1935, an adult Black male like Sampson could have been called the “n-word” frequently enough that it would have had the practical effect of being called “son” or “boy.”)
The thought of a maniacal Black man killing two white boys was too much for the public and the racially-biased, all-white male jury to bear. Lacking a fair trial, Sampson was destined to die for something he likely did not do. The truth is that anyone could have dumped the bodies of the boys in the Rockingham scrub and brush, alongside railroad tracks travelled by Great-Depression drifters, creeps, derelicts, and other sketchy types. Even appeals for mercy from the father of the two boys were ignored by the courts. The system needed to blame someone, and Sampson was their unlucky target. The jury never got to learn the truth about Sampson—that he was a war veteran and a human being, not the monster presented in the media and the courts. He hanged in March 1935—nearly 20 years to the day of Lawyer Johnston’s murder in March 1915. And in the same year Allen suffered his dreadful fate. Sampson was the second-last man in Nova Scotia and the last in Halifax to be hanged. Everett Farmer, another unlucky Black man, became the very last condemned person to be hanged in the province.
The courts today would likely find Sampson not guilty. He did not receive a fair trial due to a biased and unrepresentative jury, police malfeasance, and/or reasons of insanity. In actuality, the case should never have made it to trial because of the lack of hard evidence.
Upon closer inspection, Allen unknowingly deprived two of his own kind to native counsel, and it cost them their lives. One wonders if Farmer or Sampson had been able to retain the legal services of Johnston whether their chances of winning their respective cases would have been higher. Johnston had a track record of successfully defending clients who were up against improbable odds due to his ability to sway juries with his oratory and sheer forensic brilliance—as seen in R v Murphy (1914). (Murphy was a white Irishman accused and acquitted of killing his grandmother-in-law.)
Over a century after Lawyer Johnston’s untimely death in 1915, at the age of 39, we are still left with questions. Why did Allen murder his brother-in-law? How did Allen benefit from his demise? Who else benefited? If Johnston had lived a few decades longer, how would our history be different? Painful lessons are learned from this great tragedy. The aftermath of the murder permanently stigmatized Nova Scotia’s Black community. The death of a paramount leader set a community back many decades. One man represented the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of an entire community. His absence, and the trauma of his death, caused Johnston to almost be completely forgotten by his people, and his accomplishments stolen by men inferior to him. With no one to replace him, he faded into oblivion and became the subject of ridicule and innuendo. Silly questions about his private life remained until recent decades and eclipsed his accomplishments. It took 40 years before another native-born African Nova Scotian, George Webber Davis, was called to the Nova Scotia Bar. Davis hailed from the same North End Halifax slums where Johnston was raised. And it took even longer for a Black person to be called to the provincial bench.
Long overdue, a portrait of Johnston now hangs on the first floor of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court Building alongside other persons honoured for their contributions to the legal profession. The careful observer sees the enigma of Johnston’s portrait—a lone brown face in a sea of white lilies. He was a hero who challenged social convention, rising to the top of his profession only to become a hero slain before his time, and one who left behind an enormous legacy.