On March 5, 1886, Samuel Johnson, an African American known as “Mingo Jack,” was murdered in the Eatontown jail by a lynch mob seeking vengeance for an assault on a white woman earlier that day.
Samuel Johnson was born in Colts Neck in 1820 and was raised as a slave by the Laird family. Because he was short in stature, the family used him as a jockey, racing horses at nearby Monmouth Park. On one occasion he rode a colt named Chief Mingo to victory, earning him the nickname Mingo Jack, which stuck with him for life. In 1840, New Jersey abolished slavery, and for the rest of his life Johnson worked odd jobs in the Eatontown and Middletown areas, living with his wife and children in Eatontown near what is now Route 35 and Poplar Road.
During the afternoon of March 5, Angeline Herbert, a white woman, was raped and beaten. Herbert, 24, said she was walking in the woods when someone came up behind her and struck her on the head and shoulder with a wooden club. When found by her brothers, she said that the attacker started choking her and asked, “Do you know Mingo Jack? He lives in Eatontown.” She said she had tried to scream, but was choked until she lost consciousness. She later said that she knew her attacker was Mingo Jack because she recognized the clothes he was wearing when the assault happened.
At the time, Johnson, 66, was working as a woodcutter not far from the Herbert house. Each day, he walked past the house on his way to work and back, so Angeline had seen him on several occasions, but from a distance. His physical stature was distinctive, as he was short and stout, but muscular from a lifetime of hard work.
Within hours of the assault, Constable Hermann Liebenthal arrested Johnson. Seeing the man under arrest, Herbert’s brothers and other residents chose not to pursue justice themselves. But a group of men gathering in John Allen’s saloon in Eatontown (not to be confused with the Blue Ball Tavern in Shrewsbury, now known as the Tavern Museum at Allen House), began calling for vigilante justice for Angeline Herbert.
At around 8:30 p.m., Jeremiah Thompson, an African American laborer living in south Eatontown, went to the jail along with “some white boys” he said he did not know. About three weeks after the incident, at a coroner’s inquest in Red Bank, Thompson testified that he had talked to Johnson, who told him that “He hadn’t been doing any thing; I said it was curious law to lock up a man when he hadn’t done nothing; I said the boys are talking they are going to kill you tonight, and he said, ‘let them kill me and be damned.'”
Around 10:00 p.m., Constable Liebenthal visited the lockup and found that his prisoner was “all right” for the night. Johnson told him that there had been a crowd of men and boys outside who had yelled to him that they would hang him before morning. Liebenthal assured Johnson that he was in no danger, stoked the fire, and went home for the night.
Later that night, a mob of 20 to 40 people surrounded the Eatontown lockup. At 11:40 p.m., a witness heard three pistol shots. Someone had attempted to shoot at Johnson in his jail cell, probably with one member of the mob on the shoulders of another, firing through the glass window and between the bars of the transom over the jailhouse door. All three shots missed.
When that effort failed, the mob broke down the lockup door, and beat Johnson with wooden clubs and sticks. The witness who had heard the gunshots reported hearing “screams of agony” from the jail. Johnson fought for his life and were he not so badly outnumbered, might have escaped. “Each time he made for the door, the crowd outside pressed him back.” The walls of the jail cells became “spattered with blood, while pools of blood…[were all] over the floor.” After finally felling Johnson with blows to the head, the mob tied Johnson’s hands behind his back, placed a rope around his neck, fastened it to the iron bars guarding the transom, and hoisted him as high as could be done. But Mingo Jack was already dead.
A sham trial was held, featuring drunken witnesses who were paid to testify, resulting in acquittals for all the defendants. Another black man, George Kearney, later confessed to the rape, but he later recanted, saying his confession was coerced, and offered only in the hope that it might secure clemency for another murder charge (for which he was hanged in Freehold). The Herbert family said they had never seen nor met George Kearney, and it is almost certain that he did not commit the assault on Angeline Herbert. Another African American man, John Miller, aboard a ship and on his deathbed, confessed to a journalist that he had committed the crime for which Mingo Jack was murdered, but no evidence has ever emerged to support this – historians have been unable to verify the existence of this “John Miller.” No one was convicted for the assault on Angeline Herbert, nor the murder of Samuel Johnson, who left behind a sick wife and five children.
The debate has continued ever since: Was Samuel Johnson guilty? If so, then this vigilante justice is cast in a very different light than if he was lynched for a crime he did not commit. A doctor at the coroner’s inquest testified that Angeline Herbert was raped. Along with the visible evidence of her assault, there is little doubt the crime occurred.
And Mingo Jack was not a model citizen. Per New Jersey’s belated emancipation terms, Johnson was to have been freed from slavery when he reached age 25, but he was allowed to go free before then because he was “unruly and uncontrollable.” While working in Middletown, Johnson had been caught attempting a sexual assault against the two young daughters of his employers. “For this he was well-beaten by the farmer.” On another occasion, Johnson “held up a traveler in the pines and demanded his money or his life.” The man replied he would give him what he had, and then drew a pistol and shot Johnson in the leg. The authorities chose not to pursue Johnson for the crime, believing the lengthy time he was laid up from his wound to be sufficient justice. On October 15, 1865, Johnson assaulted Andrew Emmes and spent six months in jail; it appears that Johnson was defending his wife at the time. It was said of Samuel Johnson that his reputation “has always been bad,” and that “He was a mighty bad man, and the general verdict of the people of Eatontown is that Mingo Jack is a better citizen dead than when he was alive.”
Many believe Johnson’s murder to be a case of mistaken identity, pointing to two key aspects of Angeline Herbert’s version of events. She said that her attacker asked her if she knew Mingo Jack, not that he was Mingo Jack. The assailant then said that Mingo Jack lived in Eatontown. This seemed to suggest the attacker was someone else. More convincing is Angeline’s assertion that she knew her attacker was Samuel Johnson because of the clothes her attacker was wearing, but Johnson was not wearing clothes that matched this description when he was arrested in his home just hours later. Numerous witnesses later testified that Samuel Johnson in fact did not ever own or wear clothes such as those Angeline described.
In 2012, Eatontown Mayor Gerald Tarantolo issued a public apology for the failure of security at the jail, calling the lynching “a low point in the history of Eatontown.” A small memorial was placed in Wampum Park (see photo above).
Stone, James M. (2010). The Murder of Mingo Jack. iUniverse, Bloomington, Ind.
The Lynching Case. Continuation of the Proceedings Before the Coroners. (1886). Monmouth Democrat (Freehold), March 18, 1886, P. 2.
Two Frightful Crimes. (1886). Monmouth Democrat (Freehold), March 11, 1886, P. 2 .
“Mingo Jack” Strung Up. (1886). The Daily Register (Red Bank), March 10, 1886, P. 1.
Spahr, Rob. (2012). Lynching of former slave memorialized as ‘low point’ in Eatontown history. NJ.com, September 24, 2012. Available: https://www.nj.com/monmouth/2012/09/lynching_of_a_former_slave_memorialized_in_eatontown.html
Blackwell, Jon. (2008). Notorious New Jersey. Rivergate Books, an imprint of Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, N.J., P. 42-45.