In the front room are Johnson and his wife, along with the Somerset County Prosecuter, Constable Moore, and railroad flagman Joseph Gorman. It was Gorman who alerted authorities that he could positively identify the dark-skinned black man and lighter-skinned woman who he saw crossing the tracks of the South Branch Railroad near the Raritan River late the previous evening - and that is what he has just done.
Annie Beekman's body was discovered by local laborer Peter Dow earlier that same morning. It was obvious as he approached the body lying in a wooded area between the wagon road and the river that the woman was dead - and that she had been murdered. Her bodice was torn, corset wire ripped out, and finger marks were about her throat. Coroner Brady, one of the first officials at the scene, ordered the body be taken to the nearest house, that of Jacob Johnson - a laborer employed on the estate of JB Duke, and a preacher of some renown in the local black community.
Despite the failure of Coroner Brady to adequately secure the crime scene - evidence including footprints was trampled by curiosity seekers - it was obvious that the murder had taken place on the road, and the body had been dragged into the woods. An empty purse lying nearby pegged the motive as robbery.
|Somerset County Courthouse, 1891|
Johnson insisted that he left Annie Beekman alive in the company of two white men at around 10 pm, and immediately returned home. Johnson's son later admitted in court that his parents had argued that night upon Johnson's return, his mother demanding an explanation as to why he had been out all evening with Annie, instead of home with his family.
Overwhelming circumstantial evidence which placed Johnson at the scene of the crime with motive and opportunity was enough for a grand jury and eventually a trial jury conviction. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
Johnson went to the gallows in Somerville on May 5, 1897. In an ironic twist, he was cut from the scaffold after seven minutes, but was not yet dead. As doctors felt for a pulse and listened for a heartbeat, the noose, still tight about his neck, continued to do its work. A few minutes later, he was pronounced dead - cause of death: strangulation.