Charles Philip Johnson was born in Lebanon, Illinois, on Jan. 18, 1836. He edited a newspaper in Sparta, Illinois, from 16-18 years old. He attended McKendree College in Lebanon before moving to St. Louis in 1855 to study law. Two years later, he was admitted to the bar and, in 1859, he was elected city attorney.
When the Civil War began, Johnson helped organize Missouri troops for the Union. He declined a nomination for Congress in 1862 but was instead elected to the state General Assembly, where he served as chairman of the committee on emancipation. It was he who framed the bill under which the 1865 Constitutional Convention was called.
Johnson was re-elected to the General Assembly in 1865 but resigned when he was appointed circuit attorney for St. Louis. In 1868, he was elected to serve four more years.
Following the war, Johnson was against the harsh treatment of southerners that was wanted by the radical Republicans. He opposed the Drake Constitution of 1865 and its extreme measures. In 1872, Silas Woodson and Charles Johnson were elected governor and lieutenant governor, respectively, and served from Jan. 3, 1873, to Jan. 12, 1875.
It was in the summer of 1883 that Johnson proved himself to be one of Missouri's greatest criminal lawyers. Part of the defense team for the notorious Frank James in a fight for his life, Johnson's closing argument received applause from the crowd. The following day, Frank James was acquitted.
Another of Johnson's most famous cases was tried in 1897. Dr. Arthur Duestrow had shot and killed his wife and 2-year-old son in February 1894, and then turned himself in to the authorities. A plea of insanity failed and the doctor was tried for murder. The first trial resulted in a hung jury, but Duestrow was convicted during the second trial and sentenced to hang.
Besides practicing law with his brother, Johnson served several years on the law faculty of Washington University.
Charles Philip Johnson died May 21, 1920, in St. Louis and is buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery.
Elizabeth Davis was born and raised in Cooper County and has written Historically Yours for the Boonville Daily News since April 2008. In celebration of Missouri's upcoming Bicentennial, she syndicated her column statewide in September 2018, and encourages readers all over the state to submit topic suggestions for columns to [email protected]