The gravesite of William Johnson is as much an Atlanta historic oddity as a mystery.
First of all, there isn’t a body in it. Second, his name wasn’t William Johnson, even though he was the man for whom Johnson Ferry Road was named. Third, finding his final resting place isn’t easy, which is perhaps related to No. 2.
Historian Franklin Garrett’s book “Atlanta and Environs” is divided into years. Each chapter is comprised of all the things he deems significant in that year. At end of each chapter, he lists the notable deaths.
At the end of the chapter on 1879, he writes of the death of the “ferryman Johnson, an old citizen of Cobb County …”
We know Johnson today because of the road through Brookhaven, Sandy Springs and east Cobb. His name was actually Johnston with a “t,” but it’s not Johnston Ferry. We’ll go with the former for this column.
Garrett does not mention how he died, only that he died in 1879 and was buried in the Providence Church Cemetery. According to Garrett, the church was near the Johnson home off Middle Roswell Road in Cobb County.
It must have been just a few days after he was buried when several people noticed his gravesite had been disturbed. The mound appeared lumpy and irregular.
Later, several of Johnson’s acquaintances dug up his body. As they suspected, they were not the first. The clothes he was buried in were in the coffin, but there was no body.
Police learned that the prior evening, two men with a wagon crossed the Chattahoochee River at Johnson’s ferry and asked the ferryman about Providence Church.
Later that night, two men with a wagon crossed back over the river, only this time they crossed at Heard’s ferry. The ferryman on that trip commented on a foul smell coming from their wagon. The two men explained they had picked up a man who had had too much to drink, and he had thrown up in the back of the wagon.
Had the ferryman looked at what was covered up in the back of that wagon, he may have been sick himself.
In those days, medical colleges were paying top dollar for cadavers, which medical students used for training. A fresh body could fetch as much as $100, according to Garrett. The police knew about this and watched the city cemeteries closely. This drove grave robbers into the country cemeteries.
The police took one of the ferry operators to the Atlanta-area medical schools to see if he recognized anyone.
At Atlanta Medical College, he immediately identified janitor George Vaughn, who was standing near the gate. He was one of the men who had crossed the river the evening Johnson’s body was stolen.
The suspect was taken to Marietta, found guilty and fined $600. Vaughn requested a new trial immediately, maintaining his innocence. Garrett does not note whether he got a second trail.
The police, meanwhile, never recovered William “Johnson” Johnston’s body.
Off Roswell Road in Cobb County, there is a New Providence Baptist Church adjoined by a small cemetery. The church dates back to just after the Civil War, and one of the first burials was a Mary Johnston in 1875.
The older headstones are worn and impossible to read, but I assume that is where Johnson’s grave had been. Even if I am right, what happened to William Johnson’s body remains a mystery to this day.