Edward M. Yerger, a newspaper editor, southern nationalist, and member of one of Mississippi’s most prominent families, murdered Col. Joseph H. Crane in Jackson on 8 June 1869. The slaying of Crane, a US Army officer acting as mayor of the occupied city, set off a national firestorm and became a flashpoint in debates about Congressional Reconstruction. To some observers, Yerger’s act of rage and vengeance epitomized the violent recalcitrance of the unbowed South; for others, the murder proved the dangerous infeasibility of military occupation of the former Confederate states. A lengthy and sensational trial and several appeals produced no definitive verdict, and Yerger remained a figure of both curiosity and infamy until his death.
The dispute between Yerger and Crane arose from unpaid city taxes. To satisfy the newspaperman’s considerable debt, Crane had ordered a piano seized from Yerger’s home. Taking the seizure as an affront to his honor, Yerger responded swiftly and publicly by berating the mayor in a drunken rage and stabbing him repeatedly on a public street. Under the authority of Reconstruction Act of 1867, a military commission brought Yerger to trial. Yerger’s team of lawyers, which included his uncle, Judge William Yerger, did not contest any of the facts of the case. Instead, they used the testimony of Yerger’s friends, relatives, and ex-slaves to attempt to establish his alcoholism, propensity for violence, and “moral insanity.” They also filed a motion contesting the jurisdiction of the military commission to rule on a case involving the commission of a crime against Mississippi law by a private citizen.
The 5th Circuit Court denied Yerger’s application for habeas corpus, but his lawyers renewed the plea before US Supreme Court chief justice Salmon P. Chase. Chase declined to grant the writ to Yerger, instead instructing Yerger’s lawyers to apply for jurisdiction in the Mississippi Circuit Court. After the Circuit Court at Jackson affirmed the jurisdiction of the military commission to try Yerger, his lawyers refiled their petition with the Supreme Court, and Chase invoked the court’s appellate jurisdiction.
Yerger’s challenge to the jurisdiction of the military commission exacerbated tensions within the federal government about the role of the judiciary and the constitutionality of the military governments of the Reconstruction Act of 1867. But while the granting of habeas corpus in Ex parte Yerger implicitly undermined the authority of the military commissions, both the government and Yerger’s lawyers eschewed a showdown that would have resulted in a public hearing on the merits of Congressional Reconstruction. Thus, in October 1869, the government and Yerger’s lawyers reached an agreement stipulating that Yerger would stand trial before a state court after Mississippi’s readmission to the Union in early 1870. Once in custody of Mississippi authorities, Yerger promptly escaped from prison and spent a week hunting and fishing before voluntarily returning to jail. In 1871, while free on bail, Yerger moved to Baltimore, where he failed spectacularly in the newspaper business and died on 22 April 1875.
- Ex parte Yerger, 75 US 85 (1869)
- Charles Fairman, History of the Supreme Court of the United States: Reconstruction and Reunion, 1864–88 (1971)
- W. S. M. Wilkinson, Trial of E. M. Yerger, before a Military Commission for the Killing of Bv’t-Col. Joseph G. Crane, at Jackson, Miss., June 8th, 1869, Reported for the Jackson Weekly Clarion (1869)