Posted by: Russell Fowler on Feb 1, 2020

Journal Issue Date: Feb. 2020

Journal Name: Vol.56 No. 2

“I believe in the law of revenge.” 
                               – Julius DuBose 

The roar of the hooves of 40 horses could be heard pounding on the cobblestone streets. At breakneck speed and in military formation, they charged down the broad avenues of tall buildings, their riders hooded and cloaked in white cloth flapping in the wind and brandishing firearms glistening in the sunlight.

Believed to be an image of young Julius DuBose.

Frightened pedestrians scurried for safety. In brazen breach of the law, the outlawed Ku Klux Klan had arrived in downtown Memphis. It was more than just a terrifying show of force. The Klan was on a mission to demonstrate that no government could withstand its might.1 

It was 1869 and Republican Gov. William G. Brownlow had declared war on the Klan. He mobilized the state militia and imposed martial law in nine Tennessee counties, but not Shelby.2 Before the police headquarters, the riders came to a thundering halt; their leader confidently road to the front. The police chief determined it was best to face the marauders in the street with his few armed, nervous officers by his side.3

The Klan commander saluted the chief, and then he drew a revolver in each hand. From behind his hood he spoke: “Here are the genuine Ku Klux Klan for whose arrest your governor has offered a reward. Take us.” Overawed, the chief could only say, “You go on.” The Klan, having achieved its aim, turned and rode triumphantly away.4

Despite the disguise, it was no secret the KKK contingent was led by the highest-ranking Klansman in the county and the second highest in Tennessee.5 Moreover, he was a lawyer who would become a powerful political figure and be elected Criminal Court judge. It would be charged that through his judicial office, he controlled the many vice establishments of the rowdy Mississippi River metropolis. Thus, he became known as Klan leader, crime boss and judge all in one. He was the ruthless Judge Julius DuBose. 

DuBose’s Rise to Power

Julius Jesse DuBose was born Dec. 13, 1839, the son of Dr. A. B. C. and Camilla DuBose. Dr. DuBose owned a large, prosperous plantation with many slaves in northern Shelby County near Millington. The handsome Julius was sent to the University of Mississippi and Florence Wesleyan University in Alabama. He obtained a law degree in 1860 at Cumberland School of Law in Lebanon, Tenn.6

Just prior to the Civil War, DuBose moved to Swan Lake, Arkansas. There he stabbed to death a well-known resident, Dave Franklin, following an argument. DuBose quickly left the area and enlisted in the 9th Arkansas Confederate Infantry Regiment organized at Pine Bluff.7 By 1862, he was a second lieutenant. The following year he became a captain of ordinance, conducting inspections in Arkansas and the Indian Territory.8

With war’s end, and forever boasting of having never surrendered and would rather leave the country than do so, DuBose returned to Shelby County in 1865, perhaps not returning to Swan Lake to avoid indictment for murder. Nonetheless, the family fortune was gone, and his father died the same year. Instead of practicing law, the bitter Julius became part owner of the Memphis Public Ledger, a popular newspaper specializing in gossip and hyperbole, which he edited for three years. He also helped found the Ku Klux Klan.9

In 1870, DuBose married into a prominent Middle Tennessee family,10 was appointed clerk of the City Court11 and was elected as a Democrat to the State Senate representing Shelby and Fayette counties.12 In 1872, he was hired as a deputy sheriff, and he brazenly announced on the floor of the Senate: “I believe in the law of revenge. … The law of retaliation is right.”13

When DuBose chaired the Senate committee redrawing General Assembly and congressional districts, he won adoption of a plan he guaranteed would prevent Republican victories. Yet his complex scheme proved to be a catastrophe for his party.14 DuBose left the Senate in 1873.15

In 1886, at the age of 46, DuBose, called a man of “serious deep dark activities,”16 won election to the judgeship of the Criminal Court of Memphis, a state court of record.17 As a judge, he has been described as “dominant and aggressive,”18 “hot-tempered, arrogant,”19 “heavy-handed,” “bombastic,” and “intolerant and despotic, a misogynist and avowed bigot.”20

An effort to remove the controversial judge was not long in coming. A Chancery ouster suit was filed in 1889. It alleged that 19 years earlier, DuBose violated the law and Tennessee’s Constitution by taking part in a duel in Arkansas by acting as a second. This feeble case was met with ridicule across Tennessee.21

The old Shelby County Courthouse, where much of this story took place.

The McMinnville Southern Standard said: “Memphis is coming to the front as a sharp rival of Chattanooga for sensationalism. The latest freak of the Bluff City which smacks of this delectable flavor is a suit filed against Judge J. J. DuBose of the Criminal bench, charging him with aiding and abetting a duel.”22 Chancellor Bedford M. Estes held the matter was one of impeachment for the General Assembly and dismissed the case.23 On appeal, the Tennessee Supreme Court held, in an opinion written by Chief Justice Peter Turney, that aiding a duel in Arkansas would not constitute an offense in Tennessee and affirmed the dismissal.24

The People’s Grocery Lynching 

In March 1892, a fight ensued between small black and white boys over a game of marbles at the People’s Grocery. The thriving store and popular congregation spot was owned by three young black entrepreneurs: Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell and Henry Stewart. It was in an area of Memphis known as “the Curve” because of a sharp turn in the streetcar line, and it was a neighborhood transitioning from white to black. There was not only tension between the races at the Curve, there was resentment against the People’s Grocery by white competitors.25

National press coverage of the shootout in the People’s Grocery.

After the boys’ fight, one of the white boys’ fathers, Cornelius Hurst, appeared and “thrashed” one of the black children, Armour Harris.26 A brawl soon erupted with Hurst and his friends on one side and the father of the black child and his friends, including grocers McDowell and Stewart, on the other. The black men won. The white men then filed criminal charges, and Judge DuBose vowed to put an end to what he viewed as the troubles caused by African Americans at the Curve and ordered all black men in the area, even those in the militia, disarmed by the sheriff.27

Word reached the black grocers that the white men would be returning Saturday night “to clean out” the People’s Grocery. After consulting a lawyer, the grocers armed themselves and waited in the store to defend their property.28 Apparently with DuBose’s blessing, deputized whites, along with a deputy sheriff, broke into the dark business, shots were fired and some of the intruders were wounded.29 The following day, a newspaper branded the People’s Grocery “a resort of thieves and thugs.”30

Moss, McDowell and Stewart were arrested. Then, in the middle of the night, a mob took them from the jail. They were brutally murdered and their corpses mutilated north of town. The black community was, of course, aghast. Grieving black Memphians gathered before the People’s Grocery.31 In response, DuBose ordered the sheriff to “take a hundred men, go out to the Curve at once, and shoot down on sight any Negro who appears to be making trouble.”32

The People’s Grocery at the Curve.

Hence, white “posses” or mobs were armed, deputized and rushed to the Curve. They proceeded to indiscriminately fire into groups of peaceful black people and loot the People’s Grocery.33 Rumors abounded that Judge DuBose took part.34

The lynchings, and the bedlam caused by DuBose, led Memphis civil rights pioneer Ida B. Wells to launch her lifelong crusade against lynching, a crime she said targeted prosperous blacks. She also armed herself and urged African Americans to flee Memphis. Her newspaper was burned and she moved north.35

The Alice Mitchell Murder Trial

Also in 1892, and to his delight, Judge DuBose obtained national attention. In February, 19-year-old Alice Mitchell killed her lover, 17-year old Freda Ward, at the river landing. Mitchell cut Ward’s throat with a razor. The trial was delayed for a month so DuBose could have the courtroom remodeled to hold more spectators and add a press box. He also delayed to accommodate journalists traveling to Memphis. In the interim, he welcomed all interviews.36

The 1892 trial of Alice Mitchell. Judge DuBose is in the distance on the bench.

When the proceedings began, DuBose made sure favored journalists had the best seats37 in “the theater that was Judge DuBose’s courtroom.”38 And he jumped at every occasion to assert his control over the audience, especially the women.39 First, he segregated the crowd by gender ordering: “Ladies to the right, and gents to the left.”40 Constantly reminding the women that they were only there at his sufferance, DuBose had a Hispanic woman removed because he did not like her looks, and he had another arrested for blocking his path.41 Every day, DuBose made shocking comments calculated to make the papers,42 which served “as a daily performance review of the judge himself.”43 On July 30, Mitchell was found insane and sent to Western State Hospital for the Insane at Bolivar. There she died in 1898.44

The Memphis Bar Strikes Back

Alice Mitchell’s lawyer was Luke Wright. After joining the Confederate Army at 15 and fighting in many battles, Wright, the son of a Tennessee Supreme Court justice,45 served as district attorney46 and was one of the key leaders in Memphis’s recovery from the horrific Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878.47 In private practice, the courtly Wright became the city’s preeminent lawyer. Brilliant and highly ethical, Wright concluded he had a responsibility to take on the rogue judge.48 DuBose would soon gain national press coverage he did not want.49

The 1889 Chancery ouster suit against Judge DuBose.

In 1893, Wright, and other Memphis lawyers who rallied around him, persuaded Tennessee House members across the state to adopt 36 detailed articles of impeachment, comprising almost 50 pages, for “tyrannical and brutal” outrages. Dubose was ordered to appear by both the House and Senate for trial in Nashville before the Senate.50 Luke Wright, assisted by Memphis lawyer Lucius T. M. Canada, would conduct the prosecution.51 The following is a summary of some of the charges:

  1. As punishment for making a proper, respectful objection, DuBose placed an elderly lawyer in the “sweat box,” a hot, dark, filthy, reeking and unlawful DuBose contrivance of a closet-like compartment adjacent to the courtroom52 “unfit for any citizen to be put in.”53
  2. He secretly instructed a grand jury foreman not to indict certain people. When the prosecutor learned of it and objected, he was fined and forcibly removed from the courtroom.54
  3. He obstructed a Circuit Court writ of habeas corpus, concerning an inmate incarcerated by DuBose, by ordering the Sheriff not to execute it and threatening to jail the issuing Circuit judge, L. H. Estes, and the defense attorney, Lucius Canada (an impeachment prosecutor).55
  4. He had a prospective juror fined, jailed and placed in the sweat box for speaking too softly.56
  5. Annoyed by a baby carried past his chamber’s door, he threatened the mother with the workhouse.57
  6. When a tradesman requested payment for work at DuBose’s home, he was threatened with jail “if he ever presented the bill to him again.”58
  7. He ordered a victim to pay a prosecution witness.59
  8. He ordered the arrest of certain citizens if they lawfully tried to view the county voter rolls.60
  9. In defiance of an injunction issued by Chancellor Henry T. Ellett, he sent a gang of “special bailiffs” to seize the County Court’s room because it was more spacious than his courtroom.61
  10.  He summarily jailed and threatened to jail political opponents and election observers.62
  11.  He sentenced a defendant to the workhouse until an appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court was dropped, saying: “I will teach you to appeal from this court.”63
  12.  Without authority, he appointed a “notorious gambler” special prosecutor.64
  13.  He took bribes to obtain unlawful payments from the county to a known criminal.65
  14.  He solicited a bribe from a prisoner’s family to grant release.66
  15.  He sexually assaulted a defendant’s wife in his chambers.67
  16.  He sexually assaulted a Chancery clerk in his chambers.68
  17.  Without charges or trial, he jailed a merchant for lawfully selling arms to black citizens.69
  18.  He “packed” and intimidated juries.70
  19.  He protects and controls the city’s vice establishments.71
  20.  He seeks to control all local public offices.72

On June 2, 1893, the titanic month-long trial, during which the legislature came to a stop,73 finally reached a verdict. Even though denying all the charges and having high-powered counsel, DuBose was convicted on two counts: The first was obstructing the execution of the writ of habeas corpus.74 The second was using his position to try to force a Mrs. McBride to give her ex-husband $10,000 awarded to her in a Chancery divorce decree.75 The Fort Scott Daily Monitor in Kansas called it the removal of “the best known jurist in the South.”76 In addition to removal, DuBose was disqualified from holding any office in Tennessee.77

Luke Edward Wright (1846-1922). The Memphis lawyer who brought down Judge Julius DuBose.

The Aftermath

In 1895, DuBose retained counsel to lobby the General Assembly. The legislature was persuaded to lift his disqualification from holding office.78 In opposition, Sen. A. W. Stovall of Madison County argued that “the example for good presumably accruing to the public by the impeachment of Judge DuBose … will be destroyed.”79 DuBose ran for the Criminal Court judgeship again in 1902, but he was easily defeated by a margin of 2,000 votes by the incumbent, Judge John T. Moss.80

After leaving the bench, DuBose was an unremarkable lawyer; yet he did briefly obtain an important and surprising client in 1907. Bishop C. H. Mason of the predominately black Church of God in Christ (COGIC) arrived in Memphis to assume leadership of the church. Mason hired DuBose as church counsel, and he began handling major Chancery litigation. Within a month, however, the Bishop learned of DuBose’s past and fired him.81

Julius Dubose died of pneumonia on March 21, 1912, at the age of 72, with little notice. His remains are in an unmarked grave at Elmwood Cemetery.82

Luke Wright became Governor-General of the Philippines, U.S. Ambassador to Japan and Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of War.83 When he returned to his beloved Memphis, in the courts and through his controlling interest in The Commercial Appeal newspaper, he endlessly battled E. H. Crump,84 the man who achieved DuBose’s aborted dream of becoming political boss of Memphis. Wright died in 1922. His obituary said that “he did more for the city of Memphis than any other man that ever lived or died in it.”85

The Lesson of Julius DuBose 

Although thwarted, Chancery and Circuit did try to intervene through the greatest of writs: injunction and habeas corpus. Nevertheless, the story of Julius DuBose is neither the failure of our judicial system, nor simply the atrocities of a ferociously evil and atypical judge. It is the story of the success of Tennessee’s Constitution. Its checks and balances worked, once more proving true: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination for injustice makes democracy necessary.”86

Democracy worked. The Constitution worked. Luke Wright made it so. He fulfilled the duty of a lawyer as asked of all lawyers, then and now, by his friend, John W. Davis, American Bar Association President and 1924 Democratic presidential nominee: 

[The] lawyer has been always the sentinel of the watchtower of liberty. In all times and all countries has he stood forth in defense of his nation, her laws and liberties, not, it may be, under a shower of leaden death, but often with the frown of a revengeful and angry tyrant bent upon him. … [S]hall we prove unworthy?87

RUSSELL FOWLER is director of litigation and advocacy at Legal Aid of East Tennessee (LAET)and since 1999 he has been adjunct professor of political science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He served as the law clerk to Chancellor C. Neal Small in Memphis and earned his law degree at the University of Memphis in 1987. Fowler has many publications on law and legal history, including many in this Journal.


1. See Eddy W. Davison, Nathan Bedford Forrest: In Search of the Enigma 438 (2007).
2. Robert E. Corlew, Tennessee: A Short History 338-39 (1981).
3. Davison at 438.
4. Id.
5. See id.
6. Elmwood Cemetery Records on Julius J. DuBose (Turley Section #829, Sp. 3), Elmwood Cemetery, Memphis, Tenn.; Calvin S. McBride, Walking into a New Spirituality 140 (2007).
7. Pine Bluff Daily Graphic (Pine Bluff, Ark., March 23, 1912), p. 1.
8. McBride at 140.
9. See id. at 140-41.
10. DuBose married Mary M. Polk, the daughter of Col. George W. Polk of Columbia, Tenn., on Nov. 29, 1870. They had three sons and three daughters.
11. McBride at 140.
12. Elmwood Records.
13. Robert H. White, 6 Messages of the Governors of Tennessee 1869-1883 202 (1963).
14. Id. at 200-02.
15. Tennessee Senate Roll of Senators and Their Terms of Office; Elmwood Records.
16. McBride at 140.
17. John Preston Young, Standard History of Memphis, Tennessee 529 (1912); McBride 141.
18. McBride at 140.
19. Lynette Boney Wrenn, Crisis and Commission Government in Memphis: Elite Rule in a Gilded Age City 135 (1998).
20. Alexis Coe, Alice and Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis 98 (2014).
21. See Robert A. Lanier, The History of the Memphis & Shelby County Bar 48 (1981).
22. McMinnville Southern Standard (May 4, 1889), p. 4.
23. See Harris v. DuBose, Shelby Chancery (Hon. B. M. Estes, Chancellor, July 3, 1889).
24. State v. DuBose, 13 S.W. 1088, 88 Tenn. 753 (1890).
25. See Ida B. Wells, Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells 48 (Alfreda M. Duster ed., 1970); Coe at 129; McBride at 141.
26. McBride at 141.
27. See McBride at 141; Coe 130-31.
28. Wells at 48.
29. See Wells at 48-49; McBride at 141; Coe at 129-131.
30. Wells at 49.
31. See Wells at 50; Coe 130-31; McBride 141.
32. Wells at 51.
33. Coe at 130; McBride at 141.
34. Coe at 130.
35. See Wells at 52; Miriam DeCosta-Willis, “Wells-Barnett, Ida B.” in The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture 1046, 1047 (Carroll Van West ed., 1998).
36. Coe at 88; 105-6, 125.
37. Id. at 106
38. Id. at 107.
39. Id. at 109.
40. Id. at 104.
41. Id. at 108-9.
42. See Id. at 105.
43. Id. at 72.
44. Id. at 172-76.
45. John J. Thomason, Bluff City Barristers 20 (2008).
46. Lanier at 42.
47. Thomason at 21- 23.
48. See Lanier at 48.
49. See Wrenn at 135.
50. See Articles of Impeachment, State of Tennessee v. Julius J. DuBose, Judge of the Criminal Court of Shelby County, Tennessee (1893); Robert H. White, 7 Messages of the Governors of Tennessee 1883-1899 481-572 (1967).
51. See Lanier at 48.
52. Articles of Impeachment at 3-5.
53. Id. at 45.
54. Id. at 5-7.
55. Id. at 10-11; Lanier at 48.
56. Id. at 11-12.
57. Id. at 12-13.
58. Id. at 13.
59. Id. at 14-15.
60. Id. at 15-17.
61. Id. at 18-20.
62. Id. at 22-23.
63. Id. at 24.
64. Id. at 34-35.
65. Id. at 38.
66. Id. at 38-40.
67. Id. at 39.
68. Id. at 40.
69. Id. at 45-46.
70. Id. at 40-42.
71. Id. at 35-37, 46-47.
72. Id.
73. White, 7 Messages, at 514.
74. See Lanier at 48; White, 7 Messages, at 572.
75. The Roanoke Times (Roanoke, Va., June 3, 1883), p. 1.
76. Fort Scott Daily Monitor (Fort Scott, Kan., June 3, 1893), p. 1.
77. See Lanier at 48; White, 7 Messages, at 572.
78. See Lanier at 48; White, 7 Messages, at 572.
79. White, 7 Messages, at 572.
80. The Grenada Sentinel (Grenada Miss., April 5, 1902), p. 50.
81. McBride at 140, 142.
82. Coe at 204; Elmwood Records.
83. Biographical Dictionary of the United States Executive Branch 1774-1977 370 (Robert Sobel ed., 1977).
84. See Thomason at 22, 32-33; William D. Miller, Mr. Crump of Memphis 114-16 (1964).
85. Thomason at 22.
86. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness xiii (1944).
87. John W. Davis, quoted in William Henry Harbaugh, Lawyer’s Lawyer: The Life of John W. Davis 13 (1973).