With the crowd yelling “lynch him; lynch him,” a squad of patrolmen in Scranton last night used their night sticks with telling effect, rescuing Jasper Johnson, a young negro, from a frenzied mob of several thousand men and boys at the carnival grounds on Providence road, in that city, after Johnson had fired five shots, probably fatally wounding one man.
— Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, The Evening News (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania), July 19, 1916
Jasper Johnson worked in the African Dodger booth at the B. H. Patrick Show Carnival in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Jasper’s job was to put his head through a hole in a canvas curtain and dodge baseballs thrown at him by patrons, who paid a nickel for three balls and the chance to hit Jasper’s head and win a prize.
The African Dodger game was very popular with white carnival-goers across America, beginning in the late nineteenth century and continuing well into the twentieth century. The baseballs were hard and the risk of injury was high. Sometimes people also brought bricks and other objects to throw at the dodger. Dunk tanks featuring African Americans eventually replaced the African Dodger game.
Jasper didn’t wear a pad to protect his head, but the 21-year-old was adept at avoiding the balls. Of course sometimes he got hit, but he tried hard to never to show how painful the blows to his head and face were.
On the evening of July 18, 1916, Joseph Alesko was at the hammer machine booth next to the African Dodger booth. The goal of the hammer machine, sometimes called a high striker or strength tester, was to ring a bell at the top of a tower by hitting a puck at the bottom with a hammer or mallet. Joseph, a powerfully built man, was very successful at ringing the bell that evening. Every time he rang it he demanded a cigar from the man who ran the machine. The attendant finally told him it was time for him to let someone else have a try, but Joseph refused to move. A quarrel ensued between the two men that led to blows.
Jasper heard the commotion and left his booth to assist the man who ran the hammer machine. He asked Joseph to move along. At just under 5’10” and 171 lbs., Jasper was a sturdy man but Joseph was a larger and stronger. He threw Jasper to the ground and began to beat him. Jasper pulled a .38 caliber revolver from his pocket and fired at Joseph. The shot went wide and hit a bystander, Dominick Puhofsky, in his side. The bullet arced up and forward, coming to rest near Dominick’s eighth rib.
Then all hell broke loose.
A crowd gathered around Jasper, punching and kicking him. He broke free and fired four more warning shots into the crowd. No one was hit by those shots.
He ran towards a nearby car barn with the mob chasing him and screaming for blood. He was brought to the ground with a flying tackle by one of the men and another man grabbed his gun from him. Some of the mob continued to beat Jasper. Soon the crowd began to chant, “lynch him.”
Two policeman arrived and tried to intervene but mob beat them too. Finally a large contingent of officers showed up. They managed to put down the riot without further injuries and the crowd dispersed.
Joseph was arrested and taken to jail. Dominick was taken to the state hospital for surgical treatment to remove the bullet. Jasper was also taken to the hospital for treatment of injuries from the beating he suffered at the hands of the mob. Despite wounds that can be clearly seen in his mugshots, doctors at the hospital claimed he had faked his injuries.
Joseph was charged with fighting, fined $10 and released from custody. Jasper was taken from the hospital to jail. He charged with assault with intent to murder, but if Dominick died, he would be charged with murder. Fortunately Dominick eventually recovered from his injuries and Jasper was released from jail.
America entered World War I eight months later, on April 2, 1917. Jasper joined the 15th New York Infantry (renamed the 369thInfantry). The military was still segregated and the 15th Infantry was an all black regiment. Jasper began his training at Camp Whitman in New York on July 24, 1917.
In September 1917 Jasper was shot and killed by a fellow soldier named George Westerfield during an argument over a blanket at Camp Dix in New Jersey. Jasper was described in a news article about the killing as “very popular among the colored soldiers. He was of a jolly disposition and had made many friends since coming to Camp Dix thru his fun-making during baseball games, he having been a member of the regiment’s team.”
Private Westerfield was tried by court-martial for killing Jasper. Because America was at war, a guilty verdict (which seems likely, though no proof of that was found) was punishable with execution by firing squad.
In January 1921, Dominick Puhofsky, the man Jasper shot by accident, died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound “while temporarily deranged.”
Featured photo: Mugshots of Jasper Johnson made by the Detective Service of the Scranton Police Department on July 18, 1916. Collection of the author.