John Johnson

Dane County, Wisconsin
Date of Crime:  September 6, 1911

John A. Johnson was convicted of the kidnapping and murder of seven-year-old Annie Lemberger. Annie had been presumably kidnapped from her home at 2 South Francis St. in Madison. Her body was found three days later in Lake Manona with a head wound. Since an autopsy found no water in her lungs, it was assumed she died from the wound prior to being thrown into the lake.

On the morning of Annie's disappearance, Annie's mother told police that upon retiring for bed the previous night she locked all the doors and windows in her home. Annie slept in a cot in the same room as her nine and six-year-old brothers who slept in another bed. The door to their parents' room was left ajar. In addition the family owned a terrier who barked at the slightest sound. The next morning, all the windows and doors still remained locked except the window closest to Annie's cot, which had a triangular hole broken out of the glass. The hole was reportedly too small for even a woman's hand to fit through, so it was initially thought that a group of boys may have committed the crime.

One of the suspects arrested by police was John A. Johnson. He asserted his innocence during an all night grilling by police and was released. However he was rearrested after police learned of his past record of two commitments to insane asylums for taking liberties with girls, and one sentence for the nonsupport of his wife and two daughters. Johnson continued to maintain his innocence and his wife and daughters attested that he was at home and could not have left without them knowing about it. In court Johnson pled “not guilty.” However, after being returned to jail, officers learned that Johnson had once witnessed a lynching. The lynching made such a deep impression on him that the mere mention of it made him cringe. Sometime thereafter officers informed him that there was a mob outside the jail waiting to get at him. They warned Johnson to stay away from the jail windows because there were men on nearby buildings waiting to get a shot at him.

After Johnson became livid with fear of being lynched, an officer told him he could escaped being lynched by giving a confession. Johnson then fully confessed to the crime in court, insisted his trial be held immediately, and that he be sentenced and taken to Waupun penitentiary that same day. He was sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor and upon arrival at the penitentiary he proclaimed his innocence but said he nevertheless was greatly relieved.

Some years later Johnson wrote letters complaining that he was wrongfully convicted. An attorney who received a letter looked into Johnson's case and became completely convinced of his innocence. In late Sept. 1921, hearings were held on a pardon application for Johnson. A witness, Mae Sorenson, gave testimony that that Annie's father had thrown a beer bottle at her in a drunken fury and hit her. He placed her back in her cot from which she had originally arisen, but she was later found dead by her mother. At the end of the hearing Annie's father was arrested for his daughter's murder, but the charge was subsequently reduced to manslaughter, then dropped due to a 6-year statute of limitations for the crime. In Feb. 1922, Governor Blaine commuted Johnson's sentence to time served.

Decades later the victim's nephew, Mark Lemberger, wrote a 1993 book on the case entitled Crime of Magnitude: The Murder of Little Annie. Lemberger is upset that suspicion was cast on his grandfather for the killing of his aunt. To counteract such suspicion he tries to argue that Johnson is the guilty party. He shows that the witness Sorenson admitted in 1932 that she gave false testimony at Johnson's pardon hearing. She said she was promised $500 for her false statements by Ole A. Stolen, the attorney who helped free Johnson. She never received the money which was supposed to be paid from Stolen's share of compensation money that he hoped to collect for Johnson. Stolen was elected a judge in 1922 but was disbarred in 1927 for borrowing money from bootleggers. In 1935 the Wisconsin legislature awarded Johnson a modest monthly stipend, but it specifically barred its distribution to anyone but Johnson.

Although Sorenson's false testimony is deplorable, it does not change the lack of evidence against Johnson. The easiest solution to the crime that accounts for the hole in the window is that Annie was killed in her house and her parents made the hole to cast suspicion on an outside intruder.  [6/08]


References:  Convicting the Innocent, Crime of Magnitude

Posted in:  Victims of the State, Wisconsin Cases