Joseph F. Shipp left his home in Jasper County, Georgia after completing seventh grade to join the Confederate Army. He spent the war years in Virginia, where he witnessed the celebrated battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac. After the war, Shipp returned to Georgia to work in his father's cotton gin business. In 1874, he moved to Chattanooga and within a few years became a wealthy furniture manufacturer. By 1896, he owned fourteen homes and several other properties.
In 1904 the man the Chattanooga Times called "a natural born leader" was elected to a two-year term as sheriff of Hamilton County. Toward the end of his first term, in December 1905, a black crime wave caused terror in Chattanooga and threatened Shipp's re-election prospects. A series of rapes, assaults, and burglaries perpetrated by blacks against whites led the Chattanooga Times to run a December 26th headline: "Desperadoes Run Rampant in Chattanooga; Negro Thugs Reach Climax of Boldness." Next month brought the rape of Nevada Taylor, and with it unprecedented pressure on Shipp to solve the rape quickly and win a conviction. He did--or so he and the white community thought. He won another two-year term handily.
Less than two days after the lynching of Ed Johnson, federal authorities began to seriously consider Shipp as a possible defendant in a contempt action. With evidence suggesting that planning for the lynching began Monday morning, it seemed implausible that the well-connected sheriff wouldn't have heard about it. Certainly, officials thought, Shipp should have understood the risk of an attack on the jail, and to have fewer deputies than usual there on Monday night seemed a virtual invitation to potential lynchers.
Shipp was the last witness called by the defense in the Supreme Court's contempt trial. Shipp testified, "I never conspired with any living man." He said, "I had no knowledge--not the slightest--that there would be any effort on my part or anybody to interfere with Johnson." He claim to have been "seized" by the lynchers and held prisoner in his old jail until the lynchers left with Johnson. On cross-examination, prosecutors honed in on Shipp's contentions that he did not recognize any of the lynchers, did not ask any of the lynchers their names, never heard any of the lynchers identified by name, and never attempted to use his gun. After testifying, Shipp told friends, "I think they're going to end up dropping this whole mess. Nothing will ever come of it."
In 1908, with the help of a large protest vote from the black community, Shipp lost his bid for a third term as mayor. More bad news for Shipp came the next year when the Supreme Court found Shipp guilty of criminal contempt. In November, he was sentenced to ninety days in the United States Jail in Washington, D. C..
On January 30, 1910, after completing his sentence, Shipp returned to a hero's welcome in Chattanooga. A crowd of 10,000 turned out to greet Shipp as a band played "Dixie" and "Home, Sweet Home." Overcome with emotion, Shipp could not speak. He lifted his hat, bowed to the crowd, and walked to a waiting carriage.
In his later years, Shipp devoted himself to promoting the history of the Confederacy. He was often seen wearing his old gray uniform. He died on September 18, 1925, at the age of 80. Shipp was buried in Forest Hills Cemetery, the cemetery in which Nevada Taylor was raped. A monument has been erected in Shipp's honor.