An Eclectic Journal of Opinion, History, Poetry and General Bloviating
Ida B. Wells and the Black press including W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Crisis and the Chicago Daily Defender had long exposed lynching as a brutal tool of oppression in the Jim Crow South. Later Billie Holiday would sing about the Strange Fruit she witnessed dangling from lamp posts and bridges on her tours of the South. Lynchings were a terrible thing, civilized people agreed, but they were a Southern thing.
That’s why much of the nation was shocked to learn that on June 15, 1920 that three Black circus workers were dragged from a Duluth, Minnesota jail, beaten, and hung by a howling mob of as many as 1,500 citizens.
The busy Lake Superior port and principle city of the Iron Range, with a tiny Black population of its own, seemed like the last place in the country to expect such an outrage. It was a city of hard working immigrants, most of them Finnish, Norwegian, Swede, and German. Many of them, especially the Finns, were Socialists, Wobblies, and now Communists with roots in the labor and union movements. It was not that violence itself was unexpected there, it was just that it was not associated with the epic labor battles that had long raged across the Iron range.
During the World War “decent citizens” had been worked up into a frenzy of patriotism and had come to view the immigrant radicals, most of them opposed to the war, as threats. The refusal of workers to abide by patriotic calls for labor peace and keep up the flow of vital taconite ore to the freighters and down to the steel mills of Gary and Chicago stoked more outrage.
In September of 1919 a young Finish immigrant, Olli Kinkkonen, thought by a mob to be a Draft dodger, was beaten, tarred, and feathered, and lynched in a downtown park. No one was ever charged or tried for that murder. So violence and lynching were not unknown in Duluth.
1919 had also been a year when race riots erupted in Chicago and in other Midwestern cities where waves of Blacks from the South had poured into the cities to take war time jobs. Although Duluth, with only a handful of Blacks residents, had escaped the rioting, they had not escaped the national hysteria that followed.
So the stage was set for the unexpected.
Lured by advertising like this for the John Robinson Circus, two young people were drawn to the grounds to watch the set up--and maybe for a romantic rendezvous.
The circus was in town. On June 14 the John Robinson Circus, a mid-sized traveling show, rolled into town. As always, the arrival of the circus stirred local excitement. Two young people, Irene Tusken, 19, and James Sullivan, 18 were among the many who came down to the grounds where the show was being set up to watch the excitement. The Circus encouraged that—it was good for ticket sales. By design or otherwise Tusken and Sullivan, who had arrived separately, got together on the grounds. They drifted around to the relative isolation of an area behind the big top. A gang of Black roustabouts was unloading the menagerie tent nearby.
What happened next is a matter of confusion and controversy. There may—or may not—have been some kind of confrontation between Sullivan and some of the roustabouts. Later that evening police received a call from Sullivan’s father claiming that his son had been attacked and robbed. The boy was questioned and told police that five or six of the workers attacked and robbed him and then raped Tusken as he was held at gun point. Tusken seemed frightened and confused, but generally went along with Sullivan’s story.
All 150 Black workers from the circus were rounded up and lined up against the railroad tracks. Sullivan was brought there to identify the alleged assailants. He identified six and said a few others might have been involved. The six were taken to jail.
Overnight rumors flew around town, including reports that Tusken had been murdered. In fact the story of the rape fell apart almost immediately. A doctor examining her the next morning found no physical evidence of assault—bruising, scratches, abrasions—or of semen.
The respectable press of Duluth reported the mob action but also fanned the flames by publishing exagerated claims and rumors.
Local newspaper reports sensationalized the charges, rumors ran rampant. Through the day of the 15th a crowd grew around the jail until it became a mob of more than 1,000. An attack on the jail was expected. Authorities ordered deputies, guards, and police on the scene not to resist an attack with firearms.
When the mob moved on the jail, police fought back as best they could with fire hoses and truncheons. But they were vastly outnumbered and after a vicious melee in which men on both sides were injured they were overwhelmed. In fact the resistance had only inflamed the mob who managed to seize three men—Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie. They were beaten inside the jail and then hauled to the street where they were put on sham trial.
They were taken to the center of town, the corner of 1st Street and 2nd Avenue East where they were beaten again and hung from a lamp pole. The mob posed for pictures with the bodies which were published in the press and later sold as souvenir post cards.
The three other men suspected in the rape were still in the jail. A shifting mob kept up a presence outside, threatening a new attack. But it was not until the next morning that National Guard troops arrived to secure the jail and its prisoners who were moved to the St. Louis County Jail under heavy guard.
As the rape case against the victims evaporated over the next few days, the mob action drew national headlines. Most were condemning. Some Southern papers, however, openly gloated that Yankees were now awakening to the threat to white womanhood and were taking vigorous “corrective action.”
But next door in Superior, Wisconsin the local police chief pledged that, “We are going to run all idle Negroes out of Superior and they’re going to stay out.” How many were actually rousted and deported is not certain, but all of the Blacks employed by a carnival visiting the city were fired and told to leave the city.
A Grand Jury was empanelled on June 17, but despite loads of evidence including photographs and the open boasts of ringleaders, the jury had a hard time brining indictments. After a struggle, 37 were indicted for participating in the lynching, 25 for rioting, and 12 for first degree murder. Several were indicted on multiple charges. In the end only three were convicted of rioting.
Of the Blacks suspected in the alleged rape and assault, the three survivors from the jail and four others were indicted for rape, but the charges against all but two were dropped. William Miller was acquitted and Max Mason was convicted and sentenced to serve seven to thirty years in prison. Amid growing public outrage, Mason was released from prison after only four years on the proviso that he leave Minnesota and never return. Somehow I suspect he was never tempted to violate that provision.
Like many places after such a shameful atrocity, Duluth tried hard to forget it ever happened. Willful amnesia it’s called. But nagging reminders kept popping up.
Young Minnesotan Bob Dylan wrote of the lynchings in his classic 1965 song Desolation Row.
In 1965 Duluth born Bob Dylan, whose father was five years old and living two blocks from the lynching in 1920 opened his song Desolation Row with a reference to that awful night:
They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
In 2003, after a long public campaign, a stunning monument to the three lynching victims was unveiled—a plaza including three seven-foot-tall bronze statues across the street from the site of the lynching. The Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial was designed and sculpted by Carla J. Stetson, in collaboration with Anthony Peyton-Porter, a California-based Black writer who had taken an interest in the case.
Bas relief images of the three lynching victims over look a downtown Duluth plaza near the scene of their murders.
At the dedication Warren Read, the great-grandson of one of the most prominent leaders of the lynch mob told the crowd:
It was a long held family secret, and its deeply buried shame was brought to the surface and unraveled. We will never know the destinies and legacies these men would have chosen for themselves if they had been allowed to make that choice. But I know this: their existence, however brief and cruelly interrupted, is forever woven into the fabric of my own life. My son will continue to be raised in an environment of tolerance, understanding and humility, now with even more pertinence than before.
Read has since written The Lyncher in Me, a memoir of his family and of his own search for reconciliation with the decedents of Elmer Jackson.
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