In September of 1919, poor Finnish residents who lived in the St. Croix neighborhood on South First Avenue East in Duluth (a locale that is currently occupied by high-priced waterfront hotels in Canal Park) held a mass meeting to protest against black prostitutes in the neighborhood. They were quite specific about the “black” part, declaring in a resolution that their neighborhood was “infested by a large number of immoral individuals, particularly Negro women of dissolute habits,” which made the area “offensive to decent, law-abiding residents.” They called for the city to investigate conditions and remedy them. All members of the committee that drew up the resolutions were Finnish, with the exception of the committee’s chairman, who was John Morrison.
“DARK GIRLS WOO WHITE MEN” declared the Rip-saw headline of September 6, 1919. The story once went on to say that:
Big, fat, black wenches sit in windows, stand in doorways or even stroll out onto the pavements in quest of men with whom to act shamefully. They find them, too. Many a white man is seduced by the blandishments of the black Sirens who smile, beckon and call out, “Come in hea’h, honey.”
Respectable colored women, compelled to take apartments in that sink of iniquity, hang their heads in shame and shed bitter tears of mortification, both because of the hard lot that keeps them there and because they mourn over the nastiness of men and women of their race.
Morrison expanded on this theme in the next issue, under the headline “CHILDREN PLAY AT PROSTITUTION.” Neighborhood children, imitating the “dusky Jezebels,” apparently had been inspired “to play the new and very entertaining game of ‘redlight house,’” much to the shock of their parents. Worse, “When a decent father or mother protests against an immoral Negro woman’s actions, her favorite procedure is to pull her raiment up onto her back and then stick her naked posterior out and towards the object of her dislike, in a very ribald, obscene and insulting manner.”
The issue was further complicated by the fact that a number of anonymous letters had been sent to the Duluth police department, threatening to drive the blacks out of the neighborhood with “sawed-off shotguns” if the city didn’t take action. Morrison downplayed the letters, saying that at “the mass meetings, many speakers urged caution against words or acts that would arouse race feeling”—advice that Morrison himself failed to take in the very article where he mentioned it. In his articles about the St. Croix district, Morrison only mentioned “respectable” black women in order to highlight the failings of the majority of the race.
“MY! MY! WHAT’S NEXT?” the Duluth News Tribune asked cutely. “RACE RIOT IN FAIR DULUTH?”
On June 15, 1920, the accusations of a white boy and a white girl from West Duluth led to the arrest of several black circus workers on suspicion of raping the girl. The blacks were detained in the Duluth Police Headquarters and Jail for questioning. Despite the sketchiness of the charges, rumors ran rampant. The Duluth Herald wrote a front-page story reporting that three of the prisoners had confessed their guilt. Throughout the day, racial tensions were enflamed as carloads of men drove around town waving ropes and urging citizens to “join the necktie party.”
“What if the girl had been your wife or daughter?” they demanded of passersby. “And they was niggers besides!”
That night, a mob of 10,000 howling Duluthians stormed the jail. Most of the police officers charged with guarding the prisoners were ineffectual at best and complicit with the mob at worst. Officers made no attempt to identify or arrest leaders of the mob during the many hours the crowd was growing; when bricks started coming through the windows, officers refrained from using clubs or guns on the rioters, choosing to rely on fire hoses, which were soon wrested from their control and turned on the police station.
Three black prisoners—Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie—were dragged from their cells. On the corner of Second Avenue East and First Street, to the cheers of men, women and children, they were hanged from a lamppost.
The lynching made national news and was widely condemned. The mainstream Duluth papers also protested the action, though other papers in the region were less concerned. The Ely Miner asked, “Suppose it was your daughter, sister, wife or mother—what would you do?” The Mankato Daily Free Press wrote that, “It must be understood that white men…will not sit idly by when black rascals pounce like fiends on white women…. Mad dogs are shot dead without ceremony. Beasts in human shape are entitled to but scant consideration….” These editorials shared the same unquestioning assumption of guilt that had incited the mob.
The lynching, not surprisingly, prompted a flurry of letters to the editor. Many writers expressed disgust and anger at the actions of the mob. “If about 200 of those dirty skunks had been hit right between the eyes with a .45 it would have been a blessing to the community,” wrote one citizen. Many people pointed fingers at their own pet peeves. The lynching was blamed variously on capitalism, unions, draft-dodgers, “the rotten cowboy pictures shown in the movies,” the media, “white-livered sentimentalist[s]” who opposed capital punishment, and (with cruel, unintended irony) the lack of streetlights in the city.
Other letters expressed approval. A letter signed “Jack” said that the lynching sent a message to criminals to “give Duluth a wide berth.” A letter from someone claiming to be a past member of the Minnesota Legislature called the lynching “the natural result” of lax criminal penalties. More virulent pro-lynching letters were underrepresented: On June 22, 1920, the Duluth Herald wrote that they would not print any such letters, since “they are engaged in justifying, and therefore fostering, lawlessness and rioting, and that is a business in which the Herald cannot and will not help them.”
On June 26, 1920, the Rip-saw hit the streets. “NEGROES DID NOT RAPE GIRL,” blared the headline. “EXAMINATION BY DOCTOR DISCREDITS GIRL’S STORY. ALLEGED VICTIM’S BODY SHOWS NO MARKS, BRUISES, CUTS, TEARS, SWELLING OR SENSITIVITY.”
The story covered the entire front page and part of the second. Morrison condemned the mob (which presumably included a sizeable portion of his readership) as “hoodlums” and “murderous marauders” who had “damn[ed their] souls” by lynching the black prisoners. Point by point, he tore apart the weak story that had been given to police by the white boy and girl, which he said sounded “too much like a Nick Carter novel to be given much credence,” and sneeringly accused the boy, James Sullivan (“that gallant young defender of female virtue”) of being a moral degenerate, a drunk, a vandal, a seducer, and a criminal. “Some who know young James Sullivan believe that he would be fully as dangerous to a young girl as a Negro circus hand.” Armed with the doctor’s report, Morrison expressed doubt that the girl had been raped by anyone.
A few of the lynchers served short jail sentences for rioting. No one was convicted of murder. The lynching dropped out of community memory and was largely forgotten for 80 years. In 2000, the issue was resurrected, appropriately enough, by the Ripsaw, a modern alternative weekly that had taken the name (though not the puritanical zeal) of John Morrison’s original paper. In 2003, a memorial was erected on the corner of Second Avenue East and First Street, in memory of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie.
Threats & Lawsuits
For six years after the lynching, the Rip-saw forged on, doing what it did best: making enemies. On October 25, 1924, under the banner headline “BOYLAN THREATENS MURDER,” Morrison described a telephone conversation he had shared with State Senator Mike Boylan, during which the senator threatened to “kill” Morrison if his name ever appeared in Morrison’s “dirty, damnable sheet.” Morrison, in his usual style, promised to “take the senator across the editorial knee and give him a good spanking” if he ever dared carry out his threat.
On the other half of the front page, under the headline “BERT JAMISON’S UNFITNESS DUE TO PHYSICAL REASONS,” Morrison wrote that Bert Jamison, the one-legged probate judge of Cass County, had a “peculiar mental and physical condition” which rendered him unfit to decide cases of “juvenile truancy, incorrigibility and immorality.” Twenty-seven years earlier, Morrison wrote, Jamison had visited a lumber camp brothel and “picked out a pale, anaemic girl with a sad cough” with whom to enjoy his pleasures, with unfortunate results:
When he came back to Brainerd, one side of his neck was badly swollen with the effects of venereal poison. Going to the hospital for treatment, the abscess was lanced many times, some say as high as eleven, leaving heavy scars that are plainly visible today.
Eventually, venereal infection settled in one of Jamison’s legs with such stubborn effect as to make amputation necessary at the hip joint to save his life. At the same time, so it is alleged by certain Cass county pioneers, it became imperative to at least partially emasculate the victim of sexual indiscretions.
This, dear fathers and mothers of Cass county, explains why Bert Jamison seems to especially dislike young girls. This sad state of affairs makes him a very undesirable judge of juvenile court.
On page two, Morrison wrote an editorial about Victor Power, the former mayor of Hibbing, who was running for Congress. Morrison said that Power was a corrupt political boss who publicly supported Prohibition but was “sopping wet in practice.” Once, at a local hotel, Morrison wrote, Power had “crawled into bed so beastly drunk that, through the night, he used his couch as a privy and puking place, entirely without help of cathartic or emetic.”
These three articles embroiled Morrison in two years of skirmishes—libel suits, fines, brief jail time, and appeals—as his targets defended themselves. The claim about Bert Jamison’s syphilis turned out to be untrue, and Morrison was required to make a public apology to Victor Power.
A more lasting act of retaliation came from Senator Boylan, who didn’t want to get spanked. Boylan, in league with many prominent publishers of more respected newspapers, persuaded the Minnesota Legislature to pass the Public Nuisance Act of 1925, aimed at suppressing “malicious, scandalous and defamatory” newspapers—by which Boylan meant the Rip-saw. The gag law, which applied to newspapers in the entire state, passed the Legislature without comment in mainstream publications.
In 1926, after the Rip-saw accused the mayor of Minneapolis of adultery and Duluth’s public utilities commissioner of graft, a warrant was sworn out for Morrison’s arrest. A state judge, invoking the powers of the Public Nuisance Act, placed a restraining order on the Rip-saw. News vendors were forbidden to sell the paper. The Rip-saw’s publishing house, the Finnish Publishing Company, was forbidden to print it.
On May 18, 1926, before Morrison could be arrested, he died of a “brain clot.” For some time, he had been suffering from “pleurisy following an attack of influenza, a general nervous breakdown and attacks of syncope;” nevertheless, his death was unexpected. At his funeral, which local papers said was “well attended,” Mayor Samuel Snively and City Commissioner W. S. McCormick both described Morrison as a “good man.”
After lying in state for a few days at the Bell Brothers Funeral Home in West Duluth, John Morrison’s body was shipped back to his hometown of Tabor, Iowa. He was buried in the Morrison family plot in the town cemetery.
In 1927, the gag law inspired by the Rip-saw would be used to shut down the Saturday Press, an anti-Semitic, anti-gangster scandal sheet in Minneapolis. That event would ultimately lead to Near v. Minnesota, a pivotal Supreme Court decision that struck down the Public Nuisance Act and affirmed freedom of the press in America.
In Morrison’s final battle, fought from beyond the grave, he was victorious.