The Victims of the 1920 Duluth Lynchings

This plaque is mounted to the front of Duluth’s 1890 Police Headquarters & Jail. (Image: Heidi Bakk-Hansen)

Honor Us Though Dead

Attempts to honor the victims of the 1920 tragedy by tracing their lives have proved difficult and frustrating, due in part to misinformation, whether by mistake or intent. When the lynching happened in Duluth, the lynched men were misnamed in the press a few times, mistakes which were repeated in newspapers across the country. The name “Nate Green” was the most frequent mistake, and never corrected in some newspapers. The Duluth lynching joined the numerous others that made the national papers regularly. More than a few people must have read “circus workers” and wondered if the arrested or lynched were their family, friends, or acquaintances.

It did not help matters that those accused weren’t always forthcoming with their names, even possibly changing their names when they were questioned later. Their accusers found this to be inexplicable, and pointed to this confusion as an indication of guilt. But there are two much more practical reasons they didn’t give their correct names the first time around. First, circus workers almost exclusively went by nicknames. Because pay was low and turnover was high, nicknames based on place of origin or unusual physical characteristics were customary. Second, a significant number of migratory, lower-class people of the era—white and black—were loosely attached to their birth names. Consequently, we know little about the accused, the convicted, and the lynched.

Of the eleven survivors who were arrested before the lynching, four were never indicted and soon released: John Thomas, Early Thomas, Norman Ousley, and Eugene Jefferson Knight.

The rest spent the next six months in the St. Louis County Jail, charged with rape. Max Mason was found guilty. William Miller was found not guilty and released on December 2, 1920. The cases against the rest were dismissed over the next few weeks, and they were released. Because some of them were called to testify during that time and therefore offer more clues about themselves, more information can be found about some of them.

Lonnie Williams, who was one of the three survivors in the jail during the lynching, was released from jail on December 10, 1920. Aside from his travels with the circus in 1919 and 1920, Williams spent his entire life in Bushtown/Churchville, black-governed municipalities that were annexed by Chattanooga in 1923. This neighborhood is across the tracks and about 15 blocks from the Walnut Street Bridge, where Alfred Blount was lynched for allegedly attacking a white woman in 1893, and where Ed Johnson was lynched in 1906 for a similar alleged crime.

Williams was born in 1902; he never knew his father. He and his sister Lucile were raised by his mother Emma Hiskell, a servant, and his grandmother Annie Hiskell, a private nurse. His mother married John Keith when Lonnie was around ten years old, and when Lonnie returned from Duluth, he adopted his stepfather’s last name. By 1923, his stepfather was dead of a bleeding ulcer. At age 26, Lonnie got married to a woman seven years his senior with five children. He worked as a laborer and eventually a chauffeur, and by 1930 owned his own brick home. Unfortunately, he died at the age of thirty from kidney disease and pneumonia.

Max Mason, the only person convicted of raping Irene Tusken, was from Decatur, Alabama, a river-and rail-crossroads. He grew up on the northwest side of the tracks in a series of rental shotgun shacks, between the yards and the town’s industrial port on the Tennessee River. His parents died within a few years of one another, when he was just out of his teens. Carl Sandburg wrote about Decatur in his book analyzing the Chicago race riot of 1919, stating that five or six trains a day came through the town that year, carrying black migrants from further south. “The colored people in Decatur would go to the railroad station and talk with these other people about where they were going,” Sandburg explained. “And when the moving fever hit them there was no changing their minds.” The migration in those few years took a third of the town’s black population—4,000 people—leaving hundreds of houses where “mattresses, beds, wash bowls and pans were thrown about the back yard after the people got through picking out what they wanted to take along.”

Mason was 24 years old in 1920, and conflicting reports indicate he’d previously been incarcerated, once for 30 days for selling whiskey to a soldier in Louisville, and possibly another time for grand larceny, for which he may have served six years. “Possibly,” because though the conviction for bootlegging is mentioned in his prison records several times, grand larceny is only mentioned once, in a single, confusing report by his parole agent. His reported history makes this a tight timeline: he also had worked in Louisville, Kentucky, as a waiter, porter, and elevator boy. Mason said he spent the six years previous to Louisville as a reef saw operator at Hall & Hall Basket Factory in Decatur, but could not verify his employment.

After his conviction for rape, Mason was sent to Stillwater Prison. He appealed and was denied that appeal in 1922. A lawyer from Decatur wrote to the warden that he knew Max Mason his whole life, that the young man had come from “very unfavorable conditions” and attributed his bad character to his home environment and his criminal associates. “The boy was so wrong-headed and ill taught, that he is, in my opinion, entitled to consideration. He was always an obliging boy, polite boy, with…a kind heart.”

He was released on September 3, 1925, and immediately banished from Minnesota until 1941. While he was incarcerated, he wrote letters to his sisters Myrtle and Louise, his brother Raymond and a married “sweetheart” named Birdie Daniels. There is no record of what happened to Mason after his release—not in Fort Dodge, Iowa, where his sweetheart lived with her husband, nor back in Alabama where his sisters and brother resided. Several men shared his name during his possible lifetime, but none can be definitively proved to be the same Max Mason who visited Duluth with the John Robinson Circus in 1920.

Of the lynching victims themselves, Isaac McGhie’s and Elias Clayton’s families could not be found, making it extremely difficult to trace their histories. Whoever waited for Isaac McGhie and Elias Clayton to come home—and there probably was someone—may have never heard that they were lynched. It is a simple, disappointing fact that we know nothing indisputable about Isaac McGhie and Elias Clayton, or even if these are the names they were born with. If the names are correct, with minor variation, then the record that proves who they are may be found yet. Perhaps Elias Clayton is Eli Clayton from Mississippi, who was 21 in 1920, living in a Polish-owned boarding house with several other black men in East Chicago, Indiana. Perhaps Isaac McGhie is Isaac McGee of Virginia, who registered for the draft at age 18 near Buffalo, New York. Proof either way remains elusive.

Elmer Jackson was lucky enough to have a father who both read his name in newspaper accounts of the lynchings and had the wherewithal and connections to come to Duluth to check and see if the lynched man was his son. At the time of his death, Elmer had already traveled with the circus as a roustabout for three seasons. His brother Mack was also a circus worker, traveling with a different circus.

Elmer’s father Clifton Jackson traveled to Duluth with Elisha Scott, a prominent lawyer who would eventually be associated with Brown v. Board of Education. The undertaker at Park Hill Cemetery charged Clifton $10 for the exhumation of Elmer’s body, and asked for $3 more for the privilege of having a “friend” along. They discovered that Elmer had been buried not in a coffin, but in a box made of slats. According to the Topeka Plain Dealer, “Dirt was in the box and on the face. They had to brush the dirt off the face for identification. The body was found to be in an awful condition and was fearfully mutilated, and the head seemed to have been crushed in with an axe or hammer.” Jackson’s lawyer later helped him sue the City of Duluth for the loss of his son, but failed. (While the lawsuit may have seemed to be a long shot, a similar suit had recently been won in Kansas.)

Clifton Jackson left his son’s body in Duluth in the grave he shared with his nearly anonymous and lost brethren in Park Hill Cemetery. While Clifton left Elmer’s remains in his killers’ city, he also corrected the public death record, changing Elmer’s birthplace from the erroneous “Virginia” to Topeka, Kansas. Clifton Jackson died in 1950, and, Elmer’s branch of the Jackson family gradually disappeared into anonymity. They did not pass down the lynching story.

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Story by Heidi Bakk-Hansen. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Heidi Bakk-Hansen.