Duluth’s 1920 Lynchings

This photograph was turned into a postcard and sold following the June 1920 lynchings in Duluth. (Image: Zenith City Press)

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

Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants

And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row

— Bob Dylan, “Desolation Row”

On June 15, 1920, a mob of 10,000 lynched Isaac McGhie, Elias Clayton and Elmer Jackson at the corner of First Street and Second Avenue East in Duluth.

There is no other event in our local history that carries such profound emotional turmoil. For most, it inspires a collective shame that is easiest met with the balm of forgetfulness. For those whose roots are deep in Duluth’s neighborhoods, there is a deep split along cultural lines. On one side are those who hold the fervent—if futile—hope that their not-so-distant ancestors stayed home that night. On the other is the conviction that a symbol of continued outsider status lurks within the images of the tragedy. Newcomers find it a bewildering event, mismatched in its ugliness with a place they have sought for its beauty. For all but a few, it has been a distant past blurred by a wall of silence.

The Times

Post-war Duluth was rife with labor tension. The veterans of the Great War were bored, often unemployed, and seeking the diversion of noble causes. Severe class and nationality segregation divided the city. The people of Duluth felt secure in their belief that the violence of lynch law, especially against black men and women, was something Southern in nature—something that could not happen here.

Out of approximately 100,000 Duluthians, only about 500 or so were African-American, most of whom were forced by housing discrimination to live in the far west area known as Gary. In all likelihood, there were still residents of the city who had never even laid eyes on a black person. But this was Minnesota—a Northern state proud of its citizens’ role in the Civil War. The North was supposed to be different in the way it accepted black people. Lynchings, however, were a topic of conversation. A treatise against the horror of lynching was one of the more popular oratories memorized and recited at Denfeld High School. Nevertheless, in October of 1918, a Finnish antiwar “agitator” had been tarred, feathered and lynched in Lester Park.

The early 1900s was a time deeply steeped in the fear of the “Other.” In April of 1920, The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy, by Lothrop Stoddard, hit mainstream bookshelves. According to Richard Hudelson, a philosophy professor at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, Stoddard’s beliefs were considered anything but “out there.” Prominent scholars and scientists alike advocated something now called “scientific racism,” which used pseudo-scientific “facts” to prove the inherent biological and anthropological inferiority of races not European in origin. Many believed that white men were the most powerful cultural group because of their inherent superiority to all others—women and people of color included. But not only were white men considered superior, the “lower orders” were commonly believed to be dragging down the “white world”—only by fighting for what was “theirs” could this be prevented. The resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan was only one symptom of a culture bent on separation of the races.

Women were getting more involved in the political arena, but the idea of “hysteria” as a specifically female disability was widely believed as fact. First-wave feminism flailed away at restrictive feminine roles and definitions, but the struggle met with open hostility by large numbers of both men and women. Feminine purity remained an expectation rather than a simple fantasy. Being raped was a horror that would ruin a woman forever, but being raped by a black man carried cultural taboos so serious, it was, viewed through the internal codes of the time, worse than being murdered. The idea that a white woman would lie about such a crime was virtually inconceivable.

Racial tensions ran high all over the country. Race riots erupted in cities across the nation, many people were murdered and black neighborhoods, already plagued by enforced poverty, were burned to the ground by marauding groups of vengeful white men.

And Then, In Duluth

Some time on the evening of June 14, 1920, Irene Tusken and James Sullivan, both young West Duluthians, went to the circus that was visiting town. Something happened—no one can be sure what—that led them to claim that they had been threatened with a pistol, robbed and Tusken raped by six black circus workers. This accusation, first levied by Sullivan and backed by no physical evidence or witnesses beyond Sullivan and Tusken, quickly snowballed. In the wee hours of June 15, police removed at least fifty black men from the circus train before it began its journey north to Virginia, Minn. Extraordinarily vague descriptions of the alleged assailants led to several arrests, while word of the supposed crime spread.

By evening, a crowd of many thousands, bent on what they considered justice, had gathered in front of the city jail, then located on Second Avenue East and Superior Street. Spurred on by cries of “What if it was your daughter? What if it was your sister?” the crowd battered at the jail for hours. They were opposed only by a pitifully small force of police who became even more crippled by an order from the Commissioner of Public Safety to refrain from using guns to defend the jailed suspects. Subsequently, the crowd managed to extricate three of the imprisoned men from the jail, subjected them to a “kangaroo court,” dragged them up the hill, beat them severely and lynched them on the light pole at the corner of First Street and Second Avenue East.

Few members of the lynch mob received any punishment. Two who did stand trial, Henry Stephenson and Louis Dondino, served less than half of their five-year sentences for rioting. Another circus worker, Max Mason, was convicted of raping Tusken based on evidence later believed to be false and politically motivated. Mason was released quietly after serving four years of his 30-year sentence.

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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.