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The Lynchings
Includes investigative reports, the Governor’s correspondence, death certificates and coroner’s reports of the three lynched men, newspaper accounts and editorials, and other documents.


 

The Lynchings Documents
     
  On June 15, 1920, police arrest several young black men accused of raping a white woman. That evening, three of them – Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie – are taken from jail by a mob and lynched.

The Circus Comes to Town

Photo of General view of a circus.
General view of a circus.

It was the John Robinson Circus that brought Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie to Duluth. They and other young black men were employed by the circus as cooks and “roustabouts,” laborers who performed a variety of physical tasks. Traveling by train, the circus was greeted by an eager crowd upon arrival in Duluth. They were in town for a free street parade and one day of performances on June 14, 1920.

Accusations

On the warm summer night of June 14, Irene Tusken, age nineteen, and James Sullivan, eighteen, went to the circus in Duluth. At the end of the evening the pair walked to the rear of the main tent. Nobody is sure of what happened next, but in the early morning of June 15th, Duluth Police Chief John Murphy received a call from James Sullivan’s father saying six black circus workers had held the pair at gunpoint and then raped Irene Tusken. Little evidence would be found to corroborate these claims. An examination of Tusken that morning by Dr. David Graham, a family physician, showed no physical signs of rape or assault.

Photo of Duluth police officers, 1919.

Duluth police officers, 1919.

Mob Forms

Six blacks were immediately arrested by the Duluth Police and held in the Duluth city jail, located inside the police station on the corner of Second Avenue and Superior Street. Already reported in the local newspaper, news of the alleged rape spread rapidly. That evening a white mob estimated between 1,000 and 10,000 people gathered on Superior Street outside the police station. They met little resistance from the police, who had been ordered not to use their guns.

Tragedy

Photo of View of police station after damage by the lynching mob.

View of police station after damage by the lynching mob.

Wielding bricks, rails, and heavy timbers, the mob forced its way into the jail, tearing down doors and breaking windows. They pulled all six blacks from their cells. After a hasty mock trial, Clayton, Jackson, and McGhie were declared guilty and taken one block to a light pole on the corner of First Street and Second Avenue East. A few tried to dissuade the mob, but their pleas were in vain. The three men were beaten and then lynched, first Isaac McGhie, then Elmer Jackson, and lastly Elias Clayton.

The Minnesota National Guard arrived the next morning to secure Duluth and protect the three surviving black prisoners. These prisoners, along with ten additional black suspects from the circus, were moved under heavy guard to the St. Louis County jail.

Though the city’s streets were now calm, not everyone felt safe. Black residents stayed inside and locked their doors, fearful of further violence.

Outrage and Shock

The lynchings made headlines in newspapers throughout the country. Many were shocked such an atrocity happened in Minnesota, a northern state. The Chicago Evening Post opined, “This is a crime of a Northern state, as black and ugly as any that has brought the South in disrepute. The Duluth authorities stand condemned in the eyes of the nation.”1 An article in the Minneapolis Journal accused the lynch mob of putting “an effaceable stain on the name of Minnesota,” stating, “The sudden flaming up of racial passion, which is the reproach of the South, may also occur, as we now learn in the bitterness of humiliation in Minnesota.” 2