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.
General view of
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.
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.
police officers, 1919.
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
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.
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
Reverend William M. Majors of St.
Many citizens of Duluth were similarly outraged.
Dentist Milton W. Judy, a prominent black Duluthian wrote,
“Duluth has suffered a horrible disgrace, a blot on
its name that it can never outlive.”3
Clergymen, including Reverend William M. Majors of St. Marks
A.M.E., an important institution of the city’s black
community, spoke out against the lynchings, calling for the
severe punishment of the mob members. The Duluth Rip-Saw
strongly condemned the lynchings, advocating the “thorough
house-cleaning” and “elimination of every yellow
member” of the police department who had failed to protect
the blacks from the mob.4
Not everyone expressed regret. Despite
lacking evidence, some believed Irene Tusken was raped and
that the three victims, although never tried in court, were
guilty and deserving of their fate. The Ely Miner,
of nearby Ely, Minnesota claimed “while the thing was
wrong in principle, it was most effective and those who were
put out of their criminal existence by the mob will not assault
any more young girls.”5
The Mankato Daily Free Press, referring to the three
blacks as “beasts in human shape,” asserted the
triple lynching was advantageous to a fair trial: “Mad
dogs are shot dead without ceremony. Beasts in human shape
are entitled to but scant consideration. The law gives them
by far too much of an advantage.”6
From the Ely Miner, June
In Superior, Wisconsin, just across the bay,
the Acting Chief of Police declared, “We are going to
run all idle negroes out of Superior and they’re going
to stay out.”7 How
many were forced out is not certain, but all of the blacks
employed by a carnival in Superior were fired and told to
leave the city.