The 1920 Duluth Lynchings

June 14, 1920: This is a notorious case that needs no citations because of its aftermath. In Duluth, James Sullivan and Irene Tusken visit the John Robinson Circus. Early the next morning, Sullivanís father telephones the local police chief, John Murphy, and tells him his son and the girl had been held at gunpoint while she was raped by six circus workers. As the accused were black and the alleged victims were not, this was a recipe for mischief, even in a Northern state. Irene Tusken was examined by Dr David Graham, who would surely have found compelling evidence if she had indeed been gang-raped. When news leaked out, including the false claim that the girl had been seriously injured, three of the accused - Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie - were dragged from the local gaol by a lynch mob and murdered after a mock trial.

While there were convictions for the lynching, no meaningful sentences were handed down. Seven Negroes were indicted for the alleged rape; charges against five were dismissed. Of the two remaining, William Miller was acquitted; Max Mason was convicted and sentenced to serve seven to thirty years. Although his conviction was upheld on appeal, Miller was paroled in 1925 on condition he left the state. In view of the Draconian sentences handed down in the United States for aggravated rape to this very day, that speaks volumes for what the authorities really thought of his conviction, but after so much outrage, a scapegoat had to be found.


Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie were lynched because of this false rape allegation.

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