1920: Triple lynching in Duluth, Minnesota

6 comments June 15th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1920, a white mob perhaps 10,000 strong swarmed into the Duluth, Minn. jail and extracted three young African-American circus workers accused of gang-raping a white woman. Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie stood an immediate drumhead trial, then were lynched in the heart of Duluth as they vainly protested their innocence.

The self-congratulatory posed photograph of mob members with the bodies was made into a horrifying postcard, a frequent practice in lynch law America.


“What this looks like is the kind of photo you would see at a hunting lodge, where the guys had been out shooting bear, and they came back and they said, ‘We got three.’ You can see people on tip-toe. They’ve crowded into this shot. These are not people who are ashamed to be seen here. This is, ‘I want to be in this picture.'”

Michael Fedo, author of The Lynchings in Duluth

Nineteen-year-old Irene Tusker and her boyfriend James Sullivan had attended the one-day circus the evening before. What transpired that night remains unknown to this day: Irene eventually took the streetcar home without incident. Hours later, James Sullivan’s father claimed that the couple had been held at gunpoint by black carnies as Irene was gang-raped.

By the evening of the 15th, a vengeful mob had surrounded the police station/local lockup. Officers were ordered not to use deadly force against the townsfolk, so the battle to push into the premises was waged with brickbats against firehoses, and eventually with ineffectual pleas to let the law take its course.*

The incident drew nationwide reaction — usually condemnation (with a couple of exceptions). Occurring as it did in one of the continental states’ northernmost towns, it also underscored lynching as a nationwide problem rather than “merely” a southern one.

“Duluth has disgraced herself and has, by reason of her geographical position, disgraced the north,” the Cleveland Plain Dealer editorialized (June 17, 1920) — just one of innumerable newspaper editorials in the days following the Duluth outrage. “A city that has no more backbone than to submit to the rule of riot cannot be held blameless. But it will be surprising if Duluth and the state of Minnesota do not take steps to punish the murderers. The method of procedure was so deliberate and so brazenly open that identification and conviction of the ringleaders should be an easy matter.”

Brace for a surprise: according to the Minnesota Historical Society’s excellent site on the Duluth lynchings, only three whites served prison time (a shade over one year apiece) for rioting. Nobody was ever convicted for murdering Clayton, Jackson, or McGhie.

One black man, Max Mason, caught a long prison sentence for the supposed rape. He was paroled after five years on condition that he leave Minnesota for good.

“I was just short of nineteen the night that the bodies of McGhie, Jackson, and Clayton swung from a light pole in Duluth. I read the stories in the newspapers and put them down feeling sick, scared, and angry all at the same time. This was Minnesota, not Mississippi, but every Negro in the John Robinson Show had been suspect in the eyes of the police and guilty in the eyes of the mob … I found myself thinking of black people as a very vulnerable us — and white people as an unpredictable, violent them.”

-Minnesota-raised Roy Wilkins, the eventual director of the NAACP, in his autobiography (via)

The great-grandson of one of the lynch mob’s members wrote this book about the hangings’ legacy

The lynching was practically written out of the official state history most white children consumed at school in the middle part of the 20th century,** though the nine-year-old Lithuanian Jewish boy Abram Zimmerman who lived nearby the execution site later told his son all about it. Young Robert Allen Zimmerman tapped his father’s lynching stories under his subsequent nom de troubadour of Bob Dylan, and the Duluth atrocity is alluded to in Dylan’s “Desolation Row”.†

Latter-day Duluth has, to its credit, tried to manage something a little bit more overt.

In 2003, a monument commemorating Duluth’s moment of infamy was dedicated opposite the place where the young men were strung up and photographed. Minnesota Public Radio produced a series on the lynching during the construction of this monument which is still available online.


All images (cc) ArtStuffMatters. The photographer has a thoughtful recent blog post on the [dearth of] public lynch memorials in the United States.

* The law in Minnesota had no death penalty on the books, and still has none today.

** To be fair to the state, its immediate response did include passing anti-lynching legislation in 1921.

† “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.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Common Criminals,Crime,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Lynching,Minnesota,No Formal Charge,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Summary Executions,USA,Wrongful Executions

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Themed Set: The Ballad

8 comments July 5th, 2009 Headsman

The ballad and the scaffold go together like Jack and Ketch.

Narrative popular poetry, the ballad lyricizes precisely the sort of public spectacle and collective drama that brings the crowds to Tyburn. And with identifiable sub-genres like the murder ballad and the outlaw ballad, it only stands to reason that there’d be hanging ballads too.

It’s such a perfect marriage that balladeers hardly feel constrained to wait on flesh-and-blood hangings for inspiration but readily memorialize (frequently in the first-person voice of the doomed) a fictional, idealized crime where all the pathos and tragedy can be arranged just so.

Of course, it’s also the artist’s prerogative to just fictionalize real-life source material.

“Sam Hall,” for instance, was adapted in the mid-19th century from a ballad about the 1707 hanging of Jack Hallfinding in common between these two very different times “the social need to believe that it was possible to face death with such insouciance.”

If not all such rise to the literary level of, say, “The Ballad of the Hanged Man,” ballads’ demonstrable popular appeal has made them the metrical vehicle of choice for the crime du jour. Naturally, when the ballad opera conquered the stage, its first subject was the gallows-bound criminal underworld.

Whether commemorating doomed revolutionaries or doomed criminals, the ballad remains a part of our collective memory-shaping to give we who remain behind purchase on the timelessness of those launched into eternity.

Join Executed Today as we explore a few ballad-worthy events in the rich history of the death penalty.

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Entry Filed under: Themed Sets

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1881: Not Billy the Kid

6 comments May 13th, 2008 Headsman

“You will be hanged by the neck, Billy, until you are dead, dead, dead!”

“You can go, Judge, to hell, hell, hell!”

We have no source for whether William Bonney’s reply to the judge who sentenced him to hang was vindicated by the Almighty. But the judge’s sentence, due to be executed this day, assuredly never came to pass: two weeks before, Billy the Kid effected the last of his famous escapes.

The exploits of this legendary gunfighter — and his legend rather exceeds his exploits — are exhaustively chronicled online. The Manhattan-born Kid, a pup of 21 at his death, was a gunfighter in the Lincoln County War, a fight between two frontier magnates. Billy counted himself among the Regulators, a deputized posse (so it claimed, by way of legality) that was the armed militia of a murdered rancher.

Billy’s winning way with the press after his capture helped endear him to popular imagination, even after he was condemned in Mesilla, New Mexico for ambushing a lawman.

Here’s how Emilio Estevez played the crime in Young Guns:

On April 28, in a building that still stands in Lincoln, New Mexico, Bonney got the drop on one of his guards and high-tailed it out of town.

Though spared the ignominy of the gallows, Billy the Kid would not long outlive his judicially appointed hour. Lincoln County sheriff Pat Garrett found and killed the fugitive a few months later.

Ironically, this transaction darkened the reputation of the successful officer of the law — the circumstances of the killing were ambiguous, and seem less than honorable to some — while helping valorize the young outlaw who by all rights should long since have been at the end of a rope. And for this, maybe Billy’s shade has stood Garrett’s a drink or two, because a shadowy and youthful disappearance from the scene helped catapult Billy into folklore that has long outlasted the forgotten Lincoln County War.

Billy the Kid — even the name evokes the American self-image with perfect pitch — has come to so fully embody the floating signifiers of the Wild West, of America in its adolescence, that around the same time Bob Dylan composed “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” for the clip above (the 1973 film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), Billy Joel took the gunslinger for an all-purpose western motif in “The Ballad of Billy the Kid”. Joel’s song’s describes a life that seems to be just what the listener thinks it ought to be while remaining factually untrue of its titular character in almost every particular, including, in his version, a picturesque death by hanging:

The ballad form of romanticized narrative poetry suits our elusive subject well. Skip music and cinema a generation ahead and we have Guns n’ Roses covering “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and power balladeer par excellence Jon Bon Jovi climbing the charts with this signature hit from the Young Guns II soundtrack:

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Escapes,Famous,Gallows Humor,Hanged,History,Infamous,Murder,New Mexico,Not Executed,Notable Participants,Outlaws,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,USA

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