Case connected to Duluth lynchings up for review

A filled out form with signatures.
A notice to the warden of the state prison in Stillwater details the terms of Max Mason's discharge, granted with the provision that he leave the state immediately and return to his hometown of Decatur, Ala. Mason was convicted of sexually assaulting a young Duluth woman who claimed to have been raped by six black circus workers on June 14, 1920. The accusation led to the lynching of three black men by a mob of up to several thousand Duluth residents the next day.
Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

By Adelie Bergstrom via Duluth News Tribune

The Minnesota Board of Pardons on Monday is revisiting the case of a man convicted of raping a young woman nearly a century ago, leading to the lynching deaths of three black men in Duluth.

In 1924, the board denied Max Mason’s request for a pardon after his November 1920 conviction in the assault of Irene Tusken, 18, who claimed to have been assaulted by six black circus workers on June 14 of that year.

The alleged assault set in motion what became the most infamous day in Duluth's history.

Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie were dragged from the city jail and lynched by a mob of up to several thousand Duluth residents on June 15, the day after the alleged assault. Today, the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial marks the site of the lynchings at First Street and Second Avenue East.

The board is taking up a proposal at its meeting in St. Paul to allow advocates, lawyers and others representing Mason to posthumously apply for a pardon. Two members of the three-person board must agree for the proposal to move forward.

Mason, who was 21 at the time of the incident, was one of two black men arrested in connection with the alleged assault, though little evidence linked him to the crime. Tusken and her companion on the night of the circus, James T. Sullivan, identified the two men, but only by “voice and size,” according to News Tribune reports from the time.

The other man arrested, William Miller, 22, was acquitted in 1921. Charges against five other men in connection with the crime were later dropped.

A native of Decatur, Ala., Mason joined the John Robinson Circus when he was 18, after both his parents had died, according to documents from the Minnesota Historical Society. The circus was in West Duluth at the time of the alleged assault.

On June 16, a day after the lynchings, Mason and nine other black circus workers were arrested in Virginia, where the circus had continued its tour.

Mason was steadfast in asserting his innocence, stating that he had been working the night of the alleged assault. When St. Louis County Attorney Warren Greene suggested during a grand jury inquiry that Mason knew the identity of the true perpetrators, he denied any knowledge.

After a 40-day stay while Mason’s attorney crafted a motion for a new trial, Mason was sentenced to an indeterminate prison term of seven to 30 years. Mason’s appeal for a new trial was denied in July 1921, and he began serving his sentence at the state prison in Stillwater, Minn., on Aug. 9, 1921.

A further appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court was denied in June 1922.

Mason applied for a pardon in 1924 but was denied by the state. Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial leaders have sought a pardon for Mason given new evidence presented in the decades since his conviction.

In October, Attorney General Keith Ellison sought on Twitter to find members of Mason's family, but a spokesman on Friday said none had yet come forward.

The State Board of Parole released Mason in 1925 on the condition that he return to Alabama immediately and not return to Minnesota before 1941.

Tusken died in Duluth in 1996 at age 94, having never spoken about the lynchings or her alleged assault to family members.

Forum News Service reporter Dana Ferguson contributed to this story.

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