Crime, Law and Justice

Minn. grants state's first posthumous pardon to Max Mason, in case related to Duluth lynchings

Kim Green touches the names of the three men lynched in Duluth in 1920.
Duluth Native Kim Green touches the names of the three men lynched in Duluth in 1920 at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. on Friday, April 27, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Updated: 11:55 a.m.

Almost 100 years to the day after three black men were lynched in downtown Duluth, the state of Minnesota has pardoned the one man who was convicted in the alleged rape of a white woman that led to one of the darkest chapters in the city’s history. 

On Friday, the Minnesota Board of Pardons approved the posthumous pardon application of Max Mason, who served five years in prison after an all-white jury convicted him of the alleged crime.

It is the first posthumous pardon granted in Minnesota’s history, and comes at a time when the state is still reeling from the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, and as Minnesota and the rest of the country continue to grapple with issues of police violence and systemic racism. 

The pardon is “critical to the name of Max Mason and is also critical to our state,” said Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, a member of the three-person board — which also includes Gov. Tim Walz and state Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea.

Ellison said that the board has been considering the petition for Mason’s pardon for months, long before Floyd’s killing and the subsequent protests that rocked Minnesota and the nation. 

“This is not some last-moment attempt to be a balm or a salve to a 100-year-old injustice,” he said.

The pardon comes just three days before the 100-year anniversary of the day a mob broke Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Issac McGhie out of the city jail and lynched them from a downtown light post, in connection with the alleged rape. Along with Mason, the three men were traveling workers in a circus that was visiting Duluth. 

“There is a direct line between what happened with Max Mason, and Clayton, Jackson and McGhie,” said Gov. Walz. 

“There is a direct line with what happened to George Floyd in the streets of Minneapolis,” he said, citing the state’s inability to “address this stain on the soul of our state.” 

The pardon application noted that Mason, “a poor African-American laborer from the South, was convicted of raping a white woman by an all-white Duluth jury in the 1920s based on the flimsiest of evidence.” 

It argued that “Minnesota and Duluth cannot fully heal from the lynching of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie until ‘the other wrong arising from the horrors of those events’ is recognized and righted by the pardon of Mason.”

Several former Pardons Board members, including former Govs. Mark Dayton, Tim Pawlenty and Arne Carlson, as well as former state attorney general and U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale, signed a joint letter in support of granting a pardon, writing that the “lynchings and circumstances giving rise to them were a stain on the history of Minnesota and do not reflect who we are as a state.”

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

Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken also supported the pardon. It was his great-aunt, Irene Tusken, who made the allegation that led to Mason’s arrest, and to the lynchings. 

Tusken told the board that a pardon was critical in the wake of the killing of George Floyd to “begin the healing.” 

‘A history that doesn’t go away’

On June 14, 1920, Max Mason arrived in Duluth with a traveling circus. He was 21 at the time, from Decatur, Ala. 

The next day, 19-year-old Irene Tusken alleged that she had been raped by traveling circus workers while she was leaving the grounds with a friend after dark. 

Police promptly arrested several black circus workers, including Mason. Mason was released after Tusken couldn’t confirm that any of the men were her alleged assailants. But 13 other men were taken to the Duluth jail. 

Later that night, a mob of white men broke into the jail, kidnapped Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Issac McGhie, and dragged them up the hill to the intersection of First Street and Second Avenue East, where they lynched the men from a street light. 

The next day, Mason was arrested again, and after a jury found him guilty of rape, he was sentenced to 30 years in prison. 

Mason always maintained his innocence, and twice applied to have his sentence commuted or pardoned — in 1922 and again in 1924. The St. Louis County Attorney admitted that Mason would likely not have been convicted “if he had been a white man,” but his requests for pardon were denied. 

In asking for Mason’s pardon Friday, attorney Jerry Blackwell, who submitted the application, said that Mason, along with Clayton, Jackson and McGhie, paid with their freedom, and their lives, based on “an implausible claim” and “the fortuity of being born black, and passing through Duluth at the wrong time.” 

“I’m talking about a history that doesn't go away until it is set right,” he said. “Max Mason’s story is a part of the Duluth tragedy story. And it is a history that does not go away until it is set right.” 

The organizers of a day of remembrance to honor Clayton, Jackson and McGhie have postponed in-person celebrations until 2021.