The Duluth Lynchings: A Rare Instance Of Lynching In The North

By | November 4, 2022

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Hangman's noose on black background. (Peter Dazeley/Getty Images)

We think of lynching as an act that exclusively occurred in the Jim Crow South, but unfortunately, it was much more widespread than that, both throughout the country and throughout time. Several lynchings took place in the North, including the killing of three black circus employees in Duluth, Minnesota in 1920.

The Circus Comes To Duluth

On June 14, 1920, 19-year-old Irene Tusken and 18-year-old Jimmie Sullivan attended the circus, and afterward, the two white teens watched the black circus workers load up the animals and take down the big top. That's all that's known for sure. After some sort of altercation between the couple and the circus employees, Sullivan went home and told his father that the men assaulted him and raped Tusken. The next morning, the elder Sullivan called the police, who rounded up about 150 black circus workers. Six were identified by the alleged victims as their attackers.

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Duluth circa 1900. (New York Public Library/Wikimedia Commons)

The Duluth Lynching

The Duluth rumor mill quickly went into overdrive after the local newspaper ran a story about the alleged assault and rape. Though most of the rumors, like that Tusken had died from her injuries, were unfounded, Duluth's predominantly white population was outraged enough to storm the city jail where the accused were being held. As many as 10,000 men broke down doors and busted out windows with bricks and heavy sticks to reach their cell while the police stood helplessly by, since the commissioner for public safety had banned them from using their firearms, ironically to protect the prisoners. All six men were pulled from their cells and into the street, where they were beaten by the mob and three of them—Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie—were hanged from a light pole, as the mob had decided they were the ones who had raped Tusken.