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Excerpts from The Lynchings in Duluth:
From the Preface
During the first quarter of the twentieth century, lynch law was a common occurrence in the United States. During 1920, sixty-five persons were lynched. Of these, fifty-seven were Black men, and one was a Black woman.
The incident drawing the most notoriety that year occurred June 15 when a mob estimated at between five thousand and ten thousand persons stormed the jail in Duluth, Minnesota, and lynched three Blacks accused of raping a White girl. This is the story of that tragedy.
The characters in this book are real people, and the events and incidents in which they were involved actually happened.
While most of the dialogue used here is exactly what was spoken, there are a few instances where, for the purpose of continuity and smoother reading, or where the exact words were not recorded or remembered, dialogue has been created from documented indirect quotations. In these instances, however, every effort has been made to accomplish this in a manner entirely in character with the persons concerned.
Sources upon which this book is based are numerous. Because this subject still evokes intense feelings among many Duluthians, I have agreed not to publish names of certain persons interviewed during the preparation of the manuscript.
Among those consulted who asked for anonymity were a member of the Max Mason jury, a retired Duluth patrolman on duty during the riot, a man acquitted of rioting charges, a witness at the Leonard Hedman trial, the son of a local judge, the daughter-in-law of a grand jury member, a Duluth attorney whose father was contacted by Hedman's defense, and dozens of eye witnesses to the lynchings.
Also interviewed for this book were Howard Loraas, a retired police officer who was acquainted with many of the officers on duty during the riot; Dr. Maude Lindquist, professor of history emeritus at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, who knew both Bobby Walsh and Sandra Teale; Veronica Olson, daughter of Sgt. Oscar Olson; the Rev. Joseph Cashen, who provided biographical information about both the Rev. William Powers and the Rev. P. J. Maloney who tried to prevent the mob from taking the prisoners; William Maupins Jr., a former president of the Duluth NAACP; Wallace Rodney, Franklin Cox, and Eddie Nichols. There were many others who talked with me, but they merely corroborated evidence, or their information was not substantial enough for inclusion within this book.
The names Sandra Teale and Robert Walsh are fictitious. Because of the freedom needed to accurately tell the story, and to use certain statements by persons who knew "Sandra Teale" and "Bobby Walsh," it was necessary to create names for these two individuals who first told authorities that a rape had occurred. Both "Sandra Teale" and "Robert Walsh" are dead. All other names are factual.
Of special value were the newspapers of the times, most notably the Duluth Herald and Duluth News Tribune, from June 15, 1920, through December 31 of that year. Nearly every day, some mention of the lynchings or arrests and trial reports was found in one or both of those daily papers. The Minneapolis Journal and St. Paul Pioneer Press from June 16 through June 30, 1920, also provided background information and data that was intentionally, or inadvertently, omitted from Duluth newspapers. Also consulted and quoted were the Mankato (Minnesota) Daily Free Press, the Chicago Tribune, the Ely (Minnesota) Miner, the New York Times, and Duluth Ripsaw.
Carol Jenson's article, "Loyalty as a Political Weapon: the 1918 Campaign in Minnesota," published in the Summer, 1972, issue of Minnesota History magazine, provided background information on the Public Safety Commission, as did discussions with Jon Willand, a Minnesota historian and instructor at the North Hennepin Community College.
A pictorial booklet, Mob Violence, published in 1920 by the Duluth Publishing Company, is a review of the lynching.
More detailed information is contained in the State of Minnesota Historical Society archives, particularly the files of Gov. J. A. A. Burnquist, in which is found the interview between Detective Morgan and Sandra Teale, as well as other matters pertinent to Morgan's investigation. The Governor's files also held interviews and findings of Gen. W. F. Rhinow's investigation, including letters and telegrams from Duluthians, James Weldon Johnson of the NAACP, and others representing Black concerns.
The archives are also the source for transcripts of the Max Mason trial, found in the files of the State Supreme Court. Material in the files of the Public Safety Commission also proved useful.
From Chapter 1
|Superior Street, Duluth, 1917.|
Gloom was a perpetual state of mind in Duluth where the city was frequently shrouded in gray. Spring mornings were ushered in by the mournful groans of a fog horn, announcing yet another day of damp chill, possible rain or, perhaps, a June snow.
But, it wasn't weather troubling Police Chief John Murphy on this Sunday afternoon, June 13, 1920. He was upset over his deteriorating relationship with the city's Commissioner of Public Safety, William Murnian. Murphy had picked up rumblings of Murnian's dissatisfaction with the way Murphy was running the department. And the directive from Murnian ordering Murphy to report to the showgrounds in West Duluth to confer with the parade manager of the John Robinson Circus to determine the route the parade would take on its 9 a.m. Monday run through downtown, was viewed by Murphy as harassment.
This was not an assignment normally forced upon a police chief. There were plenty of sergeants who could easily handle it, but Murnian was insistent. It would be an appropriate public relations gesture, according to the Commissioner, but Murphy knew better. It was simply a way of letting him know that Murnian, and perhaps the other commissioners too, wanted him out.
As almost an afterthought, Murnian had called and reminded Murphy that it might be wise if the Chief suggested that the circus people kept their "niggers" in line.
The Chief knew that there had been trouble over some Black employees in the circus. After the Robinson show left its home base in Peru, Indiana, in April, some Black workers had been accused of assaulting a White girl. But they had been fired. In a way, Murphy perhaps understood the Commissioner's concern--what Duluth didn't need was trouble with Blacks. Not that there had been problems in the past, but city officials had sensed the growing undercurrent of animosity among many White citizens. Ever since U.S. Steel, the city's largest employer, began importing Black field hands from Southern plantations to work at the mill, and thereby quelling strike threats by White workers, an uneasy tension existed--especially in the Western sectors of the city where the mill was located, and where most of the city's Blacks resided.
Still, the Chief perceived his latest directive as a forewarning of problems ahead. It had to be thus, for Murnian, while publicly defending the force, had privately come down hard on it after a recent incident that saw Lt. Frank Schulte shoot and kill Eli Vuckidonyich, a suspected liquor smuggler. It didn't matter that Vuckidonyich had tried to run down Schulte with his car; the lieutenant should have used more discretion, Murnian said. The Chief felt that Murnian held him personally accountable.
During the past week, rumors had begun filtering back to the Chief implying that Vuckidonyich was killed because he was muscling-in on a major rum-running operation led by the Chief who was supplying Canadian whiskey to prominent local citizens. (The rumor would later result in a Grand Jury investigation that would indict the Chief on charges of smuggling and bootlegging.)
But harassment or not, the Chief had his orders, and he carried them out. At 3:30 that afternoon, Murphy checked out a car from the downtown police headquarters at Second Avenue East and Superior Street, and drove to the Omaha yards in West Duluth where the crews were unloading circus equipment.
He spent nearly thirty minutes reviewing the parade route with the circus manager, and discovered at the same time that the circus employed about one hundred and twenty Blacks as cooks and roustabouts. He received assurances that the Blacks were quiet and mannerly, and would pose no problems for Duluth police.
The Chief told the manager that, perhaps, it would be best if circus Blacks avoided going downtown or hanging around the West Duluth streets. Murphy emphasized that there was a bunch of toughs around who did not care for Blacks.
Though he didn't mention it, Murphy no doubt felt that if a group of Blacks came swarming into the city, bitterness toward the slowly expanding Black community in Duluth would intensify, especially if the Blacks ran into some of the World War I veterans from West Duluth.
From Chapter 3
In the years prior to World War I, Duluth was a city where race relations had never surfaced in open hostilities. There had been occasional veiled threats when members of the Ku Klux Klan held cross burnings, but few White Duluthians could honestly feel intimidated by local Blacks.
But, they, along with other Minnesotans and, indeed, many Americans, did feel threatened. The war era provoked a "red scare" which prompted nation-wide witch hunts and accusations against any suspected disloyal elements. Millions of Americans believed ugly rumors about an imminent "red revolution" erupting in the United States.
Minnesotans keenly felt the hysteria and hatred toward anything smacking of socialism or radicalism, because their state had experienced both the socialistic arguments of Arthur C. Townley's Nonpartisan League, as well as the right-wing, patriotic haranguing from the notorious Commission of Public Safety.
Townley, a bankrupt North Dakota farmer and political organizer, founded the Nonpartisan League, which gave rise to socialistic leanings among many upper Midwest farmers. The league was often linked to Bolshevism by political and business interests; Minnesota Governor J. A. A. Burnquist accused the league's leadership of being connected with "lawless I. W. W. red socialists, and pacifists."
So, in April, 1917, when Gov. Burnquist urged the legislature to consider a strong bill against anti-Americanism, the Minnesota Sedition Act was approved a full two months before Congress enacted similar federal legislation. This bill made it illegal to print, publish, circulate or advocate in public before more than five persons, that men should not enlist in the armed forces, or that citizens should not aid or assist the government in carrying on the war. These forbidden activities extended significantly to the Nonpartisan League.
The legislature also created the Commission for Public Safety on April 16, 1920, which granted broad power to ". . . do all acts and things not-inconsistent with the Constitution or laws of the state of Minnesota, or the U. S., which are necessary and proper for the public safety and for the protection of life and public property or private property."
Though its life was less than two years, there can be little doubt that the Commission fostered ideas and philosophies that endured generations beyond the existence of the agency. Created independent of any state department, the Commission moved to establish county organizations similar to the state structure to "protect itself against those at home whose behavior tends to weaken the war capacity." Its implied powers were so far-reaching that the seven-man unit was eventually held to be unconstitutional, but its extra-legal authorities went virtually uncontested during its reign. Its chief counsel, Ambrose Tighe, said that its preventive force made it unnecessary to wait for disloyalty to disrupt. Prior restraint, in direct violation of Constitutional guarantees, was common. And the state's attorney general, Lyndon Smith, said, "While the courts are ordinarily the law's agent for law enforcement, they are not under the constitution, a necessary factor."
Given this inordinate range of interpreting the law and the Constitution, the agency encouraged citizen reporting of disloyal activities, and moved to have the teaching of German removed from public schools. In one case, the Commission removed the elected mayor of the town of New Ulm from office after he had advocated that volunteer soldiers, rather than draftees, be sent into combat.
But much Commission activity centered on squelching the Nonpartisan League. While law enforcement officers looked the other way, or even participated directly in the suppression of free speech, speakers were beaten, tarred and feathered, and otherwise harassed and threatened under the blanket protection of patriotic outbursts which were allowable. Some speakers or organizers of the League were routinely thrashed by some sheriffs who further encouraged citizens to act against these dangerous elements in Minnesota. The notion was prevalent that citizens could act with impunity against what they perceived as socialistic, "red," or disloyal acts, without fear of official reprisal.
An interesting sidelight to the confrontations between the Commission and the League is that the League's supported gubernatorial candidate, Charles A. Lindbergh, Sr., father of the aviator, was banned from speaking in Duluth in 1918.
The intolerance, openly and tacitly approved by the Commission, took forms of hatred toward Catholics, Jews, and Blacks.
When the war ended, Blacks thought that because of their efforts and sacrifices, they had won their place with full rights in American society. This stirring of independence, however, was feared by White America, in the North and South alike. And Whites believed that while Bolshevism was bad, a greater threat might come from Blacks getting out of hand.
Lothrop Stoddard, a popular lecturer and writer, stated that dark-skinned races constituted a worse threat to Western civilization than either the Germans or the "Reds." And millions believed him.
It was in this climate, then, a time of economic uncertainty, a time when people were polarized along lines of intense patriotism, or pressing for social reform, a time when racial and religious distrust was on the rise, that volatile clashes were not only possible, but inevitable.
And in Duluth, the number of Blacks had been increasing, although slowly. Some Whites became alarmed at the rising Black population, viewing it as a potential problem to be carefully observed in coming years.
On the other hand, many well-to-do Whites in the city welcomed the influx of more Blacks. Cheap domestic labor was not an easy commodity there, and the grand large homes and private clubs were in constant need of help, routinely assigned to Black workers.
Several dozen Duluth Blacks, by 1916, were Haitians who came to the city with status akin to indentured servants. Their passage had been paid by Duluth Whites whom they were to serve until this "debt" was paid in full. A servile group, many of whom spoke only pidgin English, they often were not aware of their rights under the law, and thus stayed on at slave wages with patrons for years.
Though Blacks native to Northern Minnesota were few, they vividly recalled that racial incidents seldom occurred until after the war. Black veterans returning from overseas duty in France found that movie theaters they used to frequent without interference now admitted them only if they sat in the last two rows or the front three.
Among long-time Black residents, however, the years prior to the war and the return of the veterans signaled at least mildly uncertain times ahead in relations with the White majority. Much of this uneasiness could be traced to the strike-breaking tactics of U.S. Steel which imported Blacks to maintain the hourly wage for all workers at twenty-five cents. Perhaps upwards of a hundred Southern Blacks were recruited by the company from plantations to work at the Duluth mill. It was not a difficult decision for the Blacks to leave their homes. The offered wage more than doubled their present ten-cent dole, so they came north with the promise of employment at good pay.
Tuesday morning, June 15,1920--Duluthians bringing in their morning News Tribunes from the porch and settling over coffee and breakfast, found no mention of the alleged assault on Sandra Teale. On the front page they read a syndicated political column by Ring Lardner, and also learned that because Republican presidential nominee Warren G. Harding had decided not to relinquish his Senate seat until his term expired, Gov. Cox of Ohio could not appoint a Democrat to fill the post.
Tuesday, like Monday, was generally cloudy, and a few sprinkles fell early in the day, freshened by north to northwest winds. But the sky cleared by mid-afternoon, and Duluthians began experiencing the first summery weather of the season, when the thermometer peaked at seventy-six degrees. Even by noon, most residents still hadn't heard that anything out of the ordinary may have happened in town Monday night. But word was out in West Duluth, and reaction to it was predictably hostile.
Meanwhile, Police Chief John Murphy had risen shortly before 11 a.m. from a fretful dozing. The crime and subsequent investigation had played heavily on his mind; he could not rest. He must also have been thinking that if the case could be quickly solved, it might buy time, and focus attention on his positive achievements. He undoubtedly feared eventual indictment on the rum-running charge, but believed a successful completion of this sordid incident could establish a firm defense; certainly, a good job on so volatile a crime would gain him favor with local citizens. What must have particularly troubled the Chief, too, was how Commissioner Murnian was going to react.
From Chapter 9
|During the night of Tuesday, June 15, 1920, a mob of between five and ten thousand persons stormed the jail, dragged out three of the six Blacks held there for investigation of rape, and murdered them.|
From his Michigan Street office, Fred Beecher heard the mob's screaming and hooting increase, and his feelings dissolved into thoughts that there probably would be a lynching in the city. He left the office and arrived at the police station around 9:30 p.m. By this time the demolition of headquarters had begun, while an almost endless crowd poured through the entrance and filled the Superior Street hallway.
Maintaining the resolute bearing of a military commander, Beecher sidled through the crowd, brushing against many men, surreptitiously running his hands against coat pockets. Though a few seemed to have handguns, Beecher still believed that for a mob of this size it was extremely orderly. And he wondered why police were unable to control such a mob.
He observed many who were tossing bricks or plying crowbars to doors, and paused to explain what they were doing to newsmen or other bystanders. And though boisterous, the mob impressed Beecher as one that would probably not wantonly kill innocent men. Still, a mob is totally unpredictable. Angry now, but with appropriate stimulation, the mob's anger could quickly turn to maddened frenzy.
Beecher was uncertain what action he'd personally take at this point, when he heard someone holler, "We better get in there and get 'em quick. Or they'll have the National Guard out here!" Beecher dashed away and tried to find a telephone. But none was in service near headquarters, so he ran back to his own office and asked the long-distance operator if she knew whether troops had been called. She replied that such information was confidential and could not be released. Beecher identified himself as a major with the Fourth Field Artillery; the operator connected him with her supervisor who told him no troops had been summoned.
Beecher placed calls to the state Adjutant General, W. F. Rhinow, and to Maj. Harry Brady, Col. George Leach, and Col. Harry Bellows. Brady, Leach, and Bellows were former associates of Beecher's in Minneapolis; Bellows, Beecher's former commanding officer, was an expert on riot control tactics. Leach, who the next year would be elected as a conservative mayor of Minneapolis, advised Beecher that city officials must first formally request assistance before the Guard could step in. Leach suggested that Rhinow be informed, and Beecher said he had already called the General but couldn't reach him. In the meantime, Beecher asked, was there anything that could be done?
Leach wasn't sure, but told Beecher to keep close watch on developments. Then, at 9:55 p.m., Gen. Rhinow, on duty at the state encampment at Ft. Snelling, returned Beecher's call and repeated what Leach had said about city officials having to make formal request for troops. Beecher contacted Sheriff Magie who joined him at the Michigan Street office, and the two phoned Gen. Rhinow. Rhinow ordered Beecher on active duty, and said troops would be up on the first available train. Beecher assured the General that he would take charge of making necessary arrangements for the troop arrival in Duluth; then he and the Sheriff hurried back to the jail.
Though the mob continued pouring into the jail, a young photographer was allowed to set up his tripod in order to photograph the event. But when Magie and Beecher arrived on the scene, the photo session broke up. "All over, Sheriff," someone hollered. "Might as well go home to bed."
|When one segment of the mob was unable to break down the cell door fast enough, another segment broke through the wall.|
Beecher and Magie forced their way through the crowd at the jail door where they saw a group of men hammering against the cell-room door. The mob around them chanted, "Ho--ho--ho--" with each ring of the hammers. Murnian was standing unobtrusively near this scene, and was spotted by Magie. The Sheriff tried to get the Commissioner's attention, and he called, "What should we be doing?" But Murnian did not seem to notice the Sheriff, and melted into the mob.
"They got more of the Black bastards up to Virginia!" a young man shouted. "What are we waiting for?" another yelled. "Let's get up there."
Magie panicked. The prisoners were in custody of his deputies. Magie picked his way through the mob and returned to his office at the county jail, and phoned Virginia to warn of a possible contingent from Duluth coming up to get the remaining Blacks. He was told that Murphy had already taken four prisoners with him back to Duluth, leaving for the city shortly after 8 p.m. However, six Blacks were still in the Virginia jail, and were to be escorted down on the morning train.
"Be careful," warned Magie. "These people mean business."
Deputies in the small town of Virginia anticipated a nightmare. Within the hour, a rumor filtered through the population that a caravan of fifty cars, loaded with armed men, was headed for Virginia to take the rest of the Blacks. Law enforcement personnel there numbered fewer than a dozen, and the likelihood of citizens assisting the law officers in such an occurrence looked doubtful; nobody was going to stick his neck out for "niggers"--maybe not even the officers. Said one of the deputies, "We'll post a watch on the Vermilion Road, and say our prayers."
The mob working at the Duluth jail maintained such remarkable order that many observers would later believe the incident had been a well-planned attack by Wobblies from the IWW, or even the Communists.
Attorney Hugh McClearn, a raspy-voiced rustic, a favorite among his peers for his wit and charm, had stayed at the scene after Judges Cant and Fesler left. As hammers rang and saws whined and screeched, almost muted by the crowd's increasing bedlam, McClearn mounted a rickety stepladder in the stifling hallway. His gray-streaked hair matted with sweat, McClearn clutched a sweat-dampened handkerchief, and pleaded with the mob to stop.
Gradually, the disenchanted mutterings ceased, but not before two men attempted to shake McClearn from the ladder. Edward McDevitt, an assistant county attorney, angrily shoved the two away, and steadied the ladder. Though the work of hammers continued, the hundreds packed into the cell hall listened to McClearn.
"Give the courts a chance to administer justice according to the law," he cried, his voice cracking. "Sgt. Olson says there are six niggers here. Three of the men the police have no dope on at all. They may be absolutely innocent."
"If we get the ropes, we'll find the guilty ones soon enough!" someone retorted.
McClearn steadied himself on the ladder. The temperature in the hallway had risen to over ninety degrees, and the stench of sweat was all pervasive. "Men, I--"
"We don't care if they are guilty or innocent!" a man yelled. "Kill the black snakes!"
"Wait!" McClearn pleaded, his hands over his head, waving for silence, but he could not hear his own voice above the renewed clamoring. "Look boys, I'm as indignant about the attack on the girl as you are. But the proper thing to do is to leave the law take its course."
The mob quieted after someone shouted, "You a lawyer, mister?"
"Yes, I am."
"We don't have no electric chair or hanging in Minnesota, ain't that right?"
Sadly, the lawyer shook his head. "No, but--"
"Then what happens to the niggers, lawyer?"
McClearn would remember he'd have given anything at that moment to be able to tell the mob that conviction for rape meant death or even life in prison. He would later say that if the men could have been assured of that, they may well have ceased. But after he struggled for a deep breath, he said, "If they're convicted, they'll get five to thirty years."
"To hell with the law!" screamed several dozen men. And McClearn was roughly pulled from the ladder. McDevitt, however, mounted the ladder and started a brief speech, asking the men to use reason, telling them that they, themselves, would have to stand trial for what they were doing.
"No red-blooded man would convict anyone here tonight!" a middle-aged man screamed, shoving the ladder.
Then Oscar Olson climbed the ladder, the steps sagging under his great weight. He spotted a man. "Look, fellow," he began, his voice reduced to slightly more than a whisper. "We don't even know if we got the right Negroes. That circus had nearly two hundred of them, and we arrested thirteen. And the girl and her young man couldn't identify a single one."
"The girl might be dead."
"Let's wait ten minutes and check it out," Olson argued. "Ten minutes!"
"No! She's in critical condition if she isn't already dead."
Olson reached toward the young man. "They listen to you. Speak for law and order. Tell them to go home."
Instead, the reply Olson received was that the men wanted justice done, and someone, then a lot of someones, shouted, "Let's go! Let's go!"
From Chapter 10
Water was running ankle-deep over the Superior Street floor of the jail as the mob and officers sloshed through it. Their bodies were pressed together in frenzied, frenetic movement, and men fell and were trampled by the mass rushing through. The heat and stench overcame some, and they vomited where they fell.
Several more officers simply retired to the basement to tend minor wounds, and were joined by Oscar Olson, who moments earlier had been threatened with lynching himself for interfering with the mob. "Jeez, Oscar," moaned one of the men, "you done the best you could."
But Olson was not ready to quit. "Come on, boys," he urged, clapping a raw hand on a young patrolman's shoulder. "We'll run out the back way, up the hill and take the hose away from the mob."
The men regarded their haggard sergeant in glassy-eyed silence, and shook their heads. The man was crazy, they must have thought. For one hundred and fifteen dollars a month, a man risks his life for a bunch of niggers? Not for a lousy one hundred and fifteen dollars, he doesn't, not when he's supposed to be fighting White men--men of his own race. It just didn't make sense.
Olson tried again to encourage his men, then heaved a helpless shrug when the men failed to respond. They had tried. They did their duty. Now they were tired. Tired and defeated. None could look at Olson as he went back upstairs to continue efforts to halt the onslaught.
Herman Toewe, a detective who never shunned a brawl, an officer who occasionally challenged the man he was arresting to slug it out, a man who prided himself on never having used his gun, and who boasted he hadn't met the man he couldn't take with his fists, had, with other officers, flinched in the face of the mob's attack. It wasn't right, he obviously reasoned, to fight your own kind.
But around 10 p.m., when he noticed four men heading for the detectives' office, known as the Bertillon Room, he was quick to act. The Bertillon Room was the private sanctuary of detectives, the elite of the Duluth force. And Toewe was proud of being a detective. It always gave him a special lift to pass the desk out front where the uniformed boys sipped coffee from mugs and spilled crumbling sandwiches in their laps, and stroll into the efficient tranquility of the Bertillon Room.
Now the mob meant to go in and muddy that room, and perhaps turn the hose on it. But not while Herm Toewe was around. "Hey!" he shouted, "There's nobody in there!"
"We'll see for ourselves!" a man said.
Toewe, being hopelessly outnumbered, and not desiring combat now, tried to hold his ground. "Look, if you'll detail one man, I'll take him in here and turn on the lights and leave him to look around to satisfy you there are no niggers in there." The men agreed.
Cautiously, Toewe inserted the key in the lock and allowed the representative inside, slipping in behind him, and snapping on the lights. The delegate glanced around. Toewe was no doubt pleased the floor still held a trace of shine. "Okay," the man said finally. "Thanks."
"It's okay," Toewe said, and as they left, he carefully relocked the door.
Lt. Barber had also been threatened with lynching. He was told that while the mob was only after the "niggers," they'd take "nigger-lovers," too. And another man approached Barber with a hammer, and snarled. We're going to lynch those niggers. What would you do if it was your sister?"
Barber backed off, went outside, and tried speaking to women in the crowd, asking them to help him persuade husbands and boyfriends to leave. He noticed baby carriages and dozens of young children prancing about. Other youngsters were being held aloft on shoulders of parents for a better look. And the officer was aghast that adults would bring children to such a spectacle.
Caught in a momentary reverie, perhaps due to extreme exhaustion, Barber felt he was no longer part of the struggle, and seemed to be more of an outside observer. But the sharp explosion of the mob's hose brought him back to reality when it struck him full in the face. He couldn't see for a moment as his eyes rapidly swelled.
He started back inside, pushing through the crowd. He stepped inside the door and fell, his strength sapped by heat, humidity, and the battering he'd absorbed. The stink of his wet wool uniform rose to his nostrils and he fought a swoon before being lifted by several young men and again pinned against a wall.
10:20 p.m., Tuesday, June 15, 1920--Despite the deeply rooted fundamentalist religious faith of many Southern Blacks, none of the arrested circus employees had previously espoused any faith. Now, however, one--Isaac McGhie--tried. Almost oblivious to the quiet terror of his mates, McGhie rocked back and forth on his knees, tears rolling down his cheeks. "Help me, Jesus . . . help me, Jesus. Lord Jesus, please help me," he pleaded hysterically. The other prisoners neither looked to Jesus, nor anywhere else for help. There was among them now, an increased apprehension of doom.
From Chapter 11
Cursing groups of men parted in diverting streams, circling about the cells. "Where are they?" men were shouting, upon first believing the cells were empty. "They up to county jail?"
Apparently the attack on the building had resulted in a partial power failure, for there was no electricity in the cell room, and the first wave of searchers was not equipped with flares.
"Police have lied to us!" several shouted, giving the first indication that perhaps some officers had cooperated with the mob by telling the men that the prisoners were locked in cells in the jail.
"We'll find the niggers if we have to go to hell for them!" another shouted, and the rush pressed on throughout the cell room.
After about five minutes, a flare was struck, briefly illuminating the corridor with an eery red brilliance, but its carrier fell, and the flare was doused by the inch-deep water on the floor.
Four other police officers, meanwhile, started for the cell room, hoping to assist Lt. Barber, but the mob turned on them, taking up the cry, "Crowd them out! Crowd them out!" These police were quickly surrounded by the jostling mass which pushed them back to the cell room entrance. And Lt. Barber, released as the crowd began the search of cells, continued his plea. "Stop this before you murder innocent men!"
"We don't care if they are innocent or not!" someone yelled, showering spittle in the officer's face.
One man, however, thought to take a closer look. He shoved through to the first cell, peered in, straining to accustom his eyes to the darkness. He started to back away in disgust, but lurched forward again, discovering a human form rolled into a bundle, huddled in the dark next to the wall on the floor beneath the cot. "There's one!" he cried, and immediately the crowd was at the cell, battering and sawing through the bars in a frantic effort to reach the prisoner.
The prisoner was nineteen-year-old Loney Williams. But the maddened mob kept on hammering and cursing, and Williams finally crawled from his hiding place and sat on his cot, cradling his head in his hands. His lips formed a silent prayer before he vomited.
The mob crushed forward, though this pressure hindered its progress on the cell bars. Still, there was a willingness to assist within the mob, and as one man became fatigued from pounding or sawing, another was quick to take his place.
Above the din, Lt. Barber, tears streaming from his eyes, cried out, "You are going to be sorry for this night's work! These men would be punished by the law! You are doing wrong! Stop, before it's too late!" But, instead, the mob redoubled its efforts. Several from the mob with whom Barber was acquainted, went to him and tried convincing him that his work was no use. "It's out of the hands of police," one told him.
"But I am responsible for these men," he half-sobbed. "The chief is at Virginia, the chief of detectives, the captain--all of them are with him. I am in charge here and I'm going to prevent this if I can." But Barber was only talking to himself. None in the mob was listening, and the cry arose again, "Get 'em! Kill the black sons of bitches!"
Upstairs in the boys' division, Isaac McGhie was found and removed from his cell, absorbing a vicious beating by the mob as he was shoved downstairs and placed in custody of mob leaders. McGhie, as he was thrown against a wall and pummeled once more, spit out a tooth and gingerly covered a broken nose. He stood for a moment, petrified at the fury of the mob, and for the first time since infancy, he urinated in his pants.
"We've got 'em now," chorused the crowd as William's cell was hammered in. By this time, the other prisoners had been discovered, and their cells were under attack. Slowly, the Blacks crawled from beneath cots and sat on them, dolefully regarding the mob.
McGhie began to wring his hands. His gold-filled teeth flashed in the glancing light of flares, and his eyes rolled wretchedly. "Oh, God, oh, God--oh God," he repeated. "I am only twenty years old. I have never done anything wrong. I swear I didn't. Oh, God, my God, help me."
Another prisoner, Elmer Jackson, stood beside his cot and observed with apparent curiosity the vigorous attempts to open his cell, first by battering at the hinges, then at the lock and finally on the trap door overhead through which prisoners were fed. The mob was frenzied now, and while they managed to rip several bars and fastenings, they couldn't make a large enough opening fast enough to suit those mob members behind them. Several fist fights erupted within the mob as men tried to assume direction of the break-in.
Another prisoner, John Thomas, stood at his cell door and argued with the mob. "Nobody here done nothin'," he said calmly as the crowd pushed close and tried to reach him through the bars with hands and chisels.
"You niggers'll swing! Every damn one of you!" they cried.
Thomas stood further back in his cell, his arms folded over his chest. "We ain't done nothin'," he insisted again.
The mob backed off Thomas's cell as the chorus of cheers exploded two cells down. The cell of nineteen-year-old Elias Clayton had been forced open, and two men entered and punched Clayton to the floor, but others pulled them back. McGhie was dragged into Clayton's cell, and three Whites stood guard, keeping others away from the prisoners. "We're going to find out which nigger's guilty!" one man shouted. "The rest of you stay back. We want to be fair!"
A weird semblance of order unfolded when several more Whites were allowed into the cell, while another three were posted outside with orders to keep everyone back until the examination was completed. "We'll get to the bottom of this!" called one of the vigilante jurors. Inside the cell, along with the Blacks and several other Whites, were Nate Natelson, Hank Stephenson, and John Burr.
The roaring of the mob was subsiding as other Blacks were removed from their cells and herded into the one cell where the "trial" was about to begin. The six Blacks, beaten and bloodied, viewed the swarm of hostile faces from the cramped, humid cell. As one tried to turn toward the mob, he was punched, his head slamming into cell bars.
Orders were randomly barked at the confused, battered prisoners. "Turn around when we're talking to you."
"Now, which one of you did it? Out with it--"
"Who was the one with the gun?"
"Come on, talk--damn you!"
The prisoners, dazed, unable to respond, could only stare at the inquisitors, perhaps not even comprehending the bizarre horror crashing about them. "Never mind the questions--let's just kill these niggers!" someone hollered.
"The militia will be here before we can hang 'em."
"Okay, we want only the guilty man," shouted one of the jurors. "So, who did it?"
"So help me, God, I did nothing and I know nothing," screamed a weeping Isaac McGhie. And the rest of the Blacks desperately denied any guilt or even knowledge of who might have been involved. "The miserable black savages are lying," men shouted.
It became impossible for "investigators" to obtain connected stories from the prisoners since the noise prohibited coherence. And the impatience of the hundreds in the cell room could no longer be suppressed.
John Burr, who found his early opposition to the attack on the jail dissolving during the passionate heat of mob activity, began to realize the tragic wrong taking place. From his vantage point inside the cell, he vowed that at least no innocent Black would be seized.
Loney Williams, whose bland expression seemed to convey a touch of arrogance, was the only Black wearing polished brown boots. Many in the mob pressed toward him, reaching through the bars, grasping at him, shouting, "Give us boots . . . Give us boots!" But Burr jumped in front of Williams and tried to calm the mob. "No, leave him be. This boy has a good story," Burr shouted. Williams stationed himself directly behind Burr, keeping the White man between himself and the mob.
"Give us somebody!" the mob screamed. Pale and sweating, many inquisitors were ready to give up. "Hell, get 'em out of here," one of them said, as several in the jury were helped outside, overcome by suffocating heat and humidity.
A man grabbed McGhie, who was nearest the cell door, by the hair and the Black fell to his knees. "No--please--" he begged, only to be jerked up and thrust out of the cell door into the eager hands of the mob, and Elmer Jackson was shoved after him. The mob howled and immediately set upon the two, beating, kicking, spitting and cursing as McGhie and Jackson were forced through a narrow opening of the cell room door and led out before the wild and shrieking mass on Superior Street.
McGhie and Jackson were literally thrown from hands to hands; their shirts and jackets ripped until the two were naked to the waist. By the time they were across Superior Street, their pitiful whimpers were submerged under the savage roar of the mob. While neither man struggled, McGhie went limp and seemed to faint. Someone hoisted him up and several punched him down again.
Among the many women outside the station, one girl of nineteen or twenty held no sympathy for the mob. Standing beside the door of the jail in a blue tailored suit which was dripping from water sprayed by police and the mob, she viciously cursed both factions in the struggle. Men attempted to drag her out of the way as water splashed over her clothing, but she refused to move, a lone civilian voice virtually drowned under by the intense vocal pitch of the mob. She reached toward McGhie, in a feeble rescue attempt, but she was immediately thrown back and enveloped by a large man in a gray coat who held her.
McGhie was dragged, begging for his life, up Second Avenue East. Jackson, his head down, bobbing and dodging the punches and kicks aimed at him, remained silent. As the two were brought up the hill, many in the mob fought each other for the chance to take a swing or kick at the prisoners. Women in high heels kicked and stomped at the helpless men until the procession was stopped in front of the Shrine Auditorium at Second Avenue East and First Street.
Inside the building, Duluth Shriners were preparing for a trip to Portland, Oregon. Attracted by the intense crescendo outside, they peered from their second floor perch as the grim tableau was formed. There, thousands of cursing, screaming Duluthians were dragging and beating two young Blacks up the avenue where scores of others were gathered beneath the light pole on the corner.
|The lamp post at Second Avenue East and First Street where the mob lynched three Blacks accused of rape.|
Albert Johnson, the accountant, had seen Dondino's truck earlier that day and suspected something might take shape downtown. The talk of the West Duluth gang going down to take the Blacks was more than just talk--it was going to happen. And like thousands of others, Johnson went downtown and watched as the mob attacked the jail. As soon as he saw the Blacks come out, he hurried up to First Street and climbed a light pole, anticipating a better vantage point to see the hanging. Near the top, he gripped the arm which extended over the street on which the light was fastened. Men from the mob below were removing sections of rope, and the heads of the two Blacks bobbed and ducked punches which were still leveled at them. Suddenly, Johnson's heart caught. His bowels felt moist. The men dragging the Blacks swerved from the opposite corner and brought them to the foot of the very pole young Johnson had climbed. Below him, many in the mob were chanting and singing. There was some laughter, but most faces were angry, serious. Johnson could see the petrified Isaac McGhie glance up, his lithe, dark body stripped to the waist. The Black's face was bloody, and he was trembling.
"Toss this rope over the top, kid!" someone hollered at Johnson, casting a sturdy length of new rope to him. The youth froze momentarily as the rope looped over his arm. It probably occurred to him that he was irretrievably involved--no longer a mere observer. He held the rope that would take the lives of the Blacks, and even if these were colored boys, did they deserve to die like this? Johnson looked at the rope. His fingers felt thick, numb and useless. He looked down at the crowd, at the Blacks. His ears were ringing as he saw the open throats of perhaps thousands of others screaming epithets at the Blacks. Frightened and intimidated, Johnson knew he was going to commit a grave wrong, but he did as he was told, cinching the rope over the light pole. And as the mob howled its approval nineteen-year-old Albert Johnson shuddered violently.
from The Lynchings in Duluth Copyright © 2000 by Michael
Minnesota Historical Society · 345 Kellogg Blvd. West, St. Paul, MN · 651.296.6126 Copyright © 2000
Reprinted with permission
Duluth Public Library, 520 W. Superior St., Duluth, MN 55802