Duluth, MN

The Arrest, Trial, and Eventual Pardon of Duluth Circus Worker Max Mason

Matt Reicher

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Advertisement for the John Robinson Circus; Max Mason was in town working for the circus when he was falsely accused of assault.The Zenith City

DULUTH, MINNESOTA - While working for a traveling circus in Duluth, MN, twenty-one-year-old Max Mason was caught between less than credible witness testimony and city officials looking for a scapegoat to blame for egregious behavior by citizens. It cost him his freedom.

On June 14, 1920, Mason, a black man employed as a cook and server with the John Robinson Traveling Circus, arrived at the Canadian Northern Yards in Duluth, MN for his shift. That night a horrific event occurred that not only changed the course of his life but left a stain on the city of Duluth it hasn’t been able to wash off over one hundred years later.

Duluth residents, nineteen-year-old Irene Tusken and eighteen-year-old Jimmie Sullivan, took in the sights and sounds of the circus that night. The two claimed sometime between 9 PM and 10 PM, as they were leaving to go home, a group of circus employees — each a black man — attacked them. They alleged one held a gun to Sullivan’s head while others sexually assaulted Tusken.

Although there was no physical evidence to support the crime, the event caused a local uproar that led to the arrest of more than a dozen black men. A murderous Duluth mob lynched three men in the dead of night. Another man, twenty-two-year-old Max Mason, was convicted of assault and sentenced to serve an indeterminate time of up to thirty years of hard labor in prison.

Mason was the only man tried and convicted in a court of law for the crime.

Though police interrogated him with twelve other men, he was not among the six held in a Duluth jail. The circus had been packing up that night to travel to Virginia, MN, and Mason was allowed to leave. As the train traveled toward its next northern Minnesota destination, word spread of the alleged sexual assault of a white girl by a group of black men.

The next night a murderous mob formed on the streets of the city, intent on taking the law into their own hands. Up to ten thousand people, roughly twenty percent of the city’s population, stormed the jail. Local police officials, instructed not to use their clubs or guns against the rioters, were no match for the madness and soon gave in.

Circus workers Elias Clayton, Isaac McGhie, and Elmer Jackson were torn from their cells by the blood-thirsty crowd, dragged a block north of the jail, and lynched.

Mob justice murdered three men.

Unfortunately, the ordeal was far from over. On June 16, 1920, police officials, along with Tusken and Sullivan, headed to Virginia to re-arrest the other men involved and return them to Duluth for trial. A lack of physical evidence didn’t support the journey, but it was likely an effort to grant legitimacy to the recent deaths.

Seven circus workers were indicted, and charges against five of them were dismissed. Two men, William Miller and Max Mason, were forced to fight for their freedom in court.

Minus some strategic moments, the trials of the two men were ostensibly the same. Called as witnesses in both trials, Tusken and Sullivan testified to remembering the both as attackers — not by their faces, but their height, body shape, and voice. The two said Miller had first accosted Tusken, and Mason held the gun to Sullivan’s head during the sexual assault.

Mason’s lawyer was concerned an all-white jury wouldn’t take the word of a black man over a white woman. He held back on demanding specific details about the alleged assault from his client’s accusers. Miller’s lawyer wasn’t concerned — he questioned the events directly. In the end, a jury acquitted Miller, but Mason was convicted.

Examinations revealed Tusken and Mason had both contracted gonorrhea at different times, with Tusken’s occurring shortly after her reported attack and Mason’s several months after. But the inference was that Mason had infected Tusken during the alleged sexual assault.

During closing statements, the prosecutor told the jury the people of Duluth didn’t believe justice could be found in their city. That’s why they took matters into their own misguided hands on June 15, 1920. The city’s citizens wanted to see justice done — and the guilty punished for their crimes.

"The People … want to know through your verdict that when a white girl is ravished by a black man or white man, the man is proven guilty, as is this case, the man is going to be found guilty.”

It took less than a day for the jury to reach a verdict. On July 30, 1921, a jury of twelve white men found Max Mason guilty of raping Irene Tusken. A later appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court for a new trial was denied.

In November 1922, officials sent Mason to Stillwater State Prison. Though convicted in court, there was a lingering doubt about his guilt. He applied for a pardon on December 19, 1922, February 21, and March 25, 1924, before finally being granted his conditional release.

Mason was allowed out of prison on September 3, 1925, under the stipulation he leave Minnesota for Decatur, Alabama, in twenty-four hours and not return to the state for at least fifteen years. Mason never returned. He died on November 14, 1942, in Memphis, Tennessee.

If officials had considered him a threat, it would not have granted him his freedom. By forcing him to leave, they were likely trying to remove a living memory of the events of June 15, 1920.

Max Mason died as a convicted felon on November 14, 1942, in Memphis, Tennessee.

On June 12, 2020, on the eve of the tragic lynching’s 100th anniversary, Mason was pardoned. It was the first posthumous pardon in Minnesota’s history. The prevailing belief was he was a fall guy used to help ease the guilt of a city that had allowed mob justice to rule its streets.

The Minnesota Board of Pardons righted a terrible wrong. Unfortunately, it took one hundred years for it to happen.

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Historical researcher and content creator for the Minnesota Then Beer and Brewing History Museum.

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