ST. PAUL — A black man convicted of rape in Duluth in 1920 could receive a posthumous pardon from the state almost a century after the night rumors of the crime fueled community outrage that led to the lynching of three men.

The Minnesota Board of Pardons on Monday, Dec. 16, voted unanimously to take up a request to wipe clean the record of Max Mason, a former traveling worker with the John Robinson Circus who was accused of raping a white woman in Duluth despite slim evidence against him. It's the first time in the board's history it will consider a posthumous pardon.

Mason, a Decatur, Ala., native, was among six black circus workers accused of sexually assaulting Irene Tusken, a white woman living in Duluth, and holding her companion James Sullivan at gunpoint on June 14, 1920.

The allegation sparked the darkest day in Duluth's history as more than a thousand gathered in the streets to pull three of the men from their jail cells, beat them and hung them from a lamppost at the corner of First Street and Second Avenue East. A memorial for Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie now marks the spot.

And as a group of leaders of the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial begin a year of events commemorating the lynching, they hoped to work with lawyers and state officials to clear Mason's name of the crime.

"We know that back then folks knew the evidence was not there to convict but it was driven by the culture at the time, a culture of racism and white supremacy," CJMM event organizer Jordon Moses said Monday. "We feel that we have to remedy. We have a responsibility to formally acknowledge that what happened was wrong."

Mason and sought and was denied a pardon in 1924. But with substantial new evidence uncovered in the last 95 years, CJMM members said the three-member board should reconsider a pardon.

Gov. Tim Walz, Attorney General Keith Ellison and Chief Justice Lorie Gildea agreed to allow the request to reopen the pardon application. But state law isn't clear about whether a person can be pardoned after his or her death. And the members asked for a review ahead of their meeting next spring.

"Next year we'll have 100 years since this tragic case in Duluth and I think that this is one of those occasions where justice delayed may not be justice denied," Ellison said. "I think we can try to rectify problems of the past."

Allegation, lynching

Irene Tusken, a 19-year-old white woman living in Duluth, alleged that six African American men working at the circus raped her near the circus grounds on June 14, 1920, after she and escort James Sullivan had ventured off on their own. The two alleged they'd been robbed at gunpoint and that Tusken had been unconscious during most of the "ravaging."

A day after Tusken made the allegation, six African American men who worked with the circus were hauled into the Duluth City Jail, according to the Minnesota Historical Society. As word of the alleged rape spread across Duluth, thousands gathered on Superior Street to take justice into their own hands.

They battled their way into the jail and facing light resistance from officers, pulled Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie from their cells. After a mock hearing, members of the mob beat and hung the men in the street despite pleas from bystanders to let the men be tried in the courts.

The National Guard the following day came to Duluth to secure the three remaining prisoners.

At Tusken's home, a doctor found no physical evidence of rape the day after the alleged assault. And Tusken and Sullivan struggled to identify the men later. News reports from that time said Sullivan identified two of the individuals he believed to be involved in the assault based on “voice and size."

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. (Image courtesy Minnesota Historical Society)
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. (Image courtesy Minnesota Historical Society)

Two men, Mason and William Miller faced charges following the incident, and Mason was convicted and sentenced to serve seven to 30 years imprisonment. The Minnesota Supreme Court denied Mason's appeal, despite slim evidence brought against him.

After serving four years in the State Prison in Stillwater, Mason was discharged in 1925 on the condition that he leave the state. Miller was acquitted in 1921.

Following the lynchings, eight Duluth residents were tried for their involvement in the killings. Three were convicted for rioting and served less than 15 months in prison, according to the Minnesota Historical Society. Four others were acquitted and one trial resulted in a hung jury.

About 150 people showed up for the Clayton Jackson McGhie remembrance at the monument on First Street in 2012. (File / News Tribune)
About 150 people showed up for the Clayton Jackson McGhie remembrance at the monument on First Street in 2012. (File / News Tribune)

Push to remember, heal

Leaders of the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial earlier this year launched a search for relatives of Clayton, Jackson and McGhie to invite them to a series of events in 2020 aimed at commemorating the violent deaths.

And they've also attempted to find family members of Mason's to notify them about their efforts to push forward with a posthumous pardon.

"We want to invite them to be here to be part of this process if they would like," Moses with the CJMM said. "We are cognizant that they may or may not know about this trauma and this history."

Ellison in October also attempted to find Mason's relatives. Ellison in a tweet sought information about Mason's family. John Stiles, a spokesman for the attorney general, on Friday, Dec. 13, said that none had come forward.