The Robinson Show Lynchings

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by Christopher Rogge
(click on the pictures for a larger image)

Many cities have some truly dark moments in their history, and unfortunately, Duluth (Minnesota) is not an exception. Although the media of the time gave the (police) Department credit for trying to do the right thing, the fact is they failed to protect the lives of three innocent young men, and failed to bring their killers to justice.

The year was 1920, and Duluth was about to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of its chartering as a city.  It was a great time to live in Duluth.  The summer was to start off with a bang.  A large traveling circus came to town and it was to be the main attraction in Duluth. 

The John Robinson Show Circus arrived on June 14, and set up at the West Duluth grounds for two performances.  By early afternoon, a sizable crowd of men, women, and excited children assembled to view the attractions of the Big Top show which played to nearly eighty percent capacity.  Outside the tent, hundreds more gathered to view the sideshow performances of the incredible snake handler, Madame X, and the Nelson Family bareback riders.  The odors of cotton candy, hot dogs, and roasted peanuts permeated the air.

Around 9 p.m., a crowd gathered to watch the striking of the animal tents and the loading of the animals and equipment into special boxcars as the circus prepared to move to Virginia, Minnesota, for two Iron Range Performances.  Among the crowd were two West Duluth teens, a nineteen year old girl and an eighteen year old boy.  The two youths watched the animals for a moment, but boredom soon set in.  The two wandered off and apparently drifted beyond the crowd behind the wagons and tents.  Here the two teens observed a gathering around the cook tent where many of the black employees assembled to eat or lounge about playing cards.  The two proceeded beyond the tent into a nearby field about fifty yards away.  A few of the circus employees must have seen them, and a few decided to follow them.  Maybe a few words were exchanged between the youths and the circus employees that night, but nothing was for certain.  It is said that the young boy had something against blacks, and that he had something planned.  Whatever the two youths did in that field that night was never openly discussed.  The two went their separate ways, the girl went home, and the boy went to work the midnight shift at the Duluth Misabe and Northern Ore Docks.

The boy had been working nearly an hour when he decided to tell his father, the night superintendent, that the young girl had been raped that night by black circus employees.  Soon after that the boy's father telephoned Chief John Murphy at home and notified him of the night's events.  The Chief proceeded to drive to the police station and then down to the ore docks to get the story in full detail.  The boy told him that, as he and the girl were leaving the circus, six black employees blocked their way; one slipped behind him and grabbed his arms, while a second employee placed a pistol in back of his ear.  He then told Chief Murphy that the four other men took the girl behind a clump of bushes by the railroad tracks and raped her while they made him watch.

From here Chief Murphy called the yard master at the Northern Pacific station, and ordered the circus train to be detained.  But he was a little too late, the train had already left and that it was enroute to Virginia and heading through the Duluth, Winnipeg and  Pacific yards.  The Chief then called to the yard master of the DW&P,  and ordered him to detain the train until he and other officers arrived at the scene.  Chief Murphy, Captain Fiskett, and Lt. Schulte arrived at the train by 4:30 a.m., and rounded up all of the black employees.  Many of them were at rest in the sleeping cars.  Police woke them up and ordered that they assemble themselves outside the train.  The two youths were also brought to the scene to make identification.  Police proceeded to question the employees, and decided to arrest thirteen of the employees.  Chief Murphy then released the train which continued its trip to Virginia.  The black men were then loaded into police cars and driven to the downtown headquarters where they were put in jail.

At headquarters, further questioning resumed and seven of the black employees were released.  Of the six that remained, Chief Murphy believed five of them were involved in the alleged rape.  Their names were Elias Clayton, Nate Green, Elmer Jackson, Loney Williams, John Thomas, and Isaac McGhie who was held as a material witness.  All suspects were between 19 and 21 years of age, and had only been working for the circus since April of that year.  After the men were locked up, shortly after 7 a.m., Chief Murphy released all of his men while he remained at the station.  The Chief sat and pondered the decision making made that night and wasn't completely clear with the stories he had heard.  The two youths were too shaken to make good positive identification, and some of the stories from the black employees didn't match.  Something was definitely missing, and Chief Murphy was going to find out exactly what it was.

That morning, the young girl's disturbed mother called local physician, Dr. David Graham, and insisted that something was wrong with her daughter and that he make an immediate house call.  About 45 minutes later, the doctor arrived at the house and proceeded to conduct his examination.  He examined the girl, and found that she was suffering from a slight case of nervous exhaustion, but nothing indicated that the girl had been sexually assaulted.  The doctor kept this information private, and left the household.  The doctor never revealed this information until it was too late.  The story was clearly a hoax, and these black men were completely innocent.

Also that morning, the Duluth News-Tribune made no mention of the incident on the front page.  The event happened too late for any reporters to be involved.  But the news proceeded instead by word of mouth, and by noon that day, the reported rape had circulated widley through West Duluth.  As the news traveled many people had doubts of the rumor, but many others, like Louis Dondino, a thirty-eight year old businessman from West Duluth, were outraged.  After hearing the news, he jumped in his truck and drove around finding others that felt as he did.  He rounded up dozens, perhaps more, which started a chain reaction in the community.

Between noon and 6 p.m., rumors were flying of the growing anger in West Duluth and of the possibility of a large mob marching to police headquarters.  Police made all the necessary precautions to prevent such an event.  They set up hose lines at the front and rear entrances to the building, and positioned officers at every entrance, but they were in for a bigger surprise than they had expected.  Around 8:30 p.m., about two dozen men made an attempt to gain entrance through the garage located in the rear of the building on Michigan Street.  Six officers, including Sgt. Oscar Olson, used clubs to beat off the half-hearted attack. 

Within minutes, the size of the mob grew immensely.  By 8:40 p.m., a mob estimated between 5,000 and 10,000 people stormed the jail.  Police were powerless against a crowd of this size, and decided that they needed outside help.  The outbreak resulted in the sending of the Minnesota National Guard, but their arrival wouldn't come in time.  Any attempt of authority was simply overpowered by the immense size of the mob.  The crowd continued to push forward, breaking all of the windows on the first floor of the building.  The crowd used bricks, rocks, and other objects to smash windows and break down the doors of the complex.  The mob demanded the removal of the prisoners, and there wasn't anything the authorities could do to stop them.

The police held the mob back for almost an hour.  At around 9:30 p.m., the crowd had broken through police hose lines and into headquarters.  Inside the complex, the mob proceeded to break down two heavy steel doors in order to gain access to the cell room where the prisoners were kept.  The mob stormed into the cell room battering and sawing the bars in a frantic effort to reach the prisoners.  The young black men were helpless now, frightened to what their future would hold.  Loney Williams sat in his cell on his cot, cradling his head in his hands, and whispered a silent prayer before vomiting.  The mob crushed forward pressing on the bars to the point of breaking.  Officers now could only sit back and watch as their efforts soon turned into tears.  Upstairs, Isaac McGhie was found and removed from his cell absorbing a vicious beating before being dragged downstairs.  McGhie was thrown into a wall and pummeled once more.  He spit out a tooth and covered his broken nose with his hand.  He stood motionless as he watched the fate of his other friends.  The crowd hammered at Williams' cell and then moved down to where Elias Clayton was.  The mob finally broke through all six cells, beat them, and then lined them up for questioning.  The crowd demanded answers from the prisoners, but they could only stare at their inquisitors.  They denied any guilt to the crimes they were accused of, but this only made the crowd more hostile.  The mob could wait no longer, finally grabbing two of the six men, McGhie, and Jackson.  They pulled the two young men out of the jail and dragged them up one block to Second Avenue East and First Street.  They were repeatedly beaten by the crowd and brought to a light pole near the Shriners Auditorium.  Rope that was stolen from the hardware store across from the police department was now thrown up over the pole.  A few people in the crowd, like Reverend W. J. Powers broke through the crowd and climbed the light pole begging that the mob stop and release these innocent men.  No one listened to his words, and Powers was immediately removed. The crowd began chanting and singing as the ropes continued to be set in place.  Men grabbed McGhie and brought the prisoner to his feet.  They then put the noose around his neck and pulled the rope hoisting him off the ground.  Then nineteen year old Elmer Jackson was dragged to the pole.  The noose was cinched around his neck, and a cluster of ready hands drew his body up.  The crowd began to cheer as the two men died.

Back at the station, the four remaining prisoners were still being questioned.  The hungry mob grabbed their last victim, Elias Clayton, and brought him to the site before the militia arrived.  They beat him repeatedly as they did with the other two victims.  They then tied the noose securely around the victims' neck and pulled him aloft along side his two companions.  The mob stood and stared at their victims as blood dripped from their mouths.

The mob then demanded more light on the victims.  A car with a search light was pulled up so pictures could be taken.  A few people stood with no expression, and others stood with grins on their faces.  By this time the militia had finally arrived to give help to the police, but they were a little too late.  The militia was armed with military issue rifles with bayonets.  Major Beecher ordered his men to form a line around the station and moved outwards.  The mob began to disperse rapidly with the presence of armed police.  And by 1 a.m., police had an opportunity to cut down the dead bodies that represented the built up anger and hatred of this peaceful city.

As an aftermath of the lynchings, there was a sense of lawlessness and anarchy in the city.  Fourteen more black employees were brought in for more questioning and held in the county jail.  There were also more threats of more lynchings, but these threats merely stood as rumors.  In order to counter these threats, Sheriff Magie asked the governor for troops, a battery of state militia, and a machine gun detachment.

In all, only three leaders of the mob were arrested and convicted.  They were charged with rioting, but not for murder.  Three or four others were acquitted and charges against the rest were dropped.

This story is a dark part of Duluth's history as well as Duluth police history, and is something that wants to be forgotten.  But that is almost impossible.  The story is told from generation to generation as a reminder of our past.  No one can ever replace the lives that were taken on that day, or take back the anger that was forced upon their souls.  All we can do is mourn for these innocent young men that committed no crime, and pray that the peace in this city will never be broken again.

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