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Minnesota grants state's first posthumous pardon in case connected to Duluth lynchings

The state has pardoned a Black man wrongfully convicted of rape after a mob lynched three of his coworkers, who were also wrongfully accused.
A memorial to the three Black men lynched by a Duluth mob in 1920

A memorial to the three Black men lynched by a Duluth mob in 1920

Max Mason was one of six Black circus workers wrongfully accused of rape in 1920s Duluth. After three of his coworkers were lynched by a mob, he was the only worker convicted. Nearly a century later, his name has been cleared through Minnesota's first posthumous pardon. 

The Minnesota Board of Pardons unanimously approved the decision Friday, just three days before the 100-year anniversary of the day Duluthians kidnapped Mason’s coworkers — Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Issac McGhie — out of the city jail and lynched them in front of a massive crowd. 

Gov. Tim Walz, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison and Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea comprise the three-member board. The board first approved a request that would allow them to consider a pardon in December 2019. 

Minneapolis lawyer Jerry Blackwell, who authored the pardon application, said Mason’s conviction served as a “scapegoat” to justify the crowd’s wrongdoing.

“Minnesota and Duluth cannot fully heal from the lynching of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie until ‘the other wrong arising from the horrors of those events’ is recognized and righted by the pardon of Mason,” the application reads.

Nineteen-year-old Irene Tusken, who was white, had accused several traveling circus workers of rape. There was little evidence to corroborate that claim throughout the case, including a doctor's examination that did not show signs of rape or assault. 

After being convicted by an all-white jury, Mason was sentenced to 30 years in prison, but was released five years into his sentence on the condition that he would not return to Minnesota. He had appealed for a new trial twice, which were both denied, and his 1924 pardon request was not granted. 

He died in Memphis in 1942 at 43 years old.

“His case is like the case of hundreds of other people of color,” Blackwell said. “Mr. Mason deserves our mercy, our clemency, because we served him a tainted justice when it should have been pure.”

Walz called the pardon "100 years overdue." 

He continued: "By not addressing this, it continued the systemic racism, it allowed the things that happened to happen. There is a direct line between Max Mason and Clayton, Jackson and McGhie. There is a direct line to what happened to George Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis. The inability for us to address the stain on our state for so long has led to those situations." 

Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken spoke in support of the pardon. He said he wasn't told about his family's connection to the lynching until Irene Tusken, his great aunt, died in 1996. 

“I believe this is mostly attributed to the great shame experienced by our family and the desire to repress and forget this injustice,” Tusken said. “In much the same way, Duluth followed suit.”

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