Duluth, Minnesota. Desolation Row is in Duluth, Minnesota.

On June 15, 1920, Duluth police arrested several young black men accused of raping a white woman. That evening, three of them – Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie – are taken from jail by a mob and lynched. Postcards of the hanging were widely distributed.

It was the John Robinson Circus that brought Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie to Duluth. They and other young black men were employed by the circus as cooks and “roustabouts,” laborers who performed a variety of physical tasks. Traveling by train, the circus was greeted by an eager crowd upon arrival in Duluth. They were in town for a free street parade and one day of performances on June 14, 1920.

On the warm summer night of June 14, Irene Tusken, age nineteen, and James Sullivan, eighteen, went to the circus in Duluth. At the end of the evening the pair walked to the rear of the main tent, watching the black workers dismantle the menagerie tent, load wagons and generally get the circus ready to move on. Nobody is sure of what happened next, but in the early morning of June 15th, Duluth Police Chief John Murphy received a call from James Sullivan’s father saying six black circus workers had held the pair at gunpoint and then raped Irene Tusken.

John Murphy then lined up all 150 or so roustabouts, food service workers and props-men on the side of the tracks, and asked Sullivan and Tusken to identify their attackers. The police arrested six black men in connection with the rape. Little evidence would be found to corroborate these claims. An examination of Tusken that morning by Dr. David Graham, a family physician, showed no physical signs of rape or assault.

Newspapers printed articles on the alleged rape, while rumors spread throughout the town that Tusken had died as a result of the assault. Through the course of the day, a mob estimated between 6,000 and 10,000 people formed outside the Duluth city jail and then broke into the jail to beat and hang the accused. The Duluth Police were ordered not to use their guns, and offered little or no resistance to the mob.

The mob seized Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie and took the three men to 1st Street and 2nd Avenue East, where they were lynched by the mob. The Minnesota National Guard arrived the next morning to secure Duluth and protect the three surviving black prisoners.

The first verse of Bob Dylan’s 1965 song, “Desolation Row,” recalls the lynchings in Duluth:

They’re selling postcards of the hanging They’re painting the passports brown The beauty parlor is filled with sailors The circus is in town Here comes the blind commissioner They’ve got him in a trance One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker The other is in his pants And the riot squad they’re restless They need somewhere to go As Lady and I look out tonight From Desolation Row

Dylan was born in Duluth and spent his early years there. His father, Abram Zimmerman, was nine years old in June 1920 and lived two blocks from the site of the lynchings. Zimmerman passed the story on to his son.

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