It was an appalling prelude of things to come 25 years later and 150 miles to the north.
Early on June 2, 1895, a 15-year-old girl woke to find a man in her house on Lexington Avenue in St. Paul with his hand across her mouth. Her scream prompted the suspect to run and woke her brother, Anton Kachel, who led a mile-long chase.
Near Snelling Avenue, they caught Houston Osborne, 28, who’d arrived from Tennessee earlier that spring. Dragging the suspect back to Lexington and Iglehart Street, Kachel grabbed a length of window sash cord. Despite Osborne’s pleas, men lowered a noose around his neck to hang him from a cottonwood tree.
As he twitched, the teenage girl’s older sister persuaded them to lower the man, whom they bound and took to the Rondo Street police station. Osborne died two years later from tuberculosis at Stillwater Prison, according to St. Paul history writer Paul Nelson.
Circus workers Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie found no such mercy in Duluth a quarter-century later. On June 15, 1920, a mob broke into the Duluth jail on Superior Street, where six black men were being held on sketchy charges of raping a 19-year-old woman who had attended the circus. A doctor’s exam showed no signs of rape or assault.
The lack of evidence didn’t deter the mob, numbered between 1,000 and 10,000. Wielding bricks and timbers, they tore down jail doors, declared three of the men guilty in a speedy mock trial and lynched them from a light pole on First Street and Second Avenue East.
“The police undertook to control the crowd by the use of fire hose, the crowd overpowering the police and turning the hose upon them,” according to part of a massive Minnesota Historical Society collection of digitized documents easily accessed at mnhs.org/duluthlynchings.
We are now within a year of the 100th anniversary of the Duluth lynchings — three of at least 20 lynching deaths recorded in Minnesota. Clayton, Jackson and McGhie are the only black men on the list, with Osborne barely escaping.
“Duluth has suffered a horrible disgrace, a blot on its name that it can never outlive,” said Milton Judy, one of the city’s black dentists.
Duluth was home to fewer than 500 black residents in 1920. The city’s display of vigilante injustice came a year after what became known as the Red Summer of 1919, when 38 people were killed in Chicago race riots. Similar clashes erupted in 25 American cities.
All told, at least 3,224 lynchings were recorded nationally between 1889 and 1918 — with 79 percent of the victims black and most killed in the Deep South. But more than 200 lynchings occurred in northern states, and Duluth soon squinted in the national limelight.
“This is a crime of a Northern state, as black and ugly as any that has brought the South in disrepute,” the Chicago Evening Post said. “The Duluth authorities stand condemned in the eyes of the nation.”
A reader of this column asked what justice, if any, befell the lynchers. Short answer: Not much. Of 37 indictments handed down against white mob members, only three were convicted of rioting. Each served about a year in prison. No one was ever tried for murdering Clayton, Jackson and McGhie.
Carl Hammerberg was just 18, emigrating from Sweden as a child. He quit school at 15 and began working in shipyards and factories. After serving 18 months in St. Cloud for instigating the riot, he met another kind of justice.
Fewer than four years after the lynchings, Hammerberg hopped a freight train heading from Duluth to Minneapolis. He wound up trapped in a refrigerator car, where fumes from charcoal burners “snuffed out” his life, according to the coroner. He would have turned 22 in a month.
Two others convicted of rioting in 1920 served a year each in Stillwater Prison and went on to live long lives. Convicted of helping the mob break into the jail, Gilbert Stephenson, 34, had worked as a carpenter but denied using a hammer on the jail door.
“No doubt a large number of people of Duluth that night simply reverted to the primitive and lost all control of themselves,” Stephenson’s parole agent said, arguing that nothing “would be gained by keeping him in confinement.”
Louis Dondino, 38, was convicted of driving his truck through Duluth, recruiting mob members to join a “necktie party” as well as turning the fire hoses on the cops. He admitted driving to the scene with at least six men in his truck, but said he went to the theater during the fire hosing.
“This fellow is well spoken of and evidently a man of good habits and stood well in the community,” the parole agent wrote. “When released I would expect him to do well.”
At Duluth’s Park Hill Cemetery, the graves of lynching victims Jackson, McGhie and Clayton went nameless until the 1990s.
In 2008, an acorn collected in Jackson’s Missouri hometown was planted at the cemetery by one of his descendants. Dondino’s great-grandson helped nurture the acorn and helped plant it when it grew into a strong oak sapling.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.