DULUTH – With a gun to his head, Max Mason told a police officer he had done no wrong.
Yet the black circus worker was convicted by an all-white jury of raping a white woman in Duluth in 1920 despite no evidence a crime had occurred.
And for 100 years, the official record reflected that lie.
Mason, a “scapegoat” for a mob that lynched three innocent black men in Duluth 100 years ago Monday, has been cleared of his century-old rape conviction.
On Friday morning the Minnesota Board of Pardons granted Mason the state’s first posthumous pardon.
“This is 100 years overdue,” said Gov. Tim Walz, who sits on the board along with Attorney General Keith Ellison and Lorie Skjerven Gildea, chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court.
It took a unanimous vote to grant the pardon, which followed emotional testimony from those supporting it.
“His case is like the case of hundreds of other people of color,” said Jerry Blackwell, the Minneapolis lawyer who drafted the pardon application. “Mr. Mason deserves our mercy, our clemency, because we served him a tainted justice when it should have been pure.”
Mason was arrested and tried following the June 15, 1920, lynching of three fellow black circus workers — Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie — who were accused of raping a white woman, Irene Tusken. Tusken’s doctor found no evidence of an assault.
In Mason’s pardon application, Blackwell wrote that without “a scapegoat to exculpate the actions of the mob ... [it] would have meant that the lynch mob had not murdered rapists, but innocent men.”
Mason was sentenced to 30 years in prison but was released in 1925 and told not to return to Minnesota. He died in Memphis, Tenn., in 1942 at the age of 43.
After initially making national headlines, the lynching and Mason’s case quickly faded from view and was long kept quiet by Duluth leaders and residents.
Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken, whose great-aunt was the accuser, told the pardon board he only learned about his family’s connection to the lynching after Irene Tusken 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.”
The police chief noted, “Not only is the conviction unjust but the facts do not support an arrest in the first place.” He urged the board to grant the pardon and correct “a total disregard for justice.”
Rogier Gregoire, a board member with the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial in Duluth, said the pardon counters the “Minnesota Nice” approach of ignoring the injustice and dispels any lingering suggestion that the lynchings were somehow justified.
“We need to remove that from the minds of all those people in Minnesota and across the world who believe there’s some thread of support for the notion that there might have been a crime,” Gregoire said. “We need desperately to help those who want to abandon the racism of that fiction so his memory can be held in all of our hearts in a clear and innocent way.”
The board quickly determined it had the legal authority to grant a posthumous pardon under state law and approved the pardon without objection.
During the vote, which took place remotely over a video call, the weight of the decision was evident on the faces of Tusken, Gregoire and Blackwell.
It was not just about the pardon of one man, Ellison said, but “our community.”
“Racial terror is not limited to one section of our country,” Ellison said. “This is part of a process of letting our country really be a place of liberty and justice for all.”
A number of current and former elected officials and legal groups supported the pardon, including, in a rare move, the U.S. District Court for Minnesota.
“I have read the entire transcript of the trial of Mr. Mason, and to say that he was convicted on the flimsiest of evidence is a vast understatement,” Chief Judge John R. Tunheim wrote in a letter of support for the pardon. “We can only do what we can now, and that is to try to address the injustices that can be remedied, and never, ever, forget this sad and awful history.”
To commemorate the lynching, the federal courthouse in Duluth will be closed on Monday and three minutes of silence will be observed at other courthouses starting at noon.
On Friday afternoon Duluth Mayor Emily Larson apologized to Mason’s family and said the decision put “a little bit of hope in the air today.” The city’s human rights officer, Carl Crawford, said it is a “historic time” for Duluth.
“We said for a long time that he was innocent. But now it’s true. And it’s entrenched. And we know it to be true,” he said.
Despite a sudden timeliness with the death of George Floyd still reverberating around the world, the pardon application first came before the board in December, and Walz said it had been “decades in the making.”
Still, the governor said: “There is a direct line between what happened with Max Mason and Clayton, Jackson and McGhie. There is a direct line to what happened to George Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis.”