Max Mason was one of several black circus workers accused of sexually assaulting a 19-year-old Duluth woman in 1920. Three were lynched from a light pole by an angry mob of residents. Only two went to trial, and Mason, then 21, was the only one convicted in a case that has been mired in controversy ever since.
On Monday, Minnesota’s Board of Pardons, including Gov. Tim Walz, approved a request that could clear the way for Mason’s eventual posthumous pardon, a move supporters say would restore justice for a man they believe was falsely accused in a “horrific and shameful episode in Minnesota history.”
“This is one of those occasions where justice delayed may not be justice denied,” said Attorney General Keith Ellison, one of three members of the board. “I think we can try to rectify the problems of the past.”
The board’s move could open the way for another review of Mason’s original pardon plea, which was turned down in 1924 after his conviction in the assault of Irene Tusken, a white woman who claimed six circus workers held her and a companion at gunpoint and raped her following a show in West Duluth.
The case sparked one of the darkest episodes in the state’s history, with a horde of thousands dragging three of the accused workers out of the city jail and hanging them, the only documented lynching of black men in Minnesota.
Today the event is memorialized in a city plaza bearing relief bronze statues of the three victims: Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie.
Though others were accused, only Mason and one other man, William Miller, 22, got their day in court. Miller was acquitted in 1921.
Mason was convicted on what some thought was flimsy evidence and sentenced to a prison term of seven to 30 years. Supporters noted a lack of evidence corroborating Tusken’s allegation and a physician’s exam that appeared to contradict the teen’s claim, according to the Minnesota Historical Society.
Mason twice appealed for new trials and was denied both times, the last decision being rendered against him in 1922 by the Minnesota Supreme Court. Serving a sentence at the Stillwater state prison, he then sought a pardon in 1924, but to no avail.
Throughout his appeals, Mason continued to maintain his innocence. And in a highly unusual move, he won an early release the following year on the condition that he return to his native Alabama.
Mason had been traveling with the John Robinson Circus when he was implicated in the Tusken assault. He and several other workers were arrested in Virginia, where the circus had moved, a day after the lynchings in Duluth.
Eight residents were later tried in connection with the lynching; just three were convicted on rioting charges, according to the Minnesota Historical Society, receiving sentences of less than 15 months in prison. As the 100th anniversary of the lynching neared, advocates working on plans to commemorate the incident and honor the victims decided to call on state officials to take another look at the case.
An application for a new hearing submitted to the board cites evidence that Mason’s advocates believe was not available at the time of the 1924 review, including a letter from the then-county attorney saying he believes Mason would not have been convicted if he were white.
“We see this as one of the necessary steps of undoing the harm,” said Jordon Moses, a Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial supporter who is working on the pardon request. “We know that’s there’s little evidence to suggest the crime happened and there’s very little evidence to suggest that Max Mason had anything to do with it.” Tusken, who died in 1996 at age 94, reportedly refrained from discussing the incident with family.
But some of her descendants have since expressed shock at her role in the riots. Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken, who says the woman was his great aunt, has said it was a “source of shame and great embarrassment having your family involved in what would truly be the darkest day in Duluth’s history.”
Monday’s action is just the first step in the pardon process.
On approval of the request to reapply for a pardon, Mason’s backers will have to submit a full application before the board can formally take up the case, which could happen in the next year. Walz said Monday that the members will have to confirm that they have legal authority to grant a posthumous pardon — something the board has never done.
If they do take up the case, three members of the board — Walz, Ellison and state Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea — must agree in order to grant a pardon.
“We’re going to grapple with the hundredth anniversary of what happens when civil rights are violated, when tragedies such as what happened in Duluth happen,” Walz said. “I think it’s always the right time to see if we can set the record straight.”