DULUTH — In the early 1970s, Duluth native Michael Fedo planned to write a post-World War I novel set in northern Minnesota. One of the scenes would be an incident his mother once mentioned to him: the story of a local lynching.
His main character, Fedo decided, would be a witness to the murders by mob.
But when the novelist tried to find the reference book that surely, years ago, must have been written about it, he found it didn’t exist.
“Not only did I learn there was no book, but the librarians that I talked to — there must have been four of five of them in the Duluth area and in the Twin Cities — these librarians had never heard of the incident,” Fedo said.
So he wrote that book instead.
Nearly 40 years after Fedo’s story of Duluth’s dark history was first published, it’s gone through three publishing houses, multiple title changes, a shift in some readers’ mentality and has included new information — including the late addition of the names of some of the principal players.
One thing remains unchanged: “The Lynchings in Duluth,” as it’s now named, is credited with being the first all-encompassing resource about the June 15, 1920, murders of circus workers Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie.
On June 14, 1920, West Duluth teens Irene Tusken and Jimmy Sullivan went to see the John Robinson Circus, a traveling troupe that had set up its one-day parade and performance at what is now Wheeler Field. The two reportedly went behind the circus tent, where workers were shutting down the show — and where they claimed violent crimes were committed against them.
Later that night, Sullivan told his father that they had been robbed and that Tusken was raped by a gang of men. Law enforcement officials caught the circus train on its way out of town, and rounded up a crew of black men who seemed roughly the size or shape of the men Tusken and Sullivan alleged had attacked them. The men were sent to the jail in downtown Duluth.
Word spread quickly — helped along by gossip and a grassroots call to join the "necktie party," issued from a green Ford pickup truck outfitted with a noose.
According to Heidi Bakk-Hansen, who has spent more than 20 years researching the lynchings, the headline in the local newspaper didn’t help.
“West Duluth girl victim of six Negroes,” was published in the next day’s Daily Herald.
“(They) basically printed an invitation to a lynching by printing the big letters,” she said.
A crowd stormed the understaffed police station, where the officers had been told to not use their guns, and dragged the three men up the street, where they were hanged in front of an estimated crowd of 10,000 people.
Rather than finding historical reference books about the incident, Fedo found a thin manila folder with a few newspaper clippings and a pamphlet, misinformation about destroyed files, and an anecdote about a former employee at the St. Louis County Historical Society who had expunged all records of the lynchings because too many students were writing reports about it.
“She thought they should choose more edifying subjects, so she had them dumped,” Fedo said.
Books about Minnesota’s state history from that period had no mention of the lynchings at all. This silence was common, he found.
“It was all just gone,” Fedo said.
The novelist-turned-journalist collected what he could find — including interviews with then-70- to 90-year-old lifelong Duluthians — to create the first long-form account of the event. Some spoke on the condition that he not use the names of Tusken or Sullivan in his work, which he agreed to until the most recent edition.
His book, which is considered creative nonfiction, tells the story chronologically from the morning of the circus' arrival, to the court cases, to the aftermath. It opens with unrest within the Duluth police department, the slow boil of post-World War I race relations, and the morning news that Babe Ruth had hit his 17th home run of the season the previous day.
The night of the circus unfolds. Tusken and Sullivan meet up; the former returns home, checks in with her mother and goes to bed.
Police Chief John Murphy gets the call at 2 a.m. and hears Sullivan's report: The teens were attacked and robbed at gunpoint. Tusken was led to a clump of bushes near the railroad tracks and ultimately fainted during the assault.
Fedo writes about the unruly mob, bent on hanging the accused and not deterred when law enforcement officials turned hoses on them. He writes about the man who found a better vantage point by climbing a light pole — and was then recruited to assist with looping a rope. He writes about Jackson, in his final moments, tossing a pair of dice to the pavement.
"I won't need these anymore in this world," he reportedly said.
Fedo spent at least three years boxing up his typewritten pages and sending the completed work to publishers for consideration. In that time, he received upward of 20 rejections — one from a publishing house that claimed it didn’t want to be responsible for starting a riot.
Twice he found a publisher, and had the book printed, only to have something go amiss.
Brasch and Brasch Publishing, located in California, filed for bankruptcy soon after publishing the book in 1979. Fedo’s take: a box of books with the hard-to-display title “They Was Just N------,” a $260 check and a review from the Minneapolis Star Tribune that described the author of rubbing “our noses once again in the awful events that proved that North as well as South is capable of the violence of racial bigotry.”
Enter theater aficionado Harlin Quist — a native of Virginia, Minn., who moved to New York City and started a publishing company. He returned to northern Minnesota with plans to restore the NorShor Theatre and present high-art. While here, he republished Fedo’s book, but with the more palatable title, “Trial By Mob.”
Quist promised a run of 1,000-1,500 books in 1983, then skipped town without addressing a stack of unpaid bills — including the one to the printer.
“He was a prominent person who didn’t pay anybody in Duluth,” Fedo said. “I never got any money at all from that second printing.”
Finally, a home
In the late 1990s, the Minnesota Historical Society Press had a series dedicated to bringing back out-of-print books it believed still had an audience, recalled Ann Regan, who is now editor-in-chief.
Fedo’s book was a match.
“It’s a really good and important telling of an important Minnesota history story,” she said.
Since it was published in May 2000, the press has had requests from academics who want references and footnotes added to the book. But academia isn’t Fedo’s target market.
“I wrote this book for ordinary audiences to read,” he said.
In 2016, a second edition was printed — updated with the names of Sullivan and Tusken and a foreword by William D. Green that vouches for Fedo’s work. Green, a history professor at Augsburg University in Minneapolis and award-winning author, writes that he is impressed with Fedo's account, which is fact-driven and without melodrama.
"I was impressed with the care he took in recounting the small but telling stories of individual participants and observers in a manner that cast them as ordinary people caught up in an extraordinary moment," he wrote. "Unfortunately, the work did not include footnotes, and this concerned me. But as a result of my own study into the legal and social consequences of the lynchings on the city, I have found myself able to vouch for the accuracy of Fedo's research.
"It is an account on which the reader can rely and a story that needs to be told."
According to the Minnesota Historical Society Press, "The Lynchings in Duluth" is used in high school and college courses and sells an average of 15-20 copies per month.
The most recent edition has gotten more favorable reviews. James Fallows of The Atlantic magazine is quoted on the cover blurb: "A genuinely startling and illuminating contribution to our understanding of racial justice in the United States."
Fedo’s book has been, for many people, the gateway into information about the murders. Bakk-Hansen acquired, from a bartender at the NorShor Theatre, a box of Fedo’s books that Quist left behind. She conducted more research, then wrote an article in 2000 for The Ripsaw, a now-defunct alternative weekly newspaper, that brought the topic to the forefront, leading to the forming of the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial.
Jordan Moses, who moved to Duluth to attend the University of Minnesota Duluth in 2009, read “The Lynchings in Duluth” for a class on race, crime and justice and was moved to action.
“Then I sort of felt, as someone who was living in this city — whether it was going to be temporary or an extended period of time — I felt I had an obligation to do some work,” he said.
He applied to be on the board of directors for the memorial when he was 20 years old.
Henry Banks, an original member of the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, said elders told him the story of the lynchings when he moved from Kansas City to Duluth.
He owns every version of the book, he said.
“It’s a very important book for me, and it’s important Michael Fedo signed every one of those books,” said Banks, who credits the author and Bakk-Hansen with getting the story out.
Fedo has published 10 books, including “The Lynchings in Duluth,” and in September he will add to the collection with a series of short humorous stories. It’s his first book, though, that captured the attention of Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer of “PBS NewsHour,” the Los Angeles Times and the French newspaper Le Monde. It’s the one he continues to give speeches about — 40 years after it was published.
The book's cover photo is a portrait of some of the men who were on the scene, some pitched forward to be included in the shot, a man in the back row seemingly on his tiptoes. In its uncropped version, the photo shows the dead bodies of Clayton, Jackson and McGhie.
“This is like a trophy shot,” Fedo said, looking at the cover. “You’ve seen pictures of guys who’ve been out hunting and they’re carrying a bear on a pole and there are big grins on their faces. ‘We got one.’ It’s kind of that. No one is ashamed to be here.”