Legal Proceedings

A call for justice, but the lynch mob is only lightly punished. Two Black men are tried on questionable charges of rape.

Call for justice

Enraged and shocked, upstanding Duluthians and leaders of Minnesota’s Black community called for the swift and harsh punishment of the lynchers and mob members. National organizations such as the NAACP, American Civil Liberties Union, and the United Negro Improvement Association urged Governor Burnquist and the state to vigorously prosecute those guilty of lynching.

Irene Tusken’s allegation of rape remained. Though three Black men had been lynched because of her unsubstantiated claims, no one had yet been tried in a court of law. Her story implicated six Black men, and Duluth investigators were bent on receiving convictions.

Indicting the mob

Duluth District Judge William Cant convened a grand jury investigation on June 17, two days after the lynchings. Identifying the leaders and instigators of the massive lynch mob proved difficult. Some Duluthians were sympathetic to those seen as merely “caught in the moment” and giving into the mob mentality.

In the following weeks, the grand jury issued thirty-seven indictments for whites implicated in the lynch mob: twenty-five for rioting and twelve for the crime of murder in the first degree. Some people received indictments for both offenses. Eight whites were tried. Four were acquitted and one trial resulted in a hung jury.

Three of the whites — Louis Dondino, Carl Hammerberg, and Gilbert Stephenson — were convicted for rioting. Each served less than fifteen months in prison. No one was convicted of murder.

Indictments for rape

Seven Black men, all laborers from the John Robinson Circus, were indicted by the grand jury for the crime of rape. The NAACP hired three Black attorneys — Frederick Barnett Jr., Charles W. Scrutchin, and R. C. McCullough — to defend these men in court.

For five of the indicted Black men, charges were dismissed. The remaining two, Max Mason and William Miller, were tried for rape. William Miller was acquitted. Max Mason was convicted and sentenced to serve seven to thirty years in prison.

Mason appealed his case to the Minnesota Supreme Court but was unsuccessful. He began his sentence at Stillwater State Prison in 1921.

Collections photo of Charles Scrutchin, defense lawyer hired by NAACP.

Charles Scrutchin,
defense lawyer hired by NAACP.

Interior view of the Supreme Court.

Interior view of the Supreme Court.