Once upon a time in Duluth: A priest and theater; gun play and hustlers

A Hermantown man's face was described as resembling “a gorgeous crimson sunset” after a fight over 50 cents.

St. Patrick's Day in Duluth, 1899 included words from a priest, theater, gunplay and more. (1899 News Tribune)

Duluth’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration in 1899 started with a moving speech by a Catholic priest and was followed by a well-acted community theater production of George Melville Baker’s then-popular lighthouse play, “Among the Breakers.”

But there were also fistfights, gunplay and scams, according to two days of colorful coverage in the News Tribune.

A headline in the March 18, 1899, edition promised plenty of plotlines. “Ex-Alderman Tischer said to have a fistle encounter with a Hermantown farmer / France and Ireland both claim the shamrock / Swede lumberjack learns value of playing cards.”

Starting with the crimes: Patrick Kelly of Hermantown reportedly traveled to Duluth to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. He stopped at a saloon to collect money that was owed him, and when the man put the 50 cents on the bar, ex-Alderman George Tischer jokingly swept it up and offered to buy a round for the crowd. Kelly called the police, who mistook the urgency of the situation and thought it was a robbery, and Tischer returned the coins.

Later that night, the men got into a fistfight — which Tischer seemingly won.


According to the story:

“At a late hour last night (Kelly’s) face resembled a gorgeous crimson sunset, several of his teeth were not in their accustomed place and he says that ex-Alderman George Tischer of the second ward was the designer and decorator that put the finishing touches to his St. Patrick’s Day celebration.”

Kelly planned to have Tischer arrested, he said.

Meanwhile, a man described as a Frenchman wearing a shamrock walked into Wheaton’s Saloon on Lake Avenue. Two Irishmen tried to take the emblem away from him, even though another man, J.B. Winn, claimed he had loaned it to him.

“A four-handed fight followed,” the News Tribune reported.

Winn left and returned with a gun, which he fired, but didn’t hit anyone.

He was arrested.

Then there was the Swedish lumberjack who was walking down West Superior Street when he encountered a man who remembered him from the old days back in Sweden. The two men had a few drinks, then the latter started up a high-stakes card game that ruined the Swedish lumberjack.


The second man felt bad for taking $20 off him, so he bought the lumberjack a ticket to St. Paul, gave him $1.50 in cash and drove him to the union station. Instead, the lumberjack went to the police station, where another man was making a similar complaint about the same hustlers.

This all was a marked difference from the events hosted by the Cathedral parish’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration at the Lyceum — then a barely decade-old theater that seated more than 1,300, located on the 400 block of West Superior Street.

The event’s speaker was Father Corbett, whose topic was “Love Ireland, Love America, Love God.” He reportedly moved the large audience to laughter and applause. “Laughter,” according to the reporter, “for many bright and droll sallies and applause for the honest patriotism that underlined the reverend gentleman’s words.”

At one point, he told the audience that Ireland, fashioned by nature to be a sister for England, was never designed to be a slave. He then, according to the story, talked about the Irishmen of history: “a subject so large that any speaker might dwell upon it for several hours without exhausting it. Brave deeds and Irishman,” the reporter wrote, “have never been strangers since history began.”

“Among the Breakers,” by prolific Boston playwright, is a two-act melodrama about a lighthouse keeper and assistant keeper. From the critique: “This popular medium for amateur thespians has so oft been murdered that it was a pleasure to see it decently done by last evening’s bright company.”

This story was told as part of Once Upon a Time in Duluth, a Wednesday feature on the Duluth News Tribune Minute podcast .

Christa Lawler is a former reporter for the Duluth News Tribune.
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