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Once upon a time in Duluth: In 1903, a rogue tooth-puller roamed Lake Avenue

And a Duluth Herald reporter opened his story about the incident in verse.

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In 1903, John Simonson pulled the teeth of random people near Lake Avenue in Duluth. (Minnesota Historical Society / Duluth Herald)

Imagine an attack so random and depraved that when a Duluth Herald reporter set out to write about the incident, he started the story with … a poem.

“Up from Lake Avenue at break of day / bringing the police a fresh dismay / came a roaring, rumbling, rattling rip / as a tooth-jerking jigger plied a forcep,” was the prologue to a 1903 story with the headline: “A freakish bent,” then “John Simonson pulls teeth indiscriminately on Lake Avenue. Removes them forcibly despite remonstrances of those attacked.”

The news was wild enough that it landed in the New York Times.

Simonson, claiming to be a dentist, cruised through the neighborhood and reportedly pulled the teeth of eight to 10 people — mostly men in saloons, but in one case entering the home of a woman and giving hers a yank — before he was arrested by Duluth police.

He withdrew someone’s dentures, too, and charged them 50 cents for the work, according to the story in the evening paper.

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When the police chief asked to see his license for practicing dentistry, the Finnish man, who reportedly did not speak English, pulled out a contract for cutting and delivering cordwood. The police chief responded that it only gave him the right to fix the teeth of a saw, not on humans.

Some of his victims were too under the influence of liquor to object, according to the news story, and “others thought he was doing them a good turn, and others were unable to resist owing to the fact that Simonson is an exceptionally big and husky individual.”

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

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