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'Awesome woman' never spoke of Duluth lynchings

Lindsay Nash knew nothing about her family's connection to a notorious piece of Duluth history until she read about it in the June 13 News Tribune. "Until I read the article, I never heard of it, ever," Nash said last week. "My grandmother never ...

Lindsay Nash knew nothing about her family's connection to a notorious piece of Duluth history until she read about it in the June 13 News Tribune.

"Until I read the article, I never heard of it, ever," Nash said last week. "My grandmother never mentioned it."

Nash, 32, of Duluth is the great-granddaughter of Irene (Tusken) Rosemond Anderson, who as a young woman claimed to have been raped by six black circus workers in Duluth. That led to the lynchings of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie on June 15, 1920.

Irene Tusken was 19 when she and James Sullivan, 18, both of West Duluth, visited the John Robinson circus on June 14. Sullivan and Tusken later claimed they had been held at gunpoint by the circus workers and Tusken raped, but no physical evidence supported the claim.

When she was growing up, Lindsay's relationship to Irene was more like that of a child to a grandmother, and Nash refers to her as "grandmother."


"We were very close," Nash said. "She was an awesome woman."

Learning of the family connection inspired her to want to learn more about the incident. "I don't like the outcome at all," she said, but she wants to better understand her great-grandmother's role.

"It's very disheartening," Nash said. "It hurts my heart to know that this happened. It just saddens my heart, but it doesn't change the way I feel about my grandmother."

Nash has an 8-week-old baby and a 2½-year-old. When they are older, she will tell them what she knows about the Duluth lynchings, she said.

"I will tell my children. It was a major event in history. I don't know what I'll say yet, because I don't know enough about it myself."

Irene Tusken stayed in the area and lived almost to the 21st century. Yet little is known about her. It was Sullivan, not Tusken, who first made the allegation to his father, who called Police Chief John Murphy at 3 a.m. on June 15, according to information compiled from the Minnesota Historical Society. Murphy arrested 13 black circus workers just before their train was to leave for Virginia, Minn. He released seven workers and jailed six.

Tusken's name was never used in newspaper accounts of the day. She is mentioned in many stories, usually referred to as "the 18-year-old (sic) West Duluth girl."

When a reporter interviewed Irene and her father, William Tusken, two days after the lynchings, she stood by the rape story. She also said she believed the men who were lynched were guilty.


But her father, a civically active letter carrier, said he regretted the mob violence and even said he had considered going downtown on the 15th to try to stop it.

Reports that Irene Tusken was dead or dying inflamed the mob. But the News Tribune only reported that she had suffered a "nervous breakdown," and by the time she was interviewed, the reporter said she was "resting easily."

Despite the rape claims, Dr. David Graham, the physician who attended Irene, found that she was in good physical condition with no evidence of rape or assault.

Nash said the Irene Tusken Anderson she knew didn't match the picture of a young woman whose accusations could have led to mob justice carried out against innocent men. She described her great-grandmother as a devout Catholic who was deeply in love with her husband, Elmer Anderson, who died in 1988.

Nash was in high school when Anderson died in 1996 at age 94. Her mother, Sue Maeder, acted as Anderson's caregiver during her latter years, so Nash had frequent contact with her great-grandmother.

"We were over there a lot," Nash said. "My mom was very close to her."

But no one in the family said anything about the lynchings. "I can understand why it wasn't talked about," Nash said.

Bonnie Drake of Solon Springs, Wis., also said the family never talked about it. Drake isn't a family member, but she was a close friend of Rosemary Sampson, Irene Anderson's daughter; and Drake's mother and Anderson were close friends. Drake knew about the connection, though, because her mother told her about it. "Whether it was a rumor or whether it was true, I didn't know."


Drake knew her friend's mother well, and described Anderson like this: "She was very quiet, very reserved, very ladylike."

The number of people left who knew Irene Anderson is dwindling. Nash's mother, Sue Maeder, died in 2007; her grandmother, Rosemary Sampson, died in 2009. Mike Tusken, who was profiled in the June 13 story, said he probably knew his great-aunt but has no memories of her.

Irene Tusken's grandson, Michael Sampson, 47, of Mason City, Iowa, remembers Irene as the quintessential grandmother.

"We spent a lot of time together," said Sampson, a sales representative who has three children. "She was everyone's grandma -- a very warm, caring, loving, Christian gal."

Like Nash, Sampson said he hadn't heard of the family connection to the lynchings until family members started talking about it last week. In 25 years of living in the Twin Ports, he said, he never heard anything about the lynchings. He expressed surprise that it was getting attention 90 years after the fact.

Nothing about his grandmother suggested a sorrow from her past, Sampson said.

"When you're ... 19 years old, the things that you do -- she obviously could have been a different person," he said.

Related Topics: CRIMEHISTORY
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Bygones is researched and written by David Ouse, retired reference librarian from the Duluth Public Library. He can be contacted at