Nearly 100 years after being sent to prison, Max Mason, the circus worker accused of raping Irene Tusken in the case tied to the lynchings in Duluth, was pardoned.
The Minnesota Board of Pardons unanimously cleared Mason on Friday morning during its spring meeting, which was streamed on the Minnesota Department of Corrections’ Facebook page. Those who favored the move included Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, Attorney General Keith Ellison and Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea.
“This is 100 years overdue,” Walz said. “By not addressing this, it continued the systemic racism, it allowed the things that happened to happen. There is a direct line between Max Mason and Clayton, Jackson and McGhie. There is a direct line to what happened to George Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis. The inability for us to address the stain on our state for so long has led to those situations.”
Mason was sentenced to up to 30 years in prison for the rape of Tusken — which a doctor found no evidence of in the immediate aftermath. Treasure Jenkins, a member of the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial’s board of directors, said the pardon is a vindication — a small step toward acknowledging the racist policies in this country.
“It feels like a step toward telling the truth,” she said. “It’s a symbolic statement that turns the lens; it changes the lens of the dominant culture continually demonizing people with brown or black skin. People of African descent, Mexican descent, indigenous descent, should have as much access to dignity and respect as anyone else. It’s long overdue.”
A century is a long time to wait for justice, said Mike Tusken, Duluth’s police chief and the great-nephew of Irene Tusken.
“It was a great day for Max Mason and his family that justice was finally served, albeit delayed,” Tusken said. "He was undeservingly arrested and charged and convicted, but today was his day in justice.”
Heidi Bakk-Hansen, a writer who told the story of the lynchings in a 2000 article in The Ripsaw, a now-defunct alternative weekly newspaper, echoed Walz’s statement that the pardoning is long overdue.
“(Mason) had asked for a pardon,” she said. “It’s one of the things we as a community, as Minnesotans, can give him. We don’t have any other real tangible things that can be done to rectify the past. The three young men who were killed, murdered, we can’t pardon them. They weren’t tried in a court of law.”
Mike Tusken spoke during the meeting with the pardon board. He said he didn’t learn of his family’s connection to the lynchings until 2000. He described the case as one of shame — not just within his family, but within the city. As a police officer for 28 years and chief for nearly five, Tusken also called out the law enforcement officials involved who “ignored the facts, and relied wholly upon speculation, conjecture and intimidation.
“Not only is the conviction unjust; facts lacked the basis for arrest in the first place,” Mike Tusken said during the meeting. “It is said ‘justice delayed is justice denied.’ Justice was denied Mr. Max Mason during his lifetime. But this board has the opportunity to right this wrong today.”
Parallels were made between the events of 1920 and 2020 — when Minneapolis man George Floyd died after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes to detain him for allegedly using a counterfeit bill. Minneapolis lawyer Jerry Blackwell, in presenting to the pardon board on behalf of Mason, added the names of other African Americans who have been killed — Philandro Castile, Ahmaud Arbery, Jamar Clark, and Emmett Till.
“Mr. Mason was a victim of that very atmosphere of racial terrorism and a criminal justice process that was biased against him and that failed him,” Blackwell said.
The false charges against Clayton, Jackson, McGhie and Mason were “no different than Amy Cooper’s 911 call, but without the cellphone,” Blackwell said, referencing the case of a woman caught on camera making an emergency call from New York's Central Park about an African American man who was birdwatching.
Rogier Gregoire, on behalf of the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, asked the board to clear Mason’s name so that the people who still believe a crime might have occurred, that Clayton, Jackson and McGhie should have been lynched, are denied merit.
“We need to remove from the minds of all those people in Minnesota and across the world who believe that there is some thread of support for the notion that there might have been a crime,” he said. “The only evidence for that notion is the conviction of Max Mason.”
The Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial committee has spent years working on a pardon for Mason, an Alabama man who was pulled from a lineup of workers from the John Robinson Circus after the traveling troupe had moved on to Virginia, Minnesota.
On June 15, 1920, Duluthians broke into the jail and dragged Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie to light posts nearly a block away. Each was hanged in front of an audience of an estimated 10,000 people.
The employees of the John Robinson Circus had been accused of raping Irene Tusken while holding James Sullivan at gunpoint. There was no physical evidence that a rape occurred.
Three Duluth men served short prison sentences for rioting. Mason spent about five years in prison before he was released on the condition that he not return to Minnesota for at least 15 years.
Listen to the full audio from the pardon below: