Max Mason, who died in 1942, has become the first person to benefit from a posthumous pardon in Minnesota, a potent symbolic action at a time when Americans are confronting the roots of a racism that still taints substantial portions of society.
The pardon request was filed well before the May 25 death of George Floyd, a handcuffed black man who died when a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.
The killing, caught on video, triggered coast-to-coast protests, making the Mason pardon timely.
“100 years late, overdue justice has been done,” Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said on Twitter.
“The last weeks in MN have shown us we have a need for a better quality of justice. A pardon for Max Mason is another long-delayed step toward it.”
On June 14 of 1920, young white woman Irene Tusken and a male friend attended the circus in Duluth. The next day, the man told his father they had been attacked by black circus troupe members and that Tusken was raped.
Police rounded up and interrogated several black men including Mason, but the couple was unable to identify anyone as one of the attackers.
According to court documents, a doctor examined the woman but could find no evidence of assault.
Mason was released, and he rejoined the traveling circus as it departed Duluth. But police re-arrested him along with several other men.
Later that night, an angry mob broke into the police station and grabbed three men, dragging them through the streets before hanging them in front of thousands of people.
Duluth is the home town of famed folk singer Bob Dylan, whose 1965 song “Desolation Row” was written in part about the crime.
The city has apologized for the lynching and in 2003 erected a memorial to the three victims.
Mason escaped the fate of those three men. But he was sentenced to 30 years in prison, in part because it was learned that he and Tusken were both infected with gonorrhea, a common venereal disease.
“If he had been a white man, I am rather doubtful if he would have been convicted,” county attorney Mason Forbes said in 1923 pardon request.