John Maloney- Manslaughter and the Duluth Lynchings


John Maloney would have driven a wagon similar to this one for the John Robinson Circus.

Part 6 can be found here if you missed it…

After having tracked down Earl Masters the police determined that the John Robinson Circus commissary ticket found on the body of the Ragged Stranger had been in a jacket Masters had lent to fellow circus worker John Maloney. The police determined that without telling any of his fellow workers, Maloney had left the circus in Duluth, Minnesota, and made his way to Chicago with Earl Masters’ jacket on his back and the commissary card in his pocket.

The lead on Maloney looked promising; local hotel clerk, John Welland, confirmed he had a John J. Maloney on his hotel register as checking in Friday, June 18 three days prior to the murder and his signature was on the registry every day until the day of the murder, June 21. The clerk also found that Maloney had not checked out and still had an outstanding bill.

Maloney might have been trying to escape a past that had left a wide wake. The show in Duluth was the second to last show in Minnesota before the John Robinson Circus crossed the border into Canada for a string of eight shows. The fact that Maloney had a felony manslaughter conviction on his record would likely have presented problems at the border getting into Canada.

Drowning his sorrows on the night of September 25, 1913 Maloney had gotten into a drunken quarrel with a man named Christopher Kenyon in an Apponaug saloon, near Greenwich Bay, Rhode Island. Maloney hit Kenyon with a club, dragged his body into a swamp and stuffed mud and sod down his throat to silence his cries for help. He then returned to the saloon and resumed drinking before being arrested three hours later while still in the same saloon.

Maloney was twenty-seven years old at that time with a wife twenty years his senior and without children. She drained her savings to hire a top-notch lawyer to defend her husband and despite overwhelming evidence of his guilt, a murder charge was plead down to manslaughter and a sentence of ten years. Not bearing to be alone, his wife continued to spend every cent she could to free her husband. A request for a pardon was passed through the right hands and landed on Rhode Island Governor Livingston Beeckman’s desk. On April 25, 1918, after having served four years of a ten-year sentence for a callous murder, Maloney was paroled. He promptly repaid his loving, devoted wife by fleeing the state without so much as a goodbye.


Chicago Daily Tribune blurb on John Maloney, July 12, 1920.

After deserting his wife Maloney bounced from job to job and in early June 1920 was employed by the John Robinson Circus as a wagon driver. One of the highlights of every summer in the pre-television days was the circus coming to down. The big top, a midway teeming with circus barkers extolling their freak shows or trained wild animals; the circus was the place to be in Duluth, Minnesota the night of June 14.







A circus train loaded up with wagons ready to roll to the next stop. After leaving Duluth, the John Robinson Circus was headed to Virginia, Minnesota, before crossing the border into Canada for a string of shows.

Around nine o’clock, their show over, roustabout circus workers went about taking the big top down, loading wagons so that a driver like Maloney could then deliver the load to the waiting rail cars for their departure out of town to their next show. Eighteen-year-old Jimmie Sullivan had met his nineteen-year-old girlfriend, Irene Tusken, at the circus and what they did that night would affect multiple families for generations to come.

Sullivan would claim that a half dozen black circus workers had held a gun to his head while they raped Irene in front of him. Despite her having spoken to both her parents upon coming home that evening and appearing to both of them to be under no distress, the police were called and were told of the rape. The police arrested six workers that the two teenagers identified as those that had raped Irene.

A consequence of the early morning arrest was that the story, for the most part, was not mentioned in the morning editions of the local newspapers. In place of reading the story in print, news of the rape spread through the town via the grapevine. Irene’s age was gossiped to be eighteen, then fifteen, and then someone said twelve. Three, no it was five, maybe six, some heard ten Negroes raped her.

An extremely unfortunate exchange no doubt added to the rage; neighbors of the Tusken’s were walking by and saw Mrs. Tusken on the front porch. They asked her how Irene was doing. “She’s dead” was what the neighbor heard rather than, “She’s in bed” as the mother had said. Like Chinese whispers, the story was passed from person to person, more warped with each retelling. Flames of the townspeople were stoked, ultimately reaching the point where a mob walked on the jail that evening, a jail that was left in the charge of the city public safety commissioner.

With cries of, “avenge the wrong done the white girl” the mob grew.

The chief of police and two of his top deputies had left Duluth that afternoon for Virginia, Minnesota, to track down a few other circus workers they had been told might be able to shed more light on the alleged rape. With the chief gone, the public safety commissioner ordered the remaining police officers to avoid using their firearms under any circumstance.

He was reported to have said, “I don’t want to see the blood of one white person spilled for six blacks.”

A mob estimated near 10,000 faced little resistance and overran the jail and would eventually pull three young men from their cells, drag them through a gauntlet of angry men, women, and children before ultimately running a rope up over a light pole and lynching the three men downtown Duluth.

The mob had pulled twenty-year-old Isaac McGhie from the cell unaware that he had not been arrested for being part of the rape and had simply been held as a material witness.

Elmer Jackson, a young man of twenty-four, went about meeting his maker rather defiantly. At the base of the light pole with McGhie still hanging from it and a crowd screaming to have his neck stretched, he took a pair of dice from his pocket and rolled them on the ground. “I won’t need these anymore in this world,” he said to the mob about to kill him. “Well, you might want to roll them in the next,” he was told while being given his dice back.

As word spread among the mob that the chief of police was on his way back into town Elias Clayton, said to be about twenty years old, was quickly hung as well.

Before the mob dispersed, a car with a spotlight was pulled up to illuminate the scene; the mob posed for photos. Postcards would later be printed and sold. The graphic image can be found below.

Order was restored so to speak before anyone else could be hanged and soon the jail and remaining prisoners were protected by the National Guard. In the interest of assuring justice, the local district attorney promised charges would be filed and justice upheld.



The Duluth police headquarters pre-riot.


The Duluth police department post-riot.


A story and photo from the Duluth News.


A crowd poses for a photograph after lynching three innocent men for a nonexistent rape. Duluth, Minnesota, June 15, 1920.

A crowd poses for a photograph, that would be made into a postcard, after lynching three innocent men for a nonexistent rape. Duluth, Minnesota, June 15, 1920.

Seven Negro circus workers were charged with the rape of Irene Tusken despite detectives being told by her doctor that after examining her he did not believe she was raped and suffered from nothing more than “nervous exhaustion”. Of the seven charged, one man was found guilty and sentenced to seven to thirty years in prison. He was released after serving four years on the condition that he leave the state and never return.

Of a mob estimated near 10,000, there were thirty-seven indictments for rioting and murder handed down. In the end, three white men were convicted of rioting, with none serving longer than two years in jail.

No one was ever convicted for the lynching murder of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie.


Chicago Daily Tribune editorial about mob justice at the Duluth Lynchings.



The Duluth Rip-Saw

While it would appear the only guilty parties in Duluth that night were a pair of teenagers and a mob, the fact that Maloney abandoned the circus after the lynching on June 15, arrived in Chicago on June 18, and had the jacket he was wearing wind up in another front-page murder on June 21 begs belief. The connection of how Maloney was linked to both the Duluth Lynching and the Ragged Stranger murder has never been mentioned elsewhere.

Despite his proximity to both crimes, John Maloney was stout, with black hair and in his mid-thirties. The body in the morgue was slight in build with red hair and in his early-twenties. John Maloney was not the Ragged Stranger.

The police were back to square one.


Duluth resident Abram Zimmerman was nine years old at the time of the lynching and lived two blocks away. He told his son of the story and said son would later immortalize the Duluth Lynching in song.

“They’re selling postcards of the hanging;

they’re painting the passports brown.

The beauty parlor is filled with sailors,

the circus is in town.

Here comes the blind commissioner,

they’ve got him in a trance.

One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker,

the other is in his pants.

And the riot squad, they’re restless,

they need somewhere to go.

As Lady and I look out tonight,

from Desolation Row.”

Desolation Row by Bob Dylan


Part 8 coming Friday, June 15- Matson, Watson, and Reporters Solving Crimes

This blog aims to fill in the gaps where there is unknown, correct fallacies where they have branched away from the truth, and most importantly, to entertain and enlighten. It has been sourced from research for my upcoming book Kisses for Julia, Bullets for Ruth: The Mystery of Carl Wanderer & the Ragged Stranger.


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