Legacy of Violence: Lynch Mobs and Executions in Minnesota

By John D. Bessler | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 8
A Travesty of Justice
The Duluth Lynchings

Efforts to reinstate Minnesota’s death penalty followed swiftly on the heels of Representative George MacKenzie’s 1911 legislative victory. In the next election, Ernest Pless, a young Republican miller from Gibbon, ran against MacKenzie, defeating him by a substantial vote. Pro–death penalty sentiment in MacKenzie’s legislative district almost surely contributed to the loss. A local newspaper, in fact, had expressed the view in 1911 that life sentences were an inadequate punishment for crimes like the James-Younger gang’s notorious bank raid. “The old-timers will remember that many years ago Minnesota did away with capital punishment in response to a demand of mawkish sentimentalists,” the paper said. “This was followed by an epidemic of homicide and lynchings,” it added, “winding up with the well remembered Northfleld bank robbery and murder.” While Pless won the election, he was unable to pass a new death penalty law. MacKenzie still knew many influential legislators, and Pless’s 1913 bill to reinstate capital punishment floundered. Other pro–death penalty bills introduced in 1913, 1915, and 1919 also failed to garner enough support to become law.1

Though efforts to reinstate capital punishment always failed at the state legislature, the people of Duluth, living along the rocky shore of Lake Superior, decided to take the law into their own hands in the 1920s. It all started when a traveling circus from Peru, Indiana, the John Robinson’s Circus, came to town in yellow and red train cars. An arch

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