A look at mob violence

On June 15, 1920, a young woman in Duluth, Minn., claimed she’d been raped, so police locked up several young men who worked for a traveling circus. One guy carried guys on his truck around the city exhorting other guys they saw to come down to the jail for the lynching. Olli Kinkkonen, an anti-war agitator, had been lynched not far away two years before, so they knew the drill. The truck made several loops, and that evening several thousand men, women and children gathered outside the city jail. The police were under orders not to shoot, and they obeyed.

With timbers and rails as battering rams, the mob broke down the jail doors, staged a trial of six prisoners, and convicted three of them. The crowd dragged them a couple of blocks, beat them, and hanged them from a light pole in downtown Duluth.

Around the turn of this century some Duluthians decided to memorialize the triple murder. Plenty of people had wanted to forget the whole thing, let bygones be bygones, let the dead rest in peace, don’t cry over spilt milk, and like that, but atonement was in the air and the memorializers won. The new Clayton-Jackson-McGhie Memorial Committee issued a request for proposals, and Carla Stetson, a local sculptor, asked me to collaborate. I said yes before she finished the sentence.

Her model looked like a book to me, and I naturally wanted to put some words on the pages. When I gave attention to what I thought about the murders I realized that it had all been said before. Voilà—quotations.

So what was there to say about mob violence and murder-as-spectacle? Plenty, but what did I want said about it? As I read about lynchings generally I realized that without forgiveness, a subtly selfish act with or without understanding, the whole enterprise was likely to be good mostly for the construction company that got the contract, in addition to Carla and me, so it could’ve been worse.

I picked quotations (Click on Quotations at from different people, from the Buddha to Anne Lamott, which isn’t as far as one might think. I wasn’t trying to please anyone and I had plenty of time for research. Now, seven or so years later, there’s one quotation I’d change, from Einstein, that goes, “The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” I liked it then, but the people in the mob thought they were doing something about evil, albeit only alleged and apparently bogus anyway. It was just a story. Oscar Wilde said, “The truth is rarely pure, and never simple.” Love that Oscar.