They’re Selling Postcards of the Hanging: The Real Lynching in Dylan’s “Desolation Row”

On June 15, 1920, residents of Duluth, Minnesota lynched three African-American circus workers: Isaac McGhie, Elias Clayton and Elmer Jackson. An 8-year-old child named Abraham Zimmerman lived in Duluth at the time.  And he grew up to have a son named Robert, who would later become famous with the name Bob Dylan. So, the lynching that Zimmerman witnessed eventually played a role in what American Songwriter has called Dylan’s sixth greatest song of all time.

Abe Zimmerman reportedly taught his son about the lynching.  The lesson was similar to the way Woody Guthrie’s father told him about a lynching he had witnessed (that similarly inspired Guthrie to write an excellent song). Zimmerman’s story of the lynching in Minnesota and its aftermath eventually provided the imagery for the opening of Dylan’s “Desolation Row.”

The Crime and Arrests

In 1920, McGhie, Clayton, and Jackson worked with the John Robinson Circus as cooks or laborers. On the morning of June 15, James Sullivan called the police.  He told them that one night earlier his eighteen-year-old son and his son’s nineteen-year-old companion Irene Tusken had been held at gunpoint. Sullivan reported that his son told him that Tusken had been raped.

Reportedly, there was no physical evidence of the rape.  But the Duluth police rounded up around 150 circus workers.  Then, the police asked the teens to identify the attackers among the circus workers.

Six African-American men were arrested — including McGhie, Clayton, and Jackson.  Then, tensions rose in the community. Newspapers reported on the arrests and rumors spread around town.

The Lynchings

Eventually, a mob of 6,000-10,000 stormed into the jail.  They met little or no resistance from the police. They broke into the cells where they could, and they took McGhie, Clayton, and Jackson.

First, the mob beat and hanged Isaac McGhie from a lamp post, despite the objections of a priest. Then, they similarly beat and hanged Elmer Jackson and Elias Clayton.

The Minnesota National Guard arrived the next day to protect the three remaining prisoners.  But they were too late to help McGhie, Clayton, and Jackson.

Three men in the mob were convicted of rioting.  Each served less than 15 months in prison. Nobody was convicted of murder.

Seven of the remaining circus laborers were indicted for rape, and one man was convicted. Further, eventually it came out that Sullivan’s teen-aged son had made up the story of the rape that had set everything in motion.

As was the case with many lynchings of African-Americans during the early twentieth century, photos of the lynching were taken and sent as postcards. The photo features Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie, both shirtless, hanging from the street light with Elias Clayton’s body on the sidewalk,.  Members of the mob lean in to be part of the photo. Part of the photo is at the top of this post, but you may see the entire photo postcard here (warning: graphic image).

Desolation Row

Bob Dylan was born only 21 years after the lynching, and so he may have seen the photo postcards that circulated in the area. Thus, he begins his epic song “Desolation Row” with a reference to these photographs.

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.

The song continues, perhaps with “the blind commissioner” being a reference to the failures of the police to protect the three men. Of course, it is generally impossible to interpret every line of a Dylan song.

Yet, it is clear that the lynching is the jumping off point as Dylan delves into a number of themes.  “Desolation Row” continues with references to the circus imagery that provided the setting for the Duluth lynching.

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.

Recordings of “Desolation Row”

“Desolation Row” originally appeared on Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited in 1965. More recently, alternate versions from the original recording sessions were released on The Best Of The Cutting Edge 1965 – 1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 12.

Additionally, there are various live versions of the song.  One great live version appears on The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live, 1966: The “Royal Albert Hall Concert.” Below is another live version where Dylan changes up the music a bit, as he often does.

“Desolation Row” features some of Dylan’s greatest images, including the opening about the postcards of the hanging. In the book Keys to the Rain: The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, Oliver Trager describes the song as “science fiction noir where mythology and history’s heroes and heels lurk in the shadows of every alleyway.” He concludes that the song “is perhaps the the most nightmarish vision in Dylan’s canon.”

Legacy

It remains a mystery whether the three lynched men had committed any crime or whether the story was completely fabricated by the teen-aged boy. Race played a significant role in the lynching, and even today in typical criminal cases we know that eyewitness testimony is generally unreliable.

The 1920 lynching, either way, was certainly a tragedy.  Mob mentality and racial animosity took the lives of the three men.

Historically, lynchings occurred most often in the South against African-American men.  But it was not unusual for lynchings to take place in the North. There were at least 219 people lynched in northern states from 1889 to 1918. Although times have changed, we still see echoes of these acts of racial violence in the news today.

The Duluth lynching, in particular, has haunted those connected to it in various ways. The great-grandson of one of the Duluth lynchers wrote a book several years ago called The Lyncher In Me.

And Dylan’s “Desolation Row” is another kind of postcard of the hanging.  In the song, the lynching image mingles with other pictures that continue to haunt old and new listeners.

Partial photo of lynching via public domain. Leave your two cents in the comments.

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