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Finnish immigrant was 'victim of warmongers' 100 years ago in Duluth

Olli Kinkkonen's headstone in Park Hill Cemetery sits near the graves of Isaac McGhie, Elmer Jackson and Elias Clayton, the victims of the 1920 lynching in Duluth. Kinkkonen was buried in an unmarked grave until 1993, when the Tyomies Society installed a headstone that reads "Olli Kinkkonen, 1881 — 1918, Victim of Warmongers." Jimmy Lovrien / Forum News Service

DULUTH — Olli Kinkkonen renounced his United States citizenship to avoid being drafted into World War I. One hundred years ago Tuesday, Sept. 18, a mob of warmongers retaliated.

On the night of Sept. 18, 1918, the group of five or so, claiming to be members of the "Knights of Loyalty," found Kinkkonen, an immigrant from Finland who worked as a logger and dock worker in Duluth, at his 237 S. 1st Ave. E. boarding house.

The mob threw him inside a vehicle, took him to Congdon Park and interrogated him on his loyalty to the U.S.

Kinkkonen's answers didn't satisfy his captors, who then tarred and feathered him.

It was the last time Kinkkonen was seen alive.

"Nobody Knows Where Olli Kinkkonen Goes But He's Sure Gone," the News Tribune wrote in a headline.

On Sept. 30, 1918, Arthur Fox, who owned a cabin on the east side of the Lester River and a mile north of the Lester Park Pavilion, found Kinkkonen with a clothesline around his neck, hanged from a birch tree, his body decomposed.

Although the Duluth Police Department ruled his death a suicide, others called it a lynching.

They pointed fingers at the Knights of Loyalty, which had publicly and proudly claimed responsibility for tarring and feathering Kinkkonen in a phone call to the newspaper the night of the tarring.

The mob, sometimes called the Knights of Liberty, promised to intimidate the "slackers" avoiding military service "whatever the cost in blood, treasure and sacrifice."

Sixth Judicial District Judge and author Mark Munger incorporated Kinkkonen's life into his novel "Suomalaiset: People of the Marsh" about Finnish immigrants in the Northland.

Based on his research, he doesn't believe Kinkkonen killed himself over embarrassment from the tarring.

"I just don't buy it ... no Finns would buy it," Munger said. "Didn't make a lot of sense to me."

Dissent was unusual a century ago, so retaliation for those differing beliefs was common.

"It was seen as an act of patriotism," said Duluth historian and author Tony Dierckins.

One hundred years ago, Finnish immigrants were near the bottom of the social and economic ladders. That, coupled with Kinkkonen's opposition to the war, made him a target.

"Foreigners were always looked on suspiciously, and anyone against the war was against the country," Dierckins said.

Munger agrees.

"Whether he killed himself, which I doubt, or whether he was lynched, which he was, it had to do with his political beliefs," Munger said. "He did not want to go serve in Europe in the war that made absolutely no sense to a common, ordinary man."

The forgotten lynching

Kinkkonen was buried in an unmarked grave in Park Hill Cemetery until 1993 when the Tyomies Society, a Finnish-American group, installed a headstone which reads "Olli Kinkkonen, 1881 — 1918, Victim of Warmongers."

Kinkkonen's grave in Park Hill Cemetery sits in the same section as the graves of Isaac McGhie, Elmer Jackson and Elias Clayton, the three black circus workers who were falsely accused of rape and lynched by a mob in 1920.

Through a memorial and educational programming, most Duluthians know about the 1920 lynching but have heard little about Kinkkonen.

"We didn't hear about either of them for a while," Dierckins said. "The other lynching had been kept pretty quiet until Mike Fedo's book came out."

Fedo's "The Lynchings in Duluth" is how Munger learned of Kinkkonen.

Munger said most people don't know about Kinkkonen because of the shoddy investigation compounded by a busy and disastrous news cycle.

Less than two weeks after Kinkkonen's body was found, the fire of 1918 blew through the Northland, killing and displacing scores in Moose Lake, Cloquet and parts of Duluth. At about the same time, the 1918 influenza pandemic was raging. And in November, WWI ended.

But even in one hundred years later, Munger and Dierckins agree Kinkkonen needs to be remembered.

Said Dierckins, "If you don't know your past, you don't know your future."

Jimmy Lovrien

Jimmy Lovrien is a reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. He spent the summer of 2015 as an intern for the Duluth News Tribune and was hired full time in October 2017 as a reporter for the Weekly Observer. He also reported for the Lake County News-Chronicle in 2017-18. Lovrien grew up in Alexandria, Minn., but moved to Duluth in 2013 to attend The College of St. Scholastica. Lovrien graduated from St. Scholastica in 2017 with a bachelor's degree in English and history. He also spent a summer studying journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

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