Duluth’s Black Hand Bomb Plot Conspiracy of 1920

Many of Duluth’s older stories – especially its stories of tragedy and loss – have become hidden in cob-webbed archives and forgotten by local storytellers only to become part of legend and distant memory. Many of the tales that give Duluth its unique character have passed into the darkness as newsworthy events become faint memories and are then lost in a matter of years.

While parts of Duluth’s history have faded into the darkness, local historians work to uncover the tales and shine some light on events and people that are long gone into our city’s past. That’s part of the reason why we decided to start our Duluth Dark History Tours – to shine some light on events and people that have been forgotten and to uncover some of Duluth’s darkest secrets.

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Duluth’s Dark History Bus Tour exploring Canal Park. Photo: The Duluth Experience.

Related: Duluth’s Dark History Bus Tour

We love digging for old stories from Duluth’s rich history. You could say it’s a passion because… well… it is! I hope you enjoy Kyle’s latest article on Duluth’s Black Hand Bomb Plot Conspiracy of 1920. And if you’re interested in exploring more stories like this one please check out our Dark History Bus Tour in October!

Duluth’s Black Hand Bomb Plot Conspiracy of 1920

By Kyle Chisholm

This long-forgotten story all started with a boy and his lucky nickel… and it turned out to be a lucky day for the City of Duluth!

Think back to your childhood for a moment and remember how important your lucky nickel, dime, or quarter was to your bank account. Maybe it was an important part of your coin collection. Or maybe it was a part of your stash for buying chocolate candies at the corner store. Losing that coin probably put you in a troublesome situation and that situation might cause you to go to great lengths to recover it. Luckily for Duluth, the determination of a young boy to recover a lost nickel in October 1920 helped to uncover a more sinister tragedy before it happened.

Had little Jimmy Olson just shrugged off the loss of his precious five cent piece we may be telling a much different and much darker tale.

It was October 12th, 1920 and 4-year old Jimmy lost his nickel outside his home at 2516 West 3rd Street. According to the Duluth News Tribune article from the following day, part of the sidewalk in front of their home was constructed of wooden planks spanning a 9 to 10-foot trench between the street and the building that the Olson family lived in.

When Jimmy dropped his nickel, it rolled across the sidewalk and fell through a gap between the planks. Mrs. Severt Olson – compelled by her son to recover his fortune – descended into the passage and rummaged through banana crates, boards, and straw in search for the coin. The boys mother found something much more than her son’s lost treasure.

Related: A Fateful Ferry in the Duluth Harbor

Mrs. Olson had considerable difficulty finding the coin among all the debris and when she pulled aside one pile of straw she found a beaten up leather suitcase and strange crate next to it. As she reached in to move the box she noticed the label “Du-Pont”. Worried, she notified Oscar Lindberg – the owner of the meat shop below her apartment. Oscar decided that the police should be contacted.

Bomb Plot Conspiracy in Duluth

Duluth News Tribune headline from October 13, 1920. Image: Duluth News Tribune.

Lieutenant Carl E. Holstrom was dispatched to the scene and upon inspection, he uncovered nearly 20 pounds of nitroglycerin caps (1000 in all!) along with 300 fuses and battery wires.

Explosives were commonly used in the construction of Duluth’s streets and sewer lines, but there was plenty of evidence to suggest these items were not accidentally left behind from an era of construction. Despite the age of the suitcase, the fuses and battery wires were identify as fairly new. The meat shop owner testified he had been in the space two months earlier looking for a coin that another child had dropped and had seen neither the suitcase nor the crate.

Furthermore, officials of Du-Pont locations in the Twin Cities had reported a recent theft of explosive materials while Duluth officials had previously received a series of sinister threat letters, known as "black hand letters," that were usually used as a form of extortion. What the letters specifically said, the Duluth News Tribune article on October 13th did not say. The evidence, however, seemed to indicate that Duluth was at the center of a black hand bomb conspiracy! A state inquiry was launched and briefly reported by the local newspaper on October 14th.

The police had made a connection between the stolen dynamite case in Duluth with anonymous threats of explosions that had been made around that same time in Chicago. Yet despite the seriousness of the conspiracy allegation, nothing seems to have ever come of the supposed bomb plot and investigation. I couldn’t find any follow up articles related to the topic. I find that strange in and of itself!

Bomb Plot Conspiracy in Duluth

Duluth News Tribune clipping from October 14, 1920. Image: Duluth News Tribune.

I went so far as to contact Du-Pont to see if they had any records regarding the matter (or at least the 1920 theft) and they put me in touch with the Hagley Museum in Willington, DE, which handles archiving of Du-Pont materials. Unfortunately, they had nothing either.

At the very least, then, I decided to head out to 2516 W. 3rd St. to see if I could find the location where explosives had been found nearly 96 years ago. Unfortunately, there was no 2516 address. There is a 2518, however. And upon inspecting that building, I've concluded it may be the same location, but with a new number. It's clearly set back from the street like Mrs. Olson described in the paper, has living space on the upper levels, and appears to have a lower level that could've once been retail space…like a meat shop.

If this truly is the location, one has to wonder how many lost coins might still be buried down below. Thanks to young Jimmy's mishap and his mother’s determination at least the dynamite has been removed.

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Join us for The Dark History Bus Tour and explore Duluth’s Dark History with fun, expert guides from The Duluth Experience this October.

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