By: Tim Bean
*A brief note, since I continue receiving affirmations that the KKK is alive and well. The KKK of the 1920s held hundreds of thousands of members and had national organization. It is long gone. Today’s KKK-Lite numbers a few thousand in isolated pockets without any central cohesion and spends most of its time on the Internet. Its current existence is similar to the Nazis. The actual Third Reich-Nazi party vanished, but neo-Nazis still hang around.
Considering this news site’s tone, I sincerely hesitate to bring up this subject, but I think in today’s charged atmosphere, it’s worth discussing. I am proud of Indiana, and there’s many things to be proud of, but there’s also episodes of shame. Just like every county, state, city, community and family.
Regarding Indiana, the associated episode I always hear is the legacy of the KKK. It should not be the defining event of my state, just as slavery should not be the defining event of the United States. I also believe examining mistakes under a harsh light is preferable to ignoring them.
I used to tell this same story to classrooms of students who often repeated the same twice-told tales of Indiana’s history with the infamous Klu Klux Klan. History is never as simple as any story makes it, even this one, but this hits closer to truth than most.
The KKK Does Not Really Exist Anymore
Pockets of groups claiming to be the KKK are still milling about our country, but they number only a few thousand delusional members. No nationally-organized group still exists. Until the late 1920s, the KKK stood as a moderately powerful political group and had say and sway in local elections and legislation. Today’s Klan crawls along in secret, disconnected fraternities, emerging only occasionally to spout their brand of poison. In Indiana, yes, but in many other states as well.
Most Indiana Counties Resisted Klan Influence
The population belonging to the Klan in the 1920s would terrify you, but only if you ignore a map of Indiana’s counties reflecting that membership. Most counties on the edge of the state, along the borders of Michigan, Illinois, Ohio and Kentucky, had comparatively low membership. It’s important to note these reflected a national and international trend, not just a state trend. Racism in the 1920s wasn’t just alive; it was a kangaroo on a springboard. It’s no coincidence that the Great Migration, eugenics, and a opportunistic German corporal’s politics rose at the same time. Not just an ugly state, but an ugly world.
The Klan Held Power in Indiana Very, Very Briefly
This dark period in Hoosier lasted only from the mid-to-late 1920s. For a few years, the Klan had significant presence in electing Indiana legislators (including its governor), but it did not last long. Denunciation happened dramatically and effectively. All because of Mr. D.C. Stephenson.
The Fall and Fall of D.C. Stephenson
There’s no need to talk about the rise of DC Stephenson. If you’re interested, look it up. I’ve included some resources on the bottom of this article. His time as Grand Dragon of the Indiana KKK made him unrivaled in power and wealth in Indiana and soon he broke off from the national group to form his own. A bad, bad man. One good thing about history is that the bad guys, 99% of the time, get their comeuppance. DC Stephenson got his.
In 1925, at the height of his power, Stephenson became enamored of a young schoolteacher named Madge Oberholtzer at the Indiana governor’s inaugural ball. She politely declined the man’s advances, but Stephenson persisted, eventually persuading her to join him for dinner to discuss her proposed adult literacy programs. He was, after all, one of the most influential politicians in the state. Their relationship didn’t evolve romantically but did professionally.
She believed his interest in educational initiatives genuine and saw herself as a close colleague. Eventually, their relationship collapsed again. Few details are known, but she attended a party at his mansion and, afterwards, never wanted to work with him again.
Stephenson called Ms. Oberholtzer late one evening and explained that, if she agreed to speak to him once more that night, he would guarantee the preservation of her reading programs, with the extortion implied. If you do not agree to seeing me, the programs are gone. She reluctantly agreed, and left her Indianapolis home escorted by Stephenson’s bodyguards late at night. She arrived at his house and, at gunpoint, was forced to accompany the politician to his private railcar north, where she endured several days of hellish abuse. These details I omit.
After four days, Madge Oberholtzer wanted a way out. Any way out. In the 1920s, a woman’s recourse for rape didn’t amount to much. She was dishonored in her culture’s eye, and this tragic figure decided suicide her best option. Under pretense of purchasing makeup, Ms. Oberholtzer and a bodyguard went to a nearby drug store. She surreptitiously bought a box of mercury chloride pills ( a common treatment for syphilis at the time). She ingested six of the tablets, a lethal amount, and soon grew so sick Stephenson took her back to Indianapolis.
Madge Oberholtzer lived long enough to detail Stephenson’s crimes to authorities, but died two weeks after ingesting the pills from a combination of infection and mercury poisoning. Doctors confirmed that even if she had not ingested the pills, she likely would have died from the abuse she endured during those four days.
Stephenson, the most prominent politician in Indiana and the national face of the KKK, was placed on trial and his crimes, horrifying in any era, suddenly reflected the truth of the Klan. How can this “respectable organization” be cultivated and led by such a man and not be just as monstrous? It can’t.
Indiana woke up from its collective nightmare and one-by-one politicians that relied on support or membership in the Klan lost their positions and power. Stephenson himself helped speed this along. Angry at how quickly his allies turned on him, he offered name after name of politicians in his pocket. Before the 1920s were out, Indiana had all but exterminated the Klan, leaving behind only a few isolated wisps.
So What’s to Be Proud Of?
There are two ways to answer this question.
First, is the answer I give you. Indiana’s citizens made a mistake. A terrible mistake. Horrifying. But it didn’t take them long to correct it. In fact, the speed at which the KKK lost power was far quicker than the lightning speed they gained it in the state. Racism still existed in the state, of course, just as it does now, but citizens very quickly decided a hate group wouldn’t dominate legislation or become part of respectable government. We can be proud that citizens eventually saw the man, and the membership, for the disease it was. And did something about it.
The second is the answer I gave my classes. My students came from a variety of places in Northwest Indiana, but most from Hammond. They knew the city very well. It was in Hammond that Stephenson brought Ms. Oberholtzer, and it was the Indiana Hotel (see image at top of article) they stayed. Right on the north corner of Hohman Avenue and State Street. It was at a little drug store on State Street next to the hotel she bought the parcel of pills. Obviously that’s not anything to be proud of, but I ended on this thought.
“Think about that. The greatest evil in the last hundred years of our country, with millions under its spell, fell apart right here, in your city, in your streets, on a forgotten corner now dominated by empty lots and train tracks, but still your city. ”
Oh, you should have seen the look on their faces.
The Site of the Indiana Hotel Today
For Further Reading:
Library of Congress. History of the Indiana Hotel. 1990. Retrieved from https://cdn.loc.gov/master/pnp/habshaer/in/in0400/in0450/data/in0450data.pdf
Abbott, Karen. Murder Wasn’t Very Pretty: The Rise and Fall of DC Stephenson. 2012, August. Retrieved fromhttps://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/murder-wasnt-very-pretty-the-rise-and-fall-of-dc-stephenson-18935042/
Linder, Douglas Professor. The DC Stephenson Trial. 2018. http://www.famous-trials.com/stephenson