September 8, 2017

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

History of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana during the 1920s

John F. FinkLast week, I wrote about the anti‑Catholicism that reappeared in this country about 100 years ago. It resulted in the revival of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) nationally, but especially here in Indiana where D.C. Stephenson was Grand Dragon, beginning in 1922.

Stephenson originally settled in Evansville, where he was successful at recruiting thousands of KKK members. He then moved to Indianapolis, living in a mansion in Irvington.

Stephenson spread the Klan’s anti-Catholic message through its newspaper, The Fiery Cross. It accused Catholics of being behind secret plots to overthrow the government and exterminate Protestants. Jews were also criticized and, to a lesser extent, blacks.

Stephenson was so successful that, between July 1922 and July 1923, almost 2,000 new members were added each week. Membership grew to 250,000, or about one-third of all white males in the state, the largest membership in the country. Since Stephenson pocketed part of each membership dues, he became wealthy.

In 1923, he severed his ties with the national organization, which had supported Democrats, and threw his support to the Republicans who then controlled Indiana’s government. Republican politicians joined the Klan because they learned that Klan endorsement was necessary to win office.

By 1925, over half of the members of the Indiana General Assembly, the governor of Indiana, and most other high-ranking officials in local and state government were KKK members.

In 1924, the Klan planned a large “Klavern” in South Bend as a protest against the University of Notre Dame. It was meant to intimidate its faculty and students because the university was Catholic. When Notre Dame students learned about the event, some of them met the train that brought the first Klan members. They roughed them up, shredded their robes and regalia, and forcibly put them back on the train.

South Bend police arrived and allowed successive trainloads of Klansmen to detrain. But clashes between students and Klansmen occurred throughout the weekend until Father Matthew Walsh, Notre Dame’s president, arrived to calm the students down. Football coach Knute Rockne then spoke at a campus rally and implored the students to refrain from violence.

The story of the clash was told by Todd Tucker in his book Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan, available in a Kindle edition at no cost.

By 1925, Stephenson was able to brag, “I am the law in Indiana.” But then, that year, after the inaugural ball of Gov. Edward L. Jackson, Stephenson abducted a young woman named Madge Oberholtzer, took her by train in a private car to Hammond, and repeatedly raped and beat her. They returned to Indianapolis where Stephenson continued to keep her in his mansion, but he finally took her back to her home. She died about a month later.

Stephenson was arrested and convicted of rape and second-degree murder. He expected Governor Jackson to pardon him, but that didn’t happen, and the Indiana Supreme Court upheld the court’s decision. He was in prison until 1956.

After that, members abandoned the Klan by the tens of thousands, and it never recovered. †

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