February 22, 2024

From the Vaults: History . . . Part 2


     In Part 1 of History . . ., we learned about the rise of D.C. Stephenson to the position of Grand Dragon of the Northern KKK in the early 1920s.  Following the story in Timothy Egan’s book A Fever in the Heartland (Viking Press – 2023), we discovered that the events he described did not take place in the deep South as one might suspect for Klan activity, but in the state of Indiana.  With hundreds of thousands of devoted followers donning the white sheets of the Invisible Empire across the midwestern states, Stephenson had visions of taking control of the country from ‘sea to sea, North to South’.  As the presidential elections of 1924 neared, it seemed he might just get what he wanted so badly.

     The tale of D.C. Stephenson is a true story of grift.  He spun his own history with a web of ever changing lies and nobody bothered to check for ‘facts’.  ‘Steve’ marveled in his ability to manipulate masses of people with out and out lies – the bigger the lie, the better.  In truth, he was a son of the soil who grew up in a soddy house in Oklahoma.  As soon as he could distance himself from those humble beginnings, he began to weave the web of lies about himself.  With each telling, Stephenson’s life story grew more fantastical.  D.C. married twice, abandoned both families (something he never mentioned), and then re-invented himself again up north.  

     His arrival in Evansville, Indiana coincided with the New Ku Klux Klan’s plan to expand across the Ohio River into the northern tier of the country.  Whether Steve believed in the new KKK’s vision of white supremacy and the inferiority of all other races and religions outside of their own is immaterial.  Stephenson saw the new Klan movement as a way to gain power and wealth with the only tools he had on hand:  his ability to lie and pretend he was doing everyone a favor by bullying those who the KKK wished to quash.  The monumental growth of the movement in the North included another plan – that of setting up a shadow government to extend the Klan’s long reach into the statehouse in Indiana and eventually to the White House.

     Along the way, Stephenson got too powerful and the bond he had with his mentor, national Grand Wizard Hiram Evans, was broken.  Evans began to distance the national KKK from their northern cousins, but he took notes on D.C.’s successes.  Steve was on a roll and was prone to saying things like, “I am the law in Indiana.”  There is no doubt he thought he was above the law of the land.  “I can get anyone to sign an affidavit for $30 and have someone killed for $50,” was another one of his favorite musings. 

    There were some pockets of resistance among the churches and press, but they could make little headway when so many in power hid behind the mask of the brotherhood.  Muncie newspaper editor George Dale was one of the most outspoken of the anti-Klan, anti-Stephenson factions.  Dale was jailed repeatedly and nearly driven out of business by Klan leaning authorities, certainly at the direction of D.C. Stephenson.  In spite of the resistance, D.C. and the Northern Klan were poised to become a political power ready to seize control of the government.   Things began to slowly unravel when D.C. met Madge Oberholtzer.

     Madge Oberholtzer was described as a woman of her age – ‘smart, independent, and daring.’  Madge was a well thought of student at Butler College, but she left school after her third year, three months after the United States declared war on Germany.  She was active in many circles that supported the war effort.  In the days before a paved highway west of Iowa existed, she and a good friend drove cross country in her Ford Model T to California just for the adventure.  The 1923 trip drained her savings.  Upon returning to her home in Irvington, Indiana, she took a job with the State Department of Public Instruction’s Young People’s Reading Circle.  She was happy to be living at home and helping her folks with their mortgage.  The Oberholtzers were already supplementing their income by taking in boarders.

     When the state assembly moved to eliminate her department, Marge remembered a profile she had read about D.C. Stephenson in the Indianapolis Star.  The piece glorified the lies he had told about himself when he arrived in the state (rich parents, college graduate, went to law school, etc).  Having walked by his mansion many times, seen the cars of well-to-do people attending his parties, and hearing about his political connections, she wondered if he might be able to intervene to help save her department and job.

     Madge was certainly aware of Steve’s Klan leanings but she was not at all in line with any of the agenda items they represented.  She could not just knock on the door and ask for a favor from the man who controlled the state.  She got her chance to meet him on January 12, 1925 at the inaugural ball for the new Klan endorsed governor D.C. had ushered into office.  Madge helped a friend (who had worked with the new governor when they were both with the Secretary of State’s office) organize the ball.  She reserved herself a seat at the head table across from Stephenson intending to use the opportunity to gain his support.  D.C. abandoned his date for the evening and asked Madge for a dance.  She marked the occasion as ‘mission accomplished’ when he told her, “I like you.  I like you very much.”  A few days later, he called and asked her to stop buy his office.

     Stephenson’s interest in Madge was a two-sided coin.  Yes, she was a beautiful young woman and Steve was never shy about turning on the charm when someone caught his eye.  Unknown to  the public, there was a long line of women he had abused but they were too terrified to bring it to the authorities (most of which were Klan connected anyway).  Secondly, he saw another money making opportunity that perhaps Madge could help him with.  Steve was so deep in the pockets of the government in Indiana, his assistant Court Asher said, “The legislature had an unofficial fifty-first member (a Klansman) who sat next to the speaker of the house.  He would bring the bills being considered to Stephenson and Steve would say which ones would be passed and which ones would be killed.  There was no argument.  Just an order.”

     One of the bills Stephenson wanted passed would require all schools in the state to teach a mandatory nutrition class.  He planned to have Madge ghostwrite a book with him on proper diet. If every school child in the state had to buy it, it would give him yet more money in his coffers.      In exchange for helping the Grand Dragon secure another income stream, perhaps he would talk to a few people in the state government about her department.  Steve made no promises or guarantees because a cad like D.C. always knew how to bait the hook.  It was leverage like this  he used to get together with Madge for business meetings, but usually it was a pretext for a social engagement.  Madge did not like the man or his politics, but she felt she had control of the situation.  She underestimated how mad D.C. really was and it would end up costing her dearly.

     On Sunday March 15, 1925, Steve began drinking heavily in the early afternoon.  His two bodyguards, Earl Klinck, Earl Gentry (known collectively as ‘The Earls’), and his driver Shorty DeFriese were with him.  In the early evening, he ordered one of his lackies to call Marge at home.  Her mother reported she wasn’t there and promised to have her call D.C. as soon as she got back.  The impatient Old Man had his men repeat the call several times until Madge finally arrived home and called him back.  D.C. was insistent they meet that night to talk over the book business.  Tired and facing a Monday at work, Madge tried to decline until Steve told her he was sending over his car to pick her up and then hung up.  One of the Earls arrived and ushered Madge to the waiting car.  He didn’t even give her time to get her hat before he whisked her out of the house (and Madge never went out without her hat).

     What happened next is still blood chilling to read today and this is a pared down version.  The already inebriated Stephenson had two of his goons force several strong drinks down Madge’s throat when she declined his first offer.  She protested and told Steve she wanted to leave, but he refused to let her go or even call home.  Steve informed her they were going to Chicago by train and no amount of reasoning would get him to change his mind.  Madge reminded him that kidnapping was a crime, to which he responded, “I’m the law in Indiana.”  On the train, Steve assaulted her violently, biting her repeatedly in a burst of savagery that is hard to fathom.  One of the Earls occupied the bunk above them but said nothing.  They never made it to Chicago, detraining in Hammond, Indiana instead.  D.C. knew enough to not risk a federal offense by crossing the state line.  The trio herded Madge into a hotel at gunpoint and refused her pleas to let her get medical treatment for her wounds.  Stephenson registered them as man and wife under an assumed name.  She passed out and awoke the next morning in pools of her own blood and  excruciating pain.  

     At some point, Steve fell into a drunken sleep and Madge took his gun with every intent of shooting him.  She could not bring herself to kill him (or herself) to escape.  One of the goons took her to a pharmacy to get medical supplies where she also purchased some pills she knew to be poison, Madge plotted to end her misery one way or another.  The pills caused her even more pain and when D.C. discovered she had taken them, he was enraged, but yet took no steps to seek medical help.  He had a car driven 160 miles from Indianapolis and then they drove back, again ignoring Madge’s wishes to get medical treatment.  After holding her hostage above the garage at his mansion, D.C. had one of the Earls drop her off at her home.  The goon carried her upstairs and left her in bed.  One of the boarders asked what happened and he claimed Madge had been in a terrible car crash.  The ‘Earl’ gave the border a false name when she asked who he was.  Meanwhile, Steve busied himself dreaming up some sort of cover story that would absolve him of any blame.

     The Oberholtzer’s were, naturally, horrified at the condition they found their daughter in.  They summoned medical help but by then, the poison and infected wounds were already inching Madge closer to the grave.  When they finally got some details, they summoned their family lawyer.  The doctor did his best but told the family there would be only one end to this sad story.  As she weakened, the lawyer and Ermina Moore, Madge’s good friend, took notes as she told the horrifying story of her 38 hours in captivity.  The 3,000 word dying declaration was read back to Madge who then signed it.  Madge told the doctor, “That’s alright.  I am ready to die.  I understand you.  I believe you and I’m ready to die.”  Madge suffered for 29 days before succumbing to the combined effects of the poison and her battered body while Steve hid behind the walls of his mansion feeling no remorse for his actions.

     It was difficult to get authorities (infused with members of the brotherhood) to arrest and charge the Grand Dragon.  A veteran detective of Irish heritage (another one of the Klan’s target groups) volunteered to make the arrest.  Stephenson posted bond and the legal wranglings began.  D.C. hired a team of seven lawyers for the upcoming court case while telling the press, “Nothing to it.  I’ll never be indicted.  It’s a frame-up, a smear supreme.” 

      What Stephenson had not counted on was the public outcry that ensued as details of Madge’s death became known.  The national Klan in Atlanta cut all ties with him.  His old mentor, Imperial Wizard Evans, had been following the political angle Steve was running in Indiana and planned on a similar coup in Washington, D.C.  They disavowed his actions because every detail of Steve’s private life was in total violation of the image of an ‘anti-drink, pro-women civic group’ the Klan wanted to project.

     The defendant’s lawyers requested a change of venue which was granted.  The trial of the century would take place not in Indianapolis, but in a town of 5,000 residents on the White River;  Noblesville, Indiana.  They also made moves to have the dying declaration quashed while trying to sully the reputation of the deceased.  The prosecutor in the case made an opening statement touching on all of the horrific things that had happened to Madge.  He had to be careful as the judge had not yet ruled if her dying declaration would be admissible.  The defendant’s lawyers chose to say nothing in response. 

     Steve’s lawyers were banking on a couple of things.  First, that the judge would not allow the prosecution to use Madge’s last words against Steve.  Secondly, there was a good chance the men sitting in the jury box had taken the oath that would protect D.C. Stephenson:  ‘I swear that I will most zealously and valiantly shield and protect by any and all justifiable means and methods White Supremacy.  I will seal with my blood by Thou my witness, Almighty God.’

     The to the dismay of the defense team, the judge ruled:  “There is no doubt but that the dying declaration should go in.”  They were further disappointed the judge would not let them read the few paragraphs about their first meeting – it would have been their opportunity to show Madge  was enthralled with Steve and that they had a romantic relationship.  In court that Saturday morning, the prosecutor read Madge’s words to the jury.  He knew ‘he could not fail his star witness’.

     In Indiana, it would take only one juror to balk at a conviction to end the case.  Stephenson’s henchman had collected enough money for a bribe and selected two jurors to target.  If they could get even one to hold out, Steve was a free man.  This plan failed when they could not gain access to the jury once they were sequestered.  In the end, there were four holdouts but still, the deliberations only lasted five hours.  The holdouts were not in favor of finding D.C. not guilty – they were holding out for the death penalty.  Stephenson was later sentenced to life in prison.  When he could not convince the governor (whom he had pushed into office) to intervene, Steve became a willing witness for the grand jury established to root out Klan corruption in the state’s government.  D.C. would remain behind bars, but he had to show the world how smart he had been.  This was only partly true;  he mostly wanted revenge on the governor and his former minions who would not free him.  In his mind, his troubles were all the result of, “the fiendish workings of the conspiracy” that had put him behind bars.  Steve still showed no remorse in his evil deeds and even implied Madge may have deserved what she got.

     There had been a few voices who tried to raise the alarm about the Klan, but it took the death of Madge Oberholtzer to stem the tide of hatred being spread by the Invisible Empire.  Indiana was the first domino to fall in a chain of events that would eventually bring down the national Klan as well.  Fortunately for us all, American’s opened their eyes and democracy prevailed.  

      It would take two more FTV articles to fully explore how D.C. Stephenson’s downfall undid the Klan movement so we will leave that story for perhaps another time.  I will let Timothy Egan’s words summarize this outrageous episode from a century ago:  “Democracy was a fragile thing, stable and steady until it was broken and trampled.  A man who didn’t care about shattering every convention, and then found new ways to vandalize the contract that allowed free people to govern themselves, could do unthinkable damage.  So now all the world knew what Stephenson had master-minded.  There were two governments in Indiana:  elected officials going though the motions of a representative democracy, and a dictatorship run by the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.”  

     There is a coda to this story that underscores Egan’s words above.  Before Stephenson was released from prison in 1950, Will Remy, the prosecutor in the Madge Oberholtzer case, visited him.  Remy asked if D.C. had been serious about running for the White House before he derailed his own plans.  Steve said, “You wouldn’t have called it President.  The form of government might have changed.  You might have had a dictator.”


Top Piece Video – CSN&Y with one of the best FREEDDOM SONGS ever written – sandwiched in with DAYLIGHT AGAIN and a bunch of tuning – RIP David – too bad you all fell out with each other – in the days when you got along you were a great band!