A Fever in the Heartland: The Ku Klux Klan’s Plot to Take Over America, and the Woman who Stopped Them
Timothy Egan’s A Fever in the Heartland goes over a well-plowed patch of ground. The rise of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana in the 1920s as an important social movement was covered recently by Linda Gordon in The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition (2017, Liveright). Richard Tucker’s The Dragon and the Cross: The Rise and Fall of the Ku Klux Klan in Middle America (1991) was an earlier examination of the subject. Probably the book that is closest to Egan’s structure (though not his conclusions), including providing dates as the subheads for each chapter to underscore the relentless chronology of carnival politics, debauchery, and tragedy, is M. William Lutholtz’s Grand Dragon: D. C. Stephenson and the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana (1991, Purdue University Press). This does not nearly exhaust the list of books dealing with the “second” Klan, as it is called.
The most recent book on the subject is Madge: The Life and Times of Madge Oberholtzer, the Young Irvington woman who brought down D. C. Stephenson and the Ku Klux Klan by Charlotte Halsema Ottinger (2021, Irvington Historical Society), a detailed and lengthy biography of the woman Stephenson, Grand Dragon of the KKK, raped and mutilated and whom he was convicted of having murdered when she took poison to commit suicide. Madge was written in an effort to correct growing misperceptions about Oberholtzer’s character which have arisen in recent years. “The major role she played in bringing down the Ku Klux Klan and putting Stephenson in prison was only briefly acknowledged.” (Madge, 17) Perhaps this is a reference to Gordon’s book where Oberholtzer is granted two pages. “Assumptions were made about the nature of her relationship with Stephenson,” author Ottinger writes, “and thinly veiled accusations about her personal and professional life were inserted into regurgitated narratives. Victim-shaming began to permeate the retelling of her story, as if by denouncing her character, her murder would somehow be justifiable, or at the least, more palatable,” (Madge, 17) This is a reference to Lutholtz’s Grand Dragon, which suggests the possibility that Stephenson was framed and Oberholtzer was not a totally unwilling victim. Lutholtz writes: “My belief is that Madge committed suicide by taking poison in a larger dose than she intended in an attempt to strike back at a man who had rejected her. At the very least, I do not believe that she was the innocent young girl that the state’s attorneys depicted for the farmers who sat on the Noblesville jury.” (Grand Dragon, 315) Lutholtz emphasizes, among other things, that Oberholtzer was twenty-eight, college-educated, and well-traveled at the time of her death, not an inexperienced girl of eighteen who might have, more plausibly, felt ruined after the rape. (Grand Dragon, 317) Stephenson’s claims of being a political prisoner and innocent of murder were credible to Lutholtz. Ottinger offers us a feminist heroine: “Madge was brave. She was resolute. … Long before the ‘#MeToo’ movement, Madge Oberholtzer spoke truth to power, and she brought that power down.” (Madge, 19) To be sure, writers have had their agendas in re-scorching this clearly burnt-over district.
The story goes that the “second” Klan of the 1920s was different from the terrorist organization, founded by southern White supremacists during Reconstruction whose aim was the intimidation (by any convenient means of violence) of the freedmen and freedwomen who were trying to exercise their newly won citizenship rights. The original Klan, called “the most atrocious organization that the civilized part of the world has ever known” by the post-Civil War Justice Department, was brutal and so effective that President Ulysses S. Grant requested congressional legislation, what became known as the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, to end this thuggish insurgency. As Egan writes, “By the end of , 3,000 [Klansmen] were indicted across the South. A third of them were convicted and sent away with long prison terms. Acknowledging defeat, the Klan formally disbanded under an order from [former Confederate general Nathan Bedford] Forrest.” (A Fever in the Heartland, 10)
To be sure, writers have had their agendas in re-scorching this clearly burnt-over district.
“I did not sell the Klan in Indiana on hatreds,” proclaimed the ambitious and ruthless grifter and charmer D.C. Stephenson, “I sold it on Americanism.” (A Fever in the Heartland, xxi) If it was not hatred that the new Klan felt against their old bête noir, Blacks, and their newly designated enemies, the Catholics, and the Jews, it would have to pass as such until the real thing came along. But it was about Americanism, who was and was not American. The new Klan asserted that only the White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant was the true American; the others were aliens who were weakening, ruining the country. With White declension narratives like Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race; or, The Racial Basis of European History (1916) and Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy (1920) and The Revolt Against Civilization: The Menace of the Under-man (1922), it is hardly surprising that many White Americans launched a preservation-reformist movement that included eugenics, temperance, the glorification of White family life, opposition to immigration, and opposition to evolutionary theory which the Klan regarded as ungodly. (The Scopes trial would take place in Dayton, Tennessee, in July 1925; the following month, the new Klan would hold a monster rally in Washington, D.C., not entirely a coincidence.)
The new Klan also had the benefit of D. W. Griffith’s pro-White Civil War/Reconstruction epic, The Birth of a Nation (1915), which made the Klan the galloping heroes of an action movie. Griffith made the Klan pop culture stars, Rebels with a Lost Cause. The Klan was romanticized as the great redeemers of the White race and restorers of White power, staving off the debauched disorder of the Darkies. What the revived Klan did was tap two contradictory, yet complementary, strands of White paranoia: the nostalgic urge to resurrect a glorious settler/colonialist past and the urge for a modern, White future that tended toward the scientific construction of a master race. Stephenson was clever enough to tap into this to create a social club Klan built on bourgeois respectability and status, insider cliquish-ness with mass appeal. Perhaps the fact that the new Klan was a mass movement made it less appealing in the White South than in the Middle West, where it thrived. The new Klan lasted about as long as the old Klan, a few years.
Egan’s engaging account is simple: D. C. Stephenson was the archetypical stranger who came to town one day, in this case Evansville, Indiana, in 1922, “a young man on the make, and a quick learner. … His smile was toothy and his cheeks dimpled, his eyes blazed, his shoes sparkled, and his clothing was impeccable. He liked heavy food, a good cigar, and many a drink. He looked prosperous, even if he wasn’t. He sounded educated, an incontinent user of five-dollar words, even if the college he’d attended changed with each telling. But the truth of his background didn’t matter; his swagger was convincing.” (A Fever in the Heartland, 12) Stephenson built the Klan in Indiana with good marketing. He made the Klan stand for virtue: strong White families, temperance, and godliness. He was very successful in recruiting churches. He was a smart organizer, getting law enforcement to join in great numbers as well as low-level politicians. He could then exert pressure on those who were reluctant to join by stymieing career advancement through social ostracism and legal harassment. As the Klan’s coffers grew through dues and the sale of KKK regalia (required), Stephenson’s political power grew until he controlled Indiana’s Republican Party. Even the governor was a Klan member as were many of the judges. Stephenson himself, who took a cut of the dues and regalia sales, became wealthy as well. His ultimate aim was to become a U.S. senator and then president of the United States. Shades of Huey Long!
Stephenson was a wife deserter, a wife beater, a deadbeat dad, a rapist, a sexual harasser, and a drunk, all of which violated the moral Klan code he preached. This hypocrisy did not bother his followers, that is, those who knew about it. Great men have their excesses, it is conceded. But it would be his undoing as well as the undoing of the Klan in 1925 when he was tried and convicted for the rape and murder of Madge Oberholtzer. What principled opposition failed to do, scandal did right well.
Stephenson was clever enough to tap into this to create a social club Klan built on bourgeois respectability and status, insider cliquish-ness with mass appeal. Perhaps the fact that the new Klan was a mass movement made it less appealing in the White South than in the Middle West, where it thrived.
Egan takes a sympathetic view of Oberholtzer: she approached Stephenson with the hope that he could save the state literacy agency she worked for. She was self-assured but always wary of Stephenson, “Over the first two months of 1925, Madge gave up her hesitation and met Steve on several occasions. She controlled the play: she would go along with his flirting and the flaunting of his power to save her job and then forget this awful man, as he surely would forget her.” (A Fever in the Heartland, 189) Egan did not refer to their social meetings as dates. Stephenson surely thought otherwise. In this account, Oberholtzer emerges as a combination of the ingenue and the New Woman, assertive and feminist yet naïve about the limits of her power to contain Stephenson, to tantalize him without satisfying him, to use him without his being any the wiser. But she had to be aware, with his power over law enforcement and a good swath of public opinion, he could rape her with impunity. What could she do to stop him? As it turns out, short of committing suicide and providing a deathbed account of the crime, nothing. That seemed a considerable misjudgment to make in order to keep a job, but the exercise of power can be at its most arbitrary when the stakes are so low.
Oberholtzer went to Stephenson’s mansion late in the evening of March 15, 1925, under the impression they were to discuss a schoolbook on nutrition he had asked her to write. His defense later was why would she come to see him so late on such a pretext. It made no sense, unless their relationship was deeper than that of employer and employee. Instead, a drunken Stephenson raped and mutilated her (his teeth marks were on her breasts and across her body) on a train. While still under his henchmen’s control, she went to a drugstore on the pretense of getting makeup to repair how she looked. She bought and took tablets of bichloride of mercury, a drug taken in small doses that was sometimes used by women at the time to induce an abortion. Stephenson would later claim that Oberholtzer took the drug because she was pregnant or feared it. She took more than a small dose, clearly intending suicide, though regretting the decision shortly after doing the deed. She endured days of excruciating pain before she died. Stephenson was surprised that he was convicted by a bunch of farmers, the same sort of White folk he had successfully recruited to the Klan. Their indecision in reaching a verdict was not between conviction and acquittal but rather between the death penalty and life imprisonment. (A Fever in the Heartland, 320)
Timothy Egan probably chose to retell this story for four reasons:
• First, because the dominant party of Indiana was Republican, this story undermines the claims of White and Black conservatives that the Democratic Party alone was the party of segregation, violent bigotry, and the KKK;
• Second, the Klan’s claims of family values and godliness echo today’s White conservatives and thus ties them to racism;
• Third, the KKK’s influence on the passage of the 1924 federal anti-immigration act (the Johnson-Reed Act), echoes the anti-immigration of many White conservatives and Republicans today.
• Fourth, it takes up the cudgel of historian Richard Hofstadter’s formulation about the paranoid style of rightwing politics. The conservatives have historically not only been wrong and gruesomely violent but crazy too. That is quite the psychological trifecta of disparagement or derangement for the liberals in our game of political warfare.
There are three interesting things to note in A Fever in the Heartland: Blacks, particularly NAACP field secretary, composer, poet, novelist, and former U.S. consul James Weldon Johnson, are interspersed as players in this book but they played no direct role in the downfall of Stephenson or the Klan in Indiana. Egan points out that Johnson urged Blacks to abandon the Republican Party in 1924 without effect, nor should this call be seen as the foreshadowing of Blacks leaving the Republican Party in the 1930s. Many other factors made that happen, the biggest being the Depression. Some Blacks had encouraged the race to leave the Republican Party as far back as the late nineteenth century. Also, Blacks made up a small percentage of the population of Indiana and wielded little political influence in national politics at the time. So, their presence in the book, at times, felt a bit strained, although they had a stake in the destruction of the Klan and were often victims of White violence during the 1920s.
Stephenson would later claim that Oberholtzer took the drug because she was pregnant or feared it. She took more than a small dose, clearly intending suicide, though regretting the decision shortly after doing the deed. She endured days of excruciating pain before she died.
Egan, like Linda Gordon, (A Fever in the Heartland, 227; The Second Coming of the KKK, 93-94) mentions how Klan nightriders burned down the house of Earl Little, Malcolm X’s father, in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1925 because Little was a member of Black nationalist Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League. It is a bit of a tangent to the immediate story but worth telling. But as this is something one would expect from the Klan, it is a dog-bites-man bit. What the books I have seen on the rise of the Klan in the 1920s neglect to tell is Marcus Garvey’s meeting with the Grand Wizard of the Klan in Atlanta on June 25, 1922, in the hope that the Klan might be willing to invest in Garvey’s faltering Black Star Line; after all, so Garvey’s reasoning went, his group wanted to leave America as much as the Klan wanted Blacks out of the country, so they both had a mutual goal. Garvey saw the Klan as “the invisible government of America that was determined to keep the country white.” (Colin Grant, Negro with a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey, Oxford University Press, 2008, 320, 333-334) The news of the meeting turned into a debacle for Garvey. But here was a man-bites-dog story about Blacks and the Klan that should have been included in Egan’s book.
Egan is mistaken when he writes that “[by] the 1932 election, the Democratic nominee Franklin D. Roosevelt, won 71 percent of the Black vote.” (A Fever in the Heartland, 353-354) Herbert Hoover won the Black vote in 1932, the last Republican presidential candidate to do so. Roosevelt received only 21 percent of the Black vote. Roosevelt won the Black vote in 1936 in his landslide victory over Republican Alf Landon, estimated by some to be 76 percent. But as Roosevelt won in a landslide in 1932 over Hoover, (472 electoral votes to 59), did he really need the Black vote to stay in power?