One of the stranger anomalies in Indiana history occurred in the 1920s, when hundreds of people, men, women, and even children, became members of the Ku Klux Klan.
While the images of masked, white-robed Klansmen conjure up frightening images of hate and disgust, the 1920s version of the Klan, at least in Indiana, was somewhat different than the white supremacist group that violently attached African-Americans for much of the nation’s history.
That’s not to say the 1920s Klan was good, either. It’s policies promoted discrimination, but much of its animosity focused on Catholics, Jews, and foreign-born people in an effort to promote “100 percent Americanism.” Black individuals were among the ostracized, too, but not the focus of Klan ire like it was in the South.
Outside of crimes committed by its leader D. C. Stephenson, there is no evidence of organized or targeted violence by the Indiana Klan of the 1920s.
The Klan was organized in Knox County in 1922. The following year the Knox County Klan held one of its largest gatherings on Labor Day at the Knox County Fairgrounds (where Gregg Park is today). The Vincennes Commercial, whose editor Thomas H. Adams supported Klan activities, then later railed against the group, reported that there were 10,000 to 15,000 people at the event that September of 1923.
It was a huge family-friendly summer social-like event, with plenty of food, entertainment, and other activities to keep crowds occupied. There were airplanes overhead, a parade by Klansmen, and fireworks in the evening. It was an all-American event.
The Fiery Cross, the Klan’s statewide newspaper, reported in 1924 that several Indiana communities, Kendallville, Logansport, Seymour, North Vernon, Paoli, and Vincennes would have Labor Day celebrations. One of the largest Klan rallies ever in the U.S. occurred that summer in Kokomo.
According to news reports, the Klan had thought about buying the Fairgrounds (the county fair had fallen on hard times) to have a home for its functions, but it later purchased Riverside Park in Vincennes (Kimmell Park), and renamed it Klan Park. According to the Commercial: “The Klan home, on the banks of the Wabash, is an ideal location for a gathering of this kind, as over a hundred large shade trees surround it and there is plenty of shade for the people these hot days.”
The Klan in Vincennes met on the first and third Mondays at the Knights of Pythias Hall on North Second Street. A document published in a 1989 book edited by H.R. Greenapple records that the Knox County Klan had 2, 241 members in 1924-25.
Many Americans joined a variety of groups during this time. Membership in civic and fraternal organizations grew heartily in the 1920s, as citizens wanted a sense of belonging. The first World War led to this phenomenon, as it did the anti-foreign sentiment expressed most ardently by the Klan.
If the rise of the KKK throughout the U.S. in the 1920s seemed somewhat odd, what happened to the Klan’s Indiana leader, Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson, is bizarre. His crime and subsequent conviction led to the demise of the Indiana Klan, and by the end of the decade, the popularity of the “Invisible Empire” throughout the nation had faded.
The 1920s Klan became a legitimate, but perhaps corrupt, political power. It’s rapid rise in Indiana politics was extraordinary. D.C. Stephenson, who first arrived in Indiana at Evansville, had a knack for political organization and persuasiveness. His ability was matched by his ego. He once declared that he “was the law in Indiana.”
Stephenson and his cronies worked to get local and state offices filled with the candidates who either subscribed to the Klan’s philosophy or those who respected the Klan’s ideals. The “Klansman’s Manual” states that true members could only be male (this was amended with the women’s auxiliary), a Gentile, native-born, white, protestant, Christian, and must be of “sound mind, good character, and of commendable reputation.”
The Klan of the 1920s worked to elect people to public office to enforce “legal, moral, and cultural stands of its own community as guidelines for proper ‘Americanism.'” The Klan was a beacon to those seeking these virtues, but a threat to others, such as Catholics, Jews, foreigners, bootleggers, feminists, intellectuals, and even “thrill-seeking teenagers.”
But Indiana’s Grand Dragon failed to live up to such ideals. Despite prohibition and the Klan’s alleged obedience to temperance, Stephenson liked to drink often. He liked women and was notorious for his drunken trysts with various female companions at his home in the Irvington area of Indianapolis.
The Klan’s political machine helped elect Republican Gov. Ed Jackson in 1925. Jackson, as well as other politicians, later suffered as political scandal haunted them thanks to their association with Stephenson and the Klan. The Indiana Republican party also suffered in subsequent years for the same reason.
After he was elected, Jackson refused to pardon or otherwise assist Stephenson when he was on trial for the abduction, rape, and murder of Madge Oberholtzer, a 29-year-old woman Stephenson coerced onto a Chicago-bound train. He then savagely raped her. Still held captive, Oberholtzer took mercury chloride tablets in a suicide attempt and later died.
After Stephenson’s arrest, and after being rebuffed by Jackson, the Grand Dragon wrote letters to newspaper editors (and anyone else who might listen), regarding political corruption within Indiana government.
This got the attention of Vincennes Commercial editor Thomas H. Adams. He and other Indiana investigated Stephenson’s charges that a “prominent politician” (alluding to Jackson) owed him thousands of dollars in campaign money and that the mayors of several cities and towns — including Indianapolis Mayor John L. Duvall — owed him as well.
After managing to get a jail cell interview with Stephenson, Adams wrote a front-page editorial that appeared in newspapers throughout Indiana. He said the state was faced with “a cabal strong enough to prevent this man, facing an eternity in prison from telling everything he knows.”
John Lewis Niblack, a Wheatland native who went on to be a Circuit Court Judge in Marion County, was a reporter for the Indianapolis Times in the 1920s. The paper gained considerable acclaim and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1928 for its work on state political corruption (even though Thomas Adams and the Commercial — where Niblack once worked — first challenged the Klan).
Niblack covered the Klan as well as Stephenson’s rape and murder trial, and he gives considerable attention to this in his biography, “The Life and Times of a Hoosier Judge:”
“In those six years I got a good education on political and Ku Klux Klan activities in the Hoosier State, and I believe there has never been another era in Indiana like that of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ for political corruption and skull-duggery in all the 153 years of its Statehood,” he wrote.
Niblack’s recollections, and newspaper articles of the day, are some of the best primary source material available on the 1920s Klan in Indiana. Niblack recalls being asked to join the Klan:
“One day I was over at the Court House in the Clerk’s Office, and a big Klansman Deputy Clerk, a Veteran of World War I, and a Republican, took me to one side and asked me, ‘How would you like to be naturalized tomorrow night?’
“I said, ‘What you do you mean naturalized?’
“‘Well,’ he said, ‘You know, you pay $10.00 and you get naturalized. We are going to have a meeting out at Bridgeport (Indiana) in a grove.’
“I said, ‘Well, I don’t have to be naturalized as I was born down by Vincennes, Indiana, and I am an American citizen and I have no reason to be naturalized, let alone paying $10.00. I suppose you are talking about the Ku Klux Klan?’
“He said, ‘Yeah, that is about it, you ought to join, everybody else is joining.’
Niblack declined, telling the clerk that he didn’t believe in what the Klan believed in and that he thought joining would be “un-American.” Many others Niblack knew, however, joined the group and in a few years wished that they hadn’t.
“It was less than five years when a lot of people wished they could get an affidavit to that effect,” Niblack wrote.
Stephenson was ultimately convicted of second-degree murder, and despite several appeals, was kept in the Indiana State Penitentiary until 1950, when Gov. Henry Schricker granted him parole. He broke parole, however, and was sent back to prison. In 1956 Indiana Gov. George N. Craig, gave him a complete discharge from prison. He left Indiana in 1961 and died four years later on June 28, 1966, in Tennessee.
Thus ended the tale of Indiana’s Grand Dragon. But the light of his Indiana organization, the Ku Klux Klan, had long since been extinguished.
By Bernie Schmitt
Sources researched for this story include: “Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928” by Leonard Moore (1991); “Grand Dragon: D.C. Stephenson and the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana,” by M. William Lutholtz (1991); “The Life and Times of a Hoosier Judge,” by John Lewis Niblack (1973); “D.C. Stephenson: Irvington 0492” Ed. by H.R. Greenapple (1989); “One Hundred Percent American: The Rebirth and Decline of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920: by Thomas R. Pegram (2011); and “Vincennes History You Don’t Know,” by Brian Spangle (2015). Some information was obtained from newspaper accounts and online sources.