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Contact Jack K. Overmyer:
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Published November 16, 1999

The Ku Klux Klan’s invasion of Indiana in the 1920s

1st in a 5-part series

One of my earliest, and most indelible, childhood memories is that of standing with my parents on the corner of Jefferson and Seventh Streets, watching robed and hooded figures in white emerge from a large brick house, each carrying a torch. I see them form into a line on Jefferson and march silently southward.

Transfixed by the exotic effect, I was much too young to know what was happening and only much later learned that it was the start of a Ku Klux Klan parade by masked members who did not wish to be identified.

The Klan in Fulton County? I often wondered what was that all about. Over the years I occasionally asked persons who were there to tell me about those days, but always met a stone wall of silence. Nobody was willing to speak of it.

Their reticence was understandable, for the corrosive influence of the Ku Klux Klan on Indiana’s social, political and governmental structure in the 1920s is a dark chapter in the state’s history. Indeed, one of its legacies is the unfair perception by many outsiders that reactionary elements still dominate our state.

Those who were adults during Klan times all are gone but the record of those days still exists. From it emerges a story that in turns can be astonishing, shocking, courageous and even amusing. It shall be the subject of this and the next four columns.

But first, the national aberration known as the Ku Klux Klan should be examined if one is to understand the events that took place in Fulton County.

The Klan of the 1920s was the second of three separate incarnations this secretive, racist organization has undergone in America. The first occurred in Tennessee and existed from 1866-72. It was violent, striking at blacks and carpetbaggers in the South after the Civil War. The third arose in the 1960s as a reaction to the black movement toward civil rights. It continues today, peopled mainly by the radical fringe, vigorously opposed by the mainstream of citizens, yet ominously continues to attract followers.

Neither of these incarnations, however, matched the second rising of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and the growth, political power and acceptance it received for awhile, particularly in Indiana.

This revival of the Klan (whose name is from the Greek kuklos, circle) began at Atlanta in 1915 when a former Methodist minister, William Simmons, formed a group of white supremacists. Before long it had broadened its appeal to those harboring a wider bigotry and prejudice.

This Klan stood for patriotism and Protestantism but also preached a hatred directed mainly at other whites: Catholics, Jews, the foreign-born, radicals or any other deviants. There was not much terrorizing of blacks, for they then voted with the Republican party to which the Klan was closely linked. Only later did blacks defect to the Democrats, their flight induced partly by the Klan’s excesses.

The Atlanta-born KKK spread rapidly from Georgia, peaking at five million members. It was particularly strong in Midwestern states and Indiana became its showcase; there was a chapter in almost every Hoosier county.

The Indiana Klan fought its enemies mainly with intimidation and secrecry rather than deeds. Masked and robed Klansmen silently marched down Main streets, burned crosses as signs of displeasure or warning, organized boycotts of Catholic and Jewish businessmen, spread rumors and issued threats. They often ostentatiously interrupted Protestant church services to leave large cash offerings.

There was not much actual Klan violence nor any lynchings. Nevertheless, the Klan’s arrogant and persistence presence in public life developed in many Hoosiers an uneasiness they never would forget.

By 1923 there were in Indiana 250,000 men in the Klan, representing 30 percent of all native-born white men in the state. Several influences brought about this surprising number: a strong nativist sentiment that resented anyone foreign-born; a belief that leaders of the Catholic church in Rome coveted control of the federal government, and the compulsion of Hoosiers in that day to join any new organization. The Klan fed on all these conditions.

By the summer of 1923 the Indiana Klan had become so ambitious that it tried to open its own university. Today’s Valparaiso University was a tiny and financially troubled college at that time. The Klan concluded a deal to buy it and offer a “100 percent American” curriculum, but at the last moment the national headquarters in Atlanta refused to provide the money.

And then in November of 1924 the Klan reached the peak of its Indiana power when its hand-picked candidate for governor was elected, along with many Klan-backed Legislative candidates.

The Klan leader behind the college plan and the infiltration of Indiana
politics was David Curtis Stephenson. His story is next.


Published November 23, 1999

D. C. Stephenson, evil genius of Indiana’s Ku Klux Klan

2nd in a 5-part series

D. C. Stephenson created the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana almost single-handedly but at the moment of his greatest triumph, he destroyed it with his arrogance and debauchery. Setting out to prove his declaration that “I am the law in Indiana,” he wound up instead a convicted murderer.

The son of a Texas sharecropper, Stephenson had only an eighth-grade education. A drifter and womanizer, he appeared in Evansville in 1920, the same year that the Klan did. By then D. C. had become a friendly, aggressive coal salesman who caught the attention of Klan organizers. He accepted their job offer as a way to move ahead in politics.

He was so successful in selling Klan memberships in Evansville that he was sent to Indianapolis in 1922 to organize the rapidly expanding Indiana recruiting effort. That year he also took part in a revolt that replaced William Simmons as head of the national Klan with a Texas dentist, Wesley Evans, and thereby moved close to the seat of KKK power.

Thenceforth D. C. made himself into the embodiment of the Indiana Klan. A man of medium height with fleshy face, ruddy complexion, blue eyes and dimpled chin, he was a powerful orator with charming personality and possessed great organizational and propaganda skills. In 1923 he became the big boss: Grand Dragon of the Indiana Realm of the Knights of the Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan.

And that planted the seed of his eventual destruction, for he was inherently evil, a man more interested in personal power than principle and in his own pleasures than in improving humanity. His wild mood swings were unpredictable; not so his steady drinking.

Nevertheless, he saw to it that by 1923 the Klan was organized throughout Indiana. Its night parades became common in Hoosier cities and in some of them, such as at Muncie, many bystanders were beaten for refusing to take off their hats when the Klan marched by. Cross burnings also were held in many places to impress and intimidate crowds: Franklin, Fort Wayne, Edinburg, Noblesville, Winchester and, as we shall see, Rochester and Kewanna.

Two specific Klan events in Indiana are worth noting to illustrate its scope.

On July 4, 1923, the largest rally in Klan history was held at Kokomo’s Mehalfa Park, three miles west of the city, with Imperial Wizard Evans attending. On hand were 10,000 Klansmen from Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio.

There were speeches, lunch along Wildcat Creek, games and a night parade in downtown Kokomo with 12 floats and nine bands. More than $50,000 was collected to build a hospital to replace Kokomo’s only Catholic-run hospital but none of the money ever was turned over to the building committee. Burning of a 60-foot cross and fireworks ended the day.

In South Bend on May 17, 1924, another tri-state Klan meeting and march precipitated a riot. There were many opponents of the KKK among South Bend’s large Hungarian and Polish immigrant population. Students from Catholic Notre Dame also showed up to protest the march and in the ensuing fracas most of the Klansmen were roughed up badly; only a downpour ended the affair. All the time, police looked the other way.

The Klan infiltrated the Indiana political system, filing candidates for party control and public offices in every county. In the 1924 election the effort paid off: Republican Ed Jackson of New Castle was elected governor. He was Stephenson’s man, having accepted $227,000 in campaign funds promising in return to appoint Stephenson’s picked men to state positions.

Many Klan-backed candidates were elected to what came to be known as the Klan Legislature of 1925. Bills were introduced that would introduce Klan policies into education, or would produce political payoffs; none of the bills passed, however.

Stephenson, now only 34, was puffed with pride. He not only had the Indiana governor to do his bidding but soon would add the mayor of Indianapolis, John Duvall, elected in 1925 with Klan backing. D. C. had a yacht moored on Lake Erie and a net worth of $900,000 made from keeping part of every fee paid by Klan members. He was ready to make a new fortune off his Indiana political connections.

Then in January, 1925, he met Madge Oberholtzer, a comely 28-year-old Indianapolis woman who aroused his omnipresent lust. In March he forced her to accompany him and his two bodyguards on a night train to Chicago and during the trip he viciously raped her. She left the train at Hammond where she procured and took poison. Stephenson returned her to Indianapolis but callously refused her medical treatment. She finally was allowed to return home where she died a month later, but not before dictating a long affidavit about her ordeal to her attorney and physician. They had Stephenson arrested.

After a spectacular trial at Noblesville that captured national attention, D. C. was convicted of second degree murder for withholding medical treatment to a dying person and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was pardoned in 1956 and died in obscurity in Tennessee in 1966.

Stephenson’s downfall crushed the Klan in Indiana. Public revulsion about KKK influence in state politics brought resignations and indictments of state and municipal officials. The Klan’s reputation was in shambles and by the end of the Twenties it had become only a bad memory. What it would have become without Stephenson’s repugnant behavior remains one of history’s riddles.

With a knowledge of its influence in Indiana during the 1920s now established, the Ku Klux Klan’s presence in Fulton County can be recalled next.


Published November 30, 1999

75 years ago, the Ku Klux Klan attracted 583 men here

3rd in a 5-part series

The climax of Rochester’s Ku Klux Klan experience came 75 years ago on a festive summer Saturday. Old Glory was flying from almost every store and residence, for it was Flag Day, June 14, 1924. In the city was a crowd the size of which “seldom if ever” had been seen before, according to The Sentinel. People were jammed together along East Ninth and Main streets in front of their autos that were parked two deep.

They were waiting for a night parade promised by the more than 1,000 Klansmen from miles around who were gathered for a rally at Long Beach amusement park on the northeast shore of Lake Manitou. The Klan was out to impress the public with its power and magnificence.

At 9 p.m. the hooded and robed Knights of the Invisible Empire began an elaborate procession led by high Klan officials on horseback, followed by two bands, a few drum corps, orderly ranks of marching Klansmen and floats depicting KKK principles of patriotism, Protestantism and family. The Daily News counted 672 people in the eight-block long parade, which required 13 minutes to pass a given point as it proceeded from Long Beach west on Ninth to Main, then north to the Erie Railroad and back again to the lake.

The presence of so many citizens for this event quite likely reflected the judgment of most of them that whatever else the Klan professed to be, it was entertainment. Certainly it never represented the views of a majority of Fulton County’s 17,000 inhabitants.

When one of the Klan’s closely-guarded membership lists surfaced earlier in 1924, it was found to contain 583 names. With perhaps another 300 belonging to the Klan’s women’s auxiliary, the Kamelia, less than 1,000 had signed on to the Klan’s racist philosophies. Critics who examined the list mocked the Klan for boasting of its extreme patriotism. It was noted that of the 583 men on the list, only 31 had served in World War I and just 10 were members of the local American Legion Post.

More tolerant succeeding generations may consider 583 a number still too large for acceptance, yet contemporary observers believed that more than half of the 583 were inactive, having signed under duress or to please the recruiter, friend or relative. Never did the Fulton County Klan prove itself capable of influencing the course of local government or other public affairs, nor did it resort to any acts of personal violence against its detractors.

The Ku Klux Klan came to Fulton County the night of September 29, 1923, when an ex-minister from Knox organized the chapter at a meeting attended by 150. It was held at the Academy of Music building, Fifth and Main, the remnant of which just now has been torn down. Even before the meeting Indiana Grand Dragon D. C. Stephenson’s organizers already were at work in the county signing up women and children for the Klan’s auxiliaries.

For a meeting place, the local Klan chapter first rented the Moose lodge quarters on the second floor of today’s Sentinel building, but in late January, 1924, it was evicted by a 27-13 vote of Moose members. Many of the lodge had opposed the rental from the beginning, considering the Klan undesirable because of its stand against foreign-born citizens; the lodge’s national president was a native of Wales.

The Moose was not the only local organization to oppose the Klan’s intimidating activities and racist philosophies.

In May, when the United Brethren minister was announced as speaker for the upcoming Memorial Day ceremonies, Civil War veterans of the G. A. R. post called him a Klansman and said they would not attend the event if he spoke. An acceptable substitute, the Grace Methodist pastor, quickly was arranged.

In November, the Klan asked permission to use the high school gymnasium for a rally that would feature visiting Klan notables. The school board refused to grant it. The gym was for school purposes only, trustees said, and anyway it was owned by taxpayers who in the main were opposed to the Klan.

After being turned out by the Moose, the Klan secured a meeting place in May of 1924 by buying one. It was the once-palatial two story Victorian brick residence of the late Dr. A. H. Robbins, purchased from his widow for $5,000.

Local wags began calling it “Night Shirt Hall” from the long white robes the masked Klansmen affected for its parades. The Robbins house was located across from the Grace Methodist Church at Seventh and Jefferson Streets and the site now is a church parking lot. It was from that building that my childhood eyes saw the hooded Klansmen emerge, probably during the Klan’s last days of 1928 or 1929.

The Robbins house assumed a sinister aura until the order disbanded near the end of the decade and, becoming vacant, fell into local lore. It remained broodingly dark and mysterious thereafter and for many years schoolchildren habitually ran or walked a bit faster when passing it at night. In 1944 it was converted to use for awhile as the School Door Canteen, an RHS recreation center. Klan paraphernalia found in the house at that time disappeared, but nobody today recalls in what direction.

Those Rochester residents with whom I’ve spoken and who in 1924 were children, teenagers or young adults have only sketchy memories of the Klan. One recalls watching a march as a child from atop her father’s shoulders at Main and 11th Streets and seeing a hooded Klansman unexpectedly wink at her when he passed. Another remembers a cross that was burned on a hill south of the Citizens Cemetery, still another spoke of watching a night Main Street parade when some of the disguised Klansmen yelled greetings at her and her family.

In Kewanna an active Klan group put on regular cross burnings, parades and even staged one shocking incident, all of which were documented more than 20 years ago by remembrances of people who were present. That tale’s next.


Published December 7, 1999

Witnesses testified about Ku Klux Klan days in Kewanna

4th in a 5-part series

The difficulty one encounters in recreating the days of Ku Klux Klan dominance in Indiana during the 1920s is that all the adults who witnessed or took part in those events are gone.

The reason that obstacle doesn’t hamper an examination of Kewanna’s KKK history is due to Wade Bussert, who as a Kewanna High School senior in 1975 became interested in the subject. He interviewed nine local people with memories of the Klan days, two of them being former members, and produced a paper for his English class taught by Doris Hill (who gave him an A).

Wade’s family, the Barnetts, helped settle Kewanna in 1837 and has been there ever since. I first read his Klan report in “Fulton County Folks, Volume II,” published by Fulton County Historical Society in 1981. Recently he graciously shared with me some of the research he produced 24 years ago that gives a more personal look at this distant phenomenon.

Kewanna’s Klansmen were part of the larger Fulton County chapter and participated in some of its activities, but also pursued its own agenda at home where Catholics were a major object of their displeasure.

Why this was so can’t be adequately addressed here. By the 1920s the Catholic church had been a respected part of southwestern Fulton County for many years. St. Ann’s Catholic Church first located in 1860 north of Grass Creek. It had been on the Kewanna scene for only a few years, however, moving into its present church building in 1919, four years before the Klan’s outbreak. Some of the group may have resented these new churchgoers in their presence.

The Klan was persistently obvious around Kewanna from 1923-25, until Grand Dragon D. C. Stephenson was carted off to state prison as a convicted murderer and the order lost all semblance of respectability. Only once, however, did the Klan shock the community.

That came one evening while Father Michael Shea, the priest at St. Ann’s, was speaking at Kewanna High School’s baccalaureate ceremony. The Klan crept up behind the school, set off a stick of dynamite and burned a cross, venting its objection to the priest’s appearance. To his everlasting credit, it was said, Father Shea did not acknowledge the explosion of bigotry in any manner, continuing his remarks without interruption.

The Klan met regularly at The Grove, a stand of trees at the corner of East and Park streets on the south edge of town. Bussert for a time possessed a copy of the Klan’s secret membership list and showed it to those he interviewed. It contained 577 names, only six less than were on the similar list that surfaced in Rochester about this time. Not all the names were from Kewanna, then a town of perhaps 700 people, but also from Rochester, other county towns and Pulaski and Cass counties.

Kewanna Klansmen paraded regularly down Main Street and often burned crosses at the Pennsylvania Railroad depot on the east edge of town. Except for the dynamite explosion, no violence was remembered by any of Bussert’s informants.

One of the latter was Herb Washburn and he had vivid memories of those days because his father, Dr. John Washburn, the town’s family physician with an office on Main Street, was a vehement opponent of the Klan.

Dr. Washburn got possession of the Klan membership list somehow, had it printed himself and distributed copies to lift the veil of secrecy so zealously guarded by all Klan organizations. He once put a sign in his office window taunting Klansmen: “When the roll is called up yonder will my name be on it?” The next day another sign was pasted on the window from the Klan. It read: “We’ll be there; 100 percent strong.” Herb said his father was threatened with violence on a few occasions. “It bothered him not at all,” recalled the son.

For Bussert, Washburn remembered many Klan threats against opponents, but could recall no action as a result. The Klan generated a lot of ill feeling among citizens on both sides, he admitted, and he particularly resented its call for removing Catholic teachers from the schools. “That was silly. We had lots of such teachers and they were good ones.”

Otherwise, Herb had a rather light-hearted attitude about the Klan. One of its members was a friend who told him the night of a parade that he would drop his torch when he passed so Herb would know him. It happened just that way, causing Herb to shout out: “Well, if I had a face like yours I’d wear a mask all the time.”

Margaret Brennan, a Catholic interviewed by Bussert, confirmed the incident involving Father Shea and recalled that church members in town “were uneasy about the Klan’s attitudes toward them but never were afraid of being attacked or killed or anything like that.” Her father John, she said, spent time traveling the countryside advising farmers “not to listen to such trash as the Klan was telling.”

It is reassuring to learn of those who courageously opposed the Klan in Fulton County, such as Dr. Washburn and John Brennan. Its most implacable foe, however, was Harold Van Trump of Rochester. His inspiring story will conclude my venture into this suppressed, shameful period of local history.


Published December 14, 1999

Harold Van Trump, relentless foe of the Ku Klux Klan

Last in a 5-part series

When the Ku Klux Klan rose up in Fulton County in the early 1920s, the leaders of Rochester society reacted to it in various ways. Some became active members; others joined but kept their distance. Some refused to join yet tolerated its existence; others opposed it and kept a suspicious eye on its progress.

Among them was Harold Van Trump, known as Herd, a newspaperman who quickly anointed himself as the Klan’s worst enemy and became its constant gadfly. He instantly recognized the Klan for what it was, an abomination, and he fought its progress in the columns of his newspaper with relentless vigor and journalistic cunning.

The Van Trumps were an old-line Rochester family. Herd and his brother Pete had been in the publishing and printing business here since their youths. By the time the Klan appeared, Herd was editor of one of the city’s two newspapers, The Daily News, a Republican organ that then occupied the same Eighth Street building as does The Sentinel today.

Through his newspaper, Herd pounced upon the Klan as soon as it began to spread through Indiana. He denounced its evil premises, warned that it was coming to Fulton County and published the first accounts of its local organizing efforts. In regular editorials, Van Trump revealed that the Klan was nothing more than an elaborate scheme to enrich its leaders in Georgia and Indianapolis, condemned its opposition to Catholics and Jews “many of whom have dwelt long and honorably among us” and scoffed as absurd and unconstitutional its plans to supply citizens with better law enforcement than that being provided by legally elected officers.

Thus attacked, the Klan struck back. At the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve of 1923, a band of 41 robed and hooded Klansmen marched from the Courthouse square onto Eighth Street. They formed a circle around an 18-foot cross in front of the Daily News building, set the cross afire, sang “America,” and offered a loud prayer that the editor would see the error of his ways.

It bothered Herd not at all. He published a story about it at the top of page one, noting that “few Rochester Kluxers took part . . . most came from the western (Kewanna) part of the county.”

As the May 1924 primary elections approached, Van Trump advised his readers that the Klan was seeking to control both Republican and Democratic parties in the county. Men never before active in politics were filing for precinct committeemen and as state convention delegates, he announced.

Suddenly, a means to oppose this insidious plan fell into his hands: a copy of the Klan’s secret local membership list.

It seems that an active member of the Klan, a man named Hiatt who recently had moved to Rochester, needed money. He offered the list of 583 members for sale at $1 per name. Herd raised the cash, bought the list and granted Hiatt his request for a three-hour head start out of town before the sale was made public. Hiatt, it was said, already had his household goods packed when he got the money.

With this weapon at hand, Editor Van Trump resumed his battle against the Klan in earnest. He published the primary election ballot and placed a star beside every candidate he now knew was NOT a Klan member. An unstarred candidate who wished to gain a star beside his name in subsequent publications had only to make a public disavowal of the Klan to the editor. A few did just that and were granted the distinctive emblem.

At this time also, a group calling itself the Citizens’ Horse Thief Detective Association suddenly appeared. Its officers requested that county commissioners deputize 70 of its members, granting them police powers and the right to carry guns. Van Trump expressed his horror at the thought of officially arming these men as a kind of vigilante force. He declared almost all them were Klansmen and published their names. Commissioners never responded to the request.

In the May primaries the Klan scored impressive victories throughout
Indiana, but not in Fulton County. All Klan candidates for state delegates but one were defeated by decisive votes here; in every contest in which a Klan candidate sought to be a precinct committeeman, the anti-Klan candidate won.

For his strident opposition to their attempt at a political takeover, Klansmen paid Van Trump a second nocturnal visit. Knights of the Invisible Empire appeared at 9 o’clock the night after election and burned another fiery cross, this time in a vacant lot across from his residence at Pontiac and 13th streets, vanishing quickly afterward. Herd published an account of this event too, under the heading “Editor Signally Honored.” Obviously, he was enjoying the attention.

Before the general election of November, 1924, Van Trump once more repeatedly published a copy of the ballot with anti-Klan candidates starred. And, once again, Fulton County voters showed they were not swayed by KKK propaganda. Klan candidates for treasurer, sheriff and surveyor all lost. In the race for coroner, where both hopefuls were identified with the Klan, 553 voters refused to vote for either man.

Even though the Klan elected its candidate, Ed Jackson, as governor of Indiana, Jackson could not carry Fulton County, losing here by 63 votes. The Klan and its racist philosophy had been declared persona non grata at the local polls.

Afterward, Van Trump wrote that he was sorry he did not support the entire Republican ticket but he believed “the constitutional rights of the people were more important than party solidarity.” He congratulated the people of Fulton County “on the intelligence and honesty which directed their votes.”

Congratulations also were due Harold Van Trump, along with some admiration. His was the only newspaper voice raised publicly against the Klan’s threat to Fulton County life and to its government. The Sentinel in general had been content to cover Klan activities only as ongoing news events. While Herd’s editorial voice sometimes reached fever pitch, it never lost its wisdom, persistence nor courage. The county’s people were well served by his words and obviously agreed with their fact and logic.

The 1924 election was Herd’s valedictory to Rochester. On December 1, 1924, The Daily News merged with The Sentinel to form The News-Sentinel. Not being a part of the consolidation he moved on to newspapers in Marion, Wabash, LaPorte and Florida before returning to Rochester, where he died in 1932 at age 56.

When D. C. Stephenson, Grand Dragon of the Indiana Klan, entered prison in 1925 as a convicted murderer and when afterward some of the officials he had elected were convicted of bribery and corruption, the Indiana Klan he had created was disgraced, and fell into gradual decline. It existed awhile as a novelty but its reach for acceptance and political power was ended.

By the close of the 1920s this second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan had disappeared almost everywhere in Indiana, remaining only as a bad memory most everyone would prefer to forget.

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