|Published November 16,
The Ku Klux
Klans 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
Their reticence was understandable, for the corrosive
influence of the Ku Klux Klan on Indianas social,
political and governmental structure in the 1920s is a
dark chapter in the states 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
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
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
There was not much actual Klan violence nor any
lynchings. Nevertheless, the Klans 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.
Todays 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
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
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 Indianas 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 Kokomos 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 Kokomos 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 Bends 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 Stephensons man, having accepted $227,000 in
campaign funds promising in return to appoint
Stephensons 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
Stephensons downfall crushed the Klan in Indiana.
Public revulsion about KKK influence in state politics
brought resignations and indictments of state and
municipal officials. The Klans reputation was in
shambles and by the end of the Twenties it had become
only a bad memory. What it would have become without
Stephensons repugnant behavior remains one of
With a knowledge of its influence in Indiana during the
1920s now established, the Ku Klux Klans 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 Rochesters 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 Countys 17,000 inhabitants.
When one of the Klans closely-guarded membership
lists surfaced earlier in 1924, it was found to contain
583 names. With perhaps another 300 belonging to the
Klans womens auxiliary, the Kamelia, less
than 1,000 had signed on to the Klans 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
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.
Stephensons organizers already were at work in the
county signing up women and children for the Klans
For a meeting place, the local Klan chapter first rented
the Moose lodge quarters on the second floor of
todays 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 lodges
national president was a native of Wales.
The Moose was not the only local organization to oppose
the Klans intimidating activities and racist
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
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 Klans 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
Those Rochester residents with whom Ive 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 fathers 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 tales
Published December 7, 1999
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 doesnt hamper an
examination of Kewannas 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).
Wades 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.
Kewannas 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 cant be adequately addressed here.
By the 1920s the Catholic church had been a respected
part of southwestern Fulton County for many years. St.
Anns 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 Klans
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. Anns, was speaking at Kewanna High
Schools baccalaureate ceremony. The Klan crept up
behind the school, set off a stick of dynamite and burned
a cross, venting its objection to the priests
appearance. To his everlasting credit, it was said,
Father Shea did not acknowledge the explosion of bigotry
in any manner, continuing his remarks without
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
Klans 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
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
One of the latter was Herb Washburn and he had vivid
memories of those days because his father, Dr. John
Washburn, the towns 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:
Well 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 Id 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
Klans 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
Klans 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
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
citys 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
Suddenly, a means to oppose this insidious plan fell into
his hands: a copy of the Klans secret local
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
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
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
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 oclock 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
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 Klans 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 Herds editorial voice
sometimes reached fever pitch, it never lost its wisdom,
persistence nor courage. The countys people were
well served by his words and obviously agreed with their
fact and logic.
The 1924 election was Herds 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.