Weird But True
Under David C. Stephenson’s leadership, the Klan’s membership grew rapidly.
Madge Oberholtzer stared into the bathroom mirror and didn’t recognize her own face.
Drugged, abducted and raped, she had also been brutally tortured.
And yet her attacker, the influential head of the Indiana Ku Klux Klan, David C. Stephenson, was not afraid of reprisal.
“I am the law,” he told her, as Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Timothy Egan writes in “A Fever in the Heartland: The Ku Klux Klan’s Plot to Take Over America, and the Woman Who Stopped Them” (Viking).
The book describes the Prohibition-era tale of a power-crazed Klan leader and the woman, Madge Oberholtzer, that helped to bring him — and the KKK — down. It details one of the darkest periods in American history but also reveals how huge swathes of the population, especially those in the 1920s Midwest, could fall under the spell of a slippery charlatan who could “talk a dog off a meat-wagon,” as Egan writes.
Stephenson — or “Steve,” as he was known — was the Grand Dragon of the Realm of Indiana’s Ku Klux Klan and a man with presidential ambitions.
A serial adulterer and sexual predator, he studied the speeches of Benito Mussolini, and considered the fascist Italian prime minister his mentor, chiefly because he understood what made people hate others.
Within two years of joining the Klan, Stephenson controlled the organization in 21 states.
“The Klan owned the state,” Egan writes, “and Stephenson owned the Klan.”
Stephenson was a compulsive liar.
He once described himself as a “lawyer” when he joined a Masonic order, even though he had never passed a bar exam.
He also sold himself as the world’s “foremost mass psychologist.”
“He discovered that if he said something often enough, no matter how untrue, people would believe it,” Egan writes.
“Small lies were for the timid. The key to telling a big lie was to do it with conviction.”
Under Stephenson’s leadership, the Klan’s membership grew rapidly.
It was, writes Egan, “an easy sell in the South, playing to Lost Cause sympathies of aging slaveholders who passed on their prejudices to their twentieth-century grandchildren.”
The Klan permeated every aspect of society.
There were Klan-approved stores and Klan-biased news outlets spreading disinformation far and wide.
Children could attend “Junior KKK” meetings or “Tri-K Club,” where they could learn more about the Klan and what they stood for.
“The Klan made life less dull; it gave meaning, shape and purpose to the days,” writes Egan.
By day, Stephenson would hold rallies insisting that “America must close the door to the diseased minds and bodies and souls of the peoples of foreign lands.”
But they would also open orphanages and give money to churches and charities.
By night, though, Stephenson would hold lavish parties at his mansion, but he would also sign off floggings, whippings and acid-brandings of immigrants and opponents, safe in the knowledge that most police officers, and even lawyers and judges, were also oath-bound members of the hooded order.
Before one rally in Kokomo IN., Stephenson’s private militia kidnapped a minister who had been critical of the Klan.
He was found days later, unconscious, with the letters “KKK” branded on his back.
“I want people to be afraid of us,” said Stephenson.
As Egan writes: “The crowd could not know that their illustrious leader was a drunk and a fraud, a wife-beater and a sex predator, a serial liar and an unfettered braggart, a bootlegger and a blackmailer.”
It would prove to be his undoing.
When he met Madge Oberholtzer at the Indiana governor’s inaugural ball, he assumed she was just another in his long line of conquests.
When he summoned her to his mansion, his henchman Earl Gentry forced a drink on her that would make her feel dizzy and nauseous.
She was then piled her into a car at gunpoint and on to the last train from Union Station in Indianapolis to Chicago where, in a locked private compartment, Stephenson pinned her down on the lower berth and brutally raped her, biting her repeatedly and leaving her with wounds so deep they would soon become infected.
“All the while, she heard nothing from Gentry on the bunk above them,” writes Egan.
Oberholtzer was trapped.
She could try and escape, but feared Stephenson would kill her.
Instead, she took her attacker’s revolver as he slept and pointed it at her temple, only to be disturbed by Gentry.
Later, she would take a handful of highly toxic bi-chloride of mercury tablets. While she failed to take her life, she became dangerously ill.
Worried about a police investigation, Stephenson issued Oberholtzer an ultimatum: “You will stay right here until you marry me.”
“He’d kidnapped her, raped her, ripped her body with his teeth,” writes Egan.
“Now he asked her again to pay an ultimate price: marry him or die.”
When she refused, Stephenson had her dumped back at her parents’ house in Irvington where their family physician, Dr Kingsbury, was summoned.
Her face was a field of bruises, her kidneys were failing and her body cold to the touch.
“’I’m going to die,’ she told the doctor. ‘I’m … going … to … die.’ ”
“He did not try to convince her otherwise.”
When Oberholtzer’s family attorney, Asa Smith, quizzed Stephenson about the attack, he denied everything, but accepted it had been a drunken guest at one of his house parties who was guilty of the attack and, as a gesture, he would give the family $5,000 compensation.
As Madge Oberholtzer’s condition deteriorated and rumors spread about the attack, Smith advised her to make a “dying declaration” made by a witness in advance of certain death.
Two weeks after the incident, Smith had compiled Madge Oberholtzer’s 333,000-word first person account of her attack.
“On the same day, Dr Kingsbury had told the family that she had no chance of recovery,” writes Egan.
Madge Oberholtzer died on the morning of April 14, 1925, with her family by her bedside — but her statement was pivotal in Stephenson’s conviction.
Soon after, and despite protests from his Klan followers, Stephenson was arrested and indicted on suspicion of assault with intent to kill, assault with intent to rape, kidnapping, malicious mayhem, and conspiracy to kidnap.
On November 16, 1925, David C. Stephenson was sentenced to life imprisonment for second-degree murder. “Putting away the top Klansman for life was the state’s victory, but it was also Madge Oberholtzer’s victory,” writes Egan. (Though sentenced to life, Stephenson would actually be paroled in 1950.)
The adverse publicity resulting from the case and the State’s crackdown on the Klan and its activities did for the KKK as its membership plummeted, not just in Indiana but nationally, too.
That, in no small part, argues Egan, is down to the bravery of Madge Oberholtzer.
“Without her, the dark assertion that finally shook Indiana from the grip of the Klan, the words that defined how a citizen-run government could be taken over by a silken-voiced sexual predator — I am the law—might never have been widely known.”