Monday, July 13, 2015

Indiana and the Klan -- Part 2

Hiram Evans, middle, at a D.C. rally. Walter Bossert is in the suit.
D.C. Stephenson's control of the Indiana Ku Klux Klan and resulting control of Indiana politics in the early 1920s is partly the result of his ability to harvest the discontent that naturally flourished inside an organization so diverse.

Stephenson had gotten into an argument with Imperial Wizard Hiram Evans over a number of matters, including disagreement over whether the KKK should indeed go forward on a plan to purchase Valparaiso University and convert it to a Klan college.

Evans didn't agree to financing the gesture even though Stephenson claimed the deal was all but done.

Other matters here and there, and Stephenson resigned his post as Indiana's Grand Dragon in the fall of 1923. He had other fish to fry anyhow and was more interested in king-making than serving as a feudal leader.

Up stepped a man to replace him as Grand Dragon -- Walter Bossert.

Bossert, born in Brookville, had become a pretty good lawyer, dabbled a little in Republican Party politics in the early 1900s and had become a prosecuting attorney in 1916. He rose to a leadership role in the party and, sensing where his future lay, began to move in and out of Klan circles while staying in touch with Evans, who ran the national organization in Atlanta.

Later, Bossert set up a law practice in Liberty but his selection as Indiana's Grand Dragon allowed an ongoing feud to rattle inside Klan leadership. Stephenson opposed Evans and Bossert, though early on, the three were united in their agenda.

William Lutholtz, in his "Grand Dragon" (1991), asserts that Bossert's title came with significantly less clout than Stephenson wielded. Stephenson had, in fact, orchestrated the election of Ed Jackson as governor and, as a result, was able to have key governmental appointees steered toward Klan policy.

Those included prosecutors, mayors, county political party chairmen, directors of school boards, and even congressmen.

Klan-backed candidates often won easily in political primaries, splitting the vote, identifying regions of strength and weakness, allowing for allocation of resources into churches and community centers ... all aimed at boosting the Klan's image as a "non-violent, patriotic, American fraternal organization."

The goal was to protect the white Protestant from the evil outsider, the "papists" from the Vatican would would force us to become Catholics ... or worse, forced to marry negroes or speak some foreign language. ...

Stephenson and his Klan allies simply led the charge, and found easy pickings among people who feared what the Klan told them to fear. Opponents were shouted down or ridiculed out of public office.

Church leaders were given free Klan memberships and were often blessed with monetary donations.

From an old clipping of Franklin County news reports from Laurel:

"Klansmen in gift to Laurel church. Twenty members of the K.K.K. appeared Sunday and present the pastor for $50. Twenty members ... traveling in four automobiles, appeared at the Christian Church here ... and said this to the church, 'May the work of your church continue to be an inspiration to the people.' "

In another report, "The Klan appeared at the Laurel Methodist Church and left a letter for the pastor. The letter contained a donation to the church."

In dozens of churches in hundreds of towns, the Klan preyed on the notion that God's work was being done through their combined leadership.

Oddly, the Klan's unofficial anthem was "Onward Christian Soldiers," sung today with zeal in millions of churches without any idea of its relationship to the organization.

As for Bossert, after the Klan's reign ended with the conviction of Stephenson, he went back to Liberty and resumed his law career. He tried to seek public office a couple of times but was unsuccessful.

Others who benefited from Klan support included a young lawyer from Brookville -- Ralph Eugene Updike. Updike had been elected to the General Assembly in 1922 as a Republican with Klan blessing. In 1924, he got more Klan support and won handily in a 7th District primary, then an election in November without much opposition.

"Cousin Ralph" Updike served two terms in Congress before losing in 1928. His Klan affiliation didn't follow him around. He became a federal prosecutor after that, and served with honor in the Marines in World War II. He died in 1953 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

He went to school in Whitcomb.

Text of Cousin Ralph's race banning bill
"Cousin Ralph" has one distinction. While in the state legislature, he played off Klan "patriotism" and introduced a bill in 1923 that outlawed the running of the Indy 500 on Memorial Day. His logic was that the race was an insult to the men who had so gallantly served and died in the Great War.

The bill roared though the legislature only to be vetoed by Gov. Warren McCray,who feared it would not pass constitutional muster. It is worth noting that McCray was staunchly anti-Klan and was essentially ruined politically by the Klan in the 1924 gubernatorial election.

McCray, who did everything else wrong while he was governor, including being thrown out of office and spending 10 years in prison for embezzlement and mail fraud, wrote in his veto message: "Patriotism consists of proper respect and observance of law, and any laws enacted that do not create such respect, or that bear the impression of class discrimination defeat the very purpose for which they were intended...."

But it did prove that the Klan could, with the right leverage, modify the lives of Hoosiers.

D.C. Stephenson had boasted being "the law in Indiana."

For a time, he was.


It has been estimated that as many as 350,000 Hoosiers were either members of the Klan or approved of its activities.

The Klan, in its heyday, implemented the construction of segregated high schools in Gary (Roosevelt), Evansville (Lincoln) and Indianapolis (Attucks) ... playing on fears that the colored people would introduce incurable diseases into the schools and would erode the educational process due to their inability to learn.

Catholics were similarly demeaned as being devoted to the Vatican, which the Klan said had intentions of buying out the U.S. government and running our world from Rome.

Jews were just attacked as they always were, and it's not a coincidence that the Knights of the Golden Circle, a euphemism for the KKK in Europe, had allied itself with the German National Party, also known as the Nazis.

Immigrants were labeled as interlopers bent on undermining our liberty and freedom. Many who had come to America after the war had been Orthodox, which the Klan easily interpreted as "Catholic." They took jobs in factories and settled in enclaves. They just looked fishy.

When D.C. Stephenson was convicted of murdering Madge Oberholtzer in 1925, he decided to sell out his fraternal organization. As the resultant investigation grew, membership in the Klan declined. The Indiana phenomenon was unofficially at an end. Most who had been members were apparently just forgiven, since it was never clear who actually supported the Klan. Opposing the Klan was seldom practical.

The Klan still exists. Its message is vaguely the same as it was in 1921.

BOSSERT (Wikipedia)



Stephenson lived large in the Irvington section of Indianapolis.

Warren McCray
Ed Jackson
Madge Oberholtzer

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