A Fever in the Heartland: how the KKK gripped the American midwest in the 20s

Timothy Egan’s new book recounts the mainstreaming of the racist group and its unraveling after one woman’s testimony

The Guardian, UK/April 11, 2023

By Adrian Horton

The scene is distinctly American: a Fourth of July celebration amid stalks of corn and creekside parks; men, women and children gathered for a parade accentuated with a painted prop plane, many in conical white hoods. Kokomo, Indiana, was a typical midwestern town in the summer of 1923, when it hosted upwards of 100,000 Klansmen for a “monster” Independence Day rally. Half of its 30,000 residents belonged to the most famous and American of hate groups, including its mayor, prosecutor, its police force and school board.

That was in line with many other Indiana towns and cities in the early 1920s, when the Klan, as the author Timothy Egan recounts in a startling new book, was brazenly resurgent and mainstream across the country. Membership was somewhere between 2 and 5 million nationwide, and was disproportionately middle-class – doctors, lawyers, teachers, many, many policemen. There were Women of the Klan leagues and Ku Klux Kiddies groups. As Egan notes in A Fever in the Heartland: The Ku Klux Klan’s Plot to Take Over America, and the Woman Who Stopped Them, the Klan had, by the early 1920s, 15 US senators under their influence, as well as 75 congressmen, several governors and the mayor of Anaheim, California. The order’s national paper, the Imperial Night-Hawk, had a larger circulation than the New York Times.

“It’s a history that’s been just sort of forgotten,” Egan told the Guardian. “You think of the Klan, you think of these toothless groups in the 60s or you think of these ex-Confederates. And the 20s part of it, which was the real peak of their power, is just completely overlooked.”

No state had a higher rate of participation at the height of the Klan’s powers in the 1920s than Indiana. By the time of the Kokomo rally in 1923, roughly one in three white males in Indiana had sworn an oath to violently uphold white supremacy – a fact surprising to many white people from the midwest, which has underplayed its history of mainstreaming the Klan in the 1920s. And no person in Indiana held more power than DC Stephenson, the group’s Grand Dragon, a conman who presided over the Kokomo celebration in that prop plane.

David Curtis Stephenson was, among other things: a Texan by birth, a failed businessman, a drifter, a profligate spender, a serial cheater, a fabulist and a sexual sadist with a thing for biting women. But his sordid past did not stop his rise to the height of political power in Indiana – by 1925, when he was 33 years old, the Grand Dragon had grown Indiana membership to 250,000, over which he ruled near-absolutely and raked in dues. He got a Klan-endorsed man elected governor of the state, and commanded a private police force of 30,000 people.

“The Old Man”, as he was called, told many ordinary “native-born” Hoosiers what they wanted to hear: the problem was with change, and change was anyone who was not a white Protestant of Anglo-Saxon or Nordic heritage – Black people, Jews, Catholics (especially those from southern Europe), the disabled or infirm. The first third of Egan’s book charts the chilling rise of the Klan among “normal” Americans – hate sanitized and legitimized by its blatant weaving into everyday midwestern life. “These were the people who held their communities together. They were not the criminal element, they were not the psychopaths, sickos and all that,” said Egan. “These were average white people that took an oath to forever support white supremacy.”

The Klan was originally formed in the 1860s by Confederate veterans, but died out faced with resistance by the government during Reconstruction. In the fall of 1915, on the heels of the success of DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation – one in four Americans viewed the propaganda film depicting white women saved from brutish Black men by Klansmen – the Klan was revived outside Atlanta. Egan swiftly traces its astonishing spread and then its downfall in Indiana, after Stephenson did something too distasteful even for the Klan: he murdered a white woman, and got caught.

In March 1925, the Grand Dragon abducted Madge Oberholtzer, a 28-year-old college graduate from Indianapolis who had been meeting with him to advocate for her job in a Reading Circle program about to be slashed by budget cuts. He and several associates put her on a train, where Stephenson raped her and gouged her body with bite marks. Intoxicated, bleeding and held captive at a hotel, Oberholtzer asked to purchase a hat from a drug store; she also bought a box of mercury chloride tablets. Stephenson eventually dropped her at home and said she’d been in a car accident. She died nearly a month later from mercury poisoning and an infection from the bite wounds, but not before delivering a sworn statement on what happened to her.

Her deathbed statement underpinned the trial against Stephenson, which forms the final section of a book Egan hopes plays out like a “historical thriller”. A third-generation Pacific north-westerner, Egan, formerly an op-ed columnist for the New York Times, was originally interested in writing about Klan power in the state of Oregon, where membership rates in the 1920s were second only to Indiana. But his research took him to the heartland. “I saw this sort of metaphor of the man, that being DC Stephenson, being a larger stand-in for the times, that sort of madness that ‘average’ people descended into, married the guy who they followed,” he said.

His research brought him to Indiana, where he credits numerous state historians and institutions for preserving a trove of records on Stephenson’s power and the 1925 trial. Indianapolis, for example, had at least three thriving daily papers in the 1920s, “and there would be a Klan story almost every day”, said Egan. “It wasn’t some hidden thing.” In plain sight, though not a history much discussed in the midwest (I can confirm that, growing up in Ohio, I had no idea that state Klan membership once pushed 200,000). “We’re having this big debate in America right now about how much of our history is appropriate to teach,” said Egan, who subscribes to the belief that “it’s OK to teach the history that doesn’t reflect well on us, because sometimes it makes us stronger.”

Stephenson was, if you haven’t picked up on it by now, an obviously Trumpian figure. He had a shady business past; he crested a wave of xenophobic mania; he bragged about having “the biggest brains”. His lavish parties, thrown even as the Klan backed Prohibition, were “bacchanals of bad taste”. Egan confirms he was, of course, drawn to the comparison, but that it’s broader than just Trump. “He’s a very American character – Trumpian, yes, but you could see him going back to any conman in our history,” he said. “It’s because he figures out what people want to believe. And then they’re willing to overlook his obvious character defects.”

“There certainly are some echoes” to the present Maga movement, such as “thinking you can go back to when America was different and homogenous and everybody was happy, which is bullshit,” Egan said. “It’s just not the truth. The slogan of the Klan in the 20s was not ‘make America great’, it was ‘100% Americanism’, which is pretty damn close.”

The Trump movement has not cratered quite as swiftly as the resurgent KKK, whose membership plummeted following Stephenson’s exposure and trial. That was in part, Egan argues, from Oberholtzer’s moving words. And more darkly, he supposes, from their successes. Jim Crow ruled for several more decades. The highly restrictive and race-targeted Immigration Act of 1924 held almost as long. Klan-backed eugenic sterilization laws stayed on the books until the 1970s.

These truths about America “aren’t necessarily ones we would embrace”, said Egan. “But we could be better people for looking at them, better people for understanding them.”

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