The Conviction of Grand Dragon David Stephenson
The Beginning of Decline
On November 21, 1925 David Stephenson, leader of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana was convicted of second–degree murder. Stevenson’s conviction ranks fifth for the year because it marked the beginning of The Klu Klux Klan’s decline in the state of Indiana and the United States. The KKK thrived in the early 1920s and was an expression of nativist fear of foreign ethnic groups and religions. KKK members in Indiana were generally not motivated to join because of prejudice against African Americans. In 1925, the Klu Klux Klan had 250,000 members in the state of Indiana. More than 30% of Indiana white males were members. It was common for lawyers, college professors, ministers, and politicians to be members of the KKK in Indiana at the time. Most KKK members were middle class, white, and Protestant. The New York Times reported in 1923 that, “Out in Indiana everybody seems to belong [to the KKK]”.
David Stephenson was appointed head of the Indiana KKK (the “Grand Dragon”) in 1923. By 1925, he was one of the most powerful men in the state. He controlled the state governor’s election and had influence over the state legislature. His candidate for the upcoming mayoral election of Indianapolis seemed certain to win. He famously declared, “I am the law in Indiana”.
Despite his later success in the organization, Stephenson initially resisted joining the KKK. “They kept after me,” he told New York World, “I was told that the Klan was a strictly patriotic organization … they finally convinced me the Klan was a good thing and I joined.”
The Life of Stephenson
Stephenson was the son of a poor sharecropper from Texas, however he told his colleges that his father was a wealthy businessman from South Bend, Indiana. Ironically, after dropping out of school at 16, Stevenson got a job with a Socialist newspaper. He studied Socialist party leader Oscar Ameringer’s speaking style of outlandishly selling political ideas, and later implemented these techniques at KKK rallies.
Stephenson had two wives prior to his conviction. He married Nettie Hamilton in 1915, but left her in 1917 after losing his job at a local newspaper. He joined the army and was sent to Boone, Iowa, to work as a recruiter. There he met his second wife, Violet Carroll. Stevenson joined the KKK in Boone. He began drinking heavily and reportedly beat his wife on several occasions. They divorced in 1922.
Stephenson met Madge Oberholtzer on January 12, 1925 at the inauguration gala for Governor Ed Jackson (who was elected with Stephenson’s help). They began seeing each other and Oberholtzer worked as Stephenson’s aide during the 1925 session of the Indiana General Assembly.
On March 15, 1925 Stephenson’s secretary called Oberholtzer’s house to tell her that Stephenson was leaving for Chicago and needed to see her at once. When she arrived at his residence, a drunken Stephenson ordered he to accompany him to Chicago. She was forced into a car, driven to Union Station, and pushed into a private train car. Stephenson violently attacked and raped her. According to her report she was, ““bitten, chewed and pummeled”. Stephenson and Oberholtzer got off the train in Hammond, Indiana and checked into a hotel. Stephenson’s bodyguard returned her to her home on March 17th. Madge Oberholtzer died on April 14, nearly a month later, with her parents and nurse by her bedside.
Marion County prosecutor William Remy, one of the few Indiana state officials not controlled by the KKK, charged Stephenson with rape, kidnapping, conspiracy and second-degree murder. On November 14, Stephenson was convicted and sentenced to life in jail. Stephenson’s political supporters, including Governor Jackson, swiftly abandoned him. By 1928, the Indiana Klu Klux Klan had collapsed, with membership totaling only 4,000, down from a high of half a million.
Far Reaching Impacts
The KKK’s collapse in Indiana paralleled the organization’s decline throughout the United States. A congressional investigation of KKK leaders was launched in the 1920s to bring bad publicity to the organization. The KKK was struck a major blow when fraud involving initiation fees was exposed. Every four dollars of the ten-dollar initiation fee was giving back to local organizers as an incentive to recruit. The Klu Klux Klan in the 1920s was a surge of intolerance in reaction to rapid social change in the 1920s. It soon faded after the organization’s corruption was revealed.