INDIANAPOLIS — Since Donald Trump descended the escalator in 2015 to kick off this political era, I’ve sought a historic parallel, a similar personality who captured the hearts and minds of many Hoosiers.
That politician is David C. Stephenson, who in two short years after he showed up in Evansville in 1922 from the Southern Plains, created a shadow government in the 1924 election. Many of us first read about D.C. Stephenson in John Bartlow Martin’s 1949 book “Indiana: An Interpretation.”
Martin opened his introduction of the 33-year-old “Steve” or the “Old Man” this way: On April 2, 1925, D.C. Stephenson was arrested. It is almost impossible 20-odd years later to recall how incredible that seemed. David C. Stephenson, Grand Dragon on the Ku Klux Klan, had said with reason, “I am the law in Indiana.” Less than a year earlier the Klan had won political control of the state. Its ruler was Stephenson, a man probably without precise counterpart in American history.
Martin continued: “He knew all the tricks. He called himself the foremost mass psychologist of his time. His ambition was to the president of the United States” on the 1928 Republican nomination. “Who dares to say with certainty he would have failed.”
There’s been a revival a century later on Stephenson’s legacy with Timothy Egan’s new book, “A Fever in the Heartland: The Ku Klux Klan’s Plot to Take Over America and the Woman Who Stopped Them.” Egan is a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist and author who describes the Grand Dragon this way: “Charm oozed from him like grease from a sizzling sausage.”
Egan continues: “He had been elected to no office, appointed to no board, hired by no police department or district attorney, named to no court or panel of judges. The only oath he had taken was the one sworn by up to six million men nationwide who donned full-length robes and covered their faces in 16-inch conical hoods, formally vowing to ‘maintain forever white supremacy.’ In 1925, if you were not a knight in the KKK, you did not belong.
“The Klan owned the state and Stephenson owned the Klan,” Egan writes. “Cops, judges, prosecutors, ministers, mayors, newspaper editors — they all answered to the Grand Dragon. Ed Jackson, the Republican whose name had first appeared on membership rolls of the Klan in 1923 had been swept into the governor’s office. He owed it all to D.C. Stephenson.”
And Martin revealed what was at stake: “The Klan waged righteous war on Bolsheviks, Catholics, Jews, Negroes, bootleggers, pacifists, evolutionists, foreigners and all per-sons who it considered immoral.”
Egan picks up the narrative as he writes of Hoosier families over several generations finding KKK garb stored in musty boxes in their attics: “They would tell themselves that the vast Klan of the American Midwest was nonviolent, casually cruel at worst, that its members were hayseeds and dupes and chuckleheads. None of it was true.
“They harassed and threatened Catholic clergy and nuns,” Egan continues. “They passed laws to prevent Black people from moving into their neighborhoods. They bombed homes and set fires.”
While 400,000 Hoosiers would don the white robes and control the General Assembly, the congressional delegation, city halls, courthouses, sheriff departments and scores of protestant churches all fell sway to D.C. Stephenson, there were significant pockets of resistance. Journalists such as George Dale of the Muncie Post-Democrat, Patrick H. O’Donnell who published Tolerance and John Niblack of the Indianapolis Times outed Klan public officials.
Five-foot-two Dr. Joseph Fink, rabbi of Terre Haute Temple of Israel, showed up at a cross burning, defiantly telling 300 Klansmen they were cowards to cover their faces and un-American for violating the Bill of Rights. Notre Dame quarterback Harry Stuhldreher (one of the famed “Four Horsemen”) battled the Klan with potatoes when they threatened to overrun campus, creating the nickname “Fighting Irish.” Marion County Prosecutor Will Remy vowed to bring the Klan down after he rejected a loyalty test following the 1924 election.
And then there was 28-year-old Madge Oberholtzer, a Statehouse Department of Public Instruction employee, who was attacked, raped and defiled, with Stephenson chewing on her breasts and tongue, prompting her to take poison after he had kidnapped her by train to Hammond. Her “dying declaration” compelled a jury in Klan-dominated Noblesville to convict the Grand Dragon.
“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,” Egan writes.
Egan hints at the historical parallels I mentioned in the lead paragraphs, connecting two political movements a century apart by naming the Grand Dragon, but not the 45th president of the United States, who now faces more than 70 criminal charges and was convicted of sexual misconduct in a civil trial.
“What if the leaders of the 1920s Klan didn’t drive public sentiment, but rode it?” Egan asks. “A vein of hatred was always there for the tapping. It’s still there, and explains much of the madness threatening American life a hundred years after Stephenson made a mockery of moral principles in the Heartland.”
We’ve seen political movements come and go in Indiana, with national politicians like Franklin D. Roosevelt, Robert F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama stoking huge rallies across Indiana.
Donald Trump remains as influential as any of them in Indiana, a kingmaker who can sway an election just by showing up at North Side Gym or the Southport Fieldhouse, even as he faces an array of state and federal criminal charges.
Brian Howey is managing editor of Howey Politics Indiana/State Affairs. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.