Klu Klux Klan Grand Dragon's Crime Resulted in Woman's Suicide

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There are various articles discussing the life of Indiana Klu Klux Klan Grand Dragon David Curtis Stephenson (1981-1966). I will rely mostly on the account that is published on the Smithsonian.com Web site called, "'Murder Wasn't Very Pretty'" The Rise and Fall of D.C. Stephenson" by Karen Abbott, Smithsonian .com, August 30, 2012.

Stephenson was born in Houston, TX, his family later moving to Maysville, OK when he was a child. As a young man, Stephenson was a socialist who supported an anti-Klan candidate for governor. In his later career as a Klan leader, he used some of the same organizing techniques that had been used by socialists. He was in the army during WWI but did not serve overseas. He went through two divorces and developed a habit of heavy drinking. Working as a traveling salesman, he ended up in Evansville, IN. "When a local Klan organizer asked him to get involved, Stephenson intially demurred. '. . . I was told that the Klan was a strictly patriotic organization. . . . They finally convinced me the Klan was a good thing and I joined."

Although relatively uneducated, Stephenson was a polished speaker, His rose in stature and was eventually appointed Grand Dragon of the Indiana KKK, which he eventually made independent of other state chapters. Stephenson met Madge Oberholtzer at the inauguration gala for Governor Ed Jackson, who had close ties to the KKK. Oberholtzer who lived in Indianapolis was a dropout from Butler University where she has studied various subjects, and worked as an instructor for the Indiana Young People's Reading Circle. "On March 15, 1925, Oberholtzer returned home from an eveing with a friend. Her mother told her Sephenson's secretary had called and said he weas leaving for Chicago and needed to see her at once. . . . He was drunker than she'd ever seen him."

Stephenson demanded that she accompany him to Chicago. "Someone shoved her into a car, drdove her to Union Station, and dragged her onto a train. They never reached Chicago, stopping at Hammond, IN." After checking into a hotel, she asked Stephenson for some money to buy a hat and makeup. Instead, she went to a drugstore and bought a box of mecury bichloride tablets. She had thought about reaching for Stephenson's gun, but instead had decided to kill herself. She had intended to take the entire box of tablets, but only took three.

"When Stephenson discovered what she had done, he panicked and ordered his driver to take them back to Indianapolis." He forced her to drink ginger ale, and she vomited all over the back seat. He worried that she might die right there, in the back seat.

She died a month later. I read elsewhere that stratches were found on her body. "Marion County prosecutor William Remy -- one of the few officials Stephenson could not control -- charged him with rape, kidnapping, conspiracy and second-degree murder." On November 14, 1925, Stephenson was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. In in27, having been denied a pardon by Gov. Jackson, he started talking to reporters from the Indianapolis Times, releasing a list of elected and other officials in the pay of the Klan. "By 1928, the Indiana Klan had collapsed with membership totaling only 4000, down from a high of a half million."

Stephenson was paroled if he agreed to move to Illinois and take employment there, Instead, he went to Minnesota and was sent back to Indiana, where he was returned to prison. Eventually, another governor pardoned him, saying that he was mentally fit to live in society. I recall that he went through several other marriages and never returned to Indiana. He died in 1966.

Many people in Indiana I'm sure don't know about this story or about how large and politically well-connected the KKK was for a while years ago in Indiana. Much of the politics in this state seems to be an outgrowth of this history. Yet, Indiana during the Great Depression had one of the most powerful New Deal Democratic governors in the country, Paul V. McNutt, who had been the youngest dean of the Indiana University law school and was a Harvard law school graduate. McNutt was also FDR's rivial at the convention for the nomination. In a subsequent election, NcNutt wanted FDR to appoint him as his vice-presidential running mate. FDR recalled the brusque manner in which McNutt had spoken to him before, and so passed. McNutt served as governor for one only term and also went on to serve as an ambassador. I haven't read his biography yet.

The educational system in this state has produced a population that has had one of the lower percentages of the population attending and graduating from college. Yet, I hear quite a few people in the local area talking about how their kids are going to college, so perhaps this is changing. There are three Democratic candidates in the primary for governor. Anti-Mike Pence signs (the current Republican governor) have popped up all over the area. When I think of the whole history of the KKK and other extremist groups, I have to reject a political ideology that talks down to people in a destructive way. It is not that everyone is supposed to earn the same amount of money or that there are no accomplished, succssful elites in various fields. It is that those who have power misuse it. Civil rights protections is an example of a necessary kind of legal protection that is imperfectly but thankfully part of government.

Robindell's picture
Jul. 31, 2007 3:01 pm

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