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home : considered comment : the klan in fulton county May 22, 2015

D. C. Stephenson, evil genius of Indiana's Ku Klux Klan

2nd in a 5-part series

D. C. Stephenson created the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana almost single-handedly but at the moment of his greatest triumph, he destroyed it with his arrogance and debauchery. Setting out to prove his declaration that "I am the law in Indiana," he wound up instead a convicted murderer.

The son of a Texas sharecropper, Stephenson had only an eighth-grade education. A drifter and womanizer, he appeared in Evansville in 1920, the same year that the Klan did. By then D. C. had become a friendly, aggressive coal salesman who caught the attention of Klan organizers. He accepted their job offer as a way to move ahead in politics.

He was so successful in selling Klan memberships in Evansville that he was sent to Indianapolis in 1922 to organize the rapidly expanding Indiana recruiting effort. That year he also took part in a revolt that replaced William Simmons as head of the national Klan with a Texas dentist, Wesley Evans, and thereby moved close to the seat of KKK power.

Thenceforth D. C. made himself into the embodiment of the Indiana Klan. A man of medium height with fleshy face, ruddy complexion, blue eyes and dimpled chin, he was a powerful orator with charming personality and possessed great organizational and propaganda skills. In 1923 he became the big boss: Grand Dragon of the Indiana Realm of the Knights of the Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan.

And that planted the seed of his eventual destruction, for he was inherently evil, a man more interested in personal power than principle and in his own pleasures than in improving humanity. His wild mood swings were unpredictable; not so his steady drinking.

Nevertheless, he saw to it that by 1923 the Klan was organized throughout Indiana. Its night parades became common in Hoosier cities and in some of them, such as at Muncie, many bystanders were beaten for refusing to take off their hats when the Klan marched by. Cross burnings also were held in many places to impress and intimidate crowds: Franklin, Fort Wayne, Edinburg, Noblesville, Winchester and, as we shall see, Rochester and Kewanna.

Two specific Klan events in Indiana are worth noting to illustrate its scope.

On July 4, 1923, the largest rally in Klan history was held at Kokomo's Mehalfa Park, three miles west of the city, with Imperial Wizard Evans attending. On hand were 10,000 Klansmen from Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio.

There were speeches, lunch along Wildcat Creek, games and a night parade in downtown Kokomo with 12 floats and nine bands. More than $50,000 was collected to build a hospital to replace Kokomo's only Catholic-run hospital but none of the money ever was turned over to the building committee. Burning of a 60-foot cross and fireworks ended the day.

In South Bend on May 17, 1924, another tri-state Klan meeting and march precipitated a riot. There were many opponents of the KKK among South Bend's large Hungarian and Polish immigrant population. Students from Catholic Notre Dame also showed up to protest the march and in the ensuing fracas most of the Klansmen were roughed up badly; only a downpour ended the affair. All the time, police looked the other way.

The Klan infiltrated the Indiana political system, filing candidates for party control and public offices in every county. In the 1924 election the effort paid off: Republican Ed Jackson of New Castle was elected governor. He was Stephenson's man, having accepted $227,000 in campaign funds promising in return to appoint Stephenson's picked men to state positions.

Many Klan-backed candidates were elected to what came to be known as the Klan Legislature of 1925. Bills were introduced that would introduce Klan policies into education, or would produce political payoffs; none of the bills passed, however.

Stephenson, now only 34, was puffed with pride. He not only had the Indiana governor to do his bidding but soon would add the mayor of Indianapolis, John Duvall, elected in 1925 with Klan backing. D. C. had a yacht moored on Lake Erie and a net worth of $900,000 made from keeping part of every fee paid by Klan members. He was ready to make a new fortune off his Indiana political connections.

Then in January, 1925, he met Madge Oberholtzer, a comely 28-year-old Indianapolis woman who aroused his omnipresent lust. In March he forced her to accompany him and his two bodyguards on a night train to Chicago and during the trip he viciously raped her. She left the train at Hammond where she procured and took poison. Stephenson returned her to Indianapolis but callously refused her medical treatment. She finally was allowed to return home where she died a month later, but not before dictating a long affidavit about her ordeal to her attorney and physician. They had Stephenson arrested.

After a spectacular trial at Noblesville that captured national attention, D. C. was convicted of second degree murder for withholding medical treatment to a dying person and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was pardoned in 1956 and died in obscurity in Tennessee in 1966.

Stephenson's downfall crushed the Klan in Indiana. Public revulsion about KKK influence in state politics brought resignations and indictments of state and municipal officials. The Klan's reputation was in shambles and by the end of the Twenties it had become only a bad memory. What it would have become without Stephenson's repugnant behavior remains one of history's riddles.

With a knowledge of its influence in Indiana during the 1920s now established, the Ku Klux Klan's presence in Fulton County can be recalled next.

Published Nov. 23, 1999

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