And the woman who toppled them.

There’s a fascinating new book I must commend to you…A Fever in the Heartland, by New York Times bestselling author, Timothy Egan. As the book cover reads, it’s the true story of the Ku Klux Klan’s “plot to take over America” during the Roaring Twenties—the Jazz Age. When this book was gifted to me, I thought that statement was hyperbole. But as I read the stories that transpired over the course of ten years in the early 20th Century, it became clear that this was a jaw-dropping slice of American history I had missed.

Since I write mostly on U.S. history and culture, I was shocked to discover how deep the Klan’s sickening influence had permeated a broad swath of American life—from the halls of Congress to several governors’ mansions to city courthouses, police forces, and newsrooms. The creeping fever came within an inch of occupying the Vice-Presidency.

But the second rise of the Ku Klux Klan, centered in Indiana, was stopped in its tracks (thank God) by the sad experience of one brave woman and the efforts of a determined prosecutor.

The KKK, as we know, is a reviled white supremacist hate group that first wore masks and white robes to terrorize blacks after the Civil War. Founded in 1865 by some Confederate veterans in Pulaski, Tenn., including Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Klan’s first grand wizard, the KKK stood determined to resist Reconstruction efforts and maintain white supremacy in the South. Through lynching, arson, and intimidation, the Klan’s half-million members terrorized Blacks to keep them from exercising their newly attained civil rights, such as voting and owning property.

The decline and suppression of the first Klan started with legislation such as the Enforcement Acts of 1870-1871, passed to protect the civil rights of blacks. The KKK was disbanded, driven underground, until the second Klan (1915-1944) rose from the dustbin of history.

That’s where author Egan picks up the story. This thoroughly researched and expertly crafted non-fiction reads like a page-turning novel. Allow me to share some salient points that won’t spoil your reading experience.

David C. Stephenson, a predatory con man, emerged in the Hoosier state in 1915. By July 4, 1923, in Kokomo, the Klan held a monstrous rally, the attendance estimated to be 100,000 by the Indianapolis Star. None of them, says author Egan, imagined their leader was “an unfettered braggart, a bootlegger and a blackmailer…” who’d left behind “a family in rags and distress, whom he still refused to support; that his own mother, an impoverished and widowed waitress in Oklahoma scraping by on tips at a luncheon counter; had been begging him for money.”

A lout of a man who became the grand dragon for Indiana and 22 other states, where KKK membership grew to 250,000 under his leadership in Indiana alone. He eventually split from the national organization to form a rival Klan organization.

By 1925, D.C. Stephenson boasted that he had a direct line to President Calvin Coolidge. Crosses were burned across Indiana, on the lawns of black families, near Catholic churches and Jewish synagogues, on the corn fields outside of small towns. Nationally, as many as four million had sworn an oath and donned full-length robes and covered their faces in 16-inch conical hoods, vowing to maintain white supremacy forever.

They packed Sunday services and filled July 4th parades by the tens of thousands, marked by “…leaping flames on the horizon…a thrilling bond of brotherhood…” They occupied positions of leadership—local police, including a private force of 30,000 deputies, and most members of the incoming Indiana state legislature that year. The majority of the Congressional delegation were bound to the hooded order.

Fifteen senators and 75 Congressmen were under the Klan’s control. A Klan mayor ruled Anaheim, Calif., bestowing the nickname of “Klanaheim” on the city. There was a chartered chapter on board the USS Tennessee, a battleship off the coast of Bremerton, Wash. In Colorado, Klansman Clarence Morley was elected governor the same day as Ed Jackson in Indiana. They joined KKK-backed Governor Walker M. Pierce in Oregon, who endorsed a voter-approved measure that would eliminate Catholic schools.

The Klan’s rallying cry—“Keeping America for Americans.”

Stephenson was a ladies’ man, a snake oil salesman with an appetite for violent sexual encounters and a need to possess and hurt women. He’d become highly successful, all powerful in satisfying his hunger. The law couldn’t touch him; the Klan had made him rich, immunizing him from justice.

Enter Madge Oberholtzer, 28, the daughter of a postal clerk who attended Butler College in Irvington, about five minutes east of downtown Indianapolis. Member of a Pi Beta Phi sorority, who was “high-spirited with an infectious independent streak.” She still lived with her parents.

Stephenson’s ultimate conquest. He had to have her. At the same time, Author Egan introduces us to Prosecutor William Remy, who takes a gamble that threatens to tumble his career.

How did Madge and William cause the downfall of D.C. Stephenson, and the collapse of the Klan?


Postscript. I don’t believe America is an inherently racist country, but we do have a checkered past to answer for. We’ve paid a steep price for her past sins against blacks and other marginalized peoples, as we should. I also don’t believe it’s the color of one’s skin that defines a racist (that, in and of itself, is a form of racism) but rather the content of their heart and character. Dr. King had it right.

Unfortunately, the scourge of anti-Semitism is on the rise now, and good citizens must rise against that too.

D.C. Stephenson and his minions were evil. But the people who brought them down were different; fair-minded people standing against the brutal horrors perpetrated by the Klan.

A Fever in the Heartland has taught me anew about the pain and sorrow endured by the black community through slavery, Jim Crow, the Ku Klux Klan in all its iterations, and the racial discrimination that continues to this day.

But I think the American experiment at its heart, and in its founding documents, has been a gift to the world throughout our history.

Hopefully, books like this will bring us closer together.