It was, as Timothy Egan writes in his epilogue, “a time when millions of people took an oath to hate their fellow citizens.”
A Fever in the Heartland: The Ku Klux Klan’s Plan to Take Over America, And The Woman Who Stopped Them is about the rise of what Egan calls “The Invisible Empire,” the infiltration of the KKK into statehouses and courthouses and the vast army of men and women who signed up to support the cause of hate a century ago.
This is searing non-fiction about the rise of the KKK across northern states, particularly Indiana, and about David C. Stephenson, “the most powerful man in Indiana.” Yes, not the governor. “Charm oozed from him like grease from a sizzling sausage,” writes Egan. “Everyone called him Steve.” He was known as “the Old Man.” He was the Grand Dragon of the KKK in Indiana. He had a direct telephone line to President Calvin Coolidge—at least, that’s what he wanted everyone to believe.
“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 sixteen-inch comical hoods, formally vowing ‘to maintain forever white supremacy,’” writes Egan.
I assumed that the vestiges of the KKK were resigned to the south. Maybe, even, the rural south as depicted in “O Brother, Where Art Thou” or “Mississippi Burning.” I also assumed “vestiges” because, well, the KKK could certainly terrorize but did they organize? To this extent? I had no idea.
They organized to a frightening degree. The Klan owned Indiana “and Stephenson owned the Klan. Cops, judges, prosecutors, minister, mayors, newspaper editors—they all answered to the Grand Dragon. He was backed by his own private police force, some 30,000 men legally deputized to harass violators of Klan-certified virtue.”
The KKK in Indiana, notes Egan was larger than the Elks, the Freemasons, the Odd Fellows and “vastly greater in number than the original Klan born in violence after the Civil War.”
Indiana isn’t Egan’s sole focus. He pulls in stories from all over the country, including Colorado and some from the Deep South. It’s hard to believe (also not hard to believe, given the election in 2016) that they were led by such a blackhearted miscreant who compared himself favorably to Napoleon. Egan does a great job setting the landscape of violence—and all the brutality against blacks, Catholics, Jews—before bearing down on Stephenson and his vile quest for racial purity. Can you imagine a state fair where babies were judged for their ear size or head shape, the same as a farm animal might be evaluated for perfect traits? White babies were awarded ribbons. It happened.
And it was hardly a secret. Egan begins the chapter “One Nation under a Shroud” by documenting the 50,000 members of the Invisible Empire who marched on Washington in 1925, with 200,000 people who “warmly received” them. President Coolidge considered attending.
The second half of A Fever in the Heartland beards down on the trial of Stephenson, charged with the murder of Madge Oberholtzer, a state employee who ran a program to combat adult literacy. Egan’s account of the trial is taut and punchy. Given the book’s title, we have a rough idea of how this will end. Prosecutors exposed the hypocrisies in Stephenson’s life and methodically demonstrated that Oberholtzer was abducted, forcibly intoxicated, poisoned, and raped. In her final written statement before she died, Oberholtzer detailed the sequence of events. Through her words, she became at a witness at her own murder trial. They are words that brought down Stephenson and led to a dramatic decline in Klan membership. (We only wish similar testimony would have as much impact on today’s shameless former groper-in-chief.)
Decline, of course, not eradication. Charlottesville, for example. And even a march this month (May 2023) by 150 white supremacists in Washington, D.C.
Put me down for clueless. I knew none of this. Or hadn’t paid attention. I was born in 1954. I went to public school in Massachusetts—in a town that gave the public schools everything it needed. The facilities were knockout. The high school graduates went off to good colleges. Most of the kids were college bound. In high school, we read James Baldwin and Richard Wright.
We were taught the Civil War. We learned a bit about Jim Crow. But, in general, we were kind of led to believe all of that was over. We were not taught that the KKK thrived 60 years after Appomattox. Sure, George Wallace. And even in the north we knew about racial tension and hatred. Desegregation. South Boston. Of course. But the fact that Ku Klux Klan had this much power in the early 1920’s? Did not know.
Thanks to Timothy Egan for this gripping account and thorough reporting. Unfortunately, I think that “Invisible Empire” is very much hard at work today.
Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher (This link includes a Q & A with Timothy Egan.)