D.C. Stephenson, Grand Dragon of the KKK, was once the most powerful man in Indiana. His racism was popular. Then he killed a white woman.
By Adam Fleming Petty
On a March morning in 1925, an unfamiliar car stopped on a residential street in Irvington, an eastern suburb of Indianapolis. A hulking man stepped out of the driver’s seat and went to the rear. He hauled the passenger out and hefted her in his arms, then proceeded up the walkway of a modest home. It was the residence of George Oberholtzer, local postal clerk, and his wife, Matilda. The passenger was Madge Oberholtzer, their daughter.
The man in the car, later identified as Earl Klinck, told Oberholtzer that his daughter had been in a car accident. Oberholtzer could see Madge was gravely injured, her body covered in abrasions and bruises, including deep gashes in her chest. Klinck took her upstairs to her room and left.
George and Matilda called a doctor. An examination found that the wounds on Madge’s chest were infected, and there were also traces of mercury poisoning in her bloodstream. Within a month, Madge Oberholtzer would be dead. But before that, she would dictate a legal declaration that described what really happened to her. She was not in a car accident. She had been abducted, attacked, and raped by DC Stephenson, the Grand Dragon of the Indiana Ku Klux Klan, and, at the time, the most powerful man in the state.
David Curtiss Stephenson was born in 1891 in Houston, Texas. One of three children, he lived a peripatetic life that was typical in the era of locomotives and early automobiles. In 1899, his father, a day laborer, found work in Maysville, Oklahoma. It was there that Stephenson acquired some of the skills of persuasion, rhetoric, and media savvy that would help him rise to the upper echelons of Klan leadership in record time.
Harold Feighter was a political columnist for the Indianapolis News during the early twentieth century. He wrote extensively about Stephenson and the Klan. A compilation of his work, D.C. Stephenson: Irvington 0492, was compiled and edited by H.R. Greenapple in the late 1980s. The volume gives a detailed account of Stephenson’s life, along with supplementary materials regarding to the Oberholtzer case as well as the history of the Klan in Indiana.
As an adolescent, Stephenson worked at a newspaper in Maysville. Mainly he worked as a printer, operating the typesetting machine, but he was also privy to coverage and editorial decisions. In Oklahoma at that time, socialism was in the headlines. Fiery organizers and canvassers were appealing to local workers, telling them of the power their numbers could command. The newspaper where Stephenson worked was none too happy about this development. Every week, there was a new editorial denouncing the influence of ‘Red’ agitators.
Stephenson absorbed the editorials. But he did more than that. He attended socialist meetings, and spoke at them. Was this future Grand Dragon truly a Socialist? Probably not. Feightner wrote that “Several times D.C. had posed as a Socialist lecturer and delivered very enthusiastic speeches on behalf of Socialism, being paid for these speeches.” In every pursuit of his life, Stephenson’s goal was always the accumulation of wealth and power, and the more the better.
When he became a young man, Stephenson left Oklahoma. He worked many jobs, none for too long. He was briefly involved with the Army during the very end of World War I, but he never saw combat. He never even left the country, remaining at a base the entire time. But that didn’t stop him from boasting about his exploits as a decorated war hero.
In 1920, at the age of twenty-nine, Stephenson found himself in Evansville, Indiana, along the banks of the Ohio River in the state’s southern region. He was trying to run a coal business, meeting with little success. But another venture caught his attention, one that was well-suited to his skills: the Ku Klux Klan.
In The Fiery Cross, Wyn Craig Wade’s study of the Ku Klux Klan, he divides the history of the Klan into three distinct periods: the Reconstruction era of the late 1860s, when it was first started by Confederate veterans; the franchise era of the 1920s; and the midcentury era of the 1950s and ‘60s, when it mobilized against the Civil Rights movement. The peak of its power, by a significant margin, arose in the ‘20s. There were Klan parades in Washington, D.C., with members even showing their faces as they marched along the National Mall. Politicians and legislators met with Klan leaders. This was the power that Stephenson harnessed.
1915 saw the release of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, an epic historical film that celebrated the Reconstruction-era Klan as valiant heroes defending white honor from Black people, many of whom had formerly been enslaved. The film was enormously popular; President Woodrow Wilson screened it at the White House. Wilson said of the film, “It is like writing history in lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” The Klan was in vogue.
Among those who capitalized on this resurgence was William Joseph Simmons, who revived the Klan on Thanksgiving Day, 1915, in a ceremony that took place on Stone Mountain, Georgia. (Stone Mountain went on to become the site of the Confederate Memorial, a bas-relief on the rockface depicting Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. The memorial was designed by Gutzon Borglum, a friend of D.C. Stephenson, who went on to design Mount Rushmore.) The conflation of the Klan with the national holiday proved fruitful. The Klan was not just a southern concern; it was an American one. Waving U.S. flags beside burning crosses, promoting “one-hundred percent Americanism,” allowed the Klan to spread beyond the south and flourish in new environments, including Indiana.
The end of World War I in 1918 provided two conditions that proved vital to the Klan’s propagation: a sense of triumph, and convenient enemies. An overinflated sense of patriotism was prevalent following the victory of U.S. forces in the Great War, and this patriotism found two targets. The first was familiar. The Klan’s mission, dating from its Reconstruction period, was to terrorize and intimidate Black people. Though the Black population in Indiana was smaller than in Southern states, those that did live there were subject to racist violence, particularly in ‘sundown towns,’ where white residents were known to lynch Black ones. One such lynching, which occurred in Marion, Indiana, became infamous after a photograph of the event was turned into a postcard.
The second target was more novel. According to Wade, the influx of immigrants from an Eastern Europe ravaged by conflict was portrayed, all too easily, as a source of infection both physical, in the form of their supposedly inferior hygiene, and spiritual, in the form of their idolatrous Catholicism. Anti-Catholic bigotry became a dominant fear of the stolidly Protestant Indiana Klan. Klan newspapers were filled with anti-Catholic invective, warning of “cross-backs” abducting babies and offering their blood to “Jimmy Cheezy,” a quaintly hateful slur for the Pope.
The Klan was swelling. New chapters were being added constantly, and with relatively little oversight from the headquarters. An ideal situation for a ruthless man to make his mark.
Stephenson’s rise was meteoric. Within three years of joining the Klan, he would be addressing crowds ten thousand strong, holding them rapt with his prairie-honed rhetoric. And, as is often the case with racist leaders, his hatefulness made him rich. Membership in the Klan cost $10, and Stephenson pocketed thirty percent of that. There was also a wealth of Klan paraphernalia, from books to song sheets to custom-made robes, which ran for $3 a hood. Stephenson didn’t just have a captive audience. He had a captive marketplace, too.
His ambitions quickly outgrew Evansville. He moved to Indianapolis, the capitol and the center of power in the state, setting up an office in the Kresge building downtown, just off the Circle. Richard Tucker, in The Dragon and the Cross, reports that on Stephenson’s desk were eight telephones—seven black, one white—by which he could call up any Klan office in the state and gather real-time intelligence as to what was happening on the ground level. Votes, school board elections, membership figures—whatever he needed to know. The white telephone, he told wide-eyed visitors, was a direct line to the White House. A lie, of course.
Along with collecting information, Stephenson oversaw a highly effective method for getting out his message. Next door in the Kresge building were the offices of the Fiery Cross, the Klan newspaper of Indiana. With a circulation of almost two hundred thousand, the Fiery Cross was an invaluable tool for stoking public sentiment. Those readers also took the paper’s message into their own hands, staging Klan parades all throughout the state. These events were well-attended and popular, the Klan’s white supremacy meshing seamlessly with downhome Americana. In The Fiery Cross, Wyn Craig Wade describes the “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of seeing a fully robed and hooded tightrope walker three hundred feet above the ground, with a cross in one hand and the Stars and Stripes in the other.”
The grandest of these spectacles came on July 4, 1923. Huge crowds—some estimated fifty thousand, others said twice that—gathered outside Kokomo, Indiana. Men and women in white robes filled every square foot of the open field. Feightner writes: “An airplane appeared out of the clear blue summer sky, soared over the huge crowd, then landed in an open space that had been reserved. A stocky man, clad in the raiments of royalty—a purple robe—descended from the plane and stalked majestically to the prepared platform. The great crowd held its breath in awe. It was D.C. Stephenson, Grand Dragon of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Realm of Indiana. A mighty cheer swept the assemblage, a cheer that must have thrilled Stephenson’s heart. It is said that men and women, sobbing as their pent-up emotions were unleashed, surged forward in a mighty swing and threw flowers and bits of jewelry at Stephenson’s feet.”
With a vast public at his disposal, Stephenson set about consolidating his political power. The Klan constituted an almost invincible voting bloc. If a politician wanted to win an election, he (and it was always a ‘he’) had to have the support of Stephenson and the Klan. If not, Stephenson would turn his Klansmen against the politician, spreading rumors in The Fiery Cross about the politician’s Catholic sympathies or insufficient Americanism. Stephenson was the undisputed kingmaker of the state. “I am the law,” he said, and few dared disagree.
Stephenson’s political triumph came in the fall of 1924. As described by Feightner, the gubernatorial election was approaching, and the incumbent candidate, Democrat Warren McCray, appeared fairly strong. But that changed when Stephenson threw the full support of the Klan behind Republican Ed Jackson. Jackson was friendly with Stephenson, among many other members of the Klan. Stephenson portrayed Jackson as the candidate who would rid the state of nefarious Catholic influence, and also made sure to paint McCray as being in the pocket of Rome. Jackson won the election by eighty thousand votes.
At the time, such a demonstration of Stephenson’s power looked like the prelude to greater things. Maybe Stephenson would run for office himself? The Senate? Perhaps the White House? But this moment of triumph would prove to be his downfall.
In January 1925, Stephenson threw a lavish inauguration ball for Jackson. The party attracted a slew of the city’s populace, including a young woman named Madge Oberholtzer. She was there to meet Stephenson. But her interest was professional, at least at first. She worked for the state department of education, and she was there to protect her own job as well as those of her colleagues. The new administration was looking to make cuts to the education department—cuts that would eliminate Oberholtzer’s position.
She found Stephenson quickly—the Old Man, as he was known, even though, at age thirty-three, he was only five years older than Oberholtzer. He was quickly charmed by her intelligence and wit. Behind the pious, one-hundred-percent-American façade, Stephenson was a man of voracious, vengeful appetites. He used his connections in the government to requisition alcohol swept up by Prohibition. His mansion in Irvington was the site of wild, bacchanalian parties. But he knew how to put on respectable airs for the public. He did the same with Oberholtzer, courting her in gentlemanly fashion—evening strolls, dinners at fine hotels. Until one night in March of 1925.
March 15, a Sunday, ten p.m.: Oberholtzer received a call from Stephenson, asking her to come over to his home. She agreed, deciding to walk, as it was only a few blocks away. She took her coat, but forgot her hat. Once there, she found Stephenson and two of his men, Earl Klinck and Earl Gentry, were drinking. They asked her to join, but she declined. Stephenson said he wanted to take a train to Chicago that night—he had a business deal to see through—and he wanted Oberholtzer to accompany him. She declined again, growing uncomfortable. Stephenson’s men went upstairs and came back down carrying revolvers. Oberholtzer was taken to the train station. Once in the train’s private compartment, Stephenson, with the help of Klinck and Gentry, forced himself on her.
The train stopped in Hammond, Indiana, near the state border with Illinois. The party got off the train and found a hotel room. Oberholtzer was delirious. Once in the room, she begged Stephenson to shoot and kill her. She wanted to, as she said in her declaration, “save my mother from disgrace.” Stephenson instead had Klinck gave her a compress of witch hazel to help her rest.
The next morning, Monday, March 16, Stephenson continued with his plans to take Oberholtzer to Chicago. She said she needed a hat, having left hers back at her home in Irvington. Stephenson’s driver, having driven from Indianapolis to Hammond on his own, took her to a store near the hotel. There, she purchased a black silk hat for $12.50. The driver was ready to take her back, but Oberholtzer said she needed some rouge. The driver took her to a drug store, waiting out in the car as she made her purchase.
But Oberholzter did not buy rouge. She bought a box of bichloride of mercury tablets. She was going to poison herself, and she was going to make Stephenson watch her die.
Back at the hotel, Stephenson continued packing for the trip to Chicago. Oberholtzer excused herself to go to the bathroom. There, she opened the packages of bichloride of mercury and ingested them. She vomited blood, and would continue do so throughout her ordeal.
She returned from the bathroom and told Stephenson she had taken poison. He checked the bathroom and saw the opened packages of mercury, and the blood. He panicked. The first plan he came up with was to take Oberholtzer to a hospital, where she would be registered as his wife, so she could have her stomach pumped. Oberholtzer refused to be registered as such. Stephenson and his men chose to take her home.
In the backseat of the car, Oberholtzer was wracked with agony. Doubled over, she vomited on the floor, begging Stephenson to pull over and leave her on the side of the road. She was sure someone would help her. But Stephenson did nothing. He only said to one of his men, “This takes guts to do, Gentry, she is dying.”
They arrived in Indianapolis. Stephenson was dropped at his own mansion, then Klinck took Oberholtzer home. After her parents called in doctors, the mercury poisoning was treated, and for a time it looked like Oberholtzer might recover. But bite wounds on her chest—caused by Stephenson—had become seriously infected. The mercury in her bloodstream exacerbated the infection.
Before she died, Oberholtzer dictated her ordeal. The final words, related by Feightner, read: “The foregoing statements have been read to me and I have made them as my dying statement and they are true. I am sure that I will not recover from this illness, and I believe that death is very near to me, and I have made all the foregoing statements as my dying declaration. They are true.”
The death of Madge Oberholtzer shocked Indianapolis, and disgraced Stephenson. Though Stephenson was a racist and bigot of the most unrepentant sort, he was not brought down by those qualities, or by the actions that resulted from them. These were tolerated, even encouraged by Indiana society at every level, from the small towns to the state Senate. Rather, Stephenson was only disgraced when he violated that which American racism so frequently claims to defend: the virtue of white womanhood.
His veneer of respectable piety shattered, Stephenson was tried and convicted on charges of kidnapping, rape, and second-degree murder. Oberholtzer’s legal declaration was the cornerstone of the prosecution’s case. Stephenson’s defense never really tried to dispute the facts of Oberholtzer’s death. Instead, backroom threats were made to political figures, claiming that if Stephenson went down, he would bring them down with them. But he was still convicted and given a life sentence. He would be paroled in 1956, by then a genuinely old man.
From his release in 1956 until his death in 1966, Stephenson lived in Tennessee, where he worked in newspaper offices, cleaning printers with a device of his own design. It was the same kind of work he had done as an adolescent in Oklahoma. But he wrote no words, gave no speeches. The Grand Dragon, who once wielded newspapers like they were swords, had gone silent. ■
Adam Fleming Petty is a writer and a stay-at-home dad. His work has appeared in the Paris Review Daily, Electric Literature, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among others.
Cover image of D.C. Stephenson (left) and Earl Gentry (front right) on way to a bail bond hearing in June 1925. Public Domain image via the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
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