‘Murder Wasn’t Very Pretty’: The Rise and Fall of D.C. Stephenson, Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan
On March 16, 1925, in the muted morning light of a hotel room in Hammond, Indiana, 29-year-old Madge Oberholtzer reached into the pocket of the man sleeping next to her. She found the grip of his revolver and slid it out, inch by inch, praying he wouldn’t stir. The man was D.C. Stephenson, political power broker and Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in 23 Northern states. With shaking hands she aimed the gun between his closed eyes. What passed for a lucid thought came to mind: She would disgrace her family if she were to commit murder; instead, she would kill herself.
She crept into an adjoining room and faced a full-length mirror. Beneath her dress chunks of her were missing. Bite marks covered her face, neck, breasts, back, legs and ankles, a macabre pattern of polka dots etched along her skin. She was bleeding from the mouth; he had even chewed her tongue. Her hand was steadier this time, lifting the gun to her temple, when she heard a step outside the door and the squeak of a turning knob. It was one of Stephenson’s associates. She buried the gun into the fold of her dress and slipped it back into the sleeping man’s pocket. She would find another way to kill herself, if he didn’t kill her first.
It was the beginning of the end, in different ways, for both Madge Oberholtzer and D.C. Stephenson, although the politician had long believed himself infallible. “I am the law in Indiana,” he famously declared, and with reason. At age 33, Stephenson was one of the most powerful men in the state, having controlled the governor’s election and the movements of several state legislators, influencing bills on nutrition, steam pollution, fire insurance, highways and even oleomargarine, all of which would line his pockets with graft. His hand-picked candidate for mayor of Indianapolis seemed certain to win election, and Stephenson himself dreamed of running for the U.S. Senate, even president.
Stephenson’s political success was directly tied to his leadership within the Klan, which by 1925 had a quarter-million members in Indiana alone, accounting for more than 30 percent of the state’s white male population. At the height of its popularity, the Klan was a mainstream organization whose roster included lawyers, doctors, college professors, ministers and politicians at every level, most of them middle- and upper-middle-class white Protestants who performed community service and supported Prohibition. The Klan exploited nativist fears of foreign ethnic groups and religions, Catholicism in particular. (Prejudice against African-Americans was not as much of a motivating factor to join the Klan in Indiana as it was in the South.) “Out in Indiana everybody seems to belong,” reported the New York Times in 1923. “Easterners have been surprised at the ready conquest by the Klan of a state which seemed of all our forty-eight the least imperiled by any kind of menace.”