"Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics, and the Catholics hate the Protestants;
The Hindus hate the Muslims ... and everybody hates the Jews."
—from the Tom Lehrer song, "National Brotherhood Week"
ack in the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan was at the peak of its popularity in the United States. Estimates of dues-paying members ranged anywhere from 5 million to 8 million in a country of only about 60 million adults at the time. At one point in that decade, 75 members of Congress were either open members or clear supporters of the Klan. Several cities had Klan mayors and Oklahoma and Oregon had Klan governors.
Nowadays, we think of the Klan as the dimwitted rednecks in Django Unchained.
But back in the 1920s, the Klan was attempting to be a national force, using a regional approach with an overarching racist policy.
The Klan appealed to regional biases—singling out Asians and Catholics in the far West, Jews and southern Europeans (mostly Italians) in the East, and Catholics and Jews in the Midwest—with a profound hatred of blacks everywhere to tie things together. Like in the aforementioned song.
In Oregon, the state legislature came within a couple of votes of outlawing Catholic schools in the state and Catholics were banned from serving on school boards. However, in relative terms, Oregon was rather tame. The really Krazy Klan Kut-ups were in Indiana, which boasted the highest Klan membership per capita of all the states, including those in the South.
The Hoosier Klan folks were led by a man named David Stephenson, a junior-high dropout with a body of flab and a gift for gab. He had his minions believing that recently deceased President Warren G. Harding had been poisoned by Catholics. (Harding's death was exquisitely well-timed, considering that the Teapot Dome scandal was just breaking. There has always been speculation as to the real cause of his death; the fact that his wife would never allow an autopsy to be held helps explain why we still are uncertain 90 years later. However, I'm betting that he wasn't poisoned by Catholics.)
Stephenson then whipped his large band of Midwestern deep thinkers into a frenzy by claiming that the priests at the University of Notre Dame were stockpiling weapons for a planned Catholic takeover of Indiana. That was just the first part of a larger plan, as rumor had it, that the pope was planning on leaving St. Peter's and the Vatican behind and establishing his new headquarters and base of operations in—you guessed it!—Indiana.
Stephenson actually had national political aspirations (he's best known for coining the phrase that a politician can survive anything "so long as he doesn't get caught in bed with a live boy or a dead girl"). However, like a lot of right-wing (and more than a few left-wing) creeps, he couldn't control his baser urges. A staunch Prohibitionist in the light of day, Stephenson was apparently a sloppy and violent drunk by night. He took a young teacher, Madge Oberholtzer, out for a date. He got drunk, took her across state lines to a hotel in Chicago, and repeatedly raped her. He told her that he wouldn't let her go until she agreed to marry him. She persuaded him to let her go to a drugstore, where she purchased and consumed a fatal dose of mercuric chloride, which, at first, just made her violently ill. When he finally returned her to her parents, skin had been torn off her breasts and genitals, and she had so many bite marks on her body that the doctor thought that she had been attacked by cannibals.
It took her two horribly painful weeks to die. At the trial, the doctors weren't sure whether it was the poison or staph infections caused by the bites that had killed her. Either way, it didn't matter to Stephenson, who was convinced that there was no way that a jury of his "peers" would convict him.
He was only a whole lot wrong. He was convicted of rape, kidnapping and second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Like the bitch that he was, he became angry when the governor of Indiana refused to grant him clemency and/or commute his sentence. Stephenson released a slew of documents that implicated politicians across the state in bribery schemes. The mayor of Indianapolis and the head of the state Republican Party were convicted and sent to jail. Every member of the Indianapolis City Council was kicked out of office and fined. The governor should have been convicted as well, but he escaped on a technicality.
The episode was so sordid that the Klan all but completely disappeared in Indiana and was never again a national force. It quickly receded back into the racist South from whence it had come.
I told you that story so that I could tell you another one. Unfortunately, I'm out of space, so it will have to wait until next week. But as a teaser, let me tell you that I just found out, based on a flier placed on my windshield in a Costco parking lot, that John F. Kennedy was killed not by Lee Harvey Oswald but by the same people who killed Warren G. Harding. Well, not the exact same people. That would be weird.