When you think of the Ku Klux Klan, you likely think of the deep South. Think again. This is the story of what happened in the early 1920s in Indiana, the quintessential flag-waving, apple-pie center of America’s Heartland, which had more sworn Klansmen than any other state and three times as many as Georgia.
Lawmakers, from the governor on down, as well as police officers, industry leaders, newspaper editors, and even ministers were all Klansmen and under the control of the KKK and specifically the Indiana Grand Dragon, David C. Stephenson, a grifter, psychopath, and charismatic conman from Texas. Their hate-filled, horrific activities extended not only to Blacks, but also Jews and Roman Catholics.
While Stephenson was the public face of Klan “values”—most notably abstention from alcohol and protection of the sanctity of women—he was something quite different in private. While leading Indiana citizens kowtowed to him, Stephenson had a sexual secret: He enjoyed raping and torturing women through cannibalistic sex where he would chew their skin, almost trying to eat them alive. None of his victims ever reported the crime. After all, almost every cop, prosecutor, and judge in the state were part of the Klan and under Stephenson’s iron fist. Where would they find justice?
Written by Timothy Egan, this is the story of Stephenson’s sadistic reign of terror in Indiana from 1921 to 1925. He thought he was the reincarnation of Napolean, hoodwinked everyone, telling lies about his life that he uttered so often that he even believed them. He was an expert at planting fake news—from whispered suggestions to outright lies—that soon were treated as the truth. With the enthusiastic backing of the Republican party, Stephenson built a white-sheeted organization of hundreds of thousands of Hoosiers who pledged to support white supremacy. If you weren’t part of the KKK, then you were an outsider and not to be trusted. He even formed KKK organizations for women and children. Stephenson had plans to close the borders to immigrants, and he had his eye on the White House. Just think what he could do as president or manipulating someone else who served as his puppet in the Oval Office.
But then, quite suddenly, the all-powerful Grand Dragon was stopped cold by a 28-year-old woman named Madge Oberholtzer. A college graduate, schoolteacher, and member of Pi Beta Phi sorority, Oberholtzer was Stephenson’s last victim of cannibalistic sex, rape, and torture. In the middle of the two-day excruciating experience when Stephenson kidnapped her, Madge tried to commit suicide by ingesting a poison, but it was a very slow-acting poison. She died 29 days later from a combination of the injuries inflicted by Stephenson and the poison. That was enough time for her to tell her tale of horror to her parents, her best friend, her physician, and her family’s attorney as they surrounded her deathbed. It was Madge—well, the ghost of Madge—who brought down D.C. Stephenson when no one else could. It was Madge who exposed the Klan and its Grand Dragon for what they really were.
Oh, what a chilling and compelling tale this is! While Egan is a born storyteller, he is also a prodigious researcher, turning this sordid bit of history into a page-turning thriller.
A small warning: Many of the details in this book are gruesome and graphic. You’ll need a tough stomach to read these parts.