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#MeToo, Networks of Complicity, and the 1920s Klan

A large group of men wear white robes and hoods. The American flag is visible in the background.
Ku Klux Klan paraders, Muncie, Indiana, 1922. 
Image Courtesy of Ball State University Archives and Special Collections.

The public outing of predatory men has changed public discourse about sexual assault. With the #MeToo movement, women and men have started publicly naming themselves as survivors of sexual coercion, destroying stereotypes of what victims of harassment and rape look and sound like. They’ve exposed the millions of dollars that companies have paid out to people targeted by abusive men, and challenged the second silencing intrinsic to nondisclosure agreements. This outpouring of stories, and the ensuing public debates about veracity, reputation, and culpability, have expanded popular discourse from an exclusive focus on rapist and raped, harasser and harassed, to a wider examination of the networks of complicity that destroyed victims’ careers and protected serial predators. Focusing on networks of complicity means reframing the narratives we tell about sexual assault. Instead of just focusing on victims, we can also see how perpetrators used their connections to escape punishment. We can better understand how men like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and Larry Nassar exploited their professional standing to prey on women and girls for years. Then, having abused these women, they took away victims’ voices through payoffs, non-disclosure agreements, and, in the case of Hollywood, their ties to the tabloids. With these insights into the institutional protection of predators, historians can re-evaluate past scandals to address explicitly the networks enhancing men’s power and the conditions that complicated women’s attempts at survival.

As unlikely as it may seem, the 1920s Klan and its demise merit just such a reconsideration in the wake of #MeToo. The Klan is infamous for the promotion of white supremacy and violence against African Americans; however, the Klan’s extensive networks of patriarchal power also enabled abusive men to prey on women. The 1925 rape of Madge Oberholtzer by Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson of Indianapolis is one such example.

In contrast to the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan, the second Klan was a relatively public, mixed-sex national organization with significant strength in the North. Indiana was one of the Klan’s strongholds and provided important national leadership for the movement. Power struggles, financial malfeasance, and rumours of heavy drinking and sexual misconduct dogged Klan leaders throughout the 1920s, but in the early years of the decade, the KKK’s oratory and organizational skills overrode the whispers. But the cover-ups eventually collapsed. Stephenson’s 1925 rape of Oberholtzer, her subsequent death, and the resulting trial brought the scandals of the Indiana Klan to light and helped bring down the second Klan. By 1927, Indiana membership dropped from approximately 250,000 to 4,000, with a similar loss of national support.

Even before Stephenson fixated on Oberholtzer, the national Klan leadership and local subordinates worried that his personal habits would reflect poorly on the Klan’s claim of moral superiority, so they worked to keep his treatment of women hidden. Twice divorced – for abandoning his pregnant first wife and for beating his second wife – Stephenson drank heavily and developed a reputation as a “ladies’ man.”

As early as 1923, Stephenson started having run-ins with the law. On a recruiting trip to Columbus, Ohio, a sheriff caught him attempting to have sex with his secretary in a parked car. A year and a half later, on a different trip to Columbus, a drunken Stephenson turned violent when a hotel manicurist refused his sexual overture. Although the manicurist did not press charges, two Columbus newspapers reported on the incident. With stories like these adding up, Imperial Wizard Hiram Evans, the national leader of the Ku Klux Klan, ordered an inquiry into Stephenson’s behaviour and condemned his former ally. Claiming he’d been framed, Stephenson resigned from the national Klan. Since the Klan had covered up other leaders’ sexual predation of women, Stephenson made a persuasive point that Evans censured him for political rather than moral reasons. Within Indiana, Stephenson retained considerable power, successfully rallying Klan support for Republican candidates in the 1924 elections, notably gubernatorial winner, Edward L. Jackson.

Stephenson first met Madge Oberholtzer at Jackson’s 1925 inauguration party. Stephenson repeatedly asked her out, until she reluctantly consented, dining with him a few times at the Hotel Washington’s Café George. She also went to a well-attended party at his home. Not accepting the slow pace Oberholtzer set, Stephenson used his political connections first to threaten her job as a manager of the Indiana Young People’s Reading Circle. Then, having established the precarity of her position, he hired her to cowrite a book on nutrition that recent Klan-sponsored legislation required state-funded schools to use. Using his connections in both the executive branch and the legislature, Stephenson exploited Oberholtzer’s economic vulnerability to draw her closer and make her more dependent on him.

 On March 15, two months after their first meeting, Stephenson demanded that Oberholtzer come to see him about the book and sent one of his bodyguards, Earl Gentry, to bring her to him. With the help of Gentry, a second bodyguard, Earl Klinck, and chauffeur, Ernest “Shorty” DeFriese, Stephenson forced Oberholtzer to drink whiskey to the point of sickness, then ushered her into a locked drawing room on a Chicago-bound train. There Stephenson repeatedly raped her, biting her all over. Stopping just shy of the Illinois border, Stephenson continued his assaults in a hotel room in Hammond, Indiana.[1] At some point, Oberholtzer persuaded Gentry and DeFriese to take her to a pharmacy to buy some makeup to cover her injuries. Intending to commit suicide, she also bought bichloride of mercury tablets. She only succeeded in taking a few pills before Stephenson interrupted her. With Oberholtzer now visibly ailing, the men decided to return to Stephenson’s mansion in Indianapolis. On the trip back, the Klansmen attempted to treat her by repeatedly forcing her to vomit, but they never took her to a doctor. When Oberholtzer’s condition did not improve overnight, Klinck brought her to her family. Suffering from the infected bites and kidney damage from the poison, Oberholtzer died in mid-April. Before she did so, she swore out a notarised statement detailing Stephenson’s assault.

With his political connections, Stephenson thought he was above the law, but public opinion turned against him as first the local papers and then the national wire services covered the story. Stephenson’s supporters, male and female, tried to frame Oberholtzer as a party girl and used the fact that she had gone out with Stephenson more than once to discredit her. Yet her death, the brutality of her injuries, and the clarity of her dying declaration convinced many of Stephenson’s culpability. After almost six hours of deliberation, the jury found Stephenson guilty of second degree murder; however, they acquitted his accomplices, Gentry and Klinck, while DeFriese was never even arrested. Sentenced to life in prison, Stephenson expected a pardon from his crony Governor Ed Jackson, but Jackson did not deliver. Two years later, in retaliation for Jackson’s inaction, Stephenson turned over to the press evidence of all the politicians from the governor on down that the Indiana Klan had bribed under Stephenson’s stewardship.[2] These revelations had a devastating effect on both the Klan and the Indiana Republican Party, causing a crisis in confidence in the two organizations’ message of moral values, law enforcement, and white protestant superiority. Stephenson targeted women he met at his workplace, through recruiting drives, and at parties hosted by political cronies. He exploited his connections to the legislature first to endanger a woman’s job and then to draw her closer with a counteroffer. Stephenson’s well-armed bodyguards abetted him, assisted in finding women, and tried to assuage them after Stephenson’s assaults. Despite his heavy drinking and repeated violence against women, the national Klan leadership supported him for as long as they found him useful. Neither the Indiana Klan nor the politicians that it supported publicly repudiated him until a woman died – and even then, many continued to whisper that she was to blame and that he’d been framed. Most significantly, neither Stephenson nor his behaviour were singular: we only know about his actions because Oberholtzer’s gruesome death was exceptional. More than just a story of hypocrisy exposed, Stephenson’s rapid rise and drastic fall demonstrates how powerful men used their networks to prey on women.

Mara Keire teaches at the University of Oxford and is currently researching a book, Under the Boardwalk: Rape and Popular Culture in New York, 1900-1930.  This essay elaborates on a forthcoming contribution, “Women and Sexual Assault in the United States, 1900-1940,” to the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History.

For more on the Klan, click here.

[1] Stephenson may have been wary of federal prosecution under the Mann Act for taking a woman across state lines for immoral purposes. 

[2] Stephenson spent the rest of his life in and out of prison. He regularly petitioned to have his conviction overturned, but wasn’t granted parole until 1950. He returned to prison within the year for failing to meet with his parole officer, and stayed in prison until 1956 when Indiana’s governor granted him complete discharge. In 1961, Stephenson attempted the assault of the sixteen-year old girl. He was let off with only a fine. He died in 1966. See M. William Lutholtz, Grand Dragon: D.C. Stephenson and the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana (West Lafayette, 1991), 310-314.