The Ku Klux Klan began infiltrating Henderson’s institutions around the same time it first paraded brazenly down Second Street.
The KKK has been a secret organization since its inception just after the Civil War, so it’s in many ways difficult to determine what it was doing. The Gleaner of the 1920s, for the most part, did not report its activities unless they were so blatant that they could not be ignored. So to some extent I have to decipher the shadows cast by the light of these crosses of fire.
In December 1921, the Klan made donations to several good causes, which was the first time The Gleaner noticed its local presence. The newspaper had published articles on Klan activities elsewhere for several years.
On May 11, 1922, however, 183 fully clothed Klansmen marched behind a flaming cross from Central Park to Union Station, with the Henderson Police Department and Sheriff’s Deputies maintaining crowd control. It is unclear how many of the walkers were local men; a steamer had brought in a contingent from Evansville for the event.
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A crackdown on gambling, dancing and Sunday film screenings soon followed. The new rules were strict, going so far as to prohibit prizes in card games playing bridge.
“I’m not going to be charged for dereliction of duty,” Police Chief Ben McKinney told the Gleaner in the May 14 edition.
The May 31 edition reported that Fire Chief Mike P. Abel was in the hot seat. The Henderson City Commission had sent him a one-sentence letter asking for his resignation by June 1. City officials were mum on the cause.
Public Safety and Finance Commissioner Frank S. Haag said it was “because he was fighting the administration and was not loyal.”
Abel requested a hearing before the city commission but was ignored. The June 3 Gleaner reported that he was still at work.
“I want my friends to know that I am not guilty of any wrongdoing,” Abel said. “Any accusation of disloyalty brought against me is baseless.”
The latest Gleaner story on the fire chief’s sacking appeared in the June 6 edition, which reported that the city commission had named Harry Stolzy as the new chief. He had been captain of the main downtown fire station.
I can’t say for sure that Stolzy was a Klansman, but it seems likely because many people in Henderson County were Klansmen at that time. In mid-June 1923, he had firefighters repair the basin of the Central Park fountain, filled with fire hoses. However, problems arose after a month, about a black nanny watching a young girl splashing in the fountain. The nurse was not in the water; she was just doing her job. Nevertheless, she was asked to leave by one of the firefighters. At that time, Central Park was segregated, and the area where the fountain is located was on the side of the park reserved for whites.
The girl’s mother complained to the city commission, which told Stolzy he had no authority to issue orders in the park. This prompted Stolzy to empty the fountain basin.
“I drained the pool because I don’t believe in racial equality, and I don’t care who knows my opinion on these issues,” he told The Gleaner.
The Klan opposed minorities and immigrants, of course, but the Catholic Church was also a major target. A letter to the editor of BP Manion published on October 18, 1922 illustrates the pressure Catholics felt on the city’s payroll.
Manion had been fired from the waterworks after reporting that JD Gass was sleeping on duty – while Gass, who was a reputable Klansman, was promoted and got a big raise.
City commissioners “say they have no politics in their office,” Manion wrote. “I claim that there has never been as much politics in a municipal administration as there is in the current administration, and religious politics or rather Ku Klux.
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“There were seven Catholics fired to make room” for the men who had worked to get the commissioners elected. “There are three Catholics left and, in my opinion, you will see them fall one by one when the current Ku Klux discussions die down.”
Mayor Clay Hall was the leader of the local Klan, Oscar Jennings told me before his death, and after studying Hall’s death in 1925 for years, I firmly believe it was a political assassination. . He was running for sheriff when a shotgun ended his campaign a week before the election.
Charlie Davis and Judy Hayden wrote a book in 1986 to commemorate the centennial of the Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church. They recount “a wave of religious intolerance” in the mid-1920s that culminated in the death of the mayor and probably caused the following incident.
Paul Moss told them, “The Ku Klux Klan called the parsonage and threatened to burn down Holy Name Church. “He (Moss) and two other non-Catholic friends, Alex Posey and Dace Howard, stood guard over Holy Name with shotguns for almost a week. Luckily the KKK didn’t show up and no one was hurt.
Several other incidents in June 1922 demonstrated the growing local presence of the Klan.
On June 20, Gleaner posted a brief story about a black man from Evansville named Wesley Cookie, who was “jumping fences in the Clay and Alves Streets neighborhood” when a police officer intervened and jailed him. Cookie’s explanation? He was trying to get away from the Klan.
“They are after me. They hanged my brother.
The June 6 edition reprinted a letter sent to Sheriff Otis A. Benton by the “exalted Cyclops” of Evansville Klan No. 1, which was accompanied by a wreath “in the unusual form of The Fiery Summons” . Benton was recovering in a hospital in Evansville at the time.
The letter thanked him for the work of his deputies in helping to keep the Klan’s May 11 parade “true to Klan principles” of law and order. He also expressed the hope “that in the future you will feel the inspiration to associate with the Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.”
The June 3 edition contained an article about a Progressive Club meeting, which contained this as the last paragraph:
“Mr. D.C. Stephenson of Evansville covered a wide variety of topics, with much emphasis on immigration and the teaching of Americanism in public schools. His talk was very energetic and was well received.
During the heyday of the Klan in the mid-1920s, David Curtis Stephenson wielded the ultimate political power in Indiana, largely because he was Indiana’s Great Dragon of the Klan. By 1925, the Klan had a quarter million members in Indiana alone, which made up more than 30 percent of Indiana’s white males, according to an Aug. 30, 2012, article in the Smithsonian Magazine.
The end of his reign came on March 15, 1925, after Stephenson ravaged his assistant Madge Oberholzer, who attempted suicide after suffering deep bites all over her body during her rape. “You must forget that; what’s done is done,” he told her. “I am the law and the power.”
Oberholzer died and Stephenson was convicted of rape, kidnapping, conspiracy and second degree murder.
By 1928, Klan membership in Indiana had fallen to 4,000. By 1930, national membership had fallen to about 30,000 from a peak in the mid-1920s of between 4 and 6 million.
75 YEARS AGO
Fishing near dams on the Ohio River, which had been banned during World War II, has been reopened, according to The Gleaner of May 25, 1947.
“Lock keepers have been instructed to open reservations to visitors immediately,” said District Chief Engineer BB Talley. “Fireplaces, tables, benches and rest rooms will be provided in the near future.”
Some areas remained closed because they were unsafe, Talley said, but they would be posted.
50 YEARS AGO
Henderson’s attorney, David Thomason, scaled a pole that had been erected on First Street near the courthouse for his fundraising effort on behalf of the American Cancer Society, according to a photo in The Gleaner of May 27, 1972.
“Promises are taken – the amount per hour multiplied by the number of hours Thomason stays on the post,” the caption reads.
Her passage to the mast began on June 3.
25 YEARS AGO
The state Liquor Control Board revoked the liquor licenses of the Rumors nightclub at 3705 US 41-Alternate, according to The Gleaner of May 30, 1997.
The licenses had been suspended due to a gambling violation that occurred before Charles Shourds took over the operation, which began offering totally nude dances in the fall of 1996.
The license revocation happened because an inspector found an ice bucket containing beer behind the bar. The bartender maintained that it was for the dancers. The ABC did not buy that excuse and cited the company for trafficking liquor during a period of suspension.
The nightclub continued to offer nude dancing for several years.
Readers of The Gleaner can contact Frank Boyett at [email protected] or on Twitter at @BoyettFrank.