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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

In Timothy Egan’s new book ‘A Fever in the Heartland,’ Madge Oberholtzer, the woman who brought down the Klan, gets her due

By Carolyn Lamberson For The Spokesman-Review

Timothy Egan found the perfect heroine.

Madge Oberholtzer didn’t set out to take down the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, and her story is a tragic one, but her sacrifice helped destroy a movement that had its eye on the ultimate power in the United States: The Presidency.

In his newest book, “A Fever in the Heartland: The Ku Klux Klan’s Plot to Take Over America, and the Woman Who Stopped Them,” Egan, who grew up in Spokane, tells the story of the rise of D.C. Stephenson, a lying grifter who parlayed charm, self-interest and evil in equal measure to turn Indiana into a Klan state. He helped fuel the rise of the Klan outside of the South and had ambitions to win the White House.

His encounter with Madge, an independent young woman who was working for the state to advance literacy, was horrifying but ultimately served a greater good.

“Good does triumph,” Egan said in a recent phone interview from his Seattle home. “I’m always interested in people at the margins who get written out of history, and in this case, she really brought this beast down, and in so doing brought this whole movement down.

“I couldn’t write just a completely dark story. I had to find the glimmers of humanity and hope, and she was it. She was my heroine.”

Egan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and National Book Award winning author, will talk about his book Wednesday during a program of the Northwest Passages Book Club, hosted by retired Seattle librarian and writer Nancy Pearl.

Initially, Egan aimed to tell a story that was closer to home – that of the Klan in Oregon.

Oregon was home to the largest Klan organization in the West in the 1920s. It was anti-Black, anti-Catholic and antisemitic. In 1922, the state elected a Klan-endorsed candidate for governor, Walter Pierce. In that same election, voters approved a measure to ban private Catholic schools in the state. The state’s racist history dates back even further. In 1844, 15 years before statehood, territorial law prohibited free Blacks from settling in Oregon. When the Oregon Constitution was approved by voters in 1857, it specifically prohibited African-Americans from living in the state. Although the prohibition was never enforced, it remained on the books for 70 years.

“(Oregon) had the most Klan members per capita anywhere outside of Indiana,” Egan said. “I found this picture of the chief of police and the mayor of Portland posing with these hooded and masked Klan leaders like it’s just hunky-dory. Astoria, the first American city west of the Rockies, had a huge Klan rally of 10,000 people in the ’20s and elected a Klan mayor.

“Our beloved Northwest had this strain of hatred and intolerance, and I was going to write that,” Egan added, “but then the story took me to Indiana, and it was too good to resist.”

He’s written this history as a thriller, a courtroom drama and an underdog story.

“It shows how these so-called average people can be taken in by a con man, a sexual predator, a drunk, a fraud. He’s everything they professed to be against.”

Stephenson was a drifter who landed in Indiana in 1920 and quickly became part of the Klan’s inner circle. Soon, he was Grand Dragon of the Indiana Klan and was head of recruiting for seven other states. At the height of the Klan in Indiana, 1 in 3 white men was a member of the secret society.

Oberholtzer was not affiliated with the Klan. She was an independent woman during a time of liberation for women. They’d been given the right to vote, the “flapper” era encouraged many to be out and in society, to cut their hair into stylish bobs and explore speak-easy culture. That social liberation of women was another thing the Klan hated, Egan pointed out.

“Madge was very much a woman of her age. A feisty, independent woman,” Egan said. “I really liked her.”

Her story, and her encounter with Stephenson, have had a long-lasting impact, even if her name is not well known.

“She basically did bring down the Klan. Everyone else who tried – crusading newspapermen, the Irish-American lawyer who had the Tolerance group, students from the University Notre Dame who rioted against the Klan, the NAACP staged a lot of rallies – all of them failed,” Egan said. “The only person who could bring them down was this one woman with no power.”

It’s ironic, of course, that an example of “pure white” American Protestant womanhood – one thing the Klan fought to preserve – is “what brought the monster down,” Egan said.

In addition to being a racist, Stephenson was cravenly ambitious and corrupt. He also was a violent drunk and a sexual sadist.

“Dwelling in this guy’s mind as I did for so long was really horrible,” Egan said. “That’s why I went out of my way, and it took a lot of digging, to find ‘our better angels’ … So there’s a crusading Irish-American lawyer named Patrick O’Donnell, who founded this group called Tolerance. There’s this African-American leader of the NAACP who breaks with the Republican Party because Coolidge, the president, wouldn’t denounce the Klan infestation. He was a real hero. … Given that I had to write about a monster, in whose mind you didn’t really want to dwell, really a sociopath … I thought in a literary way that he was a metaphor for how sick society got. Just as he was a depraved individual who was amoral, and a large chunk of American society decided to look away.”

Egan, whose previous history books have examined the Dust Bowl, police corruption in Spokane, pioneering photographer Edward Curtis, and Irish revolutionary Thomas Meagher, did not have any eye-witness interviews to conduct in researching “Fever in the Heartland,” as all those involved have died. He was able, however, to rely on court documents, news accounts from the time and a trove of documents discovered in Indianapolis in the 1990s that included Klan membership lists.

Those lists, Egan said, were especially telling. They revealed just how far the Klan had insinuated itself into mainstream society.

Stephenson’s strategy included bringing law enforcement and judges into the fold, bankers and business leaders, their wives and children. He created a private militia and got wealthy on membership dues. He sent Klansmen brazenly into churches on Sunday mornings, handing bribes to Protestant pastors in front of their congregations to get them to begin preaching the Klan ideology from the pulpit.

It worked. And one of the things that surprised Egan is how these Klansmen were not the “toothless rubes” of stereotype.

“These people were not hicks by any measure. They were the people who held their society together. They had money. They were the pillars of their communities,” Egan said. “There’s this quote from D.C. Stephenson where he says, ‘I did not sell the Klan in Indiana on hatreds, I sold it on Americanisms.’ ”

If the Klan had been just like any other fraternal order, Stephenson’s assertion might ring more true, but the Klan was a terrorist organization.

“They would burn people out of their homes and lynch African-Americans; they ran an entire community of Black people out of a little town in Indiana,” Egan said. “They had terror. That was the flip side of this Mayberry Klan was that they practiced terror.”

While the Klan may not have the power today that it once had, Egan says he can see some themes from back then that are resonant today.

“If you look at people who want to turn back the demographic clock, if you look at people who are suspicious of science, if you look at people who are intolerant of different lifestyles, who fear others because they don’t look or act like the majority, you can see a lot of then in now,” he said. “The 1920s in this sense kind of explains the 2020s.”