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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Northwest Passages: Timothy Egan details the true story of the woman who helped take down the KKK

Author Timothy Egan on Wednesday detailed a dark and oft-forgotten chapter of American history when an infamous hate group held power in American politics.

Egan joined bestselling author and retired Seattle librarian Nancy Pearl on stage at Gonzaga University as part of the Northwest Passages Book Club. They discussed the themes in Egan’s new book “A Fever in the Heartland: The Ku Klux Klan’s Plot to Take Over America, and the Woman Who Stopped Them.”

The book tells the story of the Ku Klux Klan’s rise to power in the 1920s. It follows D.C. Stephenson, a charismatic conman who became Grand Dragon in Indiana and helped lead the hate group to prominence in American life outside of the South.

Egan, who grew up in Spokane and lives in Seattle, is the author of 10 books. He shared a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 2001 with a team of New York Times reporters for its series “How Race is Lived in America.”

He draws his inspiration from curiosity and serendipity.

“Curiosity is the key to creativity,” he said. “I am open to finding a story.”

Originally, he intended to write a book about the Ku Klux Klan in Oregon, but his research led him elsewhere.

“A journalist’s job is to follow the story,” he said. “The story took me to the heart of America, where one in three white males took an oath to the Klan.”

The 1920s were a time when Black Americans were moving North to escape Jim Crow, there was an influx of Catholic Sicilian immigrants and women’s suffrage was recently achieved. These were all things the Klan hated.

Egan said Stephenson was an awful human being and a metaphor for the Klan. Stephenson publicly promoted sexual purity and prohibition. But in private, he was a bootlegger, abusive, a cannibal and a rapist.

“D.C. Stephenson is one of those characters it’s hard to believe existed,” Pearl said.

After many activists failed to bring him down, a forgotten, tragic figure named Madge Oberholtzer succeeded.

“I’m really interested in people who get written out of history,” he said. “People at the margins.”

Oberholtzer was an independent 28-year-old teacher and suffragette. Her deathbed testimony exposed Stephenson and destroyed the Klan’s political power in Indiana and across the country.

If it hadn’t been for Oberholtzer, Stephenson may have ended up in the White House.

The trial of Stephenson takes up the last third of the book.

There is a debate in America right now about how to teach history and what history to teach, Egan said.

“I’m not afraid of the bad parts of our history. I think we are stronger if we confront those things.”

Jesse Tinsley - The Spokesman-Review

James Hanlon's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.