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Moment of Indiana History

Slaying The Dragon

From small beginnings in 1922, the Ku Klux Klan had attracted an estimated thirty percent of all white males in the Hoosier state onto its membership rolls.

painted image of cross burning from mural by Thomas Hart Benton

Photo: courtesy, Indiana University

Thomas Hart Benton included a scene of Klan members at a cross-burning in "Parks, the Circus, the Klan, the Press", part of the history of Indiana mural cycle, painted in 1933 for the Chicago World's Fair. The panel is one of two installed in Indiana University's Woodburn Hall, Room 100.

By 1925, the Ku Klux Klan was at its peak of power in the state of Indiana. From small beginnings in 1922, it had attracted an estimated thirty percent of all white males in the Hoosier state onto its membership rolls. The Klan cultivated Protestant ministers and their church members, preaching for Prohibition of alcohol and against Catholics and African Americans and immigrants, and proclaiming themselves as 100 percent American. A young organizer for the group, David Curtis Stephenson, quickly rose to become grand dragon of the state organization and a power in Hoosier politics.

On March 15, 1925, twenty-eight year old Madge Oberholtzer, who had worked for Stephenson for a short time, was forced onto a late night train from Indianapolis to Chicago in Stephenson’s company. He viciously attacked and sexually assaulted the young woman. Attempting to commit suicide by ingesting mercuric chloride pills, she became violently ill, but Stephenson wanted his crimes covered up and refused to take her to a hospital. Oberholtzer finally made it home two days later. When her doctor concluded that she was dying from her injuries, Asa Smith, a family friend and attorney, recorded Oberholtzer’s deathbed testimony about the rape. After her death on April 14, Madge Oberholtzer’s testimony became the foundation for a criminal case against D.C. Stephenson.

On November 14, 1925, after only four hours of deliberation, a jury found Stephenson guilty of second-degree murder. Although sentenced to life, he was paroled in 1950. By 1928, Hoosier membership in the Klan plummeted and the group lost its political influence. The scandalous trial of Stephenson, covered statewide and nationally, was a major factor in breaking the power of Klan in Indiana.

Sources: Doug Linder, “The D.C. Stephenson Trial: An Account” (2010),  Lutholtz, W.  (1993). Grand Dragon: D.C. Stephenson and the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana.  West Lafayette, IN:  Purdue University Press.

A Moment of Indiana History is a production of WFIU Public Radio in partnership with the Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations. Research support comes from Indiana Magazine of History published by the Indiana University Department of History.

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