If history’s darkest moments aren’t told, the heroism exhibited in the face of injustice and evil may never be known.

Stories of courage through Indiana’s ugliest era are captured in Timothy 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.” It explains how, in the 1920s, a hate group gained power in states beyond the South, including the West and Midwest, and most deeply in Indiana, led by a dynamic conman and criminal leader, D.C. Stephenson.

“Fever,” which brought Egan to all corners of Indiana frequently during three years of research, also illuminates the bravery of Hoosiers who confronted the evil.

That includes a rabbi from Terre Haute.

The Klan, which placed followers in elected offices from local to state levels, sent Dr. Joseph L. Fink, rabbi of Terre Haute’s Temple of Israel, a letter demanding that he resign from the community chest, a charitable coalition. As Egan’s well-documented book explains, the Klan told the rabbi to attend a nighttime gathering at a cemetery. It was a Klan rally, complete with 300 hooded Klansmen and a burning cross.

Instead of resigning, the diminutive rabbi told the Klansmen they were un-American, that he wouldn’t resign and would never hide his faith. Then he left.

“He stands up and calls them a bunch of gutless cowards because they wouldn’t even show their faces,” Egan said by phone Wednesday. “It’s an amazing thing.”

There were others, including people targeted by the Klan’s expanded scope of hatred, Egan said.

Black Americans, long the target of the Klan, had begun the “great migration,” when approximately six million African Americans began moving from the vestiges of slavery in the Jim Crow South to the North, Midwest and West around 1910. Klan spread hatred also to Catholic Americans, liberated women who’d gained their voting rights in 1920 and immigrants flowing into the U.S. from Eastern Europe.

Those changes didn’t sit well with Stephenson and the Klansmen in Indiana, which at one point totaled an estimated 1 of every 3 adult men in the early ‘20s. Change created fertile ground for racism and bigotry, and for people to blame ills on those unlike themselves.

“All of that causes a very homogenous state to freak out and say, ‘Oh my god, America is changing,’” Egan said.

It was a young woman, who suffered the cruelty of Stephenson’s hypocritical lifestyle, who helped to unravel his dominance. Madge Oberholtzer was a Hoosier teacher and suffragette, who was abused, tortured and raped by Stephenson, and ultimately died from wounds he inflicted on her. Yet, her deathbed testimony helped convict Stephenson of murder and send him to prison, a fate he thought was impossible given his power in Indiana.

Stephenson’s trial exposed his public facade. Claiming to bring virtue to America and Indiana as the Klan’s grand dragon, Stephenson was actually “a rapist, murderer, a drunk, a liar and a conman,” Egan said, “and yet he had the entire state of Indiana in his hands. So, there’s a lesson there — why do we do that? Why do good folks follow a monster?”

Stephenson’s conviction and the gruesome details of his trial led to a diminishment of the KKK’s influence. The white supremacist group had managed to get three adherents of their cause elected as governors of three states, including Indiana, Egan’s research showed. At one point, the Klan claimed to control 15 U.S. senators and 75 members of the U.S. House. That control extended to Indiana’s state government, and office-seekers openly boasted of their allegiance.

The group gained its toehold in the North in Evansville, Egan said. They infected daily life, hunting down women who dared to dance in clubs at night. “They would go in and break up speakeasies. They would go out at night, looking for young people necking in parked cars and try to break them up,” Egan said. “They were like the Taliban.”

Courage and truth stopped its rise. Madge Oberholtzer embodied that courage.

Egan was impressed by the support of Hoosiers for his research into the Klan, Stephenson and Oberholtzer, and found lots of documentation available through archives of Ball State and Notre Dame universities, the Indiana State Library and Indiana Historical Society. He’s also heard from Indiana residents who read the book and recalled hearing about that era from earlier generations, “but not really knowing the depth of it,” Egan said.

“I found people to be very helpful, very friendly,” he added, “particularly in wanting to get out the story of Madge. There should be a statue of her somewhere. She was totally heroic.”

Indeed, her willingness to tell the truth and confront a powerful evil needs remembered, not only in bronze but in classrooms and history books. So does the fearlessness of others, like Rabbi Fink of Terre Haute. Efforts to squelch the classroom teaching of injustices also squelch the memory of people who pushed back.

Egan believes the history told in the book, and included in documents around the state, should be told. He also believes that people hoping to suppress that history can be convinced of its value, though it’s an “uphill battle.”

“History is evolution. It’s moving forward. It’s the arc of the universe moving toward better and positive things,” he said. “And I would argue with anyone who’s afraid of this history [that] it doesn’t make you ashamed of your country. It makes you realize your country is complicated.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

Trending Video

Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.