In Where the River Runs Deep (WTRRD), the Ku Klux Klan hovers in the background, making folks uneasy. The story doesn’t center on the Klan, but it is there, like the burning cross in my mother’s memory, seen from a car window when she was a child. She was born in 1915.
Riding across the Indiana terrain with her parents in the family Model T Ford, Mother roused from sleep in the back seat, and there in the black of night, appeared a flaming cross in somebody’s yard. She was horrified. “The Klan,” explained her father. “Whose yard is it in?” she asked.” “Probably a Catholic’s,” said her mother.
This would have been during the time of the Klan uprising in Indiana.
The Second Klan rose in the 1920s. In The History of Hate in Indiana, Jordan Fischer writes: There was a time in the 1920s when being seen as a good, upstanding Hoosier meant joining the Ku Klux Klan. Citing author James H. Madison, Fischer says that during the Twenties, Klan membership in the Hoosier state swelled to more than 250,000. Even the governor was a Klansman. More than half the Legislature was. Preachers joined up. If you didn’t join the Klan, people might not shop at your store, support your church, use your services, or be your friend.
A new chant, “100% American,” sounded in the barbershops and taverns. By that, the Klan meant 100% native born, 100% Protestant, 100% white, and 100% English-speaking. The 1920s enemy was the Roman Catholic Church. The Grand Dragon was a man named D.C. Stephenson. Raised Roman Catholic, he’d been a socialist, a Democrat, and when he wished to be active in the Klan, a Republican. He was a showman: he would hover above the crowd in a white airplane, land, exhort the crowd to hate, and ride off in a limousine. As Klan membership grew, so did his wealth. Eventually, he owned a mansion, a summer house, and a yacht on Lake Erie. His intimates knew he lusted after women. In 1925, he was tried for the kidnapping, rape, and murder of a young schoolteacher named Madge Oberholtzer, and sent to prison. He had called himself a defender of Protestant womanhood. A large number of Hoosiers withdrew from the Klan.
I was born and grew up in western Indiana in two farmhouses houses that had been hammered into one. We got the Chicago Tribune and the Lafayette Journal and Courier a day late in our mailbox. The Benton Review came out on Thursdays. We rarely spoke of the Klan, except when an article about their activities appeared in the newspapers.
There was an occasion when I had reached the age of reason, in which my mother showed me a tract, reputedly put out by the Knights of Columbus, exhorting Roman Catholic men to rise up, slay Protestant men, cut babies from their wives’ wombs, and take their children to raise in the true faith. Though Mother regarded the tract as a real threat, my young mind darted to thoughts of the kindly Roman Catholic farmer who lived across the highway, and I didn’t believe her or the document. Later, it was revealed that the Ku Klux Klan had put out the tract.
If she had not been frightened by that burning cross when she was a child, would Mother have been so quick to believe Klan propaganda?
In WTRRD, protagonist Maria Pell is from Indiana. I’ve not written her full backstory yet, but The Untold Story of Edwina revealed she lives in Fennville (Prophet County), a university town on the Wabash River. She grew up south of Fennville in a hilly part of the state. She teaches Poetics at the university and publishes her own poetry. When she encounters the Klan in WTRRD, she fails to regard it as the menace it actually is.
A tragic mistake.