"To preserve the reputation of the Fraternity unsullied must be your constant care."


Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Indiana Freemasonry and the KKK of the 1920s in Upcoming 'Heredom'

My home state of Indiana was at the center of a brief but explosive mania in the 1920s, America’s involvement with the Ku Klux Klan. The total national Klan membership is thought to have reached nearly six million in 1924, and eventually encompassed 30% of Indiana's white adult male population: an estimated 250,000 at its height in the Hoosier State alone.  It was perhaps inevitable that Masons and their lodges got swept up in its path. 
I've been reliably informed by the Editor for the Scottish Rite Research Society, Illus. S. Brent Morris, that my article Indiana Freemasonry and the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s will be appearing in the upcoming Volume 26 of Heredom, the annual collection of papers from the Scottish Rite Research Society (SRRS).

There was a reason why Indiana had more Klan members per capita than any other state in the country, including the states of the old Confederacy. Much of it swirled around one particular, notorious individual.

The Klan had first arrived in Indiana by way of a paid promoter named Joe Huffington in Evansville in late 1920. About the same time, a charismatic young coal salesman named David Curtis Stephenson and his wife appeared in town, after spending several years in Texas. A military veteran prone to exaggeration of his own accomplishments, the outgoing Stephenson soon attracted the attention of Huffington. He had become a Freemason in Isaac Parker Lodge in Waltham, Massachusetts several years before, and ‘Steve’ was fully conversant in the ways of fraternal orders at the time. At first, Stephenson had the same skepticism over the Klan’s original post-Civil War reputation that most Americans had, as an outdated racist bunch of hooded thugs who terrorized and lynched blacks, tarred and feathered perceived white race traitors, and burned down houses. But Huffington convinced him that this “new and improved Klan” was strictly about pure “100% Americanism,” patriotism, morality, and flushing perfidious immigrant agitators and traitors from the countryside, schoolrooms and government offices.

David Curtis Stephenson
Grand Dragon of Indiana

From that humble beginning, in just five years, D. C. Stephenson would take over and expand the Klan to its greatest heights throughout the North, most especially Indiana. Soon, Indiana would have more Ku Klux Klan members than any state in the Old South. In that brief time, he and the Klan became political powerbrokers and kingmakers. The Klan even put Stephenson on a certain greased path to become President of the United States.

The Klan of the 1920s cannot be compared to its other two incarnations that bookend it. There is today an instant association of anything called “the Ku Klux Klan” with the rampant violence of its post-Civil War period, or its third 1960s revival as a murderous group battling against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The Klan of the 20s was largely seen in its day as little more than a nationalistic competitor with the numerous other fraternal societies of its era, and the massive growth of all of them in the years just after the end of World War I. Rather than hiding their Klan membership, numerous politicians, public officials and business leaders were not the least shy about including it in their roster of memberships, along with the Woodmen, the Red Men, the Knights of Pythias, the Odd Fellows and the rest. It was frequently a selling point for their careers, not a stain – at least until Stephenson and others made it so. 

The '100 per cent' phrase quickly became the well-known identifier
for pro-Klan sentiments, and it could be found everywhere in the 1920s

Of all of the Masonic lodges in the state that permitted KKK activities to take place or had an abundance of enthusiastic '100 Per cent American' Klan members in their ranks, the most notorious was Indianapolis' Irvington Lodge No. 666. And whether deliberate or not, Irvington's reputation was made almost impervious to any outside criticism nationwide because of a simple, unrelated tradition it had started originally to ward off the creepy association with its unfortunate '666' lodge number. 

Irvington Lodge started the national craze for gifting a Masonic Bible to new members - and suddenly, it was embraced throughout the country almost overnight. There could be no wrong coming out of Irvington, in the eyes of American Masons. And it was also the lodge Stephenson made his Masonic home base, along with several of his closest Kluxer lieutenants. He lived right next door.

With all of that preamble in mind, Brent Morris gave me the opportunity to slightly enlarge the 'Indiana Freemasonry and the Ku Klux Klan' chapter from my most recent book Heritage Endures, and to illustrate it with photos, which I couldn't really do in my volume. The Grand Lodge of Indiana bicentennial deadline in 2018 couldn't move and I had to stop wherever I was in time for it to be ready that January.

Heredom is due to be stuffed into mailboxes sometime this summer of thereabouts.

Meanwhile, if you'd like to buy a copy of Heritage Endures, see the order page HERE.


  1. Did any of our Grand Lodges suspend Masonic communication with those GL's supporting KKK activities? Did this rapprochement with the KKK result in a decrease in membership as did the Morgan Affair?

  2. No, they did not. That said, the re-created KKK of the 1920s promoted itself as a flag-waving, patriotic organization that primarily railed against Catholics in government and as school teachers, during the height of the Golden Age of fraternalism. They were quite different from the Klan of the 1860s-70s and the 1950-60s and up through today. The 20's Klan was astonishingly popular nationwide for about a ten-year period, and Indiana's Grand Dragon David Stephenson worked hard to make them into a major political movement. He would have succeeded, too — devious mechanisms were in place for him to be appointed as Senator by his pal Governor Ed Jackson, and everything was arranged for him to run on a national ticket for the presidency two years after that.

    He might have been able to pull all of that off. But after his murder of Madge Oberholtzer and the details of Klan members' government corruption and "Steve's" disgusting personal exploits came out, the national Klan organization almost completely vanished, within two years of his conviction. (He had kidnapped Madge, threw her into his Pullman room on the overnight train to Chicago, and proceeded to beat, rape and bite her so badly that the doctors said it looked like she'd been torn apart by wild animals. It took her weeks to die from infections after her untreated bites failed to heal.)

    No Masonic Grand Lodges lost amity within the mainstream Masonic community during the period because there were simply too many men who belonged to both the Masons and the KKK at the same time, all over the US, And countless serving Grand Masters were Klan members and officers.

    Truth is, this was an extremely complex moment in history that takes lots of explanation of information not readily available about an organization whose branding in the public consciousness today is so repellent that it can't be discussed dispassionately.


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