Mary Elizabeth Tyler was referred to as “the heartbeat of the Klan” during a Congressional investigation of the group’s rise in the 1920s. Tyler and her business partner, Edward Clarke, used their Atlanta publicity company, Southern Publicity Association, to fuel efforts to rebrand the KKK and launch the Women’s KKK. Tyler used media campaigns and her twisted women’s rights message to make the KKK seem as American as apple pie. Millions of men, and a little over a million women, joined the Klan in the 1920s and made Tyler and Clarke millionaires. As quickly as the Klan rose in the 1920s, scandal would lead to their demise, including the brutal murder of a young woman.
There have been three rises, and some would argue, “falls” of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan of the 1920s is one of the most complicated because it worked its way into the very fabric of America.
The original Ku Klux Klan was formed after the Civil War by former Confederates who still held on to their ideal of white supremacy. They openly worked together to intimidate people of color through violent acts such a lynchings. By the late 1870s, Federal laws were passed to prosecute the KKK. Their power and membership decreased and seemed to fade by the 1890s when Jim Crow era laws of enforced racial segregation supported their work. They felt their mission had been accomplished.
But there was a second coming of the KKK, inspired by the nation’s first blockbuster movie. Birth of A Nation, originally known as The Clansman, was released in 1915. The silent film was a box office hit that glorified the old Klan as defenders of the white race and defenders of the purity of white womanhood in America. That glorification was embraced by a man named William Joseph Simmons who saw the movie, declared to himself that the Klan would be reborn and recruited a small group of new Klansmen to announce the return of the KKK with a large cross burning on Stone Mountain outside of Atlanta.
The Second Coming of the KKK included a re-branding of the group to expand its reach and its clear message of intolerance and hate. Historian Linda Gordon notes that the changes included the Klan no longer being secret. And no longer being a Southern organization. The KKK of the 1920s had chapters nationwide. In fact, The Second Klan was strongest north of the Mason- Dixon line. The Klan claimed to no longer be a violent organization. And took their message to the masses . The 2nd Klan owned two radio stations, had deep roots in newspaper business, with many editors being members or the Klan or at the very least supporting the ideals.
Elizabeth Tyler and Edward Clarke headed up publicity campaigns to help bring the Klan into a positive light. Membership in the “new Klan” would mean $10 membership dues being paid to the KKK. The leader of the KKK agreed to Tyler and Clarke earning a commission on each recruit. Tyler and Clarke were fueled by their hate and greed and within a year of taking the Klan on as a client they had become millionaires.
Their success meant the Klan was a success in the 1920s with men and women joining. Some joining because their husbands were members, others joining and then recruiting their husbands into the KKK.
During the 1920s, the 2nd Klan campaigned for and helped elect 45 congressmen, 11 governors and thousands of state, county and city officials. All of whom ran openly as members of the KKK and encouraged people to vote for them because they were KKK members.
Society accepted the Klan of the 1920s until their lies and deceit began to be exposed.
Tyler and Clarke teamed with two powerful leaders of the national KKK, Hiram Evans and D.C. Stephenson, and overthrew William Simmons in 1922. Later that year, Tyler and Clarke were exposed as liars and thieves. They were out of the KKK by the mid 1920s.
Elizabeth Tyler may have been the woman who helped the Klan rise in the 1920s, but it would be another woman who helped take down the Klan of the 1920s. Against her will…and in the most violent of ways.
DC Stephenson was the head of the largest state organization of the Klan – Indiana. He often bragged that he was a defender of Prohibition. A protector of womanhood. But behind closed doors, he was a known womanizer and heavy drinker. Time and time again, reports surfaced of attempted rapes, sexual assaults, or inappropriate sexual encounters–after he had been drinking.
In 1925, he would be tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison for kidnapping and sexually assaulting 28-year-old Madge Oberholtzer who had briefly worked with Stephenson as part of her work for the state of Indiana’s adult literacy campaign.
On March 15, 1925, Madge Oberholtzer, was kidnapped and forced on Stephenson’s private train car. The train travelled from Indianapolis to Chicago. During the train ride, Stephenson viciously attacked and sexually assaulted Madge. Once in Chicago he and two other men continued to hold her against her will and Stephenson repeatedly assaulted her.
Madge Oberholtzer told Stephenson that “The law would get their hands on him!” But due to his Klan connections and political power in the state, Stephenson laughed and told Madge that he was the law in Indiana.
In a desperate attempt to end the nightmare of her suffering, Madge Oberholtzer convinced one of Stephenson’s bodyguards to take her to a store where she purchased mercuric (mercury) chloride pills. Madge ingested 10 pills and became violently ill. Stephenson refused to take her to the hospital.
Two days later, Madge Oberholtzer was dropped off at her family home by one of Stephenson’s henchmen who told the family that she had wounds all over her because she had been in a car accident. Stephenson and his accomplices believed she would die within hours and their crimes would never be known.
Madge’s family called for a doctor who concluded that she was dying from her injuries. Along with the pills she had taken to try to end her suffering and prevent another act of torture by Stephenson, Madge had significant wounds all over her body because Stephenson had bitten her time and time again during the attacks. The doctor would later say Stephenson had bitten Madge so many times that it should be categorized as a cannibalistic attack.
Madge lingered for almost two weeks. But her family knew it was only a matter of time before she passed. A family friend, and attorney, Asa Smith, recorded Madge Oberholtzer’s dying declaration of the attack she had suffered at the hands of one of the most powerful men in the KKK and in the state of Indiana. On April 14, 1925 Madge Oberholtzer died.
Her dying declaration became the foundation for a criminal case against D.C. Stephenson. Stephenson felt he was above the law. But on November 14, 1925, a jury deliberated for four hours and found him guilty of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison.
The violence perpetrated against Madge Oberholtzer, and her death, led to the demise of the KKK in Indiana and across the country. After Stephenson went to prison more and more politicians in the state faced indictment and prosecution on corruption charges. The power of the Indiana Klan fell with members abandoning the organization by the thousands. Within a year, Klan membership in Indiana fell from 350,000 to 15,000.
The acceptance of the Klan was ending in America with civic groups outing KKK members by printing membership rosters in local papers. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People worked to educate the public about Klan activities, including the violent acts they were carrying out around the country, despite their claims that they were a peaceful organization.
By 1930, the Klan had just 45,000 members nationwide.
Additional Episode Sources
The KKK might have died in obscurity if this sinister, racist woman didn’t come along. Timeline. December 11, 2017.
The KKK started a branch just for women in the 1920s, and half a million joined. Timeline. June 28, 2017.
The D. C. Stephenson Trial: An Account
“Impact Prelude”, “Long Note Two”, “Lost Time”, “Dark Fog” and “Echoes of Time” by Kevin MacLeod; “Procession Acts – Devouring the Whole” by Ross Gentry; “Slow Hammers” by The Mini Vandals Licensed under Creative Commons