A Fever in the Heartland: The Ku Klux Klan's Plot to Take Over America, and the Woman Who Stopped Them

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Release Date: 
April 4, 2023
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A Fever in the Heartland engulfs readers in an early-'20s Indiana where the Klan’s full-tilt coup feels as palpably and terrifyingly real as it does confoundingly implausible.”

In this time of resurgent white supremacy in the United States, when the ideology’s avowed opponents at the highest level of government invariably respond to racist attacks with indignant declarations that “This is not who we are,” accounts of the Ku Klux Klan’s rise to national, bipartisan prominence in the 1920s are hard to reconcile with the notion that American racism has always been a regional or cultural anomaly.

The Invisible Empire grew to more than 7 million dues-paying members in the first half of the decade, and won the hearts and minds of tens of millions more white Americans who shared its prejudices and grievances. It counted a president, two future Supreme Court justices, governors, state and national legislators, lower-court judges, and mayors and majority municipal governments all over the country among its members. It enjoyed sworn non-aggression pacts with numerous "un-naturalized" (that is, non-member) congressmen.

Rationalizing the Klan’s popular appeal and amassed power in that era has often inspired extravagant dissembling. Harry Truman biographer David McCullough writes that when Truman aides and supporters would later attempt to justify the 33rd president’s brief association with the Klan years before his presidency (reportedly Truman paid his $10 membership fee but later reconsidered and backed out), they would assert that “the Klan in 1922 seemed still a fairly harmless organization to which a good God-fearing patriot might be attracted, that it offered a way for those who felt at odds with the changes sweeping the country to make known their views.”

McCullough unequivocally dismisses such apologias, but some historians, like Virginia van der Veer, author of Hugo Black: The Alabama Years, peddle these same white lies. Black was a naturalized Klan member through much of the twenties, a decade before FDR nominated him for the nation’s highest court. Placing Black’s Klan affiliation in context, she seems to regard the 1920s Klan as nostalgic clubmen playing dress-up: “Patterned in costume and rigamarole after the night-riding terrorists of Reconstruction, the twentieth century Klan began as a harmless fraternal band like Elks, Masons, or Odd Fellows."

Embedded in such justifications is a rationalization that should sound familiar to anyone who’s observed the mainstream media’s efforts to normalize the tsunami of nativism and authoritarianism that has engulfed America over the last seven years: If half the country supports it, it can’t be half bad.

Of course, the value of examining this appalling chapter in U.S. history is not to ease your discomfort with the Klansmen who ran your city or state a century ago, or humanize the Nazi now living next door, as The New York Times’ infamous November 2017 profile “A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland” attempted to do. Rather, the purpose is to better understand the extent to which this is who we are and how we got this way, without trying to sugarcoat it or explain it away.

Two terrific and well-timed scholarly books published in 2020 kicked off the 1920s Klan’s centennial decade with insightful explorations of that era: Linda Gordon’s The Second Coming of the Ku Klux Klan: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition and Felix Harcourt’s Ku Klux Kulture: America and the Klan in the 1920s. Both did an exemplary job of exposing the Klan as a wildly popular phenomenon and dissecting the populace that made it so.

The newest book that aims to blow the lid off the 1920s Klan and every myth and obfuscation that contributes to our murky collective memory of it comes from National Book Award winner Timothy Egan. A Fever in the Heartland: The Ku Klux Klan’s Plot to Take Over America, and the Woman Who Stopped Them is spellbinding, heart-stopping reading like the best of Egan’s books—the narrative history marvels The Worst Hard Time, The Big Burn, and The Immortal Irishman.

Egan’s most captivating and perfectly paced work to date, A Fever in the Heartland engulfs readers in an early-'20s Indiana where the Klan’s full-tilt coup feels as palpably and terrifyingly real as it does confoundingly implausible.

A Fever in the Heartland captures the meteoric rise of the 1920s Klan in the heartland of the country and the epicenter of its newly amassed power. Romanticizing the Reconstruction-era Invisible Empire just as the movie that inspired its rebirth, Birth of a Nation, had done in 1915, the "Second Klan" that peaked in the 1920s expanded well beyond the South, establishing new bases of power from Maine to Pennsylvania to Indiana to Colorado to Oregon.

As it took hold in areas with relatively small Black populations (and thus limited opportunity for exploiting anti-Black racial grievance), the Klan broadened the targets of its hatred to “fresh categories of undesirables,” as Egan writes, including anyone it defined as not “100% American.” This classification added Jews, Catholics, Asians, and Greeks to the mix, and—in lockstep with the era's cresting eugenics craze so brilliantly chronicled in Daniel Okrent's The Guarded Gate—branded them sub-human, and demonized them as enemies of all things American, white, Protestant, and pure.

Egan’s narrative centers around the Elmer Gantry-like D.C. “Steve” Stephenson, a persuasive orator, brilliant con man, and consummate opportunist of uncertain origins who swept into Indiana and cast about for a product to sell until he landed on race hatred packaged as Americanism and established himself as Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. Though far from averse to terrorism and intimidation, Stephenson envisioned a Klan not circumscribed by the hooded secrecy of its 19th century predecessor.

“Small thinking was for losers,” Egan writes. “Steve wanted the Klan of the North to rise up and come out of the shadows, to show its face and bask in the daylight. The Knights of the Invisible Empire had nothing to hide and much to share.”

But what made the new nationwide Klan so resilient and impervious to the risks of public exposure was not just the audacity of Stephenson and Atlanta-based Imperial Wizard Hiram Evans (with whom he formed a fruitful, but rivalrous partnership), but the nature of the public into which they ventured. As the Klan bought and won the overt support of prominent Protestant clergy, increasingly bullied and marginalized its target ethnic groups, and racked up one electoral success after another (eventually dominating both major presidential nominating conventions in 1924), journalists’ threats to expose Klansmen in high places or report on Klan violence tended to fall on deaf ears. This happened largely because their authors had misread the consciences of their readers.

“The second-wave Klan could return to its roots of terror because it had survived the kind of scrutiny that would have killed off any other secret society in a democracy,” Egan writes. “A three-week exposé by the New York World in the fall of 1921 had detailed murder, flogging, iron-branding, arson—at least one hundred acts of vigilante violence nationwide. The revelations, many people thought, would horrify most Americans.”

By and large, the Americans who should have been horrified chose to look the other way, or maybe they simply liked what they saw. The journalists who published these stories fully believing that they would help turn the tide must have been left to wonder, again and again, how could it not have ended there?

Undeterred, the Klan seemed to feed on such exposure. “It wasn’t until the newspapers began to attack the Klan that it really grew,” said William Joseph Simmons, the 20th century Klan’s first Imperial Wizard who revived the organization in 1915 after an inspiring trip to the movies. “And then Congress gave us the best advertising we ever got.”

After joining forces with Hiram Evans to push Simmons out in 1922, Stephenson proved several orders of magnitude more brash and ambitious than his predecessor, declaring himself (with ample justification) “the law in Indiana.” He set his sights first on electing a Klan-affiliated U.S. president and ultimately taking the White House for himself (although later he candidly conceded that a Stephenson presidency would have looked more like a dictatorship). For a time, such an outcome, according to Egan, didn’t seem all that far-fetched.

Indeed, Stephenson’s fame, ruthlessness, and accumulated wealth and power even insulated him for years from experiencing any repercussions for his parallel career as a serial rapist. “With an appetite for violent sexual excess,” Egan writes, “nothing seemed to satisfy [Stephenson] more than a naked woman bloodied by his teeth and begging for her life. His savagery was known only to a few people—it was the great secret of this multiloquent master of the North. But he showed no outward fear of getting caught; law enforcement couldn’t touch him. And because the Klan had made him rich, money further immunized him from justice.”

Though Stephenson emerges as A Fever in the Heartland’s most appalling and transfixing character, many other memorable ones populate the narrative. Egan’s compelling cast also includes the fearless Muncie Post-Democrat editor George Dale, who mocked and attacked Stephenson and the Klan relentlessly, despite repeated threats and actual violent assaults.

Egan also fills in the Indiana landscape with descriptions of a state-of-the-art Richmond, Indiana, recording studio whose clients ranged from Klan propagandists to King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, which featured a 22-year-old cornetist named Louis Armstrong and came to town for a 1923 session that proceeded as the largest Klan convention in the Midwest rattled its walls.

Egan also introduces Madge Oberholtzer, a municipal employee in Irvington, Indiana (the town of Stephenson’s primary residence), and “a woman of her age, pushing back against centuries of caged convention, game for a party, but serious about building a life of her own.” The story of her harrowing encounter with Stephenson and how it precipitated his eventual demise—largely bringing down the Klan of the North with him—occupies the last third of the book and unfolds in alarming and mesmerizing fashion as only Egan could render it.

Although Egan substantially sharpens the narrative of how the fall came about, it’s a matter of historical record that the massively popular and powerful 1920s Klan did ultimately collapse. The hooded men who called themselves Klansmen would continue to lynch and terrorize and intimidate over the ensuing decades, and return in particularly lethal force in the civil rights heyday of the 1950s and 1960s, but the extant Klan has yet to amass such numbers again. And the wildly profitable pyramid scheme-like corporate structure the Invisible Empire took on in the 1920s also dissolved as the decade waned.

There’s a peculiar moment in Philip Roth’s chilling alternate history novel The Plot Against America—in which Charles Lindbergh rides a rising tide of antisemitism and America First isolationism to victory over FDR in the 1940 presidential election and brings aspects of Hitlerism to the U.S.—when the narrator flashes forward to the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 and hints (in however tragic a way) that history somehow self-corrected and restored the timeline we all know after America’s dangerous dalliance with fascism.

A temptation arises when one reads the stranger-than-fiction story of the 1920s Ku Klux Klan to see its dramatic rise and fall as a bizarre historical detour, a transitory nightmare that Americans woke from and shrugged off as quickly as they sank into it. But the impact of the 1920s Klan lingered long past its peak popularity in the Klan-propelled Immigration Act of 1924 that would impose strict quotas on all of the immigrant groups that Stephenson and company targeted. A decade later the Act would begin to lock out the vast majority of Jewish refugees who sought entry into the U.S. when fleeing central and eastern Europe during Nazism's rise. Thanks largely to the Klan and its immense legislative reach, America's borders were effectively closed.

A Fever in the Heartland makes clear that the country narrowly (and dramatically) escaped the ultimate triumph of the Klan, which was indeed much more than just another "harmless" fraternal organization, as violent and racist in the years when it went mainstream as at any other time in its long history. If not for Madge Oberholtzer, as Egan contends, the ascendant Klan of the 1920s could have risen higher, it could have lasted longer, and it could have done more damage.

But it did happen here.