Reconstruction- era Klansmen

A Brief History of the Ku Klux Klan in Southwestern Illinois


John J. Dunphy

The Ku Klux Klan was formed in Pulaski, Tennessee on Christmas Eve of 1865 by six Confederate Civil War veterans. It quickly spread throughout the South and instituted a reign of terror against the region’s newly-freed slaves as well as members of the Republican Party, whether black or white. Confederate veterans, poor white farmers, ex-Democratic politicians and other malcontents costumed themselves in hooded sheets and employed threats, violence and murder to intimidate African-Americans from voting, serving on juries, testifying against whites in court, bearing arms and bettering themselves economically. While it is difficult to ascertain a precise number, historians believe that the Klan during this volatile period killed hundreds of blacks throughout the South.

The Klan realized that education offered former slaves passage on the road to advancement. Accordingly, it targeted white teachers from the North — many of whom were former abolitionists — who journeyed South to school blacks in the fundamentals of literacy. These idealistic educators were paid nocturnal visits by Klansmen and warned that their lives would be in jeopardy if they attempted to teach the freed slaves. Many indeed chose to leave the South.

Blacks and their white allies attempted to resist the KKK, but it became increasingly obvious that Federal assistance was needed to curb Klan violence. Congressman Benjamin Franklin Butler of Massachusetts , a former Union general, introduced a bill that was signed into law by President Ulysses Grant in 1871. The Ku Klux Klan Act effectively outlawed this white supremacist organization by using Federal troops rather than state militias to fight Klan terrorism. Klansmen were prosecuted in Federal courts utilizing juries that were predominantly African-American. While racist-perpetrated violence against blacks in the South by no means ceased, the Ku Klux Klan was destroyed.

The Klan’s rebirth in 1915, at a mass meeting held at Stone Mountain, Georgia, can be attributed to the phenomenal success of Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, published in 1905, and its 1915 film adaptation. Dixon, an ardent white supremacist, portrayed Reconstruction as a time when freed slaves, Union soldiers and carpetbagger politicians exploited the defeated South. Virginal white women were routinely raped by African-Americans, who were depicted by Dixon as crude and bestial. Heroic young white Southerners formed the Ku Klux Klan to redeem their region from the men, white and black, who sought to destroy it.

While the original KKK never burned crosses, Dixon had them doing so in his novel. This literary innovation proved so popular with readers that the newly-reborn Klan adopted the ritual, and the blazing cross quickly became the organization’s most recognizable symbol.

Birth of a Nation proved even more popular than the novel upon which it was based. Directed by D.W. Griffith, Dixon’s racist vision of the post-Civil War era broke box office records across the United States and was acclaimed a cinematic masterpiece. President Woodrow Wilson, a Southerner who had known Dixon when the two were classmates at Johns Hopkins University, watched the film and proclaimed it an accurate depiction of Reconstruction. “My only regret is that it is all so terribly true,” the chief executive said. Griffith’s film succeeded all too well at glamorizing a gang of murderous thugs and selling this image to a large portion of the American public.

While the 1915 version of the Ku Klux Klan loathed African-Americans as much as its predecessor, it aimed much of its propaganda at Roman Catholics and Jews. Catholics were portrayed as inherently disloyal Americans who owed their allegiance to the Pope rather than the United States. The Klan accused them of plotting to bring America under the rule of Rome, either through the ballot box or even through armed insurrection. The author remembers his great-uncle, the late Joseph Dromgoole of The Alton Evening Telegraph, telling him of a KKK pamphlet warning that stores of firearms were hidden in the basements of Catholic churches for use in this rebellion. My great-uncle said that the author of the pamphlet was obviously not aware that Alton’s St. Patrick’s Church, to which he belonged, had no basement.

In addition to blacks, Jews and Catholics, the Klan declared its animosity toward immigrants, “Bolshevism” and those who did not support Prohibition. The white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant was the Klan’s paragon. Those who fell short in one or more of these categories could never measure up to this supposed American ideal.

The revived Klan was by no means limited to the South or rural America. The organization was very strong in Oregon, virtually ruled Indiana and even established a presence in New England. The Klan flourished in Southern cities such as Dallas and Memphis but also gained footholds in Chicago, St. Louis and Detroit. Illinois, a Union state during the Civil War, had 95,000 Klan members, the fifth-largest membership in the nation. East St. Louis had a thriving Klavern, a fact that residents today of that all-black city find singularly ironic.

Although the East St. Louis Klavern’s membership peaked at 8,000 members in 1925, it never succeeded in electing its candidates to municipal office. Blacks were joined by a coalition of Catholics, Jews, immigrants as well as a number of white Protestants who wanted no part of the Ku Klux Klan. This resistance to the KKK comprises a proud chapter in East St. Louis history. Other regions of the country were not so fortunate, however. The Klan in 1924 won almost every race in which it endorsed a candidate. While the organization worked with the Democratic Party in the South, Klansmen frequently supported Republicans in the North and elected GOP governors in Maine, Kansas, Indiana and Colorado. KKK-backed candidates took senate seats in Kansas, Oklahoma and Colorado.

Precisely when the Ku Klux Klan established itself in Alton remains uncertain. Its original members are all deceased, and their descendants aren’t talking. Having a forebear who wore a Klansman’s robe and hood isn’t the kind of thing that one tends to boast about. Minutes of Klan meetings — if, indeed, minutes were ever taken — either were destroyed long ago or have yet to be located.

It is certain, however, that an Alton Klan was already in existence in 1924 when it purchased for $4,300 the Upper Alton Wesley Chapel. The Methodist congregation that had occupied the building, located at 2014 Main Street, merged with another Methodist church in Upper Alton to form a new Methodist congregation. This church, now known as Main Street United Methodist Church, stands to this day and enjoys the distinction of having counted a young Altonian named Robert Wadlow among its long-ago members.

The Alton Evening Telegraph carried an article in its January 16, 1924 edition that quoted an unnamed Klan “representative,” who stated that the organization had acquired the church as a meeting place or “Klavern.” Alton’s KKK had so many members that it needed a “permanent home,” he said. The old Upper Alton Wesley Chapel could hold 200, but even that couldn’t accommodate all of Alton’s Klansmen, the anonymous spokesman insisted. The KKK eventually intended to build an auditorium with an even greater seating capacity, since the Klan would “throw it open for community uses. ”

The Telegraph reporter must have asked about the numerical strength of the Alton Klan, since the article notes that the spokesman declined to say how many members were in the organization. However, he boasted to the reporter that the KKK “had the largest membership of any fraternal organization in the city of Alton. The reporter wrote that, if true, this would place the Klan’s membership at over 1,000.

The reporter then observed that the spokesman’s response comprised “the nearest statement that has ever been made for publicity as to the membership of the KKK in the Alton chapter.” Since this article is the earliest reference to the Ku Klux Klan in the pages of The Alton Evening Telegraph, we can surmise two conclusions: Alton’s KKK had been in existence for an unknown period of time prior to this article’s publication and had consistently resisted giving any indication of its purported strength.

The Klan’s choice of Upper Alton, rather than Alton, for its meeting place surprised no one who was familiar with the two cities. Upper Alton had been a separate community until 1911, when it was annexed by Alton. The riverside city had a large Catholic population centered around three churches. Saint Mary’s Church, in the Middletown district, boasted many German-American parishioners, some of whom were quite wealthy. Saint Patrick’s Church, located in Alton’s Hunterstown neighborhood, had been founded as an ethnic parish for the shanty Irish. Saints Peter and Paul was the See of the Catholic bishop from 1857 to 1923, when Rome transferred the See to Springfield, and the church still lent such a commanding presence to State Street that it was popularly known as Christian Hill. It carries that name to this day, while Saints Peter and Paul is often referred to as the Old Cathedral. Alton’s Germans and Irish of the 1920s made no bones about enjoying their beer and whiskey, despite Prohibition.

There were no Catholic churches in Upper Alton. The Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian denominations helped sway. The community also was the site of Shurtleff College, a Baptist school. Drinking had been frowned upon in Upper Alton well before Prohibition went into effect, and the town boasted a thriving chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. While many Upper Alton residents undoubtedly abhorred the KKK and wanted nothing to do with it, the community’s large Protestant population and affinity for Prohibition, which the Klan strongly supported, made the town choice real estate for the Klan.

The Ku Klux Klan next made local headlines when the Reverend J.C. Townsend, pastor of Alton’s First Congregational Church, preached a sermon on February 24, 1924 that dealt with the KKK. Those who attended the service expecting a spirited denunciation of the Klan must have been sorely disappointed.

Townsend examined paragraph by paragraph the Klan oath as revised in 1921 and concluded that “if the Klansman lived up to that oath that he would be a better man.” The minister voiced one objection to the oath, however — that segment excluding Negroes, Jews and Catholics from membership. Townsend stated that he could not subscribe to such discrimination.

He had no quarrel with Catholics, the Congregationalist pastor admonished the crowd. Indeed, he conceded that he would “rather that a man or woman belong to the Catholic Church than to be without the church altogether.” Taking a somewhat higher road, Townsend observed that the framers of the U.S. Constitution granted freedom of religion to all Americans and that the offending segment of the Klan oath blatantly flouted that provision.

Townsend then returned to praising the Klan. Calling for “absolute fairness” in discussing the KKK, he said that it was a growing organization “entitled to the strongest praise for the good things in its preamble.” With the right kind of leaders, the Klan could accomplish “many good things.” Seeking to balance his sermon so as to offend no one, Townsend then returned to decrying religious intolerance and the Klan’s exclusion of Catholics, Jews and Negroes.

Discrimination against African-Americans is an example of discrimination based on race, not religion. According to the Telegraph account, however, Townsend took the Klan to task merely for religious discrimination and lumped “Negroes” with Catholics and Jews while making his point. If he deplored the Klan’s trademark racism in this sermon, the Telegraph reporter failed to note it.

Townsend obviously had publicized the topic of this controversial sermon among his fellow Altonians because the Telegraph article mentioned that “his audience apparently was made up of both sides” — a statement that indicates Alton’s Klan had an active opposition by this time. The reporter concluded the article with the remark that the opposing sides thought his presentation to be “most fair.”

Alton’s Klan held its first recorded cross-burning on Friday, June 6, 1924 on the grounds of the old Upper Alton Wesley Chapel. Klansmen in full regalia stood guard on the sidewalks around the church while the cross blazed. The Reverend A.C. Geyer, former pastor of Alton’s First Methodist Church who had thrown in with the Klan, served as the keynote speaker.

At Western Military Academy — located disturbingly near Wesley Chapel — Alton’s Knights of Columbus and Daughters of Isabella, prominent Catholic organizations, hosted a reception honoring Catholic Bishop James Griffin of Springfield. Protestant clergymen and laity were also in attendance, and the WMA auditorium was packed.

While the account of Griffin’s address in The Western Catholic contained no mention of the Ku Klux Klan or even its cross-burning so nearby, there is little doubt that the event was as much a protest rally as a reception. “There are those who think we are trying to steal the American government and others who think we have designs on the public schools,” he said. Griffin denied that any such conspiracy among American Catholics, a blunt refutation of Klan charges to the contrary.

He made a strong case for religious toleration. “America has never persecuted religion and it is the best field in the world for brotherly love,” he noted. Catholics and non-Catholics in the audience gave Griffin a standing ovation.

The Alton Evening Telegraph account of the reception noted that, despite their alarming proximity, there were no physical altercations between the two groups before, during and after the respective gatherings. Joseph Dromgoole, who attended Griffin’s reception at WMA, characterized the event to the author as “our answer to the Klan and its bigotry.”

Ironically, the Klan’s next major public spectacle was the funeral of one of its more prominent members. On his deathbed, Harry Lessner requested that the formal ritual of the Ku Klux Klan be performed at his burial.

Lessner’s membership in the organization underscores the Klan’s appeal to citizens of good repute. A former glass blower, Lessner was elected a police magistrate in 1911 and, later, won the office of justice of the peace. He had also served on the Alton city council and the city’s board of education. The Upper Alton resident had been a member of the Modern Woodmen and the Knights of Pythias.

It was Lessner’s desire to be buried on a Sunday. Klan members placed a telephone call to Alton Mayor George T. Davis while he was attending church to request that Klansmen be allowed to wear their hoods during the funeral procession to Oakwood Cemetery in Upper Alton. Davis declined, citing a 1923 state law that prohibited anyone in a public parade from wearing a mask. The measure, which had been signed by Illinois Governor Len Small, had been specifically passed by the legislature to prevent the KKK from parading in robes and hoods. The measure also provided for lengthy sentences for those who committed crimes while wearing masks of any kind.

Lessner’s funeral at the Klavern drew several thousand mourners, Klan and non-Klan. The service was conducted by the Reverend S.D. McKenney, pastor of Alton’s Cherry Street Baptist Church.

Word had spread throughout town that the KKK intended to march to the grave site in full apparel. Motorists eager to view the exotic spectacle lined the procession route until every parking space was taken. The robed Klansmen indeed observed the mayor’s demand that their hoods must be raised. Women Klan members, however, feared recognition by onlookers more than Mayor Davis’s wrath and wore hoods to conceal their faces. There is no indication that they were prosecuted for blatantly flouting state law. When the procession finally ended at Lessner’s grave, the Klansmen dropped their hoods, content that the letter of the law had been observed.

While an estimated 170 Klansmen and women participated in the funeral procession, this was a far cry from more than 1,000 members claimed by the Klan spokesman in January of 1924. Newspaper reporters and anti-Klan activists noted that Alton’s Klavern must be comprised of even less than the modest number of 170. Many of the Klansmen’s automobile license plates indicated that they resided in Madison county communities other than Alton. A number hailed from the East St. Louis Klavern.

An Alton Evening Telegraph photo shows a cluster of hooded, white-robed figures encircling Lessner’s grave. The KKK in turn is surrounded by a large number of on-lookers who might be non-Klan mourners or — more likely — the simply curious. There is no known account of precisely what comprised the Klan’s graveside ritual.

Lessner’s funeral marked the Klan’s last foray into the pages of Alton’s newspaper. There are no records of additional cross-burnings or funeral processions. Never numerically large, despite its claims to the contrary, Alton’s Klan entered a period of decline. Why? Part of the reason can be found in the negative publicity that had begun to engulf the Klan around the nation.

David Stephenson, KKK Grand Dragon of Indiana and several other states, enjoyed such power in the Hoosier State that he often boasted that “I am the law in Indiana.” He kidnapped in 1925 — the same year as Lessner’s celebrated KKK funeral — Madge Oberholtzer, a young schoolteacher, and brutally raped her in his private train car. Imprisoned by Stephenson in an Indiana hotel room, Oberholtzer attempted suicide by swallowing mercuric chloride tablets. When he discovered her vomiting blood, Stephenson drove her home and dropped her off.

Oberholtzer died of mercury poisoning but not before relating the horror she had endured from Stephenson’s attack. The Grand Dragon, virtually a dictator in Indiana, had bitten the young woman so badly that an attending physician stated that it looked as though she had been attacked by a pack of wolves. One of her nipples literally had been bitten off.

Stephenson soon discovered that he was not the law in Indiana. He was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison, although he was paroled in 1950.

The 1920s Ku Klux Klan, which so often publicized itself as the defender of “womanhood” and Christian morality, was devastated by the scandal. Klan members across the nation resigned in droves. The KKK strongly supported Prohibition, a position that sat well with “dry” Americans who otherwise differed with the Klan on social issues. The fact that Stephenson had plied Oberholtzer with alcohol before the attack further humiliated the organization.

Several incidents in in Alabama also helped to undermine the KKK. In their campaign to enforce what they perceived as morality, Klansmen kidnapped a divorced woman, stripped her to the waist and then whipped the woman after tying her to a tree. Other flogging victims included a naturalized American citizen who had married a native-born woman and a black who had refused to sell his land. Grover Cleveland Hall, Sr., editor of the Montgomery [AL] Advertiser, won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of editorials attacking the Klan. That such a thing could occur in Dixie underscored the Klan’s collapsing support.

The KKK, which had boasted a national membership of six million in 1924, was so weakened by 1928 that it was powerless to prevent New York Governor Al Smith, an Irish Catholic, from winning the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. To add insult to injury, Smith lost the general election but carried the Deep South that so idolized the post-Civil War Ku Klux Klan. By the 1930s, the Klan was a shadow of its former self. A few fanatics kept it alive, but the final blow came in 1944 when the IRS filed a lien against the Klan for $685,000 in back taxes. The Grand Wizard then formally dissolved the organization, although some Klaverns simply went underground.

The Ku Klux Klan was reborn yet again in the 1950s as a result of racist opposition to the Civil Rights movement. Today, however, it is a mistake to speak of a Ku Klux Klan, since there are any number of KKK factions, each claiming to be the true successor of the Reconstruction Klan as romanticized in Dixon’s novel and Griffith’s film. The contemporary Ku Klux Klan groups rail against blacks, Jews, immigrants, Communists and liberals but generally are less inclined to demonize Catholics than the 1920s Klan.

The Ku Klux Klan enjoyed a brief resurgence in the River Bend during the last decade of the twentieth century. The Klan engaged in a period of anonymous proselytizing in 1992 by leaving flyers in yards and even businesses. I recall a River Bend supermarket employee who was distinctly nonplussed at finding a stack of Klan flyers on a shelf of canned goods. Some time later, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, one of the most active Klan factions at the time, announced that a cross-burning would be held on September 12, 1992 at the residence of Ku Klux Klan member Terry Taviner on the 3900 block of Torch Club Road in Fosterburg.

Grand Wizard Thom Robb of Harrison, Arkansas and other speakers harangued about 200 Klansmen and their supporters for two and a half hours, beginning at 7 pm. Standing on a porch while addressing a crowd that included women and children, Robb stated that “The white population will be less than 50 percent in less than 60 years.” Seeking to frighten his audience even further, he warned, “If you think you have trouble with minorities today, what will it be like when they are the majority?” At approximately 9:30 pm, the cross was set ablaze.

About 40 protesters from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, who had been organized by Dr. John Broyer of the philosophy department, held a protest in front of Taviner’s home. The protesters and Klan supporters were separated by about 30 Madison county sheriff’s deputies, who were assisted by members of the Illinois State Police and the Alton Police Department.

The opposing groups frequently got into shouting matches. One SIUE protester pointed to a Klan supporter and asked him why he was wearing a Michael Jordan t-shirt if he really believed in white supremacy. The Klan supporter immediately removed the t-shirt and put it on inside-out, so that Jordan’s image was no longer visible.

A different kind of anti-Klan protest was held on Alton’s Lincoln-Douglas Square that evening. Community activists organized a Unity Rally to affirm the commitment of River Bend residents to justice and equality. An estimated 300 people attended the Unity Rally, which drew a number of students from Principia College in Elsah and McKendree College in Lebanon. Speakers included civil rights activist Josephine Beckwith, Assistant State’s Attorney Duane Bailey, Godfrey’s Temple Israel President David Davison and several others.

Although there was no physical interaction between Klan supporters and Unity Rally participants, the author remembers cars driven down East Broadway whose occupants yelled “White Power!” at us.

Although Robb pronounced the Fosterburg cross-burning a resounding success, at least one professional researcher begged to differ. Larry Powell, a photojournalist from Western Kentucky University who had trailed the Klan for five years, said that an attendance of 200 at the cross-burning couldn’t be construed as an accurate reflection of Klan strength in the River Bend. “Most of the people were gawkers,” he said. Powell estimated that only about 60 members of the crowd were actually Klansmen.

He postulated that the actual Klan presence in the River Bend was quite small. Most of the Klansmen at the cross-burning were wearing patches from states other than Illinois, Powell observed.

The next attempt by the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan to build a base in southwestern Illinois occurred in Edwardsville, the seat of Madison County, when the organization held a rally on the plaza between the County Courthouse and the Administration Building on May 6, 1994. The event was organized by Klan leader Basil Sitzes, Sr. of Cottage Hills and billed as a protest against the national holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Christine McGiffen, one of only two women present and wife of Illinois Klan coordinator Dennis McGiffen, opened the rally by welcoming “all white brothers and sisters.” McGiffen was followed by Dave Newman, Michigan Klan coordinator, and Troy Murphy, Indiana Klan coordinator. Thom Robb then delivered his address.

The rally lasted only 65 minutes and drew just 40 Klansmen, most of whom wore white shirts, ties and black pants rather than sheets. Over 100 state, county and local law enforcement officers, many of them in riot gear, separated Klan supporters from about 300 jeering protesters. One Edwardsville resident hired a musician to play the bagpipes while Klan speakers attempted to address the crowd. Klan members occasionally shouted back at the protesters and taunted them by extending their arms in Nazi-like salutes whenever Robb lambasted traditional Klan targets on the basis of their race, religion, ethnic origin and sexual orientation.

Taking a cue from Alton’s 1992 Unity Rally, Edwardsville activists organized a protest march designated as a “Walk of Commitment.” The march began at the Edwardsville Sports Complex and ended one mile away on the grounds of the ESIC Baptist Church, where a rally was held. The author remembers marchers being cautioned not to respond to jeers or other forms of harassment from any KKK sympathizers we encountered. Police cars accompanied us along the march. We were not harassed in any way.

Speakers at the rally extolled the importance of working to build a just, compassionate society in which bigotry had no place. Edwardsville resident Ana Brown read a letter from Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, winner of the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize, that deplored the Klan’s rally and stressed the importance of diversity. “When diversity generates unity,” Sarias’s letter stated, “a most beautiful picture emerges.” Edwardsville Mayor Gary Niebur told the crowd that “Today, we have been forced to host some most unwelcome guests — hatred and bigotry.” Niebur left no doubt in the minds of the rally’s participants his listeners regarding his attitude toward the Klan. “We will neither welcome nor will we abide such visitors in our community.”

While there are undoubtedly Klan members in the River Bend as of this writing, the organization hasn’t sponsored any further cross-burnings or rallies. Area residents who participated in the anti-Klan protests will always take pride for having stood up for human rights.

The old Upper Alton Wesley Chapel that once served as the Klavern of Alton’s Ku Klux Klan still stands on Main Street. It has had many occupants over the years, including a church that was a member of a historically black denomination. Those long-dead Klansmen surely turned over in their graves.


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“Sermon On Ku Klux Klan By Rev. Townsend;” Alton [IL] Evening Telegraph, February 25, 1924.

“Ku Klux Klan Holds Spectacular Meeting;” The Alton Evening [IL] Telegraph, June 7, 1924.

“Right Rev. J.A. Griffin, D.D., Receives Great Ovation In Alton;” The Western Catholic [Quincy, IL]; June 13, 1924.

“H.H. Lessner, Former Police Justice, Dead;” The Alton Evening [IL] Telegraph, July 13, 1925.

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“Klan Unmasked At Funeral On Mayor’s Order;” The Alton [IL] Evening Telegraph; July 20, 1925.

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John J. Dunphy

John J. Dunphy

John J. Dunphy owns The Second Reading Book Shop in Alton, IL USA. Google him to learn more about this enigmatic person who is such a gifted writer and poet.