|A.K.A.||D. C. Stephenson|
|From||United States of America|
|Birth||21 August 1891, Houston, Harris County, Texas, U.S.A.|
|Death||28 June 1966, Jonesborough, Washington County, Tennessee, U.S.A. (aged 74 years)|
|Politics||Republican Party, Democratic Party|
David Curtiss "Steve" Stephenson (August 21, 1891 – June 28, 1966) was an American politician who in 1923 was appointed Grand Dragon (state leader) of the branch of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana and head of recruiting for seven other states. Later that year, he led those groups to independence from the national KKK organization. Amassing wealth and political power in Indiana politics, he was one of the most prominent national Klan leaders. "He was viewed as responsible for reviving the Klan and widening its base, and considered the most powerful man in Indiana". He had close relationships with numerous Indiana politicians, especially Governor Edward L. Jackson.
In 1925 Stephenson was tried and convicted (Stephenson v. State) in a notorious abduction, rape, and murder of a young white woman, Madge Oberholtzer, a state education official. His trial, conviction and imprisonment ended the portrayal of Klan leaders as law abiding. "The case and its fallout effectively destroyed the Klan in Indiana, and may have reversed its ascendency as a national political force." Denied a pardon by Governor Jackson, in 1927 he started talking with reporters of the Indianapolis Times and released a list of elected and other officials in the pay of the Klan. This led to a wave of indictments in Indiana, more national scandal, the rapid loss of tens of thousands of members, and the end of the second wave of Klan activity in the late 1920s.
Early life and education
Stephenson was born in Houston, Texas on August 21, 1891, and moved as a child with his family to Maysville, Oklahoma. After some public schooling, he started work as a printer's apprentice and was active in the Socialist Party.
During World War I, he enlisted in the Army and completed officers' training. He never served overseas, but his training proved useful in his organizing and leading groups.
In 1920 at the age of 29, he moved to Evansville, Indiana, where he worked for a retail coal company. He joined the Democratic Party and in 1922, ran unsuccessfully for a Democratic Congressional nomination. He was said to have already "married and abandoned two wives" before settling in Evansville.
Joseph M. Huffington, whom the Ku Klux Klan had sent from Texas as an agent for organizing in Evansville, recruited Stephenson to the group's inner circle. The historian Leonard Moore characterized them as both young men on the make. The Evansville Klavern became the most powerful in the state, and Stephenson soon contributed to attracting numerous new members. More than 5400 men, or 23 percent of the native-born white men in Vanderburgh County, ultimately joined the Klan.
Building on the momentum, Stephenson set up a base in Indianapolis, where he helped create the Klan's state newspaper, Fiery Cross. He quickly recruited new agents and organizers, building on news about the organization. Protestant ministers were offered free memberships. From July 1922 to July 1923, nearly 2,000 new members joined the Klan in Indiana each week. Hiram Wesley Evans, who led recruiting for the national organization, maintained close ties to state leaders throughout 1921-1922 and especially to Stephenson, as Indiana by then had the largest state organization. Stephenson backed Evans in November 1922 when he unseated William J. Simmons as Imperial Wizard of the national KKK. Evans had ambitions to make the Klan a political force in the country.
After Evans won, he officially appointed Stephenson as Grand Dragon of Indiana. Privately he made him head of recruiting for seven other states north of Mississippi. In the 1920s, Klan membership in these states grew dramatically. In Indiana, membership grew to nearly 250,000 or about one third of all white males in the state. Stephenson acquired great wealth and political power by leading the Klan; agents received a portion of fees paid by new recruits, and he began to wield other power. Evans, who had a monopoly on sales of Klan uniforms and paraphernalia, appointed Stephenson as Grand Dragon of the Indiana Klan at a 1923 Fourth of July gathering of the Klan in Kokomo, Indiana, with more than 100,000 members and their families attending. Stephenson said,
"My worthy subjects, citizens of the Invisible Empire, Klansmen all, greetings. It grieves me to be late. The President of the United States kept me unduly long counseling on matters of state. Only my plea that this is the time and the place of my coronation obtained for me surcease from his prayers for guidance."
Encouraged by his success, in September 1923, Stephenson severed his ties with the existing national organization of the KKK, and formed a rival KKK made up of the chapters he led. That year Stephenson changed his affiliation from the Democratic to the Republican Party, which predominated in Indiana and much of the Midwest. He notably supported Republican Edward L. Jackson, rumored to be a Klan member, when Jackson ran (successfully) for governor in 1924. Stephenson was noted for having claimed, "I am the law in Indiana."
Convicted of murder
Publicly a Prohibitionist and a defender of "Protestant womanhood," Stephenson was tried in 1925 for the rape and murder of Madge Oberholtzer, a young state employee. During the trial, the Klan's image as upholders of law and morality were gravely weakened as it was proven that Stephenson and many of his associates were in private womanizers and alcoholics. The scandal of the charges and trial, in which he was convicted, led to the rapid decline in the "Second Wave" of Klan activity. Stephenson was convicted of the abduction, forced intoxication, and rape of Oberholtzer (she ran a state program to combat adult illiteracy). His abuse led to her suicide attempt and eventual death in captivity, so he was also charged with murder.
Stephenson had bitten her many times in his attack. The attending doctor described her condition as having a significant bite on her breast. He later testified that the bite wounds Stephenson inflicted on her were a lead contributor to her death because they resulted in a staph infection that eventually reached her lungs and that she could have been saved if she had been given medical attention sooner. In her dying declaration, Oberholtzer claimed that Stephenson had refused to give her medical attention unless she agreed to marry him first. The jury convicted Stephenson of second-degree murder on 14 November 1925, on its first ballot. Stephenson was sentenced to life in prison on 16 November 1925.
After his conviction, Governor Jackson refused to grant clemency or commute his sentence. On 9 September 1927, Stephenson released lists of public officials who were or had been on the Klan payroll and was interviewed by the Indianapolis Times, which proceeded with an extended investigation of the Klan's political ties. (The Times won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its investigative reporting.) This publicity and the state's crackdown on Klan activity sped up the decline of the organization by the end of the 1920s. The KKK suffered a dramatic national loss in reputation and its membership rapidly fell from 5 million in 1925; soon few members were counted in the previous stronghold of the Midwest.
The state filed indictments against Governor Jackson; George V. "Cap" Coffin, chairman of the Marion County Republican Party; and attorney Robert I. Marsh, charging them with conspiring to bribe former Governor Warren McCray. The mayor of Indianapolis, John Duvall, was convicted and sentenced to jail for 30 days (and barred from political service for four years). Some Republican commissioners of Marion County resigned from their posts after being charged with accepting bribes from the Klan and Stephenson.
On 7 January 1941, the Valparaiso Vidette-Messenger reported that Governor M. Clifford Townsend, a Democrat, was considering granting an early parole to Stephenson. No parole was approved that year. Stephenson was paroled on 23 March 1950 by a Democratic administration, but violated parole by disappearing on or before 25 September 1950. On 15 December 1950, he was captured in Minneapolis and returned to custody. He was sentenced in 1951 to serve 10 years in prison. In 1953, he pleaded for release, denying that he had ever been a leader of the Klan.
On 22 December 1956, the state paroled him, on condition that he leave Indiana and never return. Stephenson relocated to Seymour, Indiana, where he soon married Martha Dickinson (they were separated less than a year later).
Stephenson then moved to Jonesborough, Tennessee (the town name was briefly spelled as "Jonesboro" during this time), where he was employed at the Jonesboro Herald & Tribune, and where he married Martha Murray Sutton without having been divorced from Dickinson.
In 1961, at the age of 70, Stephenson was arrested in Tennessee on charges of attempting to sexually assault a sixteen-year-old girl and was later released after paying a $300 fine as the charges were dropped on grounds of insufficient evidence. Stephenson died in Jonesborough, Tennessee a few years later in 1966 and was buried at the USVA Mountain Home National Cemetery in Johnson City, Tennessee.
- John Heard portrayed Stephenson in the television miniseries Cross of Fire (1989).
- In Daniel Easterman's alternate history novel K is for Killing (1997), Stephenson is featured as the sinister power behind the throne after the isolationist Senator Charles Lindbergh is elected President of the United States. Easterman reflected the documented predatory sexual behavior of Stephenson in the novel. He was portrayed as a politically savvy but unstable ally of Adolf Hitler.