Madge Oberholtzer

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Madge Augustine Oberholtzer (November 10, 1896–April 14, 1925) was an American schoolteacher who played a critical role in the demise of the second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan. In March 1925, while working for the state of Indiana on an adult literacy campaign, she was kidnapped by D. C. Stephenson, Grand Dragon of the Indiana Klan and one of the most powerful Klan leaders nationwide. Holding her captive in his private train car, he raped and partially cannibalized her.[1] She died from a combination of a staph infection and kidney failure from mercury chloride poisoning, which she took while imprisoned in order to commit suicide.[2]

After the suicide attempt, Stephenson's men returned Oberholtzer to her home alive, assuming her severe injuries would quickly prove fatal and that their leader was in any case immune to prosecution. However, she regained consciousness long enough to give a signed statement to police as she lay dying.[3] She vividly described Stephenson's assaults on her, and this detailed testimony led to his conviction at trial. The ensuing scandal contributed to the rapid decline of KKK membership in Indiana, with tens of thousands of members leaving. The decline was hastened by Stephenson's talking to the press in 1926–1927 about government officials who had accepted payments and bribes from the Klan; the organization's supporters became less able to defend it as law-abiding and upholding morality.

Early life[edit]

Born to German-American parents, Oberholtzer grew up in Indianapolis,[4] where her father worked as a postal clerk and her family belonged to the Irvington Methodist Church.[4] She was, a friend would later say, “an independent soul, yet timid. I don’t think anybody disliked Madge, but she didn’t make a great effort to make people like her, either.”[4] She studied English, mathematics, zoology and logic at Butler College in Irvington, but dropped out, without explanation, at the end of her junior year.[4] Through her life, Oberholtzer lived with her parents in the Irvington area of Indianapolis.[4] By the time she had met Stephenson, she was the manager of the Indiana Young People’s Reading Circle, a special section of the Indiana Department of Public Instruction.[4] She’d heard rumors, though, that the Reading Circle program—and her job—were about to be eliminated due to budget cuts.[4]

Events of the case[edit]

Oberholtzer first met David Curtiss Stephenson, Grand Dragon (state leader) of the Indiana Branch of the Ku Klux Klan, while attending Indiana Governor Ed Jackson's inauguration gala at the Athletic Club[5] on January 12, 1925.[4] In her dying statement, Oberholtzer claimed Stephenson asked her for a date several times after the banquet, but she at first refused to accept this request.[5] However, she eventually agreed to date him and the two dined together.[4] Following the date, Stephenson called Oberholtzer on the phone several times and she eventually agreed to a dinner with him and others at the Washington Hotel in Indianapolis.[5]

The two began seeing each other frequently.[4] She acted as his aide during the 1925 session of the General Assembly,[4] carrying messages from his office down to his friends,[4] and helped him write a nutrition book, One Hundred Years of Health.[4] Using her Reading Circle connections, she planned to help sell the books to schools throughout the state.[4] However, Oberholtzer soon ended her relationship with Stephenson after attending a party at his mansion and would not see him again until Sunday, March 15.[5]

Around 10:00 p.m. March 15, 1925, Oberholtzer returned home after an evening with a friend[4] and her mother told her that Stephenson’s secretary had called[4] and said he was leaving for Chicago and wanted her to call him before he left.[5] She then called Stephenson and he told her he would make an effort to preserve the Reading Circle program and her job if she agreed to see him.[5] She then changed into a black velvet dress[4] and a bodyguard whom Oberholtzer described as "Mr Gentry" arrived and escorted her to Stephenson's mansion,[5] which was located only two to three blocks from where she lived.[5] When she arrived, Stephenson, his chauffeur "Shorty,"[5] Gentry, and another bodyguard whom Oberholtzer described as "Clenck" took her into the kitchen and forced her to drink whiskey until she became ill.[5] The four men then took Oberholtzer upstairs and Stephenson took out a revolver from a dresser drawer and forced her to come with him at gunpoint.[5]

As Oberholtzer recalled, the four men then brought her to the garage area and forced her into Stephenson's car.[5] Before they left, Stephenson had Clenck stay behind and inform his associate Claude Worley that he was going to Chicago to attend a business meeting.[5] After arriving at the railroad station, Stephenson and Gentry forced her onto Stephenson's private train as it traveled to Chicago.[5] After entering the train's compartment coach,[5] Stephenson grabbed the bottom of Oberholtzer's dress and tossed it over her head,[5] and then grabbed both of her hands, tore off her clothes,[5] pushed her into the lower bed and then raped her several times and bit her all over her body.[5] According to Oberholtzer, she was still too intoxicated from the whiskey and was unable to fight back.[5] Deep bite wounds were located on her face, neck, breasts, back, legs, ankles, and tongue.[4]

She then passed out from Stephenson's repeated violation and assault. Upon waking, Oberholtzer told her attacker, “The law will get their hands on you!” He laughed and replied, “I am the law in Indiana.” Stephenson's Klan connections gave him tremendous political power.

After the ordeal, Gentry and Stephenson dressed Oberholtzer and informed her they would be stopping in Hammond, Indiana.[5] When the train stopped in Hammond,[5] Stephenson and Oberholtzer, along with Gentry, checked into the Indiana Hotel and Stephenson forced her to identify herself as his wife so they would be able to share the same room.[5] While at the hotel, Stephenson forced Oberholtzer to write a telegram to her mother informing her that she had decided to go to Chicago with him.[5] While Stephenson was asleep,[5] Oberholtzer grabbed his revolver with the intent of killing herself in front of him,[5] but soon rescinded,[5] feeling she would dishonor her mother by doing so,[5] and made the decision to attempt suicide by taking poison pills.[5] The next morning, Oberholtzer convinced Stephenson to call Shorty and tell him to drive to the hotel so he could take her to go purchase a black silk hat.[5]

After purchasing the hat,[5] she asked Shorty to drive her to a drug store near the hotel where she could purchase some rouge.[5] She managed to purchase a whole box of mercuric chloride tablets and intended to take them when Stephenson was away.[5] She then returned to the room, but was still very weakened from the wounds Stephenson inflicted on her and was only strong enough to swallow six tablets.[4] Oberholtzer would then vomit blood throughout the remainder of the day.[5] When she had not recovered by the next day, Stephenson, who insisted that he would not consider taking her to a hospital unless she agreed to go to a nearby chapel and marry him,[5] panicked and ordered Shorty to drive Oberholtzer, Gentry and himself back to Indianapolis as soon as possible.[5] Approached by a boarder who asked what was going on, one of the bodyguards said that Oberholtzer had been in a car accident.

Oberholtzer's parents immediately called a doctor, but there was little he could do to save her. On March 28, she recounted what Stephenson had done to her in a signed statement.[5] Madge Oberholtzer died on April 14, 1925 from a staph infection, combined with kidney failure from the mercury poisoning. She was buried in Memorial Park Cemetery in Indianapolis.

Trial[edit]

Stephenson was indicted on charges of rape and second-degree murder. At his trial, the doctor who had examined Oberholzer testified that the injuries she received were sufficient to have killed her, as her wounds developed an infection that reached her lungs and kidneys. He described her wounds as similar to having been "chewed by a cannibal." [2]

Stephenson's attorney defended him on the basis of Oberholtzer having committed suicide, saying he could not have anticipated her behavior. The prosecution said that, based on medical testimony, prompt medical attention might have saved her. During closing statements, the prosecutor decried Stephenson as a “destroyer of virtue and womanhood”. The jury found him guilty of second degree murder and the court sentenced him to life in prison. His appeal was rejected by the State Supreme Court.[2]

Aftermath[edit]

The case so outraged many members of the Klan that entire lodges left the organization, and membership quickly dropped by the tens of thousands. The scandal destroyed the KKK in Indiana. Within the following two years, the Indiana KKK lost more than 178,000 members, nearly closing altogether.

Denied a pardon in 1926, Stephenson started talking to the Indianapolis Times, revealing names of officials who had accepted bribes and payments from the Klan. The Times investigated the Klan in the state. The state indicted several high-ranking officials, including Governor Ed Jackson and the head of the Republican Party in Marion County. Other local officials resigned when facing charges. The Times investigation revealed widespread political corruption which contributed to destroying the Klan in Indiana and nationwide. By February 1928, Indiana Klan rosters had decreased to 4,000, from a peak of more than 250,000 members in 1925.[6]

Stephenson was paroled on March 23, 1950, but violated parole by disappearing on or before September 25, 1950. On December 15, 1950, he was captured in Minneapolis. In 1951, he was directed to serve a further 10 years in prison. On December 22, 1956, Stephenson was paroled on condition he leave Indiana and never return.

In 1961 in Tennessee, he was arrested at age 70 on charges of sexually assaulting a sixteen-year-old girl. The charges were dropped on grounds of insufficient evidence. He died in 1966.

Representation in other media[edit]

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