57 pages 1 hour read

Timothy Egan

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

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2023

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Timothy Egan’s A Fever in the Heartland: The Ku Klux Klan’s Plot to Take Over America, and the Woman Who Stopped Them (2023) is a historical account of the Klan’s brief but meteoric resurrection in Indiana in the 1920s. Using meticulous research combined with the descriptive elements of narrative thrillers, Egan recreates in detail a particularly dark chapter in American history. Egan focuses on David C. Stephenson, a grifter and conman who exploited the fears and racism of middle America to build an empire with himself as king, as well as Madge Oberholtzer, the woman who ultimately stopped him. Egan, a reporter for The New York Times, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for his reporting on race in America. He is the author of nine previous books.

This guide references the 2023 Viking hardcover edition of the source text.

Content Warning: The source text and this Study Guide include graphic discussions of racism, violence motivated by racism, alcohol addiction, suicide, domestic violence, and multiple acts of sexual assault, including rape.

Plot Summary

In the aftermath of the Civil War, a terrorist group was born from the defiant (but defeated) Confederacy. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK, or The Klan), vigilantes in white sheets who were determined that freed enslaved persons would never be the equals of white Americans, carried out a campaign of lynchings and torture directed at newly emancipated Black Americans. Using the might of the federal government, President Ulysses S. Grant crushed this first incarnation of the Klan. Their defeat, however, was only temporary.

In 1921, David C. Stephenson, an itinerant drifter with an ever-changing personal history, moved to Indiana where he found an opportunity for fame and glory in a newly rebuilding Klan. When the federal government pulled out of the South in 1876, allowing the passage of Jim Crow laws, it planted the seeds of decades of disenfranchisement, and Stephenson dreamed of extending the Klan’s reach into the North. As Stephenson joined forces with a Dallas dentist, Hiram Evans, the two men exploited fears of Black folks, immigrants, alcohol, and changing demographics to recruit thousands of new members into their “Invisible Empire,” branding it not as an organization of hate but one whose goal was to preserve “Americanism.” To a population not far removed from the trauma of civil war, blaming racial “others” proved a wildly successful strategy.

Stephenson’s talent for oratory and recruitment quickly moved him into a leadership position. Once in power, he began taking a cut of all membership fees to enrich his personal fortune. Within a few short years, the man—who was born into poverty—became enormously wealthy. Stephenson also reframed the Klan’s image. It was no longer a terrorist group of night raiders, but a moral organization affiliated with the Protestant church and dedicated to preserving its own particular vision of America. The message resonated with middle America, and soon, the Klan’s reach extended beyond Indiana to Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan, an unprecedented development. Stephenson’s dream of a nationwide Klan with its tentacles in every facet of American life was well on its way.

Meanwhile, Madge Oberholtzer, a young, progressive woman from Irvington, Indiana, began working for a government-funded literacy program, but when the state legislature threatened to cut its funding, Oberholtzer sought a reprieve from any quarter, including Indiana’s Grand Wizard. Stephenson continued building the Klan’s religious credibility by recruiting the nation’s foremost evangelist, Daisy Douglas Barr, and by bribing Protestant ministers to preach the virtues of the Klan to their flocks. Stephenson had succeeded in making an organization of hate popular by associating it with virtue and morality. He then set his sights on local government, telling his followers who to vote for and bribing elected officials to pass onerous legislation to further marginalize Black people, Jews, and Catholics.

Stephenson’s increasingly violent behavior and alcoholism drove a wedge between him and the Klan’s national leader, Evans, who believed his associate was tarnishing the Klan’s reputation. However, Stephenson’s political power gave him a free pass, and he was never investigated or indicted for his many sexual assaults. Despite the Klan’s growing membership, an opposition movement raised its voice. Attorney Patrick O’Donnell and news editor George Dale were two such voices. O’Donnell published his own newspaper and began accumulating evidence of the Klan’s corruption, but his protests went unheard. The same is true of Dale, who was driven to bankruptcy by Stephenson’s legal pressure. The Klan, with the blessing of the Protestant church and the “expert” sanction of eugenics as its pillars of support, seemed unstoppable. Stephenson eyed a Senate seat and eventually, the US presidency.

With his foes vanquished—Dale was broke, and O’Donnell’s publication of false documents killed his movement—and having broken off from Evans’s national organization, Stephenson felt invulnerable. One evening, he summoned Madge Oberholtzer to his compound. She arrived to find herself the only woman in a house full of armed, drunken men. Stephenson kidnapped her, forced her on a train bound for Chicago, and, in the presence of one of his cronies, raped and assaulted her. He held her hostage in a hotel room, refusing to let her contact her mother. When a despondent Oberholtzer drank poison, Stephenson took her back to Irvington and held her prisoner above his garage until her agonized cries threatened to alert his neighbors. He took her back home and left her for dead. A doctor was called, but she was beyond his care. After nearly a month, she died from toxic poisoning and the infection caused by Stephenson’s physical abuse.

Oberholtzer’s death triggered an investigation, and crusading District Attorney William Remy aimed to take down the most powerful man in Indiana. Using Oberholtzer’s deathbed statement to incriminate Stephenson, a jury eventually convicted the Grand Wizard of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison. With his conviction (and other scandals), the Klan’s power waned, and soon it became a shell of its former self. At the age of 70, Stephenson was released from prison and spent the rest of his life in obscurity. He died in a small town in Tennessee at the age of 74.

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