Showing posts with label 1920's. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 1920's. Show all posts

14 March 2024

True Crime History

I am not particularly fond of true crime books, which often have a sensationalist and voyeruistic angle that makes one feel for the relatives and friends of the protagonists. I am not even fond of those lightly fictionalized novels, "ripped from the headlines" as one of my old editors like

But I have no reservations about Timothy Egan's A Fever in the Heartland, an account of a true crime certainly, but, even more, a vivid history of a real criminal enterprise. The book's subtitle, The Klu Klux Klan's Plot to Take Over America, and the Woman Who Stopped Them, provides a handy if rather exaggerated subtitle.

Still, even if the plot only managed control of Indiana, the "fever in the Heartland" was a substantial historical event and, I think readers of the book will agree, an informative and cautionary tale that is still relevant. 

America in the 1920's was very much a society in transition with all the strains of modernity under its jazz age exhuberance. There was a reservoir of racial bigotry north as well as south, along with anti-semitism and a general anti-immigrant animus, spurred by a sense that the nature of the country was changing and that the old social order, white and protestant, was under threat.

One of the men who saw promise in this stew of prejudice and resetment was a not particularly successful salesman named D.C. Stephenson, who devised a way to make hate pay well. He took over what had been a small time Klan outfit and revitalized it with big parades, picnics, and entertainments. The aim was to take bigotry mainstream and make the Klan look superficially like just another popular fraternal organization.

Stephenson was charismatic but also shrewd. His deal with the organization let him keep a substantial portion of what he promised would be increased profits from selling Klan regalia and robes and from membership fees. He was soon living luxuriously but there was still plenty of money left over to pursue his big aims, respectability and power. Under his direction, the Klan bribed judges and cops, subsidized pliant ministers, and funded like-minded or venial politicians.

Soon Stephenson and his associates were political powers in Indiana, and the Old Man, as he was called, had even begun to imagine a run for the White House. He might have been backed in the attempt, because his version of the Klan looked clean and upright and All American.

Of course, there was the dark side, the cross burnings, beatings, and not so subtle visitations of robed and hooded Klan members. But public sentiment saw the Klan as protecting their values and keeping lesser folk in their place. As for the journalists and independent thinkers who might raise a fuss, the Klan was backstopped by cops and judges and top officials.

Timothy Egan gives a vivid picture of how a democratic society was corrupted by hatred and money before he relates how the Klan and Stephenson fell from grace. Those savvy about American history will perhaps not be too surprised that it was not the Klan's politics that got them into trouble, nor their assaults on Blacks or Jews, but Stephenson's private failings, which ran to booze-fueled parties and sadistic sex. One of his victims was Madge Oberholtzer, an unlikely hero, who proved to be the one brave witness whose testimony began to unravel the Klan empire.

Sharp characterizations, careful research, fast moving narrative – would more histories read like A Fever in the Heartland. I may have to modify my opinion of the true crime genre.

The Falling Men, a novel with strong mystery elements, has been issued as an ebook on Amazon Kindle. Also on kindle: The Complete Madame Selina Stories.

The Man Who Met the Elf Queen, with two other fanciful short stories and 4 illustrations, is available from Apple Books at:

The Dictator's Double, 3 short mysteries and 4 illustrations is available at: