Byline: R. Marc Kantrowitz
Born in Houston in 1891, D.C. Stephenson either was blessed at birth with, or developed somewhere along the line, a knack for self-promotion and organization. After serving but seeing no action in World War I, he located to Evansville, Indiana, where he unsuccessfully sought a congressional nomination. Along the way, he may have married and abandoned two wives.
Undeterred, Stephenson joined the Ku Klux Klan, meshing well with the growing sentiment of the time. His recruitment skills resulted in droves of new members. He started a newspaper, the Fiery Cross, and spread both his wings and the Klan throughout the entire state.
The preaching of sobriety, morality and sanctity of womanhood struck a chord. So, too, did the demonization of Catholics, Jews, blacks and immigrants. In short order, nearly a third of the white male population of Indiana were Klansmen.
Stephenson's power and influence grew from local to national. He successfully backed Hiram Wesley Evans' bid to unseat the sitting Imperial Wizard. For his support, Stephenson was formally named the head of the Klan in Indiana and put in charge of seven neighboring states.
As membership rocketed upward, Evans and Stephenson sought to further expand their empire. At Stephenson's coronation as Grand Dragon at the Konklave in Kokomo, Indiana, tens of thousands heard him orate. First, though, he apologized for being late due, he claimed, to his having to counsel the president of the United States, who wished him the very best of luck.
With growing power came great wealth. And conflict. The calm waters would turn choppy. And then ghastly.
Stephenson had a falling out with Evans. And then rumors slowly bubbled up; tales, quietly at first, of Stephenson not only abusing whiskey but drowning in it, and when he did, bad things happened, especially around women.
Not skipping a beat, however, Stephenson plowed ahead. His candidate for governor, Edward Jackson, was elected, as were other supporters. Now at the zenith of his power, Stephenson bellowed, "I am the law in Indiana," and promised "to Klux Indiana as she has never been Kluxed before. ... [T]he fiery cross is going to burn at every crossroads ."
And then he met Madge.
At Gov. Jackson's inauguration in January 1925, the dark-haired 28-year-old Madge Oberholtzer, a state employee who sought to alleviate illiteracy, was introduced to the powerful Stephenson, who took an interest in her.
After a few dinners and...