Justin Roberts was just 26 years old when he became involved in one of the biggest legal cases in Indiana history: the criminal trial of David “D.C.” Stephenson. In 1925, Stephenson — Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana and head of recruiting in seven other states— was tried for the rape and murder of Madge Oberholtzer.
Roberts, a lawyer at his family’s firm in Hamilton County, helped find jurors and played a minor role in the trial. Roberts died in 1978 at the age of 79, but his story lives on through his son, Joe Roberts, now 89.
On Sept. 18, Roberts shared the story of Stephenson’s conviction and its aftermath in Indiana at an event hosted by Indianapolis First Friends Quaker Meeting.
Between July 1922 to July 1923, roughly 2,000 Hoosiers joined the Klan each week under Stephenson’s leadership. To say the Klan had a stronghold on Indiana is an understatement. Beyond the name recognition that came with being a leader of a group that size, Stephenson also received monetary compensation for his role. Each person who joined the Klan had to pay a membership fee of $10 — $163 today — and Stephenson pocketed a portion of the fee. In his position, Stephenson also had political pull. The Klan’s influence helped get Ed Jackson and John Duvall — both Klansmen — elected as governor of the state and mayor of Indianapolis, respectively.
“The Klan ran Indiana,” Roberts said.
At the time, the main targets of the Klan in the Midwest were German, Irish, Catholic and Jewish individuals. These prejudices were largely reinforced by anti-German sentiment from American newspapers during the First World War and fears that immigrants would steal jobs from American workers.
Roberts said Midwestern Klan leaders capitalized on the Chicago race riots of 1919, which was one of the more violent events during Red Summer. At the time, racial tensions heightened by large scale African American migration from the South combined with increased labor competition and economic anxiety from the post-war depression allowed Stephenson and the Klan to recruit with relative ease.
That all changed after Stephenson was found guilty of rape and murder on Nov. 14, 1925.
In March 1925, Stephenson and two of his bodyguards abducted Oberholtzer, who he met through a political event at the Athletic Club. During a train ride to Chicago, Stephenson raped Oberholtzer several times, leaving bite marks all over her body. At a stop in Hammond, Oberholtzer attempted suicide by swallowing mercury tablets. Believing her condition to be fatal, Stephenson’s bodyguards returned Oberholtzer to her parents’ home in Irvington. However, Oberholtzer regained consciousness enough to provide testimony against Stephenson. Oberholtzer died April 14, 1925, of a staph infection from bites sustained during Stephenson’s attack. She was 29.
According to Roberts, the jury in Stephenson’s case deliberated for only a few hours before returning a guilty verdict. Stephenson expected a pardon from the governor and didn’t think he’d serve a day in prison. When the pardon never came, he gave an interview to the Indianapolis Times, sharing the names of political leaders who accepted bribes from the Klan, leading to mass resignations throughout the state.
Klan registration in Indiana and the Midwest fell drastically after Stephenson’s conviction. In early 1925, nearly 250,000 Hoosiers were registered members, and by 1928, just 4,000 Klansmen remained in the state.
Describing Stephenson as the “American Hitler,” Roberts emphasized how much power he had in the state — and how much more power he could have had if he hadn’t been convicted. Thanks to political “favors,” Stephenson expected to be elected to the state Senate and had aspirations to run for president.
“Imagine what kind of direction Stephenson could have taken the state and the country,” Roberts said. “What would have happened 10 years later, when Adolph Hitler came into power? Would America have aligned with the Axis powers? How would history have been changed?”
Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.