A Fever in the Heartland, by Timothy Egan

Trigger warnings for descriptions of racial violence, including lynchings; sexual assault and violence; attempted suicide, and hate speech.

When Madge Oberholtzer approached D.C. Stephenson at a party one evening, all she wanted was for him to pull some strings with the Indiana legislature to preserve her literacy program position. She knew that Stephenson was a high-ranking member of the Ku Klux Klan, but she had no idea that the man sitting across from her would one day kill her. In A Fever in the Heartland: The Ku Klux Klan’s Plot to Take Over America, and the Woman Who Stopped Them, historian Timothy Egan recounts the rise and fall of the KKK in Indiana and Oberholtzer’s tragic role in bringing down Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson.

I picked up A Fever in the Heartland when I saw it posted on NetGalley because I wanted to see how the woman referenced in the subtitle took down the Klan during its second resurgence. Fighting ingrained, violent hatred takes immense courage and tenacity—strength that we Americans very much need right now as white supremacist organizations are once again on the rise. What I didn’t realize until well into the book was that Oberholtzer’s death was the catalyst for the downfall of the Klan in the mid-1920s. But Oberholtzer isn’t the only brave person in this history. Her dying declaration was taken up by her parents, crusading attorney William Remy, and anti-Klan journalists to bring Stephenson to court on murder charges. Egan also references NAACP leaders and politicians who spoke out against the Klan in the 1920s.

The first half of A Fever in the Heartland is tough reading. I had to take frequent breaks to clear my head of the appalling racism on display as Stephenson began a massive Klan recruitment drive in Indiana in the early 1920s. For a cut of the $10 sign-up fee and uniform fees, Stephenson traveled across the state and signed up tens of thousands of Indiana men to the cause of segregation, fascism, and hatred. As the Klan’s numbers ratcheted up, Stephenson was able to make disturbingly large inroads into law enforcement and local and state government. Stephenson would frequently announce that he was the law in Indiana. Based on Egan’s evidence, it’s hard to disagree. Stephenson had so much power that his violations of Prohibition, frequent bribery, intimidation, and attacks on women were, until Oberhotlzer’s death, completely swept under the rug.

Madge Oberholtzer, undated photo (Image via Wikicommons)

Stephenson is a monster without any redeeming qualities and it was very distressing to see that, for so many people who joined the Klan, hatred and control over society were more important to them than Stephenson’s crimes. If Oberholtzer hadn’t died as a result of Stephenson’s actions, I shudder to think what would have happened because I’m sure that Stephenson would’ve been able to hold on to power if the news of what happened to Oberholtzer and how she died hadn’t come to light. Even with the details out in the open, I was surprised to see that Stephenson was convicted and sent to prison given that her manner of death wasn’t a clearcut murder the way that most people think of the act. Oberholtzer was kidnapped by Stephenson and two of Stephenson’s goons and taken to a motel in northern Indiana, where Stephenson attacked and raped her. In her pain and despair, Oberholtzer obtained bichloride of mercury at a pharmacy. (She’d wrangled permission to get medical supplies for her wounds.) After she took the poison, Stephenson prevented her from getting medical help. She was finally returned to her parents a day later after Stephenson kept her in his garage, still without medical attention. Oberholtzer managed to survive for nearly a month before infection from her wounds and organ damage from the mercury bichloride killed her. In that month, Oberholtzer was able to dictate a detailed dying confession that Remy was able to use to convict the Klan leader.

Stephenson killed Oberholtzer, but I think a share of the blame rests with the men and woman who joined the Klan and gave Stephenson so much power that he thought he would never face consequences for anything he did. The picture Egan paints is a David versus Goliath story, with only a few people courageous enough to speak out against the Klan and the silent fence-sitters in the state. Stephenson should never have had the power, riches, or privilege he managed to accrue. I feel thankful for those voices but I remain disgusted and appalled by the majority who saw no problem whatsoever with Stephenson’s crimes, as long as he strengthened the Klan across Indiana.

As much as I struggled with the content of A Fever in the Heartland, I think it’s a well-written book about an important historical event. It reminds us that (grand) dragons can be defeated if we can summon the courage to fight back against evil, hatred, and fascism—preferably before they can take over so much of the government and law enforcement that they appear invincible.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.


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