Friday, July 2, 2010

Notre Dame

[This post is dedicated to Phoebe Prince and her family. Ms. Prince took her life earlier this year after months of cruel harassment and torture from fellow students at the high school she attended in Massachusetts. She and her family had moved to the States from Ireland in 2009.]

For months now I've been haunted by this image. Some days past I realized I had written a poem that could fit with that image to a degree so I have posted it here. The story of how that poem came to be written is an intriguing one.

It was a quiet Saturday morning in September 2004 and I lay suspended between sleeping and waking when I heard a voice, as if in a dream, say, "The wizards are gathering on an uneven plain." I came suddenly awake, wondering what had just happened. Why were wizards being brought to my attention? I'd been reading Harry Potter, sure, but why was I to pay attention to wizards? While I fumbled sleepily with my sweatshirt and slippers I considered alternative meanings for 'wizards.' My husband looked more than a bit puzzled when I stumbled into the kitchen, where he sat surfing the web on the laptop, and asked, "Aren't the bigwigs in the KKK called Grand Wizards or something?"

His response was swift and silent. He turned to me after a search of the internet and before I'd finished making the coffee to tell me he'd found a book, "Notre Dame vs. The Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan." What? No way. To my great surprise I discovered that the book did indeed exist and had just been published the previous month. Fully aware that it would take months for the library to get a copy, if it even ordered one, I ordered a copy and by the next weekend had finished reading it. I was stunned.

"Notre Dame vs. The Klan" was written by Notre Dame alumnus Todd Tucker and chronicles a weekend in South Bend, IN which has been at best a footnote in American history. Tucker painstakingly lays out for the reader the history and the aftermath of the incidents and the two primary protagonists, David Curtis Stephenson and Fr. Matthew Walsh. In essence the story is all about D. C. Stephenson's greedy grab for power over the Ku Klux Klan. The University of Notre Dame was, in his mind, an easy and highly visible target in the Klan's drive against "the alien element." Humiliate the Irish, the Catholics, feed that victory to his loyal followers and that would seal his quest.

Stephenson had risen to wealth from poverty. Born in Houston, Texas in 1891 David Curtis Stephenson's early education, like that of Fr. Matthew Walsh, president of Notre Dame in 1924, was in Catholic schools. Like Matthew Walsh he was a promising student. Unlike Matthew Walsh Stephenson's promising mind was belittled by his father, a sharecropper. When D. C. was ten years old his father moved the family to Maysville, Oklahoma, a town without a school and the boy's education was derailed, to his father's delight. In 1907, however, D. C. graduated from the eighth grade of a school built by the town to serve the increased population spurred by the new railroad.

The railroad also brought a farmer with a love of politics, John Cooper, to town. "In 1910, Cooper bought a controlling interest in the town's only newspaper the Maysville News. He gave Arizona Stephenson, D. C. Stephenson's older brother, a job running the typesetting equipment at the paper. Eager to help his brother escape their father and their depressing home outside of town, Arizona talked Cooper into hiring D. C. ...... When he wasn't working, Stephenson relished Cooper's wild political rants and his animated predictions of a Socialist revolution. 'The Socialists stand for the common man, the working man,' he told Stephenson. 'If you vote for a Democrat or a Republican, you're just a sucker for the rich man.' Talking to Cooper, it seemed to Stephenson that the Socialist Party was the place to be for any ambitious young man.'"

At Cooper's behest, the Oklahoma Socialists hired D. C. Stephenson as an organizer for the 1914 gubernatorial campaign. He was smart. He'd worked for a newspaper for years. He had grown up in poverty. He was good looking - a definite asset in drawing a crowd. "Stephenson learned an age-old political truth during that campaign: make people feel like they belong, and they'll go along with whatever you say."

The gubernatorial campaign did not result in success for the Oklahoma Socialists and D. C. drifted around the state from newspaper job to newspaper job and into a marriage, which he abandoned when his wife was pregnant with their child. He fled to Iowa and it was there, as he worked for a printer, that he joined the Army when the United States entered World War I. As an officer, a recruiter, he never left America.

Postwar, D. C. returned to the Midwest and lived on the road in his capacity as salesman of typesetting equipment. He eventually moved to Evansville, Indiana with his second wife - his first wife had tracked him down and filed for divorce in 1917 - a star salesman of newspaper equipment and stock for a local coal brokerage firm. It was in Evansville, in 1920, that the Klan signed him to recruit members, promising him four dollars of every ten dollar membership he delivered. Within six months of his recruitment, "he had sold five thousand memberships, netting twenty thousand dollars at a time when the average American man made twelve hundred dollars in a year. The Ku Klux Klan was making him rich."

He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in the spring of 1922, but "the Klan leadership in Atlanta promoted him to King Kleagle of the state." He and his wife Violet moved to Indianapolis. The move accelerated D. C.'s "descent into debauchery." At one point neighbors called in the police during an incident of domestic violence.

With the Indiana Klan in his pocket, Stephenson allied himself with "Hiram Evans, a pudgy, nearsighted Exalted Cyclops from Dallas" with plans to oust the current Imperial Wizard during the Thanksgiving holiday of 1922. He cared little for Evans but even less for the current I. W. "In reward for his loyalty during the coup, Evans gave Stephenson responsibility for twenty-three northern states. He also promised to promote Stephenson to Grand Dragon if his stellar performance continued."

With so much power handed to him it wasn't long before Stephenson decided to act upon his dislike of and dissatisfaction with Evans. He envisioned that under his guidance the Indiana Klan would become the dominant faction and sweep the national organization along with it. Rallies, speeches, and editions of The Fiery Cross proclaimed the virtues of the Ku Klux Klan as the only bulwark against the "alien element," which was always thoroughly demonized.

"While Stephenson's recruiting machine continued to roll smoothly across the Midwest, his personal life was getting out of control. Women threw themselves at him, but he found himself most attracted to those who were not impressed with his money or power. When he was able to draw these women into his life, he was often abusive toward them, attacking them in strange and horrible ways. He would hit them or claw them or, even worse, sometimes bite them savagely all over their bodies. His men became skilled at talking women into walking away without calling the police after Stephenson had assaulted them."

For a little over a year before the fateful altercations in May, 1924, the Klan ratcheted up its inflammatory rhetoric. The Klan estimated that 425,000 Hoosier men were Klansmen, support which ensured that Klan members on the Republican slate of candidates for statewide office were winners in the primary. Stephenson saw his strategy to take over the Indiana state Republican Party bear fruit in the primaries. Soon the state would be run by his people and he would have carte blanche to do as he pleased without consequence other than amassing further riches and power.

Through all of this Fr. Matthew Walsh kept a weather eye on the Klan's activities and pursued a level-headed administration of the University of Notre Dame. Sadly, despite his best efforts he could not prevent the altercations between his students and the Kluxers, some of whom had been deputized by South Bend law enforcement.

In reading about and analyzing Tucker's book I knew that many people could and would find D. C. Stephenson's goals abhorrent, but that did not answer my question about why I was directed to this historical incident. I have no ties either to the University of Notre Dame or to the city of South Bend. I have only known three people who are alumni of the university and I haven't been in touch with any of them for nearly thirty years. Why me?

Slowly I came to realize that I was meant to see this as a writer, as an artist. I was being asked to train that artistic eye which looks beyond mere factual representation to the deeper truth of human experience. What struck me then as a writer was the reality that, although the students of Notre Dame fought valiantly they did not bring down the Klan in Indiana. A woman did.

In March 1925 D. C. Stephenson abducted a woman he'd begun seeing, Madge Oberholtzer. He and his men bundled her, rendered nearly unconscious and therefore harmless by the alcohol they'd forced her to consume, onto a train. During the ride which ended just before crossing the state line into Illinois Stephenson abused and raped her. The next day, deciding she would be better off dead, Ms. Oberholtzer pretended she needed cosmetics and was permitted to go to a drugstore with a bodyguard. She bought and ingested a disinfectant, mercury bichloride, instead. She had poisoned herself, vomiting blood almost immediately.

Madge Oberholtzer was eventually dumped unceremoniously in bed in her parents' home. Broken, destroyed in body and spirit she clung to life for weeks - long enough to give a "detailed, witnessed, signed and notarized statement" to an attorney. Stephenson was arrested on kidnapping charges on April 2, 1925. During the ensuing uproar Stephenson's first wife appeared in town with their daughter, demanding child support. Madge Oberholtzer died at home on April 14 and the charge against Stephenson was changed to second-degree murder.

In the end neither his political connections nor a trial in a venue with strong Klan affiliation helped D. C. Stephenson. His "debauchery" was antithetical to Klansmen and he was convicted of the charge on November 14, 1925. In the aftermath of his conviction the political careers of the governor and secretary of state D. C. Stephenson and the Klan had championed were ruined. "The chairman of the Indiana Republican Party went to prison. a judge in Muncie was impeached. The entire Indianapolis City Council resigned."

As I contemplated a poem based on this story I remembered an incident from 1920 recounted in the second volume of R. F. Foster's biography of William Butler Yeats (p. 181): "On 26 October the news of MacSwiney's death came to Gort. Ten days later Ellen Quinn was shot dead outside her front door in Kiltartan, from a military lorry passing by, a baby in her arms. This horror struck deeply home. The murdered woman was the young wife of Malachi Quinn, one of a well-known Gort farming family, who rented Ballinamantane from the estate; the killing was utterly random. After a huge funeral and angry demonstrations, an official 'inquiry' applied some unconvincing whitewash." Within weeks Michael Collins had orchestrated a response, portrayed in the movie "Michael Collins."

It wasn't much of a stretch of imagination to think it possible that Irish in America in the 1920s were painfully aware of the horrors in their ancestral homeland. Perhaps that pain washed through their consciousness as they watched events unfold in the Midwest? Although firearms were barely a factor in the riots in South Bend I felt I had to find a way to reference Ellen Quinn's death in some manner. Thus, she became the woman in the poem.

Tucker attributes this assessment of the Indiana countryside during a fly-over to D. C. Stephenson: "The impossibly flat Indiana plain unfolded beneath him like one of the battlefield maps he had studied as a child."

It seems to me, however, the message of all of this is simply that this plain is watched over by Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin, the Blessed Mother, the Queen of Heaven and only a fool would dare to think it flat, even.

Tucker, Todd. "Notre Dame vs. The Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan." Chicago: Loyola Press, 2004 (pps. 17, 19, 91, 92, 94, 110, 210)

Foster, R. F. "W. B. Yeats: A Life II. The Arch-Poet." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003]

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Rob Goldman said...
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