For most Americans, the Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley is no longer a household name. He’s mostly remembered for “Little Orphant Annie,” an 1885 poem about an Indiana girl who warns children against misbehaving, scaring them with the refrain: “The gobble-uns’ll get youEf you don’t watch out!”
Riley died a hundred years ago this July. When President Woodrow Wilson got the news at the White House, he is said to have broken down in tears, then sent an express telegram to the poet’s family in Indianapolis. As Riley’s body lay in state at the Indiana Capitol in July 1916, thirty-five thousand people filed past. American children, who adored the old man, were devastated. The press overflowed with eulogies. Novelist Booth Tarkington, another once-famous Hoosier name in American letters, eulogized Riley in the Indiana Daily Times, calling him “the first and foremost distinctively American poet, and at the time of his death . . . the greatest American.” The New York Sun mourned: “The Hoosier Poet blew heart bubbles . . . In his verses Indiana spoke to the world.” And the Philadelphia Inquirer noted: “There is no doubt that he was the most popular poet of this generation in America… If there is a child today that is not regaled with ‘Orphant Annie’ that child is to be pitied.”
Though Riley was mostly known for his folksy childhood lyrics, he was also a civic-minded poet, fierce in his defense of the downtrodden.
In 1898, during one of those periodic battles over immigration that heat up American politics, the “Poet of Childhood” grappled with anti-Irish prejudice — though it wasn’t personally directed against him. Riley, whose own grandparents came from Ireland to Pennsylvania before moving to the Midwest, defended the valor and patriotism of the “Sons of Erin” who fought in the Civil War and Mexican War. In so doing, he took aim at the religious and ethnic hostility of nativist groups like the American Protective Association, a cousin of the Ku Klux Klan.
The Irish, especially Irish Catholics, were frequently misunderstood and feared as disruptors of society. Long before the Civil War, American nativists like the Know-Nothings had been actively exploiting fears about the Irish and “Rome,” alien forces ready to undermine American democracy and Anglo-Saxon values. Though some of those fears may sound downright bizarre today, Irish immigrants were often mired in poverty, violence and alcoholism, facts that scared their neighbors. While the brutal living conditions of many Irish were no myth, catastrophic events like the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s were partly to blame. With their situation made worse by the greed of landowners and brutal utilitarian social theories, many of Ireland’s sons and daughters were reduced to sub-human conditions. Millions went overseas or found themselves driven into the arms of death.
The Irish had been targeted by some of the worst 19th-century science and philosophy. Racialized by other whites during the early days of Darwinism, the “native” Irish in particular were type-cast as little better than apes, doomed by biology itself to crime, degradation and — some theorists hoped — gradual extinction. One famous drawing compares the “Anglo-Saxon” features of English nurse Florence Nightingale to the ape-like face of “Bridget McBruiser” across the Irish Channel.
That drawing, however, was an American drawing, published in Samuel R. Wells’ New Physiognomy(New York, 1866). Wells was one of the foremost American phrenologists of his time, studying “character” as he imagined it to be written on the human face and skull. It took decades for the science of head bumps and nose shapes to be debunked as nonsense, but the fallout proved catastrophic for many immigrants.
Bad science and hyper-patriotic conspiracy theories were the target of one of James Whitcomb Riley’s lesser-known poems, “Brother Jonathan Lectures His Adopted.” That poem appeared in Songs of Two Peoples, an 1898 collection set partly in New England, partly in Ireland.
Originally written in broad New England dialect, “Brother Jonathan” recounts the anti-Catholic ravings of a recent Northern Irish immigrant voting for “the fust time” at a small-town polling booth in America. Jonathan showed himself an eager campaigner against foreign influence, “tearin’ up an’ deown’ on platforms,” lashing out at Rome’s priests who “eat heretics at feasts” — dark tales from European history carried by folklore and immigrant ships into American election booths well into the 1960s and even beyond. Catholics, Jonathan warns, were gearing up to crush the American public school system and democracy. He gets a stinging rebuke from the embodiment of Uncle Sam, “His Adopted.”
Though Riley’s poem is set just after the Civil War, it spoke to the issues of 1898, when America’s generously open door did bring many problems. Yet the looming figure of “Brother Jonathan” was still fresh decades later when George R. Dale, the brave editor of the Muncie Post-Democrat, reprinted it as part of his long battle against the powerful Hoosier Klan.
In 1924, Dale found Riley’s poem as apt as ever. Dale was at the start of a practically one-man battle against the KKK in his town, using humor to transform the Muncie Post-Democrat into a rollicking 1920s version of The Onion. Though Dale faced routine death threats and assaults from Klansmen, the Muncie editor bravely tore into chauvinism at a time when the Klan was as much against new waves of Eastern and Southern European immigration as it was opposed to African Americans coming up from the South. Dale slightly abbreviated Riley’s poem — missing the fact that Brother Jonathan was an immigrant himself and had brought Old World animosities across the Atlantic, a prelude to the Irish “Troubles.”
Though many Irish immigrants were racists themselves, stirring up some of the worst race riots of the 1800s, George Dale found an ally in both history and the Catholic Church. Virtually every issue of Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson’s Klan paper The Fiery Cross contained attacks on the church, sharpest during the Indiana gubernatorial election of 1924, the year Dale reprinted “Brother Jonathan” in Muncie. It’s not surprising that, since they were long targeted by nativists, Catholics became a major force in undermining the Klan and helped hobble half-baked social and medical theories like eugenics. (The barely-concealed “science” of white supremacy, eugenics had deep roots in Indiana.)
While Riley was of Irish descent, he wasn’t Catholic himself — in fact he wasn’t much of a church-goer at all. Yet Riley knew plenty of immigrants: they were his neighbors in Lockerbie, an Indianapolis neighborhood first called “Germantown” and settled partly by refugees from Europe’s 1848 revolutions.
But even Riley’s support had a dark irony in it. A frequent visitor at his house in Lockerbie was Indiana Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs. The son of French immigrants, Debs was a champion of the working class but often hostile to the new wave of immigration, which he thought undermined American labor and played into the hands of big business. Debs may have been right about the effect of cheap labor on the American workers’ movement, but history repeated itself in a sad way when even the great Socialist leader made disparaging remarks in 1891 about Chinese and “Dagos” (Italians). They “fatten on garbage,” Debs said, live “more like a savage or a wild beast,” and “are able to underbid an American workingman.” It took years for Debs to temper those views, as even the Socialist Party succumbed to nativism and fear of the “degraded foreigner.”
“The most damnable spot in America.” “A disgrace to civilization.” “Filth and abomination.” “Indiana’s Black of Hole of Calcutta.”
The Hoosier State sometimes get bad national press, but in 1923 the criticism was homegrown. True to Hoosier stereotypes, the alleged horrors took place on a farm, the state penal farm, and involved the abuse of prisoners.
On the eve of World War I, a new, “open-air” penitentiary opened about an hour west of Indianapolis. Overcrowding at the major state prisons in Michigan City and Jeffersonville, as well as at county jails all over Indiana, led the legislature to pursue a “progressive” alternative to mere incarceration. Many prisoners, after all, were behind bars for minor crimes like theft and assault and battery. That changed in 1917, when Indiana Governor James Goodrich initiated statewide Prohibition, two years in advance of the Federal liquor ban that came with the Volstead Act in 1919.
Since some Indiana counties and towns had already passed local dry laws, by 1915 sheriffs were cracking down on operators of illegal saloons, moonshine distillers, and town drunks. While most violators were never tossed in the clinker for more than a few weeks or months, as the war on alcohol got more serious, Hoosier jails began to fill up fast. The temptation to make a profit off jails was a further problem, a situation that still exists today.
Prohibition laws provide a fascinating glimpse into the dark side of reform movements. As one Hoosier editor, Muncie’s George R. Dale, discovered while investigating allegations of prisoner abuse at the State Farm in Putnamville, punitive social reform — including the ban on alcohol sales — had scarcely hidden undertones of racism and class operating behind it. Working-class Americans, African Americans, and Catholics bore the brunt of laws framed mostly by women’s rights advocates and middle-class white Protestants. Liquor laws, oddly enough, turned out to be a major milepost on the intellectual superhighway that led to the resurrection of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915 — coincidentally, the year of the penal farm’s founding. The original Klan had died off in the 1870s. Revived just before Word War I, it found its highest membership not among stereotypical rural Southerners and defeated Confederates, but among white middle-class Midwesterners. The ideology of “the second Klan,” moreover, wasn’t totally foreign to the reform movements of the 1910s.
In 1922, Dale, a civil liberties maverick, joined the campaign to investigate the penal farm — then went there twice as a prisoner, sentenced to hard labor for criticizing a Delaware County judge with Klan connections.
Though the farm would soon fall under suspicion, the plans behind its creation were full of good intentions. Jailers and prison reformers had always been vexed by the failure of jail sentences to cure some criminals of their attraction to lawbreaking. The theory was that inmates were bonding behind bars while living in “idleness.” As a Hoosier paper, The Hagerstown Record, put it in 1916,
Jails are simply breeding places for vice. Lawbreakers thrown together in sheer idleness day after day have opportunity and incentive for devising more lawlessness. The hardened men create an atmosphere of viciousness that influences the less hardened, while the shiftless vagrant finds very little punishment in free board and no work.
Penal labor, though not wrong in itself, had an enormously dark history — from Charles Dickens’ hellish “workhouses” in David Copperfield to British convict colonies in Australia and of course the Siberian gulags of Tsarist and Soviet Russia.
A 1913 law passed by the Indiana legislature made possible the establishment of a pioneering state penal farm. That law appropriated $60,000 for the purchase of at least 500 acres of land. To help prevent party control and graft, the bipartisan committee, like the prisoners themselves, would receive no salary for their work.
The committee eventually bought 1,600 acres around Putnamville, five miles south of Greencastle, in a hilly, rocky part of Putnam County. Much of this acreage was considered “too broken for agriculture.” Yet this didn’t put a halt to plans, since the penal farm would include several industries besides farming. Underlain by Mitchell limestone, prisoners were put to work breaking rock in quarries, used for road building and the production of crushed limestone fertilizer used on fields. Prisoners also sawed lumber from a neighboring forest reserve. Additionally, the farm kept a dairy herd, apple and peach trees, and fields that grew corn, hay, soybeans, sorghum, pumpkins, and tobacco (a crop now practically extinct in Indiana). In 1916, the prison kept 190 “fat and sleek” hogs. Most of this produce went to fed patients and staff at state hospitals.
A brick plant came in 1918, with prisoners turning out 30,000 bricks a day. The bricks were used in the construction of a new medical college and a military warehouse in Indianapolis and of the Indiana Village for Epileptics, later renamed the New Castle State Hospital. (This happened at a time when epileptics were considered a menace to society and segregated. Indiana’s 1907 eugenics laws forbade epileptics to get married, putting them virtually in the same class with criminals subjected to forced sterilization.)
The money-making possibilities of the state farm were already stirring up buzz among citizens of Putnamville, an old pioneer town on the National Road that nearly became a ghost town when the Putnam County seat was moved to Greencastle. The Indianapolis News reported that rumor of the farm’s coming “spread over the hills and valleys like wildfire” and that residents believed it would “make the old village glow with new life.” “Friends of prisoners” and “sightseers” will “come and go and Putnamville will thrive on the nickels and dimes they spend.”
Locals didn’t seem worried about having prisoners as neighbors, though the penal farm was barely guarded at all. Punishment for escaping was apparently considered enough of a threat to deter the attempt. Fugitives from the law would find their sentences, sometimes a mere 90 days, extended to two years in a state prison if caught.
Newspapers give insight into the type of criminal sent to the State Farm. After Indiana’s prohibition law was ratified in 1917, more than half of the prisoners here came on liquor-related offenses — whether running a “blind tiger,” a rural whiskey still, or being drunk in public. Although bootleg whiskey could be very deadly, other prisoners were jailed for the slimmest of crimes. One was an 18-year-old from Indianapolis who stole a penknife.
The Indiana State Penal Farm’s bleak reputation wasn’t long coming. Less than a year after its founding, John Albright, a bootlegger from Terre Haute, actually requested deportation to his native Germany during the height of World War I rather than serve 90 days at the farm.
Newspapers also documented escapes from the farm, a few of them dramatic. In 1916, two prisoners who drove farm horses ran away with their steeds. They tied them to trees in the woods around Greencastle, where the animals were later found starved to death, “tethered a few paces from an abundance of grass and water.” A year earlier, two Indianapolis youths escaped, went on a burglary and horse-stealing spree near Terre Haute, and were then hunted down by a posse of Vigo County farmers. When four men escaped in 1917, including an African American from Lake County, a “sensational gun fight” ensued. The African American, a man named Hall, was shot dead.
In May 1915, just a month after opening, there were 217 prisoners living at the farm, including 30 African Americans. The total number that skyrocketed to almost 1,200 within a year. In its first decade, the farm “entertained” about 25,000 prisoners.
In 1920, a controversy broke out over allegations of cruelty at Putnamville. Charles McNulty, an Indianapolis saloon keeper let out on parole, filed a complaint with the State Board of Health. McNulty’s claims about unsanitary conditions and violence were backed up a year later when Oscar Knight, a prisoner, filed a further complaint with a judge. Knight claimed that jailers served inmates food that “is not fit for hogs.”
McNulty alleged that prisoners were routinely underfed and worked ten hours a day at hard labor. Meat was only served once a week, “one slice of fat bacon,” less than what prisoners at other jails got while merely sitting in a cell.
Musty meal was used for making corn bread three times a week until Putnam County health officers forbade the use of it. . . On Sunday, five crackers is the substitute for the dry bread of weekdays. Some of the paid guards are insulting and cruel and inhuman, especially to cripples and weaklings, using a loaded cane to beat them.
There were further allegations that Governor Goodrich’s family and “hirelings” of his administration profited from unpaid labor, since inmates at Putnamville were “farmed out” to the Globe Mining Company, partly run by the governor’s son. Charles E. Talkington, superintendent of the penal farm, blew these charges off by claiming that McNulty was a member of the International Workers of the World (IWW) or “Wobblies” Talkington had previously been head of the Farm Colony for the Feeble-Minded in Butlerville and Bartholomew County’s school superintendent. The “Feeble-Minded Farm” — also called the Muscatatuck Colony — was, like the epileptic “village” in New Castle, part of Indiana’s dark eugenics campaign, which blamed crime on mental retardation and figured into a backlash against immigrants and the poor.
Yet early charges made about the farm were tame compared to those reported in one of the most fiery and flamboyant Hoosier newspapers Dale’s Muncie Post-Democrat.
Dale had just begun a landmark battle against the Ku Klux Klan. Though the Klan almost took over Indiana government in the 1920s, it was rooted in years of corrupt politics and arguably even social reform movements like Prohibition and eugenics. During his long battle to expose the Muncie Klan, Dale would be attacked by gunmen who tried to shoot him and his son. Yet the white-haired editor took on the Klan with humor, writing outrageous lampoons about “Koo-Koos” and “Kluxerdom” in his weekly paper, which was almost wholly dedicated to ridiculing the Invisible Empire. Dale published lists of known or suspected Klan members. He also grappled with the KKK’s powerful women’s auxiliary at a time when thousands of Hoosier Klanswomen spread hatred through families in ways that their male counterparts actually had less success at in their public roles. Dale vocally supported blacks, Jews, Catholics, and immigrants, and anybody else targeted by the Klan.
In August 1922, Dale also came to the defense of prisoners at the State Farm. The battle would go on for years. Before it was over, he got a chance to see the terrors of the “Black Hole of Indiana” up close. For criticizing a Muncie judge with links to the Klan — Clarence Dearth, a man he called “the most contemptible chunk of human carrion that ever disgraced the circuit bench in the state of Indiana” — Dale was sentenced for contempt of court and libel, fighting a four-year-long legal battle to stay out of the farm himself. Dale’s campaign is an overlooked part of the history of freedom of speech in Indiana.
His first jab came on August 4, 1922. That story was based on the accusations of “a man from Muncie” who had just visited Putnamville. (Dale doesn’t give his name.)
When Dale criticized a libel ruling Dearth, the judge handed him a 90-day sentence at Putnamville. After eleven days in a Muncie jail, the editor entered the State Farm’s gates as “Convict 14,378.” Partly through the efforts of his wife Lena, the Indiana Supreme Court ordered Dale’s release after just three days. He now had a chance to write “from actual experience”, not the reports of others. Dale immediately set to work “serving notice on the Ku Klux Klan and its miserable tools in office.”
While wealthy bootleggers and Prohibition violators with connections in government often got off scot-free, Dale wrote that when he went to Putnamville, he stood in line with working-class men.
Stepping into the prison barber’s, “in exactly ten seconds my head looked like a billiard ball.” The 56-year-old and father of seven claimed he was then forced to strip down and shower in public, received filthy clothes that “smelled like sin,” got sprayed down by a fruit-tree sprayer, and was vaccinated by a veterinarian. Of the eight meals he ate in the mess hall in the course of three days, he never got any meat. He slept in a miserable, freezing dormitory with 204 other inmates, most of them sick and packed in “like sardines in a can.”
Dale insisted that many of these inmates were jailed on trivial liquor charges. He described one man whose family was left subsisting on charity while he rotted at the farm for almost two years, “having no money to pay his fine,” though prisoners were supposed to receive $1.00 a day for their labor. Always keen to publish news about the discrepancies in punishment meted out to African Americans versus whites, Dale mentioned black teens at the penal farm sentenced for bicycle theft and other minor offenses.
The editor put out an appeal to Governor Warren Terry McCray to investigate the “Putnamville Disgrace.” While he commended the governor for investigating similar jail horrors in Marion County and at the new Indiana Reformatory in Pendleton, Dale insisted on “The Difference Between Men and Bulls.” Cattle on McCray’s bull farm near Kentland lived better lives than prisoners at Putnamville, he announced. Taking heed of these accusations, Dr. James Wilson, mayor of Wabash, Indiana, refused to send any further offenders to Putnam County “until that place of horror is changed from a torture pen into a place of punishment where convicts are treated like human beings instead of dumb brutes.”
In 1926, two years after Ed Jackson, a Klansman, became Governor of Indiana, Judge Dearth and editor Dale were still fighting. Dearth sent the newspaperman back to the penal farm once more when Dale continued to ridicule him. Dale was also found guilty on a “trumped up” charge of liquor possession and of libeling George Roeger, a Muncie distributor of D.C. Stephenson‘s newspaper, The Fiery Cross (printed in Indianapolis). Dale had accused him of being a “Ku Klux draft dodger.”) A jury allegedly packed with Klansmen also declared him guilty of carrying a concealed weapon. Dale appealed the case to the Indiana Supreme Court but lost. Judge Julius C. Travis wrote the opinion that “the truth is no defense” and that Dale had held the law up to ridicule. Newspapers in Chicago and elsewhere started a defense fund to support freedom of speech.
In July 1926, Dale spent a further nine days at Putnamville, digging a tile ditch. He was released, strangely enough, by order of Governor Jackson himself. He got another sentence in August 1927, but spent just half an hour there. It was enough time, however, for him to be fingerprinted and booked as a convict. He also described a conversation with a young African American, James Martin, sentenced to six months for stealing $5.00. Martin had a wife and three children.
Judge Clarence Dearth of Muncie was later impeached. George Dale went on to become Muncie’s mayor from 1930 to 1935. As editor and mayor, he kept an eye on corrupt judges and police.
The Indianapolis Times began a series of articles about abuse allegations that continued to come out of the Indiana State Penal Farm. Yet the farm survived, receiving many inmates throughout the Depression. Most came on charges of larceny, liquor offenses and issuing fraudulent checks. Some, though, were guilty of more serious crimes, like drunk driving and child molestation. Still others came for downright strange reasons, like a Kendallville man arrested for selling “fake radium belts” for which he claimed curative powers. Then there were the sentences that now seem downright cruel.
Heavy drinkers were packed off to Putnamville into the 1950s. Through the 1960s, inmates milked cows, tended an orchard, and grew vegetables, also raising 18 acres of tobacco. About 40 convicts a year escaped in the 1970s and ’80s. Staff and guards were unarmed.
In 1977, the farm was reclassified as a medium-security prison and began receiving convicted felons, which partly contributed to the decline of farming there in the 1980s. The State of Indiana later tried to revive dairy farming at Putnamville in the 1990s. In 1995, the prison was operating the largest dairy farm in the county. Yet of the farm’s 1,600 inmates that year, less than 100 were working in agriculture.
Conditions in the mid-’90s had definitely improved since the days of Prohibition. The Kokomo Tribune reported in 1994 that 900 gallons of food scraps a day were being taken from the dining hall, mixed with cow manure, and used in a composting initiative. That project cut the prison’s garbage bill in half.
Now called the Putnamville Correctional Facility, the institution survives. Almost 2,500 prisoners are there today, more than at any time in its history.
If you enjoy today’s “farcical newspaper” The Onion, in 1922 you might have sent in two dollars for a subscription to George R. Dale’s eccentric and fascinating Muncie Post-Democrat.
While The Onion lampoons everything from politicians to microwaves to bad tippers, George Dale — Indiana’s Jazz Age version of a Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart — focused his ridicule on a powerful group famous for wearing nighties and “mother goose caps” around cornfields at night. That group, of course, was the Ku Klux Klan, whose grip on big cities and small towns alike led to its near-domination of state politics in the 1920s.
Muncie and neighboring towns like Marion, Elwood, Fairmount and New Castle were once a stronghold of the Klan. Warding off physical assaults and threats on his life, Dale fought in the belly of the beast, bravely using humor to expose a group that lured in tens of thousands of Hoosiers, many from the middle class, under the banner of “100% Americanism.”
Hoosier State Chronicles, in cooperation with Ball State University Libraries’ Digital Media Repository, is proud to bring a long run ofDale’s Muncie Post-Democrat online, from 1921 through 1950. Here’s a brief bio of the man whose war on the Klan is still little-known outside Muncie, where he served as mayor from 1930 to 1935. We’re including some of his best comic barbs here, lobbed at the not-so-Invisible Empire.
In 1930, a writer named W.A.S. Douglas wrote a long piece in The American Mercury, a magazine edited by the acerbic literary critic H.L. Mencken. (Mencken was a famous enemy of the Klan, though his own views bordered on anti-Semitism.) Douglas recalled that he first met George Dale during the 1925 trial of D.C. Stephenson, Grand Dragon of the Klan in Indiana and many other Northern states. Though Stephenson was indicted for the kidnap, rape and murder of an Indianapolis stenographer, a crime that involved her near-cannibalization while he was raping her, since the trial was held in Klan-dominated Noblesville, the Klansman seemed confident that his political machine could get him off the hook. Stephenson, still in his thirties, was their “Old Man.”
“There were Klansmen all around [Stephenson],” Douglas wrote about the courtroom in Hamilton County, “at the counsel-table, in the jury box, in the audience, and guarding the doors of the courtroom. All were brothers in the secret bond.” Then Stephenson looked over and saw a “shabby little old man,” scribbling with a pencil while casting a look that seemed to bore “right into his brain.”
This was George Dale, “a white-haired little man, well into his sixties and with the seat worn out of his pants — a man who had become a joke all over the state because alone, broke, and kicked from pillar to post, he dared to fight. . .”
Born in 1867 in Monticello, Indiana, Dale — son of a Civil War veteran — was orphaned by age 18. He moved to Hartford City around 1885, where he worked for an uncle who owned the town’s first electric power plant. In his twenties, Dale founded the Hartford City Times, then the Montpelier Call. He married Lena Mohler in 1900 and the couple had seven children. Around 1920, the Dales came to Muncie on the eve of the Klan’s takeover there.
In a study conducted by Hoosier-born sociologist Robert Staughton Lynd and his wife Helen, Muncie became the first American town to ever be systematically dissected on a sociologist’s “operating table.” The Lynds chose Muncie mostly for its averageness. Their 1929 book Middletown wasn’t flattering. Nor was the description that W.A.S. Douglas left: “I well remember this Indiana city when it weltered in starkness; when it tucked its tail between its legs and ran from the sound and the smell of cowshed-perfumed klansmen…”
Douglas’ stereotype wasn’t totally accurate. Muncie wasn’t all Klan. And the most influential Klansmen weren’t farmers. Klan influence was strong in big cities, too, with large membership in Detroit, Chicago, and Indianapolis, where D.C. Stephenson turned out his own newspaper, The Fiery Cross. And in the ’20s, the Klan had more support in the Midwest than in the Deep South.
Klan ideology in the ’20s also differed from its focus during the Civil Rights Movement in the ’50s and ’60s. While never friendly to African Americans, the “second wave” of the Klan was mostly interested in halting immigration, undermining perceived Catholic and Jewish influence in American politics and schools, enforcing Prohibition, and protecting the “purity of American womanhood.” A new religious movement, Protestant fundamentalism, also fueled the Klan’s rise, with ideologues hijacking religion to stir up nativism. It’s no coincidence that 1925 was the year both of Stephenson’s trial in Indiana and the Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tennessee.
George Dale and others went to work documenting the hypocrisy of the Klan’s basic principles — from “100% Americanism” to a ludicrous KKK resolution passed in Muncie proclaiming that Jesus Christ was a white Protestant native-born American and not a Jew.
The Klan didn’t invent nativism. Waves of immigrants like the Germans, Irish, Italians and Eastern European Jews all suffered the slander of earlier settlers. Anti-Semitism came into the mix whenever Jews joined labor unions, the Socialist Party, and supported the Russian Revolution. (D.C. Stephenson himself, however, had briefly been a Socialist in Oklahoma.)
When Dale turned the spotlight on anti-Catholicism, he had to deal with fears going back decades, all the way back to the Reformation and the roots of the war in Northern Ireland. As late as the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, many Americans feared that Catholics would take over American politics and schools, then hand the country over to the Pope.
Dale thought the Northern Irish roots of bigotry worth pointing out, especially when it turned out that a busy anti-Catholic editor had taken a long time to get American citizenship, something prized by the Klan.
When Dale took jabs at the shady goings-on in Newark, Ohio he was criticizing his own town on the sly. It’s hard to say how truthful Dale’s “reportage” was, but his satire cut to the bone.
When it came to mocking the thousands of women who got involved with the KKK, conventions regarding the treatment of “ladies” didn’t hold him back. Dale even used two prominent “Camelias” — as the Women of the Ku Klux Klan were known — as journalistic target practice. One was the infamous Helen Jackson (mentioned above), a bogus “escaped nun” who helped spread Klan propaganda around the Midwest. Jackson, daughter of Polish immigrants, had actually been a teenage prostitute who was sent to a Catholic reform school for “wayward” girls in Detroit. In fairness, her experience there was probably harsh, but her stories of escaping from a convent — stories she told in a book called Convent Cruelties — drew on generations of anti-Catholic fiction and folklore.
In the 1920s, Helen Jackson and a sidekick “ex-priest” — a French-Canadian Holiness preacher, L.J. King — gave lectures in American auditoriums and churches, where they mocked Catholic religious practices, spread fear about priestly tortures and Vatican takeover of the U.S., and incited riots, some of them deadly. Jackson and King were busy stirring up religious hatred in Indiana just before the crucial 1924 election, when Hoosiers put a Klansman, Ed Jackson — no relation to Helen — in the governor’s seat.
Dale lampooned her as just another fraudulent “Koo Koo klucker” interested in profiting off the sale of hate. He was eager to announce her arrival in Muncie in November 1922, when he could debunk her. The “ex-nun” Helen Jackson actually visited Muncie several times, causing so much trouble there that she eventually got kicked even by Muncie’s Klan-friendly police. Her companion, L.J. King, was also well-known to cops. When he started charging extra admission rates for “men’s only” lectures — where he made lurid allegations about sex in confessionals — a few towns, like Phoenix, drove him out for insulting women and for spreading “verbal filth.” George Dale, who was not Catholic, relished the rumor that King had once had links to an “Indian medicine show” and that his mother in Canada thought “he had always been a bad boy.” Jackson and King were on the road throughout the 1920s, critical operatives of the Klan.
A favorite target for Dale, however, was the influential Hoosier Quaker minister Daisy Douglass Barr, who headed the women’s auxiliary of the KKK. Barr had once been a well-known reformer in central Indiana, espousing Prohibition, shutting down red-light districts, and reforming prostitutes. Well-meaning reformers like her often had their dark side, however, as the history of the Indiana Women’s Prison illustrates. In theory, Klan rhetoric supported “womanly purity” and the banning of booze though a plethora of sex abusers, bootleggers, and rapists joined the rank and file of the Klan, including Stephenson, its leader. (W.S.A. Douglass referred to Indiana’s Grand Dragon as a “booze-soaked printer.”)
George Dale despised Daisy Barr, who lived in Indianapolis for years but was influential in Muncie politics and in her native Grant County next door. Dale put some of his best comic language to work to help take down Barr. Mocking the Klan’s absurd titles, he called her the “Quakeress Fakeress,” “Daisy Doodle Barr,” “champion Kluxerino of Indiana,” and “prize gold digger of the Klan.”
Investigations eventually exposed the Reverend Barr’s greed. The influential Quaker minister had pocketed a fortune from the sale of Klan robes to women. George Dale was quick to argue that the business of the KKK’s leadership, in fact, was just that — a business, one that fleeced “suckers” out of their “boob money.” Members got “nighties” in return.
The editor of the Muncie Post-Democrat wasn’t making millions from his poetry. Nor did exposing the “Ku Klux Quaker” or anybody else help ensure his personal safety. Yet in spite of death threats made against him and his family — with Klansmen shooting at him and attacking his home — Dale had the courage to continue publishing the names of Klansfolk in Ohio and Indiana as soon as he got his hands on membership lists. For all their parading through the streets, many members still wanted their involvement with the Invisible Empire kept secret — including gubernatorial candidate Ed Jackson himself. When the extent of Daisy Barr’s business with the Klan came out, she was forced to step down as chaplain of the Indiana War Mothers.
George Dale’s campaign against the KKK was part of a national movement to discredit it. Newspapers and religious leaders led the campaign. While religion had played a disturbing role in fueling the Klan’s growth, it also played a major role in debunking it. Over the next few decades, the opposition of Protestant ministers like Reinhold Niebuhr — not to mention Martin Luther King — helped erode support for the Klan, though the organization survives.
In 1923, Catholic members of the Indianapolis police force did their own part, breaking into a Klan office on College Avenue, stealing a membership list, and publishing it in Tolerance, an anti-KKK paper in Chicago. (In light of the deadly Paris attacks in November 2015, the activist group Anonymous is doing something similar, hacking websites and publishing the personal details, addresses and Twitter handles of suspected ISIS extremists.) Other Hoosier newspapers, including the Indiana Jewish Chronicle, the Indianapolis Freeman, the Indiana Catholic & Record, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Indianapolis Times all attacked the misinformation and bigotry spouted by the Klan. D.C. Stephenson’s murder trial, which exposed the organization’s hypocrisy at its worst, also helped debunk the Klan credo.
Even in Muncie, the tide had begun to turn. Embattled and fearing for his life in the mid-1920s, George R. Dale won the 1929 mayor’s race. His first action was to fire the forty-two members of the Muncie police force.
An indictment for violating Prohibition laws in 1932 overshadowed Dale’s mayoral career. When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt repealed Prohibition soon after coming into office, he issued Dale a presidential pardon on Christmas Eve 1933.
The editor’s journalistic battle for civil decency had taken a toll on his health and finances. He had also gone blind in one eye. Yet Dale was at work at a typewriter right up to the moment of his death. Surrounded by his family, and having just typed out one last editorial, George Dale died of a cerebral hemorrhage on March 27, 1936, at his home in Muncie.