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 of Dale’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.
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