It was an "all-electric" fiery cross that led the Ku Klux Klan parade in Livingston, Wisconsin on August 2, 1924. The Livingston Band followed Klanswomen carrying flags. Behind the band, 82 Klansmen marched in full hooded regalia. A large crowd, estimated at 2,500 came out to cheer and listen to a speech by a "Dr. Stout of Detroit, Mich." Ira Stout was the Kleagle (leader) of the Detroit Ku Klux Klan.
The meeting started with the band’s rendition of On Wisconsin, followed by the Lord’s Prayer. Stout said the Klan never bothered other creeds, "but we're fighting their system." He said the Klan was cleaning up the "booze evil." As his speech concluded a large cross was set afire while the astounded townsfolk watched and cheered. It was a typically theatrical Klan rally. Years later (1968) a witness to the rally recalled: “Many of those in attendance were there only for the curiosity and were not Klansmen. The speech was an attack on the three K's the "Koons", the "Kikes", and the "Katholics". Many of the people who heard the speech were repelled by the speaker's remarks and left the meeting quietly before it was over.” Contemporary accounts show no such reaction by the townspeople.
In the early 1920's the Ku Klux Klan was an organization on the rise, touting what they called "Pure Americanism." In fact they were a hate group, which, like so many others used patriotic themes to wrap bigotry and hate in. In the south racial hatred was still the main theme, but as the Klan moved north, they emphasized hatred of immigrants, Catholics and Jews. They used pageantry, theater and color to draw the curious and slander their enemies. They ingratiated themselves with the local citizens by contributing small sums to churches and charitable organizations. For example the local news section of a newspaper in Richland County reported: “During church services Tuesday evening a number of Klansmen entered the church remaining near the entrance while one walked to the platform and presented Rev. Pfaffman with a sum of money and a letter of thanks for his interest here.” A small town community building financial ledger reads “March 3, 1928. Received from the Ku Klux Klan five dollars” The Richland Observer of October 28, 1926 gives another example: “The order of the knights of the Ku Klux Klan gave an oyster supper in honor of their friends and neighbor, Rev. J. C. Hatch, Friday evening. The table decorations consisted of a large American flag. Supper was served to nearly one hundred.” Many were fooled by the Klan’s pretensions to patriotism and Christianity. Many were not.
Wisconsin's governor, John Blaine, who hailed from Boscobel, was one of those who were not fooled, and he was a vehement opponent of The Klan. Blaine was first elected Governor in 1920. In 1921 citizens of Milwaukee and Kenosha petitioned the governor asking that he take steps to prevent the Ku Klux Klan from taking root in Wisconsin. “With such a record as the Ku Klux Klan had during the period following the Civil War,” he said, “and steeped in crime as the Klan was, do you think that any liberty loving, law abiding sensible citizen of Wisconsin is going to join an order that is alleged to be the counterpart of the Klan of rebel days, if in fact it is?” He was to discover that a large number of Wisconsin citizens would take the bait and join.
Both of the major political parties adopted platforms opposing the Klan in 1924. The Democratic State Platform read: “We pledge the Democratic Party to oppose any effort on the part of the Ku Klux Klan or any organization to interfere with the religious liberty or political freedom of any citizen or to limit the civic rights of any citizen or body of citizens because of religion, birthplace or racial origin.” The Republican platform proclaimed “We are opposed to the Ku Klux Klan or any organization that would deny to any citizen the free exercise of those sacred rights because of race, nationality, language or religious belief.
The evident purpose of the Klan and every other secret political organization is to disorganize and disrupt the harmonious development and existence of economic organizations of workers and farmers, by stirring up dissension among them, and such secret political organizations are encouraged by organized privilege to spread dissension, hate and suspicion that cooperative economic organizations may be destroyed… We oppose any attempt to divide our people into warring factions that destroy the harmony and friendships of neighborly cooperation.”
In 1924 the Klan threw considerable support to Governor Blaine’s primary opponent, Arthur R. Hirst. In the summer of 1924 small blue buttons reading “Back to Boscobel” began to appear all over the state. By August, the press was reporting that it was the Ku Klux Klan that was distributing the buttons to show opposition to Blaine. The Klan was also planning a visit to Blaine’s home town. On August 6, 1924 the Madison Capital Times reported that the Milwaukee headquarters of the Klan was negotiating with the Milwaukee Road to charter a special train to carry Klansmen from Madison to Boscobel on August 15th to march in the streets as part of the “Back to Boscobel” movement.
In the same year, a civil war of sorts was being fought in Muscoda. Boscobel itself had no Klan organization, so Muscoda served as the meeting place of most Boscobel Klan members. The mayor of Boscobel was Ben L. Marcus, who was also manager of a number of industries and stores in the town. Marcus was Jewish, and the Klan was anti-Semitic. Other issues, such as disagreements on public improvements fueled some of the antagonisms, but the Klan was the catalyst that brought affairs to the level of vehement antagonism and violence. There were many Catholics in Muscoda also, who knew of the bigotry of the Klan regarding their faith, and the organization of their church. In June 1924 the activities of Klan members led the editor of the Muscoda Progressive Newspaper to write an article denouncing the KKK. Klan leaders were nervous and they called Grant County District Attorney George B. Clementson, asking for members of the Sheriff’s Department to be on hand for their conclave to be held on June 25th. Clementson dispatched the Sheriff and a deputy who witnessed over a hundred fully uniformed Klansmen take part in ceremonies at the edge of town. There was no violence that night, but feelings were not soothed by the hooded circus, and in the dark of night on August 9th stickers were placed on the fronts of certain businesses reading:
NOTICEEvery criminal, every gambler, every thug, every libertine, every girl ruiner, every home wrecker, every wife beater, every moonshiner, every crooked politician, every pagan papal priest, every shyster lawyer, every K. C., every white slaver, every brothel madam, Rome controlled newspapers, every black spider – is fighting the Klan. Which side are you on?”
The editor of the Progressive, reporting the sticker placing wrote: “if there are any “deadbeats,” “bootleggers” and “women-chasers” in Muscoda that don’t belong to the Klan, we don’t know about it. From inquiry in other towns in this neighborhood we find the same thing is true.” Tempers were heating up, and the fuel was about to be cast on the fire.
Fire and Bullets, part 2
The supposition of the writer above was too limited. Not only did Klan organizations exist in the cities named (with the exception of Boscobel), but they were also at Dodgeville, Mineral Point and most of the smaller towns in Richland County. It is not known for sure where all the Klaverns (local clubs or ‘dens’) were, since this was a shadowy organization that operated in the night and whose adherents hid under conical hoods. In the present, a number of organizations track the shifting currents of radical organizations in America, but that was not the practice then. Certainly law enforcement was having trouble keeping a handle on the criminal cartels forming for the illegal booze trade, and in many places the Klan was seen as an ally for prohibition agents. In some places Klan members were deputized for liquor raids, and often they worked in unison with the Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) organizing and pursuing the enforcement of prohibition, and opposing those, like Blaine, who advocated repeal of the 18th amendment.
Two weeks after the Klan rally at Livingston, hundreds of Klansmen and women descended on Boscobel. The expressed purpose was to rally against Blaine in his own home town. On Friday night, August 15, 1924 large numbers of Klansmen and supporters began to arrive. On Saturday, August 16th, about 7,000 curious folk, mostly from the local area descended on Boscobel to watch the show. The Klan rallied in Rick's field west of town, where an estimated 600 Klansmen initiated 80 new members and speakers derided Governor Blaine and verbally attacked Catholics and immigrants.
That evening the 98 leaders of the Klan paraded down Main Street two abreast, arms folded in front. In the first row was George Hunt, a Boscobel businessman and Klansman, wearing his hood. Beside him, unmasked, marched J.T. Gunnell of Dodgeville, Kleagle of Grant and Lafayette counties with his wife. In the second row, hooded and carrying flags, were Ella Haggerty and Mrs. Hazel Davis of Dodgeville. In the next row behind Haggerty was Hazel Poole of Rockford Illinois, secretary to the Kleagle. Behind her were Mrs. Bert Flesch, wife of a Muscoda Klansman and a Mrs. Brown. With them was Bert Flesch. All of these individuals were concealed under the notorious cone hood.
The mayor of Boscobel and most council members had granted the Klan the right to March. Apparently they had not told the night watchman, George Shields.
An unidentified driver tried to stop the parade by pulling his car in front of the march, but his vehicle was pushed aside. Then from the sidewalk Officer Shields, whose salary was paid by the merchants of the town, stepped out with his pistol drawn. "I want to see who is under those masks" he shouted, and lifted Hunts hood. Hunt brushed him aside and continued marching, as did Ella Haggerty behind him. Shields then pulled off Hazel Poole's hood and approached Mrs. Flesch. At that moment Bert Flesch struck Shields, knocking him to the ground. Shields aimed his pistol and pulled the trigger. The gun misfired. Bystanders wrestled the weapon from Shields, who staggered away. The parade continued to its conclusion without further incidents.
On Monday the 18th, Klansmen Hunt and Flesch went to Lancaster and reported the incident to District Attorney Clementson. On the 23rd, Clementson drafted a complaint against Shields, and had the sheriff present it to County Judge E.B. Goodsell. Shields came to Lancaster, surrendered himself and was arrested. A preliminary hearing was set for September 10, 1924
The arrest of Shields did not sit well with Governor Blaine. He had already received reports, perhaps inaccurate, of the events at Boscobel, and had cabled Clementson on the 22nd, the day before Shield's arrest. "I am credibly informed," he wrote, "that a masked mob of Klansmen at Boscobel a week ago today insulted a police officer and that the assailants were masked with the white hood...Immediate proceedings should be instituted...and followed by prosecution."
Clementson replied: "I shall arrest officer you mention sometime today, on charge of assault with intent to do great bodily harm. Facts seem to warrant such action...Preliminary examination will show what actually occurred."
That same day Blaine wired back: "Your suggestion of arrest of police officer to try out mob violence is putting the cart before the horse. Hooded Klansmen doing violence create a serious situation and there must be no farce tolerated in preventing mob violence. The circumstances involve more than a local affair and the whole state is interested in preventing mob rule superseding government."
Clementson went ahead and had Shields arrested. Then he wired the Governor, "You repeatedly use the words 'mob violence'...There has been no complaint or claim on the part of anyone but yourself that there was any 'mob violence' at Boscobel." Apparently striking an officer, even one removing the anonymity of a klan member, was not an issue. "It is immaterial in my view," he wrote: "whether those concerned were Klansmen and anti-Klansmen or Hottentots and Zulus. The laws of Wisconsin do not permit free gun play...I am doing my duty..."
The Governor was not impressed with Clementson’s attitude. He seemed not to care about the governor’s concerns. When news of the governor’s feud with Clementson first broke in the press, the District Attorney refused to say if he was a member of the Klan. Only later did he tell the press and the governor that he was not and never had been a member.
The Muscoda Klan had no intention of going away, and others had no intention of letting Klansmen insult their ancestry or religion without a price. On Tuesday, September 2, 1924 the village's civil war in miniature came to a head. Rumors passed through the community that the Klan was going to march that night in defiance of the recently enacted parade ordinance. Many stayed up, expecting a parade and possibly a reaction to it. No parade occurred, but the tension was palpable. A businessman and Klan leader, Frank Groves, had a “shack” built on Main Street which was used to sell popcorn, candy, and magazines. It was also a meeting place for Klan members, and the rumor was that it would be used to sell Klan periodicals.
There had been one attempt to set the building on fire, so Groves and others were staying alert. At about three o’clock in the morning of September 3rd another fire broke out. Groves and associates George Howland and Joe Hayes were seen near the burning shack. Groves saw someone running away, witnesses said, and he raised his shotgun and fired. “Well whoever he is” one of the men shouted “he is full of shot!” The “whoever” turned out to Leo Manning, a 25 year old cheese maker. He told authorities that he heard two rifle or pistol shots, and then the shotgun blast. He denied setting the fire, but admitted to having a bucket of oil that he said he drained from his car. He returned home a “bloody mess” and was treated by Dr. E. A. Ruka, a local physician. The next morning he was taken to Madison for X-Rays and removal of the shot. Only two of the thirteen shot in his side could be removed. The injuries were not life threatening. Groves was charged and immediately his $1,000.00 bond was posted by Henry Flemming and J. I. Lewis.
When Governor Blaine heard of the Muscoda shooting, he was apparently incensed. On September 5th Clementson received a letter from Blaine which read in part:
“Under section 4 of article 5 of the constitution, it is provided that the governor ‘shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed.’ The only way by which the governor can carry out that constitutional duty is through the district attorneys and sheriffs, as related to criminal procedure…The Ku Klux Klan is an organization that hides itself behind a mask and as such is a potential menace to the peace and security of our citizens under any circumstances. It incites to riots and lawlessness, and engenders the possibility of bloodshed, such as has been repeatedly demonstrated at Herron Ill. And other places. Your attitude…tends to encourage and give aid and comfort to that organization, and tends to engender bloodshed, such as has occurred in the last 48 hours at Muscoda, Wisconsin.
Therefore an order has been entered today suspending you from the office of district attorney for Grant County, effective on the 9th day of September, 1924, unless you show cause before the governor at his office…on that day at two o’clock in the afternoon, why that order of suspension should be set aside.”
Clementson remained stubborn. He telegraphed Blaine writing, “I would not deny justice, or what appeared to be justice, to any man because he was a Klansman, nor prostitute my judgment and become a cog in a political machine at executive fiat.” He also admitted that his telegraphs to Blaine had not been “respectful,” but complained that Blaine’s to him were “distinctly imperious and insulting in tone and content.” It was only at this point that Clementson wrote, “I am not a klansman, nor am I a klan sympathizer, as all my friends and acquaintances well know.”
He went to Madison on September 9th and his attorney H. E. Carthew met with the governor. Carthew assured Blaine that Clementson was not pro Klan and could be impartial. Apparently Blaine was convinced and he set aside the suspension. The Grant County Herald crowed that Clementson had won his case. Blaine had made his point to a disrespectful district attorney. The night before his trip to Madison, the Ku Klux Klan held a rally in Lancaster. They ordered “unwelcome” visitors away and burned a cross.
George Shields was tried and convicted. He remained free while his conviction was appealed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. On June 22, 1925 The Wisconsin Supreme Court found that Clementson had sufficient evidence to take the question whether Shields was guilty of assault to a jury. The jury had convicted him and sentenced him to six months, and the court would not disturb the finding of the jury. Regarding the Ku Klux Klan, the court said:
“It cannot be doubted that the public demonstrations of this order excite resentment on the part of those classes of our citizens whose Americanism the principles of the order condemn. But experience in our state does not indicate that such resentment, justly entertained, prompts reprisal by acts of violence or lends to a tumultuous breach of the peace. This fact testifies most credibly to the poise and self-restraint of our citizens who are under Ku Klux Klan prescriptions.”
Viewing the violent incidents in the state and nation, Blaine disagreed with the sentiments of the court. On October 2, 1925 Governor Blaine pardoned George Shields. "With my knowledge of the history of the klan,” he said, “its teaching of hatred, its production of bloodshed and murder, I will not discourage the peace officers of this state in preserving the traditional history of our state for law and order."
George Shields was rehired as night watchman in Boscobel, and received an increase in salary. The Ku Klux Klan continued as an organization for many years, but at the end of the 1920’s it had largely disappeared – for a time, but the Klan, resurgent like prejudice itself, has welled up again and again over the years and is always the image of hatred.
Swearing Allegiance to the Invisible Empire 1922