A Fever in the Heartland by Timothy Egan


The subtitle, The Ku Klux Klan’s Plot to Take Over America, and the Woman Who Stopped Them gets all the elements of the book into the title, though perhaps the declaration is a tiny bit overdrawn. I suspect my questions are unanswerable:  what caused this fever to take hold so strongly in disparate parts of the U.S. in the mid-1920s? Is this going to continue to happen?

Egan centers the story on D.S. Stephenson, known as Steve, who was a film-flam man from the very start. Everything he told about himself was false, reminiscent of George Santos, from where he was born to having a law degree, to being a non-drinker. Within a few years of landing in Indiana, he became very powerful in the Klan with his charm and ruthlessness. By 1925 many political positions in the state, from judges, police, even the governor, had to be members of the Klan to be elected. Decisions about laws to be passed by the legislature were dictated by Stephenson.

At the height of his political powers with the aid of two of his assistants he abducted a young woman who lived not far from his mansion. He held her captive, raped her, and tore at her body with his teeth. He told her he was the law in Indiana and trying to escape was useless. While in his control, she bought poison at a drugstore and took it later. One of the assistants returned her to the house where she lived with her parents. She lived for a month and during that time told her story, including making a formal deathbed statement. With that statement a determined prosecutor filed charges and Stephenson was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to life in prison. Perhaps Stephenson was held accountable because the Klan’s power was diminishing or perhaps the Klan’s power was diminished by the revelation of the true nature of the Grand Dragon.

Despite the national reputation of Notre Dame and its football team—even I know about Knute Rockne and the “four horsemen”—Stephenson took on those Catholics and planned a parade and rally in South Bend in 1924. Despite the effort of the president to keep the students confined to quarters, they challenged the Klan and it was one of the four horsemen who took out one of the red light bulbs that formed the Klan cross in their office using a potato. Oh, those Irish!

In considering the questions of what caused the fever to be diminished, the author wonders whether it was because it achieved all of its major goals:  prohibition, disenfranchisement of African-Americans, restricting immigrants whose religion or skin color did not match the majority. He notes that the 1924 law restricting immigrants remained in place for 40 years, it was not until after the war that Truman began integrating the military, in 1954 schools began to be integrated and civil rights legislation was not passed until the 1960s, and it was 1933 that liquor sales became legal again.

It’s hard to ignore the connections to our own time when a despicable person has such a hold on people in this country.

Tim Egan, A Fever in the Heartland, Viking, 2023, 404 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available in the public library.

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