Thursday, December 31, 2009
#029: Madge Oberholtzer
AMERICAN LUCRETIA: MADGE AUGUSTINE OBERHOLTZER (1898-1925)
Given the decaying level of American education in this day and age, the name "Lucrecia", when encountered, summons images of Lucrecia Borgia, poisoner, prostitute, and daughter of the worst Pope in history.
But there is another Lucretia in history, a far worthier individual: a woman whose courage in defense of her sexual virtue brought the end of a great tyranny. When raped by the son of Tarquin Superbus--"Tarquin The Proud"--he who was the last King of Rome, she named him and committed a very public suicide. This so enraged the people of that city that they drove out the King and his whole family, leading to the founding of the Roman Republic.
And the republic they founded was the model for our very own, some twenty five centuries later.
Odd how history repeats itself.
Madge Oberholtzer was a virginal schoolmistress who, until her horrible and untimely death, had lived an unknown life as an Indianapolis schoolteacher. She died, like Lucretia, by her own hand after being raped and ravished. But her steadfast courage and naming of her attacker--the head of the Ku Klux Klan in her home state–-led directly to the utter collapse of the Klan in Indiana and contributed to the Klan's near total disappearance nationwide within a year. Furthermore, she also stopped the rise of a most malignant political figure as well.
She seems to have been a harmless person. An utterly obscure school teacher-–the only serious profession available to single women in those simpler days–-she began to work for the state, teaching reading to adults who lacked that ability, as well as teaching elementary reading to black school children. She lived with her parents, which is what respectable unmarried women did in those days.
In the spring of 1925, Madge was invited to a dinner at the state capital, where she was introduced to one of the leading political figures of the day. David Curtiss "Steve" Stephenson was a leading state politician, a multimillionaire, by profession a salesman and a newspaperman; he had been an unsuccessful candidate for Congress but was looking ahead to greater things. He was seen as a rising figure. Then in his mid-30s, he was a man of much charm and great power and reach. He saw Madge and was smitten.
A first date went well, and he asked her for a second. In the course of conversation that second evening, however, he revealed to her that he was not merely a rising political figure, but the head of the Ku Klux Klan for the entire state of Indiana.
The Klan was, at this time, at the peak of a great wave. The Klan had died out under Federal and state law enforcement pressure by the end of Reconstruction and had ceased to exist from about 1875. While gone, however, it was not forgotten. The first great Hollywood epic, Birth of a Nation, which was released in 1915, caused a reappearance and a resurgence of this Civil War era abomination as what was, essentially, the first movie tie-in.
Mr. Stephenson had ridden the wave of what scholars now call the "Second Klan." He was instrumental in placing certain Klan leaders in political office statewide, and he owned a newspaper, the "Fiery Cross", which spread the Klan's message. He grew fat and rich off of his political connections, his newspaper, and his leadership of the so-called 'Invisible Empire.'
However, while Mr. Stephenson had grown dramatically in wealth and power––by now he had his own crew of bodyguards, a mansion, and a private train as well––he had failed to take into account that not everyone was impressed by his association with the Ku Klux Klan.
Certainly, impressed Madge was not.
When he revealed that he was the "Grand Dragon" of the state's Klan, she immediately terminated their date and left him.
That should have been the end of it; a man like D.C. Stephenson should have recognized his failure and let it go at that. But men like D.C. Stephenson do not get where they are by taking no for an answer.
A few days after their second date ended, he invited her to a private meeting, ostensibly to discuss with her a possible place of employment for her. However, having isolated her and surrounded himself with his bodyguards, he forced her to drink several glasses of alcohol (she was a teetotaler). Once she was intoxicated, he instructed her bodyguards to take her to his car and put her aboard his private train.
As the train traveled from Indianapolis to Chicago, he raped her repeatedly and mutilated her with his teeth, leaving hideous infected wounds that, medical testimony later held, would have eventually led to her death regardless of any other causes.
When the train made a stop in Chicago, she made pretense of needing certain personal items and he let her go, under guard, to a drug store. She was unable to give her guards the slip, so she took that opportunity to purchase several mercuric chloride tablets: a medicine formerly used to treat syphilis and a powerful poison when taken in quantity.
When she was returned to the train, she confronted him, saying "The law will get its hands on you!" He laughed at her. "I am the law in Indiana!" he said.
When it became clear to her that she had no escape, she took all the tablets at once. Within minutes she was vomiting and convulsing, which at least caused the sexual assaults to stop.
For almost 24 hours he kept her alone while she continued vomiting, never getting her any medical treatment. Eventually he directed his bodyguards to take her back to her parents' home. As she lay dying, she revealed what had happened to her parents, signing a statement before she passed away in agony. She died on April 14, 1925 from an infection and kidney failure from mercury poisoning.
The trial was sensational. D.C. Stephenson never expected to be convicted, particularly as he believed her to be a victim of suicide and not murder. But the jury was not impressed with his defense, particularly after a doctor testified of her wounds, and that his refusal to get her medical aid upon discovery of her self-poisoning made her death a certainty. On November 14, 1925, they found him guilty of second degree murder, rape and kidnapping on the first ballot. He was sentenced to life in prison two days later.
Again, he never expected to serve his time, particularly when he, himself, had organized the Governor's election to office, and thus expected to be pardoned. When that was not forthcoming, he released, through his lawyer, the names of all the leading Klansmen in Indiana, as well as evidence of bribes that they had paid to public officials, including the governor. Over the following two years several leading politicians were forced, as a result, out of office and some even went to prison themselves.
Between the publicity of his trial and the release of the supposedly 'secret' Klan membership list, the Indiana KKK collapsed to almost nothing. By 1928 it had for all intents ceased to exist; and, nationwide, after the election of November of that year, its political influence for all intents and purposes disappeared throughout the nation. The Klan was not to reappear until the 1950s, under an entirely new set of miscreants.
Madge Oberholtzer had lived a quiet and unremarkable life until undergoing horrific personal loss and sacrifice at the hands of a tyrant: a night of rape and torment, and three days of agony before her death. And yet her sacrifice was meaningful: for her death, like that of Mary Joe Kopechne forty-four years later, changed the course of history by stopping the rise of a potentially great but clearly unworthy man and, in her case, broke the back of the Klan as well.
Again, as I have stated in earlier entries to this collection, suicide is not an exit available to Christians. However, there may be extremely limited circumstances where it is a reasonable response to an assault of demonic dimensions, as here. Furthermore, it is possible that her radical act of self-poisoning was not necessarily suicidal; she might have lived if her ravager had picked up a telephone, so I would give her the benefit of that doubt. As it was, her death brought down a malignant figure who-–had she simply submitted and remained silent–-might well have gone on, in the disordered years of the early 1930s, to become a political monster of the sort that defaced the history of that sad decade.
As it was, D.C. Stephenson was in a sense an opposite parallel of the Edith Keeler character in that Classic Trek episode--he had to be removed from history for it to take its proper path.
And so he was: like the Klan, Stephenson was broken but not destroyed by his trial. He was released from prison in 1950 (some sources say 1956), but had not reformed, being arrested in 1961 for the sexual assault of a sixteen year old girl. He died in Tennessee in 1966 and was buried there.
Today he is a forgotten man. His name is associated with no massacre, no death camp, no war crime: for this, we may well have the sacrifice of Madge Oberholtzer, the American Lucretia, to thank.