At different times, Stephenson called himself “a nobody from nowhere, really” and “I am the law in Indiana.” He was the son of a sharecropper, a recruiter for the army, an admirer of the style of socialist leader Oscar Ameringer, and a traveling salesman who had a habit of leaving his wives. He found himself in Evansville, Indiana as a stock salesman for the Citizens Coal Company at about the time the Klan was starting up in Indiana. He was apparently “not a man of firm prejudices,” but adopted those causes that he could manipulate to his own benefit. (For example, he ran for Congress as a “wet” Democrat in 1922. When that didn’t work, he switched to dry Republicanism.
He had a gift for sales, quick to develop an easy comfort with his target. But, he also had a weakness for liquor and women. While in a hotel in Columbus, Ohio in 1922:
The hotel’s manicurist reported that when she arrived for Stephenson’s appointment, “there were three full quarts of whiskey and when I told him that I didn’t want any, he came over and grabbed me. He said that he would give me a hundred dollars if I would allow him to have intercourse with me. Of course, he was more rude than I care to be in expressing it… I told him that I was not in the habit of being insulted by anyone like that, and he said… ‘You will or I’ll kill you.’” She fled and ran into two of his associates outside, who tried to console her. “Don’t pay any attention to him,” one said. “He is a good fellow; he is drunk; he is all right when he is sober. You go downstairs and don’t bother about it.”
By all accounts, he was instrumental in the success of the Klan in Indiana. He made $4 from every $10 recruit and got wealthy. He implemented the innovation of giving a free Klan membership to every Protestant minister in Indiana (many declined.)
He had his hooks in Ed Jackson pretty deeply. Besides providing him with critical electoral support, he had the goods on Jackson and the attempted bribe of Governor McCray. He was at the apex of his power on January 12, 1925 at the Athletic Club in Indianapolis where he was attending an inauguration party for Jackson. That’s when he met Madge Oberholtzer. Oberholtzer was a 28 year old manager of the “Indiana Young People’s Reading Circle,” a division of the Department of Public Instruction. She was at the party helping to pass out name tags.
After that, Stephenson pursued her to some degree and, eventually, he was having her write a book on public health, ostensibly so he could have the legislature mandate a book of its type be taught in schools then arrange to have it sold to fill the new requirement. She also acted as his aide in the 1925 General Assembly, running notes from his office to the State House. On March 15, 1925, Stephenson left a message for her to come to his home. He had some business that he needed to take care of before he went to Chicago the next day. At about 10 p.m. she arrived home and received that note. She went to his place a few blocks away. Stephenson was raging drunk. At that point, Stephenson, his bodyguard, and his chauffeur forced her to drink whiskey. She was then forced into his car, driven to the train station, and forced into his private train car. At that point, Stephenson tore her dress, raped her repeatedly and bit her extensively. (“She was bitten, chewed, and pummeled.”)
They made it as far as Hammond where Stephenson checked into a hotel, saying she was his wife. He forced her to write a telegram to her mother saying she was going to Chicago. As he slept, she managed to take his revolver. She thought about shooting him but could not, believing it would disgrace her family. That morning, she convinced one of his bodyguards to take her to the pharmacy to buy some rouge. She bought mercuric chloride tablets while she was there and managed to take 6 of them, intending to kill herself, when she got back to the hotel. She began vomiting blood and Stephenson panicked. The group headed back to Indianapolis. Oberholtzer was hidden in a room above Stephenson’s garage for a period of time, but two days after she’d been raped, she was taken back to her family’s house where they were told she had been in a car accident. Before taking her home, Stephenson warned Overholzer against telling about what he’d done to her, saying, “You must forget this, what is done has been done. I am the law and the power.”
On March 28, she told what had happened to her in a signed statement. She died on April 14, 1925 from a staph infection from the bites, plus kidney failure from the mercury poisoning. Her dying declaration was used as evidence against Stephenson when the Marion County Prosecutor, Will Remy — a man Stephenson had unsuccessfully attempted to bribe Governor McCray to avoid having in office — charged him with rape and murder. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison on November 14, 1925. The scandal caused by Stephenson’s actions destroyed the Klan in Indiana. Members quit en masse.
In 1927, when Stephenson did not get the pardon he expected from Governor Jackson, he started talking to the Indianapolis Times. “[H]e provided names of people who had been paid bribes by the Klan and taken part in other illegal activity. He had kept a “black box” of records which provided evidence for many of his accusations. He exposed Jackson’s having tried to bribe McCray with $10,000 years earlier.” Jackson did not bow to pressure to resign. He left office in disgrace and was tried on the bribery charge. The trial ended in a hung jury and the statute of limitations prevented re-trial.
Stephenson, was paroled from prison in 1950 but violated the terms of the parole. He was paroled again in 1956, one condition of which was that he leave Indiana. In 1961, in Independence, Missouri, Stephenson was arrested on charges of attempting to sexually molest a sixteen-year-old girl. He died on June 28, 1966 in Jonesborough, Tennessee.
After his term of office was over in 1929, Ed Jackson opened a law office in Indianapolis. In 1937, he moved to Orleans, Indiana where he maintained an apple orchard and raised cattle. In 1948, he suffered a massive stroke that left him bedridden until he died in 1954.
That brings us to the end of installment 8. In the next installment, we’ll enter the Great Depression. [*cue ominous music*]