Micky Neilson and Todd Warger talk about the INVISIBLE EMPIRE

In Invisible Empire Micky Neilson and Todd Warger tell a dark story in America History. It is a turning point in public opinion that reflects a history almost 100 years old and yet still reflective of attitudes we see today. Micky and Todd were nice enough to stop by First Comics News to let our readers know about the Invisible Empire.

First Comics News: Do you think modern audience understand that in the 1920s White People only came from England, the Netherlands, Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia?

Todd: They may be more surprised to learn that for the most part immigrants of all kinds simply walked off the boat. They were screened for sickness but needed no papers, green cards or visas. Like my great-grandparents, they disembarked at Ellis Island, bought some land and became farmers.

That said, the Klu Klux Klan targeted White People from Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean region as undesirables. They were mostly Catholic or Jewish. They were considered poor, dirty, uneducated and taking jobs from Americans who had been here for generations.

1st: For readers who don’t know the history of the Klu Klux Klan, how did the Klan end up in Indiana in the 1920s, aren’t they a southern organization?

Todd: The Klu Klux Klan made what is termed a second revival, or rising, after the screening of D. W. Griffith’s film, ‘Birth of a Nation’ in 1915, which romanticized the earlier post-Civil War Klan. This second period was started by Southerner William J. Simmons, who used elements of the film to establish a new and well-organized order with structure, ranks, robes and much of the paraphernalia we’re familiar with. Taking the rank of Imperial Wizard, he set his designs toward creating a “friendlier” national fraternal organization like many others that were then in vogue at the time (Knights of Pythias, Knights of Columbus, Grand Masons, etc.). Simmons, in the early 1920s, decided it was time to move northward (Indiana being one of the many states he set his sights on) and spread their message to “like minded” individuals interested in their cause. Obviously rooted as anti-Black, the new Klan (pro-ethnic Protestants) targeted Catholics claiming the Papists were aiming to place the Pope in America; the Jewish who would control the country’s economy, and Southern and Eastern European immigrants who the Klan claimed to be poor Catholics and other religious groups coming to take jobs away from true-blooded Americans.

Indiana had only a 3% Black population in 1920. The fact that the KKK had other targeted groups is a frightening prospect that isn’t mentioned much. Indiana, for example, held a membership of 250,000 Klan members by 1923. The memberships stemmed mostly from what the Klan fed them, that immigrants were threatening their livelihoods, working for lower wages and threatening pure white Anglo-Saxon blood that reached back to the Pilgrims.

Micky: Todd’s all over the historical questions. One of the many reasons I partnered with him on this book was his knowledge of history and his skill as a researcher. I’ll pop in on a few of the other questions. Otherwise… take it away Todd!

1st: Who was David Curtiss Stephenson?

Todd: Stephenson is sort an elusive individual who covered his tracks (history) well. I would say, by today’s definition he may be classified as a sociopath. He claimed to be rich with his wealth deriving from coal. It’s true Stephenson had money, but it was rather a mystery as to how he acquired his wealth. He sold himself as a war hero but never left the country.

Stephenson was born into a poor family living in Texas and Oklahoma. He had a wild imagination as a youth and lied very naturally, probably to cover up his poverty and to gain attention. He married twice. Not the family man, he divorced or abandoned his wives. Stephenson worked as a newspaper typesetter traveling from job to job. Being a heavy drinker and womanizer was the likely cause of his roaming employment. Indiana became his stomping ground when he was discovered by “feelers” of the Klan looking to set up headquarters in the state. Stephenson had an attracting charisma about him. And, as a great orator, he was an ideal frontman for spreading the ideals of the Klan. In a short time, Stephenson became the membership coordinator of Indiana recruiting 2,000 new members weekly. By 1923, Stephenson was elevated to the rank of Grand Dragon of Indiana, the highest position attainable, aside from Imperial Wizard.

Did D. C. Stephenson truly believe in Klan doctrine is the underlying question. Stephenson was virtually handed a position of power he craved to have. Once in a position he believed untouchable, Stephenson used his offices for his own benefit. He created a security team to protect his interest and bully the opposition. He stopped sending to Atlanta nearly all proceeds coming into the organization from memberships, books/materials, and robes and he refused to send the state’s membership rosters into the main Atlanta headquarters. When Hiram Evans led a coup d’état against Imperial Wizard Simmons in 1922, Stephenson followed along receiving the robes of the office of Grand Dragon of Indiana, even though the two didn’t get along.

During Stephenson’s years running the Klan offices of Indiana, he managed to personally manipulate state and local politics by backing Klansmen into elected offices throughout the state. Elected through intimidation tactics, once in office officials would swear loyalty oaths to Stephenson. This included State Senator Edward Jackson, who would eventually become governor with Stephenson’s help. In time, Stephenson would openly declare himself the law in Indiana. No doubt, Stephenson had his own eyes on Washington D.C. and the White House.

1st: At the time the story begins was the general opinion of D.C. Stephenson and what was the opinion of the Klan?

Todd: Both Stephenson and the Klan came to Indiana’s awareness at the same time. I don’t believe he was a known name beforehand. And as a matter of fact, Stephenson was only known as “The Old Man” for many years before being publicly known. Of course, the Klan had resistance wherever it went, and in Indiana Gov. Warren McCray fought hard against it in his state. But for the white working man (and woman) the “New” Klan represented itself as an all American fraternal order with an appealing marketing strategy during the early 1920s. The Klan sold itself on family values. It invoked tight family ties, morals and ethics. Protestant church goers. They abhorred the evils of drinking, womanizing, broken homes and divorce. They offered grand rallies to members which brought 50,000 to 100,000 people together for family-oriented weekends, and speeches of course. And, the Klan reminded the Indiana people how they would shield and protect them from the encroachment of immigrants – undesirables marrying into established American families creating mixed blood, protect jobs, etc. So, you can see how in some places Klan doctrine was appealing.

1st: Who was Madge Oberholtzer?

Todd: Madge was a free-spirited woman, unusual for her time when women were expected to marry and bear children. She came from a simple family; her father a postal worker for the railroad. Madge was intelligent and educated at Butler College in Irvington. She dated but had not yet an interest in the married life, as she was career-oriented. She was unmarried and not dating at the time of her death of 28 years old. Madge was a grade school teacher at first, eventually working at the state house as manager of the Indiana Teachers and Young People’s Reading Circle. Her office was responsible for filling out school book orders all over Indiana.

1st: What was Madge Oberholtzer relationship with D.C. Stephenson in the beginning?

Todd: Madge’s relationship with Stephenson is complicated as to its depth, and whether she was naïve dealing with the devil or was she playing him. I say this due to the circumstances involved. She first met Stephenson in 1925 at the inauguration party of Gov. Edward Jackson. He called her on several occasions for a date, but she declined his invitations until finally accepting. Madge and Stephenson went on a number of dinner dates together at the Washington Hotel and at least once she was invited to a party at his house. She accepted an opportunity to work as an aide to Stephenson, running messages for him during the Indiana General Assembly. As manager of the Reading Circle, she even agreed to help him write a nutrition book, selling it through the state’s school system, reaping profits for Stephenson. Witnesses claim seeing her in Stephenson’s office on occasions and laughing it up.

Madge no doubt knew of Stephenson’s history, but she may have had other reasons for courting Stephenson’s interest in her. Madge had heard that the Reading Circle section may be cut due to budget restraints, along with her own position. She needed her job. She lived at home to save money, and what she did make was helping to support her aging parents. With no other prospects available, and knowing one word from Stephenson could save her job, Madge may have been playing for time.

1st: What was the opinion of someone like Madge Oberholtzer dating D.C. Stephenson, who was a married man?

Todd: I don’t believe it was known that Stephenson had been married until the trial. Stephenson managed to keep his life a secret. But there were rumors as to what kind of relationship the two had. I very much doubt it being sexual.

1st: Who was William Remy?

Todd: Not all politicians and state workers were under the thumb of the Stephenson Klan machine, and as a result, they lived a miserable existence during the early 20s. Before he was forced from office by Stephenson’s men, anti-Klan Governor Warren McCray had appointed William Remy, prosecutor to Marion County. Remy was anti-Klan and all it stood for. He had read the newspapers about Madge and had his feelers out. He knew the Oberholtzer family attorney Asa Smith was handling matters, and would eventually contact him. Smith was hesitant, not knowing Remy’s loyalties. But Remy was spoiling for a fight.

1st: Who was Hiram Evans, DDS?

Todd: True, Evans was a dentist in Dallas earlier where he joined a local chapter of the KKK. His devotion accelerated his rise and ranking within the order. Until William Simmons advocated extending the boundaries of the Klan northward, as a legitimate fraternal order, Evans advocated racial violence, especially in the South. As the movement advanced north, he soon recognized the power he could wield through membership numbers and by infiltrating national politics. Evans didn’t renounce violence, but rather curbed it to avoid direct public scrutiny and during political campaigning. His first step was to dethrone Simmons as the national leader.

1st: What was the relationship between Doc Evans and D.C. Stephenson?

Todd: Evans and Stephenson didn’t get along well. Stephenson had his own agenda for obtaining power and would use the Klan to achieve those goals. He would not cooperate with Evans and refused to send monies and membership rolls to the Klan headquarters in Atlanta infuriating Evans. Evans had a keen interest in Stephenson, not only because he was a powerful adversary, but by 1922 Indiana had the largest Klan membership with loyalty to Stephenson. In an attempt to appease Stephenson and draw him closer into his control, Evans made Stephenson Grand Dragon of Indiana. Stephenson’s power only grew until he felt secure in publicly denouncing Evans in 1924, severing ties with Atlanta and forming a new KKK in Indiana. Evans, in turn, removed Stephenson’s Grand Dragon status and exposed him as a drunken womanizer who had abandoned his family. The conflict escalated and included the dynamiting of Stephenson’s property.

1st: What type of research did you do for this story?

Todd: Research for Invisible Empire came from a variety of available sources – rich in material for the making of an illustrated novel. Three of the best sources regarding the KKK in Indiana, D.C. Stephenson and the death of Madge Oberholtzer are William Lutholtz’s Grand Dragon: D.C. Stephenson and the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana and Leonard Moore’s Citizen Klansmen: The Ku

Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928. The third, a website: law2.umkc.edu, a site of famous trials. This site has what’s available in testimony, court records, and Madge’s dying testimony.

We also researched the period, Klan hierarchy, wardrobe and icon imagery for artist Marc Borstel.

Micky: Todd did a fantastic job of conducting the research. We both used that work as a foundation for weaving the narrative of the book. Something else that’s worthy of mention here: I was aware of the miniseries done in ’89, Cross of Fire, but I didn’t watch it while writing the book. It was my preference not to have any of the choices the writers made on that project influence what we were doing. I’ve since had a chance to view the series— it’s fascinating to see what they did from a story perspective, decisions that they made, compared to some of the choices we made. For some readers, it might be interesting to read the book and also watch Cross of Fire.

1st: What type of choices did you have to make to have the story meet the proper page count?

Micky: Insight Comics gave us a good amount of latitude on the page count as long as we kept it within reason. One of my earliest concerns was being able to tell the story all the way from the Klan pushing north to the fallout between D.C. and Evans, to the courtship of Madge and D.C., through D.C.’s attack on Madge and on to the highlights of the trial. It was a lot of ground to cover, and I wanted to be sure that we weren’t crowding pages with tons of panels and too many balloons. We were fortunate to be able to explore character development and still hit all the major beats of the story we set out to tell, without having to cut major chunks. The only real condensing we did was with the trial, but we still made sure to include all of the information necessary to provide what we hope was a well-rounded and satisfying sequence.

1st: How did you decide on the title Invisible Empire?

Todd: The Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan liked to think of themselves as a secret organization with members of rank lead by an Imperial Wizard. The terminology was used in the KKK’s literature and gatherings. When conditions are ripe (present-day) and the political climate welcoming, the invisibility seems to drop away and the racist empire rears its ugly head.

Micky: One or two-word titles work really well in my opinion, and I thought the name Invisible Empire was striking, the kind of title that hopefully sparks interest and makes a person ask “I wonder what that means?”

1st: In this era of #MeToo, is Madge Oberholtzer the first real hero to speak out against power?

Todd: These events occurred in Indiana nearly 95 years ago. I don’t believe Madge would have considered herself a hero nor would she have recognized herself as one today. But we will never know for sure. My admiration for Madge was in her independent spirit and ability to break the gender norms of her time. Madge, on her own, received an education, bought herself an automobile and traveled the American West. She excelled into a managing position in the Indiana State government. All the while receiving the encouragement of her family. She potentially sacrificed her youth by living at home and taking care of her aging and ill parents. This is the hero I recognize in her today.

Would she be a hero in today’s #MeToo era? Quite possibly. Madge was the victim of a sociopath who held great power over many. Her dying testimony would seal the fate of D.C. Stephenson. But if she had recovered would Stephenson have gone to trial? Would she have had her moment on the witness stand? And, how long would Stephenson’s reign have lasted?

1st: As white supremacy has reached a 20 year high this year, Does Madge Oberholtzer story become more poignant today?

Todd: Yes, it does! Madge was a first-hand witness to what was happening in her state. Intelligent as she was, Madge knew what was happening around her and that on the periphery it affected her directly through the power and muscle of the Klan. Her job was threatened by budget cuts, and with the sway of a pen, Stephenson could save it, if he wished.

The Klan was dormant, but racism and hate were not. It took only a single individual in William Simmons to resurrect the second rising of the Klan within a matter of a few years to create such an impact on the nation. In just a few years since the election of 2016, we’ve seen such a rise again. I believe we knew what lies beneath the surface regarding racism in America, but I believe we were shocked at how deep it ran when given the opportunity to seem acceptable.

Micky: I was researching another story set in the 1920s when I came across a chapter discussing the case of Madge Oberholtzer. I was shocked that I had never heard her name before. Why wasn’t her story taught in schools? I believe it’s important to revisit our history, warts and all, but especially during times when we all need a reminder of the ever-present demons in our society. One of the reasons it was so important for us to get this story out to the public now was the fact that it is timely and relevant, which saddens me deeply.

1st: At the time of the events, it had a powerful impact on the nation’s feelings towards the Klan. Do you think modern retellings still give a strong anti-white supremacist impact, or does D.C. Stephenson just become a villain?

Todd: The trial of D.C. Stephenson was an eye-opener for many, and even more within the Klan. It was the publicity it did not want as it was selling itself as an all-American organization. The impact in Indiana alone was a 90% decline in membership, which at the time was a third of the state’s population. Murder and internal conflict within the Klan created by Stephenson and his personal conflict with Evans was not what members signed on for.

Stephenson is the villain on multiple levels in this story. Will it have any impact today in storytelling and the role of the Klan? We’ll see. As far as a “retelling,” most of the books and material presently available on Madge, Stephenson and the trial are scholarly written and not written as popular history. I’m hoping that Madge’s story is a “Telling” of the story in the mainstream, as I believe it has been widely forgotten.

Micky: One of the main goals of Invisible Empire was to educate. I hope that people see what parallels exist between then and now, and recognize that the D.C. Stephensons of the world are still out there and still in positions of power.

1st: Marc Borstel does some amazing work on this project, especially the faces. What made Marc the best choice for Invisible Empire?

Micky: Precisely that, his ability to convey emotion through the expressions of his characters. We aimed for realism, and when we looked at artist samples early on, it was clear that Marc could tell a story with no balloons. In fact, we looked at a sequence from one of his books that had no dialogue or captions at all. Nevertheless, the expressions of the characters were speaking volumes. We knew at that time that he was the right choice.

1st: What is the most important lesson learned from Invisible Empire?

Todd: I’m personally hoping that the reader will discover several themes in the story. It is the obvious telling of the second rising of the KKK during the 20s, and specifically that in Indiana, the death of Madge Oberholtzer and the subsequent trial. It depicts how the Klan worked through feelers to infiltrate a community testing the attitudes of the population and whether it was ripe for manipulating. I’m hoping the reader will ask themselves, who is it that the Ku Klux Klan are targeting, naïvely unaware that hate and racism runs deeper than color. The second rising would target immigrants: Jewish, non-Protestant religions, non-Anglo-Saxons and political organizations that conflicted with their own doctrine. Once politically established, and preaching a doctrine of hate and “100-percent Americanism” they could control most of these “evils” entering the country through tight immigration laws (sound familiar?) and impose limitations on the undesirables living in the country.

Invisible Empire is also a story of the conflict within the Klan itself, which was on the road of implosion long before the death of Madge. And, of course, it’s the story of Madge Oberholtzer, who’s tragic kidnapping, heinous rape, vicious assault and lingering death inadvertently brought about a murder trial, which was a primary component in the demise of the second rising of the Klu Klux Klan.

Micky: The most important lesson is simply to be aware that history repeats. What happened back then will only continue happening as long as we allow it to. But knowledge is power. We all have the ability to be better human beings, we just need to make that choice.

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