D.C. Stephenson Trial: 1925

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D.C. Stephenson Trial: 1925

Defendants: Earl Gentry, Earl Klinck, and David Curtis Stephenson
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Floyd Christian, Ira W. Holmes, and "Eph" Inman
Chief Prosecutors: Charles E. Cox, Ralph Kane, William H. Remy
Judge: Will M. Sparks
Place: Noblesville, Indiana
Dates of Trial: October 28-November 14, 1925
Verdicts: Stephenson: guilty; Gentry and Klinck: not guilty
Sentence: Life imprisonment

SIGNIFICANCE: Specific events often make or break entire movements. The D.C. Stephenson case was such an event. The defendant had been Grand Dragonand the most influential Northern leaderof the notorious Ku Klux Klan, dedicated to hatred and racial and religious intolerance. The trial and conviction of Stephenson, calling America's attention to the sinister hypocrisy of the organization, marked the high tide of Klan membership, which dropped within three years from 10 million to a few thousand. The case also established that a defendant who committed a criminal assault that caused the victim to commit suicide could be tried on murder charges.

David Curtis Stephenson was a Texan who settled in Indiana in 1920 when he was 29. There he joined the Ku Klux Klan, a fraternal organization that had been created during Reconstruction in the South to "maintain white supremacy." Expanding nationally after World War I, the Klan had broadened its program to include nativism, anti-Catholicism, and anti-Semitism. It grew rapidly in the North.

Stephenson worked tirelessly to expand the Klan in Indiana, recruiting more than 300,000 fanatics in less than two years and becoming Grand Dragon of the Realm of Indiana. Next, under contract from the Klan, he became supreme organizer in 19 other states, was paid $4 out of every $10 initiation fee, and pocketed $4.25 from every $6 robe and hood a Klansman bought.

"I Am the Law in Indiana"

Stephenson was less successful, however, in the in-fighting with his boss, Hiram W. Evans, Imperial Wizard and director of the Klan. After Stephenson's friend Ed Jackson was elected governor in 1924, along with a majority of the state's House of Representativesall nominated and supported by the KlanStephenson repeatedly declared, "I am the law in Indiana." Imperial Wizard Evans decided to subject the Klan's Indiana leader to the K.K.K.'s own program. In addition to its persecution of blacks, Catholics, and Jews, the Klan preached virtue. It regularly tarred and feathered whoremongers and habitual drunkards. Now Evans let out word of Stephenson's hypocrisy: The Grand Dragon was a secret lecher and a drunkard. The Evansville Klavern tried him in secret for his many "immoralities" in several cities and "on trains and boats," found him guilty, and banished him from the Klan.

In January 1925, at a banquet honoring governor-elect Jackson, Stephenson met 28-year-old Madge Oberholtzer, manager of a public-welfare program in the state's Department of Public Instruction, who lived at home in Indianapolis with her parents. They danced together. Soon Stephenson was making dates and calling for her in his chauffeured car. He was, Oberholtzer found, always the perfect gentleman.

On Sunday, March 15, 1925, Oberholtzer came home about 10:00 p.m. from a day with young friends. Stephenson had left an urgent message. When she called back, he said he was leaving for Chicago but needed to see her first and would send an escort to get her. Thinking that Stephenson wanted to discuss some aspect of her work and expecting to return shortly, Oberholtzer left home without her purse or hat.

With a stranger later identified as Earl Gentry, she departed for Stephenson's house. In the morning, her parents, who had gone to bed soon after she went out, realized she had not come home. Distressed, they talked with a lawyer and stopped by Stephenson's house in search for her. Then came a telegram: "We are driving through to Chicago. Will be home on night train. Madge." Mrs. Oberholtzer met the train, but her daughter did not appear.

In a Pullman-Car Drawing Room

On Tuesday morning, a car arrived while Mrs. Oberholtzer was out (a roomer was the only person at home). A man later identified as Earl Klinck carried Madge Oberholtzer, who was moaning, into the house and to her bed upstairs. The man said she had been in an automobile accident, then hurriedly departed. Oberholtzer asked the roomer to call a doctor. He and her mother arrived together, and Oberholtzer, sobbing and groaning, told them how she had been taken to Stephenson's kitchen, where she found him quite drunk and where he, his chauffeur, and Gentry twice forced her (each man holding a revolver) to drain a glass of liquid that immediately made her ill and confused. When she protested that she wanted to go home, Stephenson said, "You can't go home. You are going with me to Chicago. I love you more than any woman I have ever known."

Next they took her to the railroad station and boarded a Pullman car. In a drawing room, with Gentry in the upper berth, "Stephenson [her later declaration stated] took all my clothes off and pushed me into the lower berth. He chewed me all over my body, particularly my neck and face, chewed my tongue, chewed my breasts until they bled, my back, my legs, my ankles, and mutilated me all over."

Next morning, in Hammond, Indiana, the men took Madge to a hotel, where Gentry helped bathe her wounds. Stephenson dictated the telegram and Gentry sent it. When Madge begged for a hat, Stevenson gave her $15 and sent her out with the chauffeur, who had driven to Hammond. Without his seeing her, she managed to buy bichloride-of-mercury tablets and, back at the hotel, to take six, vomiting the rest of the day. By nightfall, she had told the men she had taken the poison. She had also refused Stevenson's demands that she go to a hospital and that she marry him. The men put her in the car and headed back to Indianapolis, Madge vomiting, groaning, and screaming all the way. At Stephenson's house, they carried her to a loft over the garage at midnight, just missing her mother, who was again at Stephenson's door. In the morning, Klinck took her home.

The doctor worked for 10 days to get the poison out of Madge's system. Her wounds and bruises responded to medicationexcept one, the deep wound in her breast, which was infected. Soon after making a formal statement to her doctor and two lawyers, she died on April 14.

Madge's father, George Oberholtzer, a postal clerk, had already filed a criminal complaint against Stephenson, Gentry, and Klinck, and the grand jury had indicted them for assault and battery with intent to commit a criminal attack, malicious mayhem, kidnaping, and conspiracy to kidnap. The three were free on bail. Now the grand jury charged them with murder. They were arrested and held without bail.

After 11 days of interrogating 400 veniremen to get a jury that had no affiliation with or sympathy for the Klan, the trial began October 18. The prosecution quickly established the facts of Stephenson's Sunday-evening phone call and Madge's going off with Gentry for the fatal trip.

A Secondary Staphylococci Infection

Testimony in two areas established the prosecution's case. One was Madge's sworn declaration, made in the presence of four witnesses (two of them lawyers) when her doctor had told her that she could not expect to recover. The other was testimony by three pathologists that Madge had died from a secondary staphylococci infection, resulting from Stephenson's biting assault on her breast, that imposed itself on an acute nephritis, or kidney infection, caused by the poison. Cross-examination by the defense lawyers failed to shake the pathologists.

The defense itself tried to prove that Madge's infection was the residue of an attack of flu some months earlier, that she and Stephenson had been intimate and the trip with him was voluntary, and that Madge's dying statement was "a dying declaration of suicide and not of homicide, made for the justification of herself, to free herself from fault and place the blame on others."

"She Would have Worn a Hat"

Prosecutor Ralph Kane struck the common-sense human chord during his summation:

There are some things that you and I know. If Madge Oberholtzer had gone willingly with Stephenson that night she would have done it by prearrangement, and she would have worn a hat. If I understand anything at all about women, when they start on a 250-mile Pullman ride they take along their clothes, their hats, their cosmetics, their lingerie and other things.

Another thing. Do you think she would ever have had big, pug-nosed Gentry in the same compartment if she had been conscious of what was happening? If she was a willing companion, why bring her home looking like she had been in a fight?

In six hours on November 14, the jury found Stephenson guilty of murder in the second degree and recommended life imprisonment. Gentry and Klinck were found not guilty. Stephenson immediately began a series of more than 40 proceedings to try to gain a pardon, a new trial, or release on parole. In each, an entirely different set of lawyers represented him. At last, in 1950, he gained parole but disappeared within five months. When found in November, he had failed to report to his parole officer for three months. Returned to prison, he next made disclosures to newspapers that resulted in his temporary release to produce records he had hidden. His papers resulted in the indictment of Governor Ed Jackson as well as the Republican political boss, George V. Coffin, for violation of Indiana's corrupt practices act by bribing the governor's predecessor to appoint a Klan henchman as a prosecuting attorney. Stephenson's disclosures also brought indictments against the mayor of Indianapolis and six city aldermen for accepting bribes. The governor and Coffin escaped by pleading the statute of limitations, while the mayor spent 30 days in jail and, along with the aldermen, resigned.

Stephenson's house burned soon after he went to prison. Klinck and Gentry were indicted for arson, but the case was dismissed for lack of evidence. Gentry was murdered in 1934 by a jealous rival in a love triangle. Pleading guilty and receiving a life sentence, his murderer said:

I am not in the least sorry for the act I committed, as I feel I did a good deed for society when I killed Earl Gentry.

Bernard Ryan, Jr.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Busch, Francis X. Guilty or Not Guilty? New York: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1952.

Nash, Jay Robert. Encyclopedia of World Crime. Wilmette, Ill.: CrimeBooks, 1991.