"A Fever in the Heartland" | Reviewed by Nelson Appell
Updated: Apr 30
I was enthralled with Timothy Egan’s “A Fever in the Heartland,” a history of the rise and fall of the Ku Klux Clan in 1920s Indiana. David C Stephenson is the mysterious, intoxicating, confident and entirely malevolent man at the center of this tale.
The first half of the book covers the rise of the KKK and Stephenson. America in the 1920s is popularized as the Roaring Twenties, but more was going on than an endless party. The Klan was reinvigorating itself, recruiting new members, and rising to political prominence under several leaders, none more unlikely or more powerful than Stephenson. With a high school education, a gift for whipping up the crowd, an endless list of grievances, deep misogyny, and an utter lack of conscience, Stephenson rose out of poverty to take control of Indiana’s KKK.
In short order he had mayors, the police, and many State politicians in his pockets. Under his leadership, the Klan aimed their hatred at immigrants, Jews and Catholics—and particularly Blacks. He seemed untouchable, a larger than life figure who dreamed he would one day even be President of the United States. Egan is able to explain how middle-America citizens were convinced, cajoled—or sometimes forced—to join the Klan. “America is for the Americans,” banners proclaimed. The movement seemed inevitable in its meteoric growth.
Ultimately Stephenson would be undone by his capacity for violence against women. A serial sexual predator, he was able to keep himself free from the consequences of a life of crime until he drugged, kidnapped and violently assaulted a woman named Madge Oberholtzer. This was a depraved assault, as Egan details the injuries. A trial was never guaranteed, but due to some relentless lawyers, and Obertoltz’s deathbed testimony, Stephenson was eventually found guilty. His verdict, and his subsequent outing of officials on his payroll, led to the receding of the Klan.
This history is a disturbing, and necessary, a tale of an America not at her best.