When the Fire of the Ku Klux Klan Burned Hot in Maine
Members of the Ku Klux Klan from various Maine communities gathered in Portland for a field day on August 28, 1926. The Portland Expo building is to the right rear. (Collections of Maine Historical Society, Courtesy of www.MaineMemory.net, item #25109). Click on the dots below to see more photos.
On an August evening nearly 92 years ago, hundreds of Rocklanders gathered on Middle Street (now Talbot Avenue) for what the Courier-Gazette then described as “one of the most remarkable scenes in Rockland’s history.” Curious onlookers parked 200 cars from Limerock and Rankin streets to Old County Road and made their way up to “The Lookout,” where the Fourth Maine Regiment once camped before going off to fight in the Civil War. Some carried handbills circulated the previous day throughout the city, with the simple instruction: “Follow the arrow.”
A 1923 songbook with words by Maine Ku Klux Klan King Kleagle F. Eugene Farnsworth (1868-1926) and music composed by Milton Charles Bennett for “It’s Your Land and My Land.” The dedication reads: “To the lovers of Law and Order, Peace and Justice, we send greeting and to the shades of the valiant, venerated Dead, we gratefully and affectionately -- Dedicate this Song!” (Collections of Maine Historical Society, Courtesy of www.MaineMemory.net, item #42212)
The Courier-Gazette; Knox Messenger; Belfast Republican Journal; “The History of the Ku Klux Klan in Maine: 1922-1931” by Lawrence W. Moores Jr.; ‘A Study in Maine Nativism, 1919-1925’ by Rita Mae Breton; “One Hundred Percent American” by Thomas Pegram; “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” by Richard Hofstadter; “Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan” by David Chalmers
As they reached the top of the hill, the moon “peeped through a fleecy curtain and beheld men, women and children in civilian garb, gazing with awe or curiosity … upon three lofty crosses.” Suddenly, the crosses were set ablaze by a group of hooded figures and the mysterious ceremony of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan began.
“Enshrouding it all was an atmosphere of mysticism and Orientalism,” wrote the reporter, “from which one was disillusioned only when the silence was broken ever and anon by a shrill cry: ‘Hot dogs right this way!’ Hot dogs and lemon aid! There’s no escaping them, whether it is the Union Fair or the gathering place of the KKK.”
In the shadows, the dim form of “Dr. Gilmore” began his earnest appeal for “the cause of Americanism” and recited the history of the Invisible Empire’s fight against the “menace of Roman Catholicism.” The crowd stood silent, intently listening to Dr. Gilmore’s sermon, occasionally breaking into applause. Then he paused. “Will the women and children, Roman Catholics and those of foreign birth kindly withdraw?”
And with that, the initiation ceremony for the new members of Rockland’s secret hooded order began. “Silence fell upon the scene,” the reporter continued, “but far into the night the crosses burned and many wondered whither it was all tending.”
The New Era Klan Emerges
During the mid-1920s, chapters of the Ku Klux Klan sprouted up across Maine “as rapidly,” according to the then Belfast Republican Journal, “as potato vines in the dark.” The original Klan of the late 1860s was a ruthless vigilante group that murdered and terrorized freed black slaves and their white allies in the post-war South in order to uphold white supremacy. But in 1915, a new mythologized version of the Klan emerged in literature and film, such as D.W. Griffith’s silent epic “Birth of a Nation.” The blockbuster film glorified Klansmen as the valiant defenders of democracy and “pure white womanhood” from the hordes of uncivilized, corrupt and lustful former slaves.
Months after the release of “Birth of a Nation,” “Colonel” William Simmons resurrected the “New Era” Klan on top of Stone Mountain, Georgia, adopting the costumes and flaming crosses from the film. In 1920, he handed over operations to two professional publicists, Edward Young Clarke and Mary Elizabeth Tyler, who launched an advertising campaign promoting a new nativist Klan ideology that expertly channeled the anxieties of a country roiled in intense social upheaval. An influx of Southern and Eastern European immigrants, urban industrialization, and the post-war Great Migration of Southern blacks to northern cities were rapidly changing traditional American society. In some cities, Irish-Catholics had already made great strides in electoral politics. In Maine, where an Anglo Protestant majority had long harbored anti-Catholic sentiments, Irish, Lithuanian, Italian, Polish and French-Canadian Catholic immigrant workers flooded into mill towns, inflaming sectarian tensions. For rural Mainers descended from old Puritan stock, there was palpable fear that the “Catholic tide” would soon overwhelm the state and take over.
The New Era Klan first appeared in Maine in 1921, but the Invisible Empire didn’t begin spreading until the arrival two years later of the charismatic “Professor” F. Eugene Farnsworth, the “King Kleagle” of Maine. Farnsworth kicked off his aggressive speaking tour with an address before 500 supporters at Knights of Pythias Hall in Portland on Jan. 21, 1923. According to varying accounts, Farnsworth had a colorful past working as a barber, a stage magician, hypnotist and owner of a failed motion picture studio. While he claimed to be born in Columbia Falls, Maine, some researchers say he was probably born in New Brunswick.
But whatever his background, Farnsworth immediately became a political lightning rod. Boston Mayor James Curley, an Irish-American Democrat (and a marginal character in his own right), described the Klan recruiter as a “New Brunswick barber, mesmerist, stock peddler, lecturer, pseudo-patriot … bogus American” and “a mount-bank of the lowest order” who was “filling the ears of rural Maine with slanders of the good citizens of the Pine Tree State, bringing the blush of shame to decent Protestantism, vilifying the officials and Government of the State and its cities and doing his pestilential best to control elections and foment civil war.” According to Curley, the only cure for Farnsworth and his Klan was “a tout boot and a pint of disinfectant.”
Maine’s Republican governor, Percival Baxter, expressed disbelief that “level headed citizens of Maine” would ever allow themselves to be influenced by the Klan. And he even dedicated a portion of his inaugural address on November 1, 1922, to condemning the hooded order.
“The Ku Klux Klan seeks to divide our people by drawing religious lines,” said Baxter. “Maine is not a state in which such organizations can flourish. There is no place here for anti-Protestant, anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, or any other organization that seeks to split the community in groups and create conflict between them.… Law-abiding citizens who believe in fair and open play will stand firmly against the Ku Klux Klan. Our people abhor those who are ashamed to show themselves in the open. The Klan is an insult and an affront to American citizens. It seeks to array class against class, sect against sect, religion against religion. Such an organization must not and never will get a foothold in the state.”
During the 81st Legislature, Baxter and Republicans like Sen. Clyde Smith, husband of future US Senator Margaret Chase Smith, submitted anti-Klan legislation. One bill would have required groups to show membership lists at the request of local authorities and another would have stiffened penalties for those committing a crime while masked or disguised. But elected officials were no match for the KKK. Speaking to the Bangor Daily News on January 23, 1923, Farnsworth was not cowed by Governor Baxter’s remarks.
“The cheapest thing on sale in New England today is a politician … and you can tell that to your governor,” Farnsworth retorted. “When I get to the Bangor City Hall, I will read the names of those people who run the speakeasy joints. I can show you the tombstones of the murderers of our Presidents — they’re not in Protestant cemeteries. This is not an Italian nation, and this is not a Catholic nation, it has always been and always will be a Protestant nation. I wasn’t aware that [the] Governor … owned the State — I thought the people did.”
By 1924, Klan membership in the state had exploded to between 15,000 and 20,000 (and even 150,000 by one estimate) as curious Mainers flocked to Farnsworth’s captivating lectures, which drew front-page headlines wherever he went. Farnsworth promised to root out government corruption and crack down on crime by enforcing Prohibition laws and running bootleggers out of town. Religious piety was central to the Klan’s message as it vowed to punish adulterers, advocate for the King James Bible in schools and battle the malicious influence of Bolshevik radicals and the pope in Rome.
When the “Professor” came to speak in Rockland at Littlefield Memorial Baptist Church on July 6, 1923, the auditorium was “packed to the doors,” according to the Courier-Gazette.
“There are millions in this country who do not believe in the Bible, in free institutions in the public schools, a free press or free speech,” he thundered. “A half century ago religious training was forced out of the public schools by a handful of determined ‘aliens.’”
Then, wrote the reporter, he told a secret while the room was breathless: “There are members of the Ku Klux Klan in Maine — and there are some in this audience.”
The “Amway of Hate”
By the mid-1920s, Clarke and Tyler had built the KKK into a lucrative business with strong financial incentives for top recruiters. In a 2011 analysis titled “Hatred and Profits” economists Roland G. Fryer and Steven D. Levitt described the 1920s Klan as a kind of bigoted social club with a “wildly successful multi-level marketing structure,” similar to Avon or Amway. Each new Klan member paid a $10 initiation fee, or “klectoken” (equivalent to $110 today), of which $4 would go to the kleagle (salesman), $1 to King Kleagle Farnsworth (the state sales manager), $2.50 to the state’s Grand Dragon, 50 cents to the Grand Goblin (regional sales manager), $1.25 to the Imperial Kleagle (national sales manager) and 75 cents each to the Imperial Wizard and Grand Wizard.
Farnsworth and the national Klan officials would also split profits from the sale of the official Klan robes made at a factory owned by Edward Clarke as well as the annual membership fees and imperial tax. Klan members were also encouraged to buy various Klan merchandise, including Klan swords, Bibles, helmets, candy and even dry-cleaning and life insurance. Overall, Fryer and Levitt estimate that the Klan conservatively generated annual revenues of $25 million, equivalent to $300 million in today’s dollars, when the Klan was at its peak of between 1.5 and 4 million members.
Kleagles like Farnsworth would often reach out to a local Protestant minister, usually a Methodist or Baptist, who served as a valuable recruiting tool. In Rockland, Farnsworth discovered Rev. Eugene V. Allen, a Maine State Prison chaplain and pastor at Pratt Memorial Methodist Church. Allen fully embraced the Klan and would later rise through the ranks to become “Grand Klaliff,” second in command of the Maine KKK. For ministers like Allen, the Klan was like a Protestant version of the Knights of Columbus. After one service at Pratt Memorial Methodist Church in September 1924, five hooded Klansmen even approached the pulpit to deliver a white box filled with 15 ten-dollar gold pieces to express the Klan’s appreciation for all of the church’s civic and religious work.
Then on Christmas Eve 1924, seven local men, including Rev. Allen and two prominent local downtown business owners, formed the AKIA (“A Klansman I Am”) Society in order to purchase a headquarters building, which still stands, at 22 Brewster Street in Rockland. According to the society’s incorporation papers, the purpose of the Knox Klavern was “to cultivate and promote patriotism toward our civil government; to exemplify a practical benevolence, and teach and faithfully inculcate a high spiritual philosophy and protect and maintain the distinctive institutions, rights, privileges, principles, traditions and ideals of the founders of Our Nation.”
The Klan Comes to Rockland
The Courier-Gazette, a pro-Republican Party newspaper at the time, provided fairly positive coverage of Klan activities, even though the editor didn’t like their costumes. In a May 1923 commentary on the Klan, the Courier claimed to “hold no brief for the Catholic church,” but argued that the church “could be counted on to present a solid front of opposition” to the Bolshevik revolution that had taken over Russia and threatened the U.S. from within.
The Knox Messenger, which was an organ of the Democratic Party, repeatedly condemned the Klan in a series of blistering editorials. After a Klan rally in August 1923 at the Rockland Arcade, the Messenger blasted Farnsworth in a 1,700-word front-page editorial recounting his disparaging remarks about Catholics, Jews, “hyphenated Americans,” “guinnies,” “dirty micks,” and the “Papalized press.”
“What we can’t get straight in our minds is how any man can be allowed in this country of ours to get up on a public platform and REVILE, SLUR and BLACKGUARD a class of people who by the sacred and constitutional right of their naturalization papers are just as much Americans as the most rabid 100 or 1,000 percenter among us,” wrote the Messenger. “We believe in free speech but we do not believe in free, cheap, rotten slanderous BULL!”
Between 1923 and 1924, a vigorous debate over the KKK played out in the letters sections of the Courier and the Messenger. Columnist Charles A. Miller, a Civil War cavalry veteran from Union, declared that the Klan was simply the rebirth of the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s and should be “wiped out.”
“The fact that a dozen ministers and many church people belong to the clan in Oregon is pretty good evidence that the membership is made up of good people with lofty ideals,” wrote Miller on April 5, 1923. “But the same could be said of the Puritans, who persecuted and executed Quakers 300 years ago.”
The column prompted a swift response from a Klansman, Rev. Judson P. Marvin of the Church of the Messiah in Portland. Judson argued that the KKK had actually been founded to “counteract the evil influence of the secret political organizations of the negroes, which were formed under the dire direction of carpet-bag politicians.”
“The Klan stands for a square deal for everybody Protestant, Catholic and Jew; white man and colored man; within our borders,” wrote Marvin. “It is against Roman Catholic political activity that the Klan stamps down its disapproval.”
But Miller countered that he had seen the scars on a victim of the Klan firsthand and noted that Union resident Albert Titus had been murdered by the KKK while working for the government in the South following the war.
“Distance lends enchantment,” replied the retired cavalry major. “Nearly 60 years have passed since the Civil War, and when Brother Marvin puts on his enchanted spectacles, and casts his eyes toward the Sunny South, lo and behold, the chameleon has changed its color! Once it was red, blood-stained and violent; now it is lily white and peaceable.”
The Klan Enters Local Politics
With its strong labor union tradition, Rockland had been a stronghold of the Democratic Party for over a decade in 1924. And the Owl Club, where Cafe Miranda is today, was known as a gathering place for the party faithful. However, by the time the primaries rolled around in February, the local economy was treading water and there was general discontent about town regarding the direction of local government. The Courier-Gazette described the Democratic caucus for aldermen and school board seats as like a “steam roller.”
“The machine voted as one man, applauded as one man, and went home chuckling at the discomfiture of the old line Democratic leaders,” the reporter wrote.
Then on March 6, 1924, in a shocking upset, Republicans swept to victory in every ward and took the mayoral seat after “10 long weary years marked only by disheartening defeats.” That evening, a 50-foot flaming cross appeared over the city at the Lookout to symbolize that “right had won.” The following Sunday, Rev. Allen delivered a celebratory sermon on the historic win.
“The voters of Rockland spoke in no uncertain terms,” he wrote in the sermon reprinted on the front page of the Courier. “Someone has said that the voice of the people is the voice of God. If this is true then was not God speaking to the newly elected officials? His will to make clean the foul spots and to make safe the danger spots that imperil the youth of the city? I believe it was just that. It was an unusual election in that a new element entered into it. I refer to the Ku Klux Klan.”
Allen declared that the Rockland election was a protest against the “domination of the Owl Club” and the “paralyzing hand of Roman Catholic influence … on our schools.” He noted that previous elections had been characterized by drinking, fighting and bribery, where “a pint and two dollars was the standard price” to buy an election.
“In some the policy was to make voters of the opposite party too drunk to get to the polling place,” said Allen. “One election was won by taking a party of voters of the opposite side on a boat ride down the bay, detaining them until after the polls was closed.”
“There is no reason why Rockland might not be known for being a clean, beautiful city, one of which its citizens could be proud,” he continued. “There is no reason why the abominations of Sea Street and Winter Street should be allowed to exist. There is no reason why the dance halls of the city be incubators for breeding evil. The Klan is hostile to every such form of evil and the election is a protest against that.”
Allen dismissed any notion that the KKK was stirring up sectarian strife. Rather, he argued, the Klan is “opposed to foreign control of America, no matter whether it be by king or Pope. The Owl Club, the Knights of Columbus and every disloyal organization will find the Klan a source of danger.”
Four days later, Pastor James Flynn of St. Bernard’s Church issued a front-page response to an accusation Allen made in the sermon that local Catholics had auctioned off a Protestant Bible at Temple Hall “as an expression of contempt for the Protestant faith.”
“Allow me to state as emphatically as I can,” wrote Flynn, “that the malicious insinuations contained in the above reference are absolutely false.”
Electing a Governor
In addition to electoral wins in eight cities by Klan-endorsed Republicans in March 1924, Farnsworth’s Klan also claimed to be instrumental in the landslide victory of the 1923 Portland referendum, which replaced the city’s mayor-and-alderman form of government with a council-at-large system. Klansmen argued that the ward system allowed Irish Catholic and Jewish neighborhoods to have too much influence in city politics, whereas a council form of government diminished the power of ethnic minorities, wrote Lawrence Moores in “The History of the Ku Klux Klan in Maine: 1922-1931.”
Republican gubernatorial candidate state Senator Ralph Owen Brewster, a Mayflower descendant, quickly earned the praise of the Klan for championing the Portland referendum, but he was also pelted with rotten eggs by an angry mob on election day. Brewster had also found the perfect wedge issue for the 1924 primary election — a Constitutional amendment to ban religious schools from receiving public funding, which narrowly failed in the Legislature but helped gain him the Klan’s endorsement in February of that year. The so-called “Blaine Amendment,” named for 1884 Republican presidential candidate James Blaine of Maine, had been adopted by all but 11 states. Maine, ironically, never passed it, which left the issue open to exploitation by opportunistic politicians appealing to the anti-Catholic vote.
Brewster’s primary rival, Republican Senate President Frank Farrington of Augusta, dismissed the need for the amendment, arguing before the Women’s Educational Club in March of 1924 that no parochial school to his knowledge had received “one dollar from public funds” and that such an amendment would hurt the state’s 45 academies. Farrington was also an opponent of the Invisible Empire and made a veiled denouncement of the Klan before an audience at the Waterville Chamber of Commerce in January 1924.
“Any person or any organization,” he argued, “who seeks to kindle in the hearts of men feelings of bitterness or hostility and of unreasoning prejudices, is not a safe guide to follow and is not a helpful factor in society.”
Nevertheless, Farrington failed to reckon with the acute sense of unrest among primary voters and Brewster narrowly won the primary in a recount by 581 votes. Meanwhile, longtime politician William R. Pattangall was a shoe-in for the Democratic nomination. The Washington County native had served in the Maine House and as attorney general and was the author of the Meddybemps Letters, a satiric collection of essays lampooning local Republican politicians. Also a Mayflower descendant, Pattangall had inserted an anti-Klan plank into the party platform at the Democratic National Convention in 1924, despite an estimated 300 Klansmen in the hall who helped ensure its defeat.
Pattangall pursued a campaign strategy focused solely on exposing Brewster as a tool of the KKK. However, Brewster never took the bait and simply replied that if he won the governor’s seat, it would be a “Republican victory” and nothing more. Pattangall’s strategy fell flat and on September 8, in the largest vote in Maine history at that time, Brewster won in a landslide, 145,281 to 108,626.
“The victory is distinctly a victory for the Klan,” grumbled Pattangall to the Bangor Daily News. “…We are temporarily defeated by a combination of religious intolerance and blind partisanship that Maine will not long endure —the rule of the Klan — and the Republican organization will find it a difficult partner with which to do business.”
But in spite of all of the heated rhetoric, there is little evidence that the Klan had a major influence on Brewster’s governing and he was easily reelected in 1926. By that time, the Klan was on the wane, largely due to internal divisions, corruption scandals and criminal acts carried out by some of the national leaders. In April of 1924, Farnsworth was accused of treason after recruiting Canadian Protestants to a women’s branch of the Klan and quit for “health reasons” after he was charged with embezzling funds.
Without the charismatic Farnsworth as its leader, members began to drift away, but the national KKK was also in sharp decline due in part to the sensational murder trial of Indiana Grand Dragon D. C. Stephenson. In 1925, Stephenson was tried and convicted of the kidnapping, rape, torture and murder of Madge Oberholtzer after she revealed the ordeal on her deathbed. It wasn’t long before the hate-based ideology, which its critics had long accused the Klan of harboring, was becoming more and more apparent to ordinary Americans who might have joined for other reasons, such as the sense of community and comradery it offered. After creating a massive pyramid scheme fueled by aggressive recruitment, the Klan, noted Fryer and Levitt, essentially collapsed by its own excesses, dropping from at least 1 million members in 1924 to just 30,000 in 1930 before fading away in the 1940s. Since then, various hate groups have claimed the Klan mantle but have had little relation to the Invisible Empire of the 1920s.
In the late ’20s, the Maine KKK would pop up at election time in Maine, unsuccessfully trying to defeat Republican Arthur Gould, an opponent of the Klan, in his run for the US Senate. In 1928, the KKK also made an appearance to support Brewster for Senate and oppose New York Democratic Governor Al Smith, an anti-Prohibition Catholic, in his bid for the presidency. Both Brewster and Smith were defeated, but Brewster was later elected to Congress and then the Senate, where he became a close ally of anti-Communist agitator Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
The Knox County KKK petered out in the late 1920s, making its last great appearance in a parade of between 160 and 300 Klansmen in Rockland on its third anniversary, in October 1926. According to the Courier-Gazette, the procession left the Klan home on Brewster and Cedar streets with a police escort, along with the bands from Thomaston and Waldoboro as well as the Scottish Kiltie Band of South Portland. The American flag was everywhere that day, and the “attitude of the spectators was respectful with an occasional jeer here and there,” wrote the reporter. Supper was later served at the Klavern followed by speech by Maine Senate President Hodgdon C. Buzzell, a Waldo County native and an avowed Klansman. The Klan soon disappeared from the pages of local newspapers, and the Klavern was eventually sold off in 1934.
Lawrence Moores argued that the Klan in Maine might well have eventually become a “respectable Order” like the Masons, Odd Fellows, or the Knights of Columbus, but that the violent behavior of some Klansmen in the South, “the discreditable behavior of some kleagles,” and the uniform and the mask caused the Klan in Maine to be subject to ridicule.
“For the most part,” wrote Moores, “Maine Klansmen delighted in parading on holidays, they enjoyed open-air ceremonies, and they highly favored outdoor suppers and baked bean dinners. There was genuine affection for the Klan among its members during its strongest period.”
Even several decades later, fisherman Charlie York fondly recalled his days in the Klan as a “young feller” on Orr’s Island in W.H. Bunting’s book “A Day’s Work Part II.”
“I never enjoyed any Lodge so much as I did the Klan at first,” said York. “It had the principle of brotherly love for feller members and they was a high moral tone to it.… Biggest time we ever had was Fourth of July 1925. About a hundred Klansmen, most of ’em from Orr’s and Bailey’s, had a parade in full regalia.… They was booths for ice cream, cold drinks, and sandridges. I was in charge of one where you could buy three baseballs for a nickel and try to hit an image of the Pope at the back of the tent.”
“Are the Conditions Ripe Again?”
At a packed meeting at the Old Town House in Union last September, author Mark Alan Leslie delivered an electrifying sermon in the character of Professor Farnsworth followed by a detailed account of the Klan’s exploits in Maine. As Leslie finished his slide show, he left the audience with a parting question, “Are the conditions ripe again?” No one shouted out the answer, but in the audience there was a low murmuring of “Trump…Trump…Trump.”
It’s not difficult to draw parallels between Farnsworth’s bigoted sermons and those of billionaire presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has called for the barring of all Muslims from entering the US, characterized undocumented Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists and hesitated to renounce an endorsement from a former KKK leader. And in Maine, there’s Gov. Paul LePage accusing Central African asylum seekers of carrying diseases and describing drug dealers as blacks who impregnate young white girls.
Just as Klansmen feared that “alien hordes” of immigrants would eventually establish a Catholic state ruled from the Vatican, many Americans believe that the specter of Islamic Sharia Law in the US is a real threat. During the period when the Ku Klux Klan emerged, a series of bombings by Italian anarchists targeting public officials and businessmen created mass hysteria. Now it’s international Islamic extremists and homegrown mass shooters carrying out even more ruthless and indiscriminate attacks. Once it was Irish and Italian bootleggers and now it’s Mexican cartels and inner-city drug dealers “poisoning Our People.”
As historian Thomas Pegram noted, the Klan was also a reaction to the “fading dictates of Victorian comportment,” which was giving way to a more permissive culture in terms of sexual freedom and the role of women. For followers of the Klan, the era of flappers, motion pictures, jazz and speakeasies threatened traditional, patriarchal society.
Historian David Bennett points out that a boom in mass consumption brought products like the automobile, telephones, commercial radio and electrical appliances to middle-class homes, but also changed social structures. The Roaring 20s was also a time of soaring income inequality, when masses of young people deserted rural towns to seek a living in cities. But, as Bennett argued, that “individualist ethos and promise of personal success, offered opportunity at a price” as many began to feel disconnected and alienated in this emerging multi-ethnic, consumer-driven and hyper-competitive America. Many, he wrote, longed for the safe conformity and communal relationships of traditional village life.
Historian Richard Hofstadter argued that the Klan was a reaction to secularism and modernity, citing the infamous “Scopes Monkey Trial” of 1925, which challenged a Tennessee law banning the teaching of evolution in schools. As Hoftstadter noted, Imperial Wizard Hiram W. Evans described the Klan’s mission as a struggle between “the great mass of Americans of the old pioneer stock and the intellectually mongrelized ‘Liberals.’”
In rural Maine, where 30 percent of the population was over 45 in 1920 and 78 percent were born in the state, many geographically isolated Maineres were particularly resistant to the changing social conditions of the time, noted Rita Mae Breton in a 1972 unpublished master’s thesis. Breton argued that many Americans were still caught up in the hyper patriotic fervor of the war years and the anti-Bolshevic hysteria of the post-war “Red Scare.”
“In short, Maine citizens have often professed adherence to democratic principles, but in practice, have frequently accepted vigilantism as necessary for the preservation of American life as they conceived it to be,” wrote Breton. “Although it may undermine our cherished myths about ourselves and our ‘democracy’ to acknowledge the actuality of a Klan spirit, history reveals that with proper nourishment this spirit can be brought to the fore with relative ease.”
And although the men and women who joined the Ku Klux Klan may have held intolerant views by today’s standards, they were also opinions held by a great number of Anglo-Protestants in America. Ordinary middle-class people joined the Klan in droves because it promised to provide order and a sense of belonging at a time of intense fear and suspicion.
Today, the country is also experiencing a similar sense of fear and uncertainty. As in the 1920s, Americans are struggling with extreme income inequality and stagnant wages, which have led to racial, sectarian and ethnic tensions. The country is also still locked in a culture war over women’s rights, gay rights and civil rights gains that threaten the supremacy of the white patriarchal social order.
In some ways, the country’s challenges are even more daunting than in the past. Once the dominant majority, white Americans have been forced to confront a reality that within decades they will be a minority, according to Census projections. In addition, climate change and imperial conflicts overseas threaten to bring even more foreign refugees to America’s doorstep. But with an increasingly polarized electorate, governments appear incapable of dealing with these monumental problems, and while cranks like King Kleagle Farnsworth had to travel from town to town to get their messages across, today Americans don’t even have to leave their homes to be manipulated by fear-mongering demagoguery.
During the Great Depression, Americans managed to find a way to build a more economically just and inclusive society. But that decade also saw the rise of fascism in Europe. The challenge in 2016 is whether Americans can rekindle a sense of hope, solidarity and common purpose and overcome the fear, alienation, mistrust and anger.