A Fever in the Heartland by Timothy Egan

My new favorite book.

Timothy Egan’s A Fever in the Heartland is a historical expose that reads like a true crime thriller. It’s very disturbing, and pretty hard to put down. If you’re a sucker for both history and courtroom drama like I am, then this is a good book for you.

The story concerns the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in 1920’s America. Some background for those unfamiliar with that history. The Ku Klux Klan was a white supremacy terrorist organization that rose during reconstruction post-Civil War and largely vanished by the early 20th century once Jim Crow laws had been firmly established by the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision. (I confess, that I have long been a critic of the Supreme Court. No other part of the American government has done more to consistently undermine freedom, progress and democracy in American than the courts have. I’m looking at your Roger Taney. But that is a subject for another day’s rant.) The Klan rose to prominence again after D.W. Griffith’s epic movie The Birth of a Nation which was based on a novel called The Klansman and featured a heroic Klan coming to rescue virtuous southern women from evil northerners and newly freed former slaves. (If you’ve never seen it, it is both wonderful and evil.) The movie has been credited with rescuing the Klan from the rubbish heap of history, but it was probably more of an outgrowth of the racism underlining the prohibition movement, especially the Anti-Saloon League and a reaction to the wave of immigration of non-protestant, non-white folks happening at the start of the 20th century. At this time, Italians, among other groups, were not considered white.

How one Klansman. D.C. Stephenson led the organization to basically take over nearly all of Indiana’s state and local government offices makes up the first half of A Fever in the Heartland. The second half of the book focuses on how that same man attacked many women and murdered one leading to a well-publicized trial which brought down the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana and eventually the entire U.S.

I learned quite a bit from reading A Fever in the Heartland. Like most Americans, I previously saw the 1920’s as the Jazz Age. Filled with characters from F. Scott Fitzgerald stories. This is a partially accurate. Mr. Egan describes the recording of the very first jazz record. Louis Armstrong and his band spend the day in the studio, basically a shed in small town Indiana, at the time the only professional recording studio in America. At the same time, the Klan is staging one of its largest marches in the same town. Large numbers of men, a substantial group of women, even a float full of Ku Klux Kiddies in child size robes, all took part. The jazz musicians finished the recordings and fled the town in secret. (Ku Klux Kiddies, had you heard of them? The women wore cardboard cones under their hoods to protect their hairdos.)

A Fever in the Heartland has lots of historical shockers like that. The small, more personal details bring a history book like this one alive, but the larger numbers and trends were what really disturbed me. The Klan controlled local and state governments not just in Indiana, but in Colorado, Pennsylvania, Oregon even in California where I live. This was not something I knew about. They had members behind the governor’s desk in many states, multiple senators and congressmen, sheriffs as well as pastors. In fact, one reason why D.C. Stephenson was so successful in his drive to expand the Klan’s membership was that he paid pastors to preach its message from the pulpit Sunday after Sunday. White Protestant pastors, mind you. They Klan was always anti-Catholic.

This is why the actual crime, though horrible, is not what bothered me most about A Fever in the Heartland. D.C. Stephenson sexually assaults a series of women; the final victim dies as a result of the kidnapping and assault she endures. The book does go into detail about the assault and Stephenson’s trial for murder. It’s not easy reading at all. But it’s not what most bothered me.

What most bothered me is this passage which comes after the trial is done, and the Klan has broken up.

“Isn’t it strange that with all our educational advantages,” noted the Hoosier writer Meredith Nicholson, so many “Indiana citizens could be induced to pay $10 for the privilege of hating their neighbors and wearing a sheet?” To D.C. Stephenson, it wasn’t strange at all. Steve’s 1922 epiphany in Evansville–that he could make far more money from the renewable hate of everyday white people than he could ever make as an honest businessman or a member of Congress–was brilliant. And true.

D.C. Stephenson kept 40% of those membership fees which totaled over $27 million in today’s dollars. And though the Klan fell apart the legislation they passed in Indiana and other states remained. Segregated communities and schools; reduced, even eliminated, voting rights; anti-miscegenation laws; on and on. Oregon nearly banned private education, just to eliminated Catholic schools. They didn’t need the Klan; they’d already built the America the white supremacists wanted. It would last for over a generation. A federal anti-lynching bill was signed into law last year by President Joe Biden. There was nothing preventing Donald Trump from doing it. Or Barack Obama. Or George Bush. Or Bill Clinton. Or…

After reading A Fever in the Heartland, I can’t escape comparing the 1920’s to today’s America. The far right is certainly on the rise. There is no Klan to speak of, but the attacks on trans rights in particular and LGBT rights in general along with the legalized killing of protestors force us to acknowledge that it’s probably still possible to induce citizens to pay $10 for the privilege of hating their neighbors. Yesterday, I saw a map of states that have passed anti-trans legislation. Indiana was in heavy black along with the others states that had passed the most restrictive anti-trans bill.

Those who fail to learn from the past…

I suppose where you stand on things will have an impact on whether or not you enjoy A Fever in the Heartland. I’m confident that it won’t be taught in Florida or Texas schools anytime soon. Probably not in Indiana either. But I think it’s an excellent read. For that reason alone, it would be my new favorite book.