The Brutal 1925 Murder Of Madge Oberholtzer Helped End The Second Wave Of The KKK

The 28-year-old woman could barely speak. She'd been kidnapped, raped, and brutalized. And, in a desperate act to try to escape her tormentor, she had poisoned herself with mercury bichloride, according to Smithsonian. Now, nearly a month after her ordeal had ended, she gave a deathbed statement about what had occurred. "I, Madge Oberholtzer, being in full possession of my mental faculties and conscious that I am about to die, make as my dying declaration the following statements..." (via Famous Trials).

With these words began the downfall of a powerful Indiana political kingmaker named David Curtis Stephenson who was also the grand dragon of the Indiana Ku Klux Klan. In the wake of Oberholtzer's shocking revelations, Stephenson would find himself behind bars, abandoned by the Indiana politicians he helped to elect and the Klan. The hate group, which had attained massive power in the state at the start of the 1920s, would fizzle out when the truth came out about what Stephenson had done to the woman he claimed he loved, per the Indiana State Library.

They met at the governor's banquet

Madge Oberholtzer met David Curtis Stephenson in Indianapolis at the inaugural ball for the new governor, Ed Jackson, who Stephenson had helped elect, according to Smithsonian. Stephenson had a murky past that included abandoning a pregnant wife in Oklahoma, domestic violence, and sexual assault (via Ball State University). Even so, by 1925 he had become a hugely powerful player in state politics. Oberholzer was a college-educated and civil-minded woman who was on the Teachers and Young Peoples reading circle board, per the Indy Star.

"After the banquet, he asked me for a date several times, but I gave him no definite answer," Oberholtzer recalled on her deathbed. "He later insisted that I take dinner with him at the Washington Hotel and I consented and he came for me at my home in his Cadillac car, and on this occasion, we dined together (via Famous Trials)." Stephenson seemed obsessed with her and kept up a pressure campaign to move their relationship forward. 

Then in January 1925, Stephenson lured her to his home with a phone call saying he needed to see her about something "very important" before he left for Chicago that night. When she got there, he made her drink alcohol against her will and then insisted that she accompany him to Chicago, making her aware he and his companions had guns. On the train trip, he brutally attacked her in a private car, she later recalled in her deathbed statement.

The KKK, kidnapping, poison, and prison

"He chewed me all over my body, bit my neck and face, chewing my tongue, chewed my breasts until they bled, my back, my legs, my ankles, and mutilated me all over my body," Oberholzer said (via Famous Trials). Stephenson refused to treat her injuries or allow her to return home, but she tricked him into letting her go to the store where she bought mercury bichloride. After she poisoned herself and Stephenson and his men found out about it, they drove her back to her parent's home in Irvington where she regained enough composure to tell her story on the record, though she soon died. Medical experts determined her death could have either been from her infected wounds or from the mercury poisoning. 

The local DA, who wasn't in the KKK's pocket, charged Stephenson with second-degree murder, rape, kidnapping, and conspiracy, per Smithsonian. A jury found Stephenson guilty and a judge sentenced him to life in prison. The Indiana KKK effectively lost its leader, which at its height had vast power with a membership of 500,000. By 1928 it had dropped to 4,000 members, according to Ball State University. The state paroled Stephenson in 1956 and he died of a heart attack a decade later.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).