News & Politics » Miscellany

Boys in the Hoods

Chciago was once called the most active Klan city outside the south. It all started at a 1921 rally held at the farm of millionaire and onetime Cubs owner Charles Weeghman.

by

comment

On August 16, 1921, more than a thousand men dressed in white bedsheets with crimson crosses over their hearts wandered up and down Central Park Avenue south of Foster offering each other a ritual handshake of three fingers and three flicks of the wrist, much to the amusement of residents who watched the spectacle from their porches. About 2,000 cars were lined up, ready to begin the procession to the first statewide Ku Klux Klan ceremony in Illinois.

Original plans to conduct the meeting in a prairie just west of Evanston had been canceled weeks earlier, and not even the members of the Evanston and Northwestern University Klan units knew why. Up-to-date rumors indicated that the state meeting, dubbed a klorero in Klanspeak, would be held on the dunes in Indiana, even though the line of cars was traveling north toward Wisconsin.

Only the men in the lead sedan--including the national leader, Imperial Wizard William Joseph Simmons of Atlanta--knew the destination. For Simmons, the rally would make or break his efforts to bring the virulently racist Ku Klux Klan, till then a rural southern phenomenon, to the industrial northern states. His efforts that night would be wildly successful. The Klan would become a menacing political and social force in the Chicago area for the next seven years.

Today, with fewer than 100 people belonging to what's left of a verbally racist but relatively inactive local movement, the Klan's brief but successful organization here during the 1920s has been largely forgotten.

But during that decade Klan membership grew to between 150,000 and 200,000 white, Protestant males in Chicago and its nearby suburbs. The "invisible order" claimed it influenced municipal elections as far away as Aurora. At one point Simmons declared Chicago the most active Klan city outside the south. As the world set out to recover from the "war to end all wars," Simmons and his lieutenants knew the time was ripe to capitalize on the fears and concerns of white Americans, especially those living in or near large cities. In Chicago the Klan pointed at virtually any social change as a threat to "true Americanism," arguing that an ever-growing population of non-English-speaking European immigrants was stealing jobs; Roman Catholicism, which happened to be the faith of most of the immigrants, and Judaism were plotting to wipe out Protestantism; moral standards were declining, as evinced by prohibition-era gangster activity; Chicago's black population had grown by 148 percent between 1910 and 1920; women, who had won the right to vote in 1920, were eroding the political power of men; and worldwide communism and its offspring in the U.S., organized labor, were on a rampage.

These points, obsessively highlighted in Klan literature, were well-known to the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan as the caravan moved toward Lake Zurich. The klavalcade, as such processions were called, drew the attention of surprised farmers along pothole-riddled Rand Road. They noted that every car contained at least one person wearing a sheet, blindfold, or pillowcase hood. One family living at the border of Cook and Lake counties reported that the last automobiles passed their farmhouse a full two hours after the first car.

Rain fell steadily as the autos pulled onto the meadow on a 250-acre farm near the intersection of what is now U.S. 12 and Old Rand Road, between Lake Zurich and Barrington. Men muddied their white costumes rescuing vehicles from ruts, but most of the cars finally came together just before midnight to form a circle nearly a quarter of a mile in diameter. Headlights were turned toward the center. Flames from two bonfires, their wood soaked with fuel, leaped into the air. Some 10,000 men draped in white, peering through eyeholes in hoods, sang "Onward Christian Soldiers" as they picked up torches and marched into the circle to form the shape of a cross. About 2,300 blindfolded men were led by torch-carrying comrades to a makeshift altar, where they were to undergo initiation rites.

"My terrors and Klansmen," Simmons thundered, with no trace of a southern accent, "make ready. Prepare the sacred altar."

A Klan official spread an American flag on a wooden table and placed a sword with a golden hilt on top. A second sheeted figure positioned a golden vessel on one side of the table and a Bible opened to Romans 12 on the other. After reciting incantations from the Kloran (the official book of rituals), Simmons addressed the blindfolded participants kneeling before him: "Sirs, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan does not discriminate against a man on account of his religious or political creed when same does not conflict with or antagonize the sacred rights and privileges guaranteed by our civil government and Christian ideals and institutions." Simmons requested that all initiates submitting to "naturalization" respond simultaneously to a list of questions. Those same questions usually were used by unit leaders to screen applicants prior to initiation.

"Is the motive prompting your ambition to be a Klansman serious and unselfish?"

"Yes" echoed over the field.

"Do you believe in and will you faithfully strive for the eternal maintenance of white supremacy?"

"Yes" came back the 2,300-voice response.

"Are you a native-born or naturalized white, Christian American citizen?"

Simmons was taken aback by the smattering of "no"s. A handful of blindfolded men stood up to ask if it was OK to be Jewish. The Illinois Klan officials standing at Simmons's side whispered back and forth until one stepped into the crowd, gathered up the non-Christians, and led them to a corner of the pasture to inform them that their membership applications had been rejected.

Simmons continued, "Do you believe in the tenets of Protestantism?"

Three men stood up and claimed membership in the Roman Catholic Church. One pleaded that he believed in Protestantism too, but that wasn't good enough for the Klan leadership. The men were led away.

Seven more questions received unanimous "yes" answers. The initiates then took an oath to uphold family virtues and defend the honor of women. They were allowed to remove their blindfolds so they could file past the altar, kiss the flag, and join the human cross of fellow Klansmen.

Among the people planting their lips on the flag were two black reporters for the Chicago Defender who had joined the klavalcade as it left the city. For hours they sweated under loose-fitting cotton bedsheets, blending in with the rest of the initiates, who had not yet received the membership patch--a crimson circle with a cross in the center--that would later be sewn into their robes. They were the only journalists on hand for the ceremony. Klan leaders had invited white Christian reporters from the big city dailies on the condition they remain blindfolded during the car ride so they wouldn't be able to identify the site of the rally. Five journalists agreed to the demand, but their Klan escort got lost. The group arrived at the rally only after the crowd had dispersed.

"While millions of red-blooded yankees sit quietly and watch the growth and revival of the infamous Ku Klux Klan in the southland," the Defender reporters warned on their newspaper's front page five days later, "this order has come into the north and gathered the southerners in this part of the country into their clan." The paper's description of the ceremony was positioned under a triple-decker headline: "Ku Klux Invade Chicago; City Slept as Torches Light Skies; Southern Order With 'Tainted Reputation' Gaining Place in North."

Most of Chicago's daily newspapers also placed the story on page one. Under a banner headline "Ku Klux Rites Draw 12,000; Lake Zurich Scene of Weird Klan Ritual," the Tribune offered the most detailed account, even though its reporter had missed the proceedings and had relied on information provided by Simmons. The Tribune also ran a full-page advertisement from the Klan on the day of the rally claiming, among other things, that the invisible empire "does not encourage or foster lawlessness, racial prejudice, or religious intolerance."

One key fact that escaped the notice of the city newspapers was the location of the event. Most accounts referred only to a field six miles south of the body of water known as Lake Zurich. The Klan did all it could to hide the name of the property owner. Only the Barrington Review revealed that millionaire restaurateur Charles Weeghman had sponsored the Klan rally on his farm just a couple of miles southeast of the lake.

Weeghman's niece Dessolyn Weeghman Simmons, now 81, recalls that she visited her uncle's farm on a monthly basis in the early 1920s, but she wasn't present for the Klan gathering.

"I know they held it there," says Simmons, who is no relation to the former imperial wizard. "I heard the story from a cousin." Asked about her uncle's political views, she would only say, "I don't know what that was all about, and I don't know what he was thinking." But it was fairly common for businessmen like Weeghman to join forces with the Klan to stave off the looming threat of organized labor, explains Nancy MacLean, assistant professor of history at Northwestern University.

Unionization usually meant businessmen had to spend more money to increase salaries and improve workplace conditions or face worker shutdowns. But those same businessmen turned the Klan rank and file against organized labor by emphasizing unions' multiracial and nondenominational characteristics as well as their alleged similarities with anticapitalist bolshevism.

"The Klan's attraction to such a person probably would be a variety of things: racism, sexual conservatism, nativism, things like that," says MacLean, author of the 1994 book Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan. "But for a businessman, the Klan's value would be more as an antilabor organization. A lot of the more prominent people who were drawn to the Klan in the early 1920s came in large part because of the antilabor ramifications."

Born the son of a blacksmith in 1874, Weeghman left his hometown of Richmond, Indiana, as a young man and landed a job as a waiter in Chicago. In the late 1890s he opened his own lunchroom restaurant at Wells and Adams, which was so successful he earned the nicknames "Quick Lunch King" and "Lucky Charlie." Soon he owned 15 restaurants bearing his name. His net worth climbed to $8 million.

But his love for baseball helped ruin him. In 1914 he became a founder with the Federal League, an ill-fated competitor of professional baseball's established National and American leagues. He lost an estimated $3 million on his Chicago Whales, who finished in second place the first year and won the Federal League crown during the second, and final, season.

In 1916 Weeghman purchased the Chicago Cubs for $500,000 and moved them from the west side to Weeghman Field on the north side. But a national economic depression and his endless desire to pump money into his baseball team forced him to sell his remaining interest in the Cubs and his ballpark in 1920 to a friend and business associate, chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. A few years later Wrigley renamed the park.

By the time Weeghman hosted the Klan at his farm in August 1921 he was still a prominent member of the business community and maintained strong friendships with men as diverse as oil multimillionaire Harry Sinclair, Chicago mayor William "Big Bill" Thompson, and underworld gambler Monte Tennes. He also was loved by baseball fans for two innovations that later caught on with other team owners: allowing fans to keep baseballs hit into the stands during games and building concession areas at the back of the ballpark to cut down on the number of wandering vendors obstructing the view of the playing field.

But continuing financial woes forced Weeghman to give up his chain of restaurants by 1923. He sold his Lake Zurich farm, moved to the New York City area, started a couple of restaurants that failed, and died of a stroke at the age of 64 while visiting Chicago in 1938. His obituary was published on the front page of the Tribune, but his Klan connections never became public and the extent of his Klan involvement has remained unknown.

The Klan was launched as a "social club" in 1866 by six former Confederate officers who were bored with their post-Civil War lives in Pulaski, Tennessee. In deciding on a name they borrowed the Greek term kuklos, meaning circle, from a college fraternity, and tacked on Klan, for alliterative appeal. Shortly thereafter the name evolved into Ku Klux Klan.

One night the men threw sheets over themselves and their horses and rode into town. They screamed with delight when, unexpectedly, recently freed slaves ran in terror thinking they were ghosts of the Confederate dead. When white men in other towns heard how much fun the Pulaski boys were having, they adopted the Klan concept and began pulling pranks of their own. But as federal pressure forced the south to grant citizenship rights to blacks, disgruntled southerners transformed the social club into a terrorist group that took revenge on blacks and, to a lesser extent, carpetbaggers and occupying federal troops. Hooded outlaws with rope took the law into their own hands and meted out hangman's justice. But by 1871 the federal government clamped down on the movement and the Klan petered out.

At the turn of the century, historians sympathetic to the Confederacy began portraying the Klan as a force for good. In 1902 Princeton University president Woodrow Wilson, for instance, wrote in his five-volume A History of the American People that "adventurers swarmed out of the North, as much the enemies of one race as of the other, to cozen, beguile and use the [southern] negroes. The white men were aroused by a mere instinct of self-preservation until at last there sprang into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable Empire of the South, to protect the Southern Country."

In 1915 D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation resurrected the invisible empire by portraying the Klan as a savior of white southern culture. Wilson, by then president of the United States, heartily endorsed the film. The picture even prompted the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Edward White, to boast that he had been a rifle-toting Klansman who helped patrol the streets of New Orleans almost a half century earlier. The Birth of a Nation included one particularly disturbing scene: a white southern belle committing suicide by leaping from a cliff after being subjected to the sexual advances of a black man. In theaters across the country the scene supposedly prompted women in whites-only audiences to faint and men to rush forward screaming "No!"

A group of businessmen and public-relations specialists led by William Joseph Simmons decided to capitalize financially on the Klan's new heroic image, and the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan were born. As they attracted millions of adherents in the south, the Knights looked to the north.

Chicago turned out to be a great place to look. After the Lake Zurich rally, Illinois grand dragon Charles G. Palmer, a downtown attorney, expressed concern that his staff couldn't keep up with the number of membership applications being filed. National Klan practice was to charter only one local unit in any given city, but demand was so great in Chicago that 21 neighborhood charters were issued by 1925.

The city's strongest chapters were on the south side. In Hyde Park alone estimates of membership in 1924 go as high as 12,000, and that number excludes the University of Chicago students who operated their own klavern. The invisible empire's weekly magazine, Dawn, which averaged 28 pages and was published from October 1922 to February 1924, was produced in Hyde Park, and the magazine's advertisers--from jewelers to undertakers to a Hoover vacuum cleaner salesman--were almost exclusively Hyde Park businesses.

The Klan ventured into Chicago city politics for the first time in the 1923 municipal primary election. Among its priorities was the defeat of two popular incumbent aldermen, Irish Catholic Robert J. Mulcahy and Polish Catholic S.S. Walkowiak, both of whom were investigating whether the Klan had illegally used a fire station for neighborhood meetings. Despite their apparent popularity, both men lost. In the Republican mayoral primary, political unknown Arthur M. Millard was secretly endorsed by the Klan. Although he didn't bother to campaign, he captured more than 51,000 votes. Buoyed by the results, the Klan endorsed postmaster Arthur C. Leuder, a Lutheran and Republican, in the general mayoral election against superior court judge William Dever, a Roman Catholic and Democrat. But the estimated $100,000 in contributions Leuder received from the Klan didn't help. In fact, the Klan's presence prompted the black community to flock to the polls and vote against the party of Abraham Lincoln for the first time in Chicago since the end of the Civil War.

Suburban Klansmen were encouraged by the Chicago results nonetheless and began launching election campaigns of their own. Politically active Klan chapters existed in Aurora, Berwyn, Blue Island, Chicago Heights, Cicero, Elgin, Evanston, Harvey, Joliet, Oak Park, Tinley Park, Waukegan, and Wilmette.

The Chicago-area Klan attracted highly motivated, professionally successful men, according to historian Kenneth T. Jackson. His seminal 1967 book, The Ku Klux Klan in the City 1915-1930, showed that nearly 61 percent of the membership held white-collar jobs. Using rare membership rolls, Jackson learned that businessmen accounted for 20 percent of the members. Salesmen came in second at 12 percent, and clerks placed third at 9 percent. The numbers were slightly different in outlying areas. In the Aurora area the most common occupations were dentists and salesmen, each at 9.6 percent, and businessmen and railroad workers, each at 8.2 percent.

Klan growth was attacked almost immediately. The Chicago City Council--responding to a constituency that included a million Catholics, 800,000 immigrants, 125,000 Jews, and 110,000 blacks in a city of 2.7 million people--unanimously condemned the Klan 34 days after the Lake Zurich gathering and promised "to rid the community of this organization."

The most influential voice to rise against the Chicago Klan was Tolerance, a small weekly newspaper whose sole objective was to lift the veil of secrecy. Every issue of Tolerance contained the names, home addresses, job descriptions, and workplaces of Klansmen. Ironically, as the Klan in the south steadily increased its violent acts against races and religious groups it deemed inferior, Chicago Klansmen found themselves on the opposite end of violence.

Tolerance was published by the American Unity League, an interfaith organization led by Chicago priests. The league did everything it could to unmask Klan members--including bribing Klan officers, interviewing disgruntled members, and breaking into offices to steal membership lists. The newspaper's main shortcoming was that its editors failed to verify information. Several innocent people--from devout Catholics to black union members--watched bricks shatter the windows of their homes or flames destroy their storefronts after Tolerance wrongly accused them of being Klan members. In April 1923, shortly after Tolerance mistakenly listed William Wrigley Jr. as a Klansman, vandals broke into the Cubs' ballpark--36 hours before the opening of the baseball season--and smashed thousands of dollars' worth of pipes and other plumbing equipment with sledgehammers. Such mistakes proved costly to Tolerance. Wrigley sued and won, helping force the newspaper out of business. But for a time the newspaper's impact was great and its threat real. Prominent politicians and businessmen preferred to quit the Klan rather than risk seeing themselves identified publicly as Klansmen.

Nationally, membership in the Klan waned in the late 1920s due to a leadership schism in Atlanta that split the movement into rival factions. But the order made a slight comeback in Chicago in 1928 for three reasons. First, Klansmen set aside their internal differences to work against Alfred E. Smith, the first Roman Catholic to run for president. Second, the headquarters in Atlanta tried to revive the Illinois franchise by conducting its annual national meeting at the Eighth Street Theater here. Third, a fledgling Klan organization for women was making headway in a membership drive.

But even these developments weren't enough to overcome the decline. The empire was crumbling. Local leadership was unable to agree on points as insignificant as where to hold the next neighborhood initiation meeting. The stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression virtually killed the Klan as funds dried up and officers quit the organization realizing it was no longer a lucrative endeavor. All that's left today of the Chicago Klan is a handful of members who pop up now and then for small public demonstrations. Cops outnumbered Klansmen at a protest staged by a miniscule Indiana faction at Daley Plaza last weekend.

But on August 16, 1921, on a horse farm near Lake Zurich, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan were a far from negligible force. After the initiation ceremony, Simmons held the rapt attention of more than 12,000 men in rain-soaked robes. The torches had been doused, but the bonfires crackled. With thunder rumbling in the distance, Simmons dedicated his oratorical skills to an explanation of the "seven symbols" of the Klan: Bible, flag, robe, cross, sword, hood, and golden rule (the Bible's "Do unto others" precept).

"This old flag," he declared, sweeping an arm over the altar, "purchased by the blood and suffering of American heroes, represents the price paid for American liberties. It is a symbol of the Constitution of the United States of America, free speech, free press, free schools, freedom of worship, and all constitutional laws, both state and national. Its red is the blood of American heroes that stained a hundred battlefields. Its white symbolizes the purity of American womanhood and the sanctity of American homes. Its blue is but a patch of America's unclouded sky."

He looked out at the crowd and listened to the rain pelt the meadow.

"We use the robe to signify that we do not judge men by the clothes they wear and to conceal the difference in our clothing as well as our personality. There are no rich or poor, high or low in Klankraft. As we look upon a body of Klansmen robed in white we are forcibly reminded that they are on a common level. By this means we also help to conceal our identity, which is an essential principle of Klankraft. This white robe is also a symbol of the robe of righteousness to be worn by the saints in--"

The wind picked up and pushed the rain into Simmons's face, leading him to abruptly cancel the remainder of the ceremony. He promised his followers they would return to the site within 90 days to complete their deeds.

"Let's leave," he said. "If you all come down with pneumonia you won't do me much good."

The Klan chaplain stepped forward for the closing prayer, but the Klansmen were already shedding their sheets and dashing to their cars for the long trip home.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo manipulation by Daniel Sinker.

Add a comment