“A Fever in the Heartland” by Timothy Egan is a terrifying historical expose on the Ku Klux Klan, where we see corruption, murder and power exploited in the name of Christianity and how it continues to remain in the periphery. What’s more, we see the butterfly effect of one woman’s heroic act and death, that saw one of the most untouchable men brought down.
Egan tells the story through the lens of Madge Oberholtzer in the 1920s, a young woman who was brutally murdered by David C. Stephenson, the Grand Dragon of the Indiana Klan. Oberholtzer’s death helped to galvanise opposition to the Klan, and it ultimately led to Stephenson’s downfall.
Trigger Warning: the following article contains themes related to hate crimes, suicide, racism and sexual assault
The author brings to life the atmosphere of fear and intimidation that the Klan created at the time. He also traces the Klan’s roots in American history and showing how it was able to appeal to so many people during a time of economic and social upheaval.
Who is Timothy Egan?
Timothy Egan is an American author, journalist, and former op-ed columnist for The New York Times. He has written nine books, including The Good Rain, The Worst Hard Time, and Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher. He has won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction. Egan was born in Seattle, Washington, and grew up in the Pacific Northwest. He graduated from Gonzaga Preparatory School in Spokane, Washington, and then attended the University of Washington, where he studied journalism. After graduating from college, Egan worked as a reporter for several newspapers in the Pacific Northwest. In 1989, Egan joined The New York Times as a national correspondent. He has written extensively about the environment, the American West, and politics. In 2001, Egan was part of a team of reporters who won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for their series on race in America. In 2006, Egan won the National Book Award for Nonfiction for his book The Worst Hard Time, about the Dust Bowl. Egan is a frequent contributor to The New York Times opinion pages. He is a sharp critic of environmental destruction, economic inequality, and political corruption. His columns have been praised for their clarity, wit, and moral clarity. Egan is a recipient of the John Burroughs Medal, the Audubon Medal, and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Council on Foreign Relations. In 2017, Egan retired from The New York Times to focus on writing books.
What is A Fever in the Heartland about?
A Fever in the Heartland is a historical true crime story that tells the story of David C. Stephenson, the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan and the role that the Klan played in American society during that time. The book begins with Stephenson’s childhood in Indiana. He was a charismatic and ambitious young man, and he quickly rose through the ranks of the Klan. He became the Grand Dragon of the Klan in Indiana in 1922, and he soon became one of the most powerful men in the country.
A serial adulterer and sexual predator, he studied the speeches of Benito Mussolini, and considered the fascist Italian prime minister his mentor, chiefly because he understood what made people hate others. Within two years of joining the Klan, Stephenson controlled the organization in 21 states. “The Klan owned the state,” Egan writes, “and Stephenson owned the Klan.”
Stephenson used his power to enrich himself and to spread the Klan’s message of hate. He was involved in a number of scandals, including the kidnapping and murder of Madge Oberholtzer, a young woman who had been attempting to get funding for a school literacy programme. In 1925, Stephenson was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. He died after being freed early, having spent years in and out of prison for various criminal acts.
Demonising the victim
One of the strengths of A Fever in the Heartland is Egan’s ability to humanise the story. He not only tells the story of the Klan, but he also tells the stories of the people who were affected by it. He gives us a glimpse into the lives of Oberholtzer, Stephenson, and other Klan members, and he shows how the Klan’s ideology shaped their lives.
The story of Oberholtzer is a harrowing one, and is also reflective of the untouchability of powerful people under the law. Not only did she endure a horrific abduction, and then subsequent violent rape, she was then given one choice to marry her rapist Stephenson. Having refused his request, she then went on to take toxic bi-chloride of mercury tablets in a suicide bid, and survived in agony for an additional 29 days – enough time for her to give and sign a 333,000-word first person account of her attack, which led to Stephenson’s conviction at trial and the rapid decline of KKK membership in Indiana. She certainly did not go away quietly, much to the chagrin of the Klansman in Indiana.
It’s hard to overstate the courage of Oberholtzer, knowing she was dying, she continued to pursue the case until the end. “I am the law”, Stephenson had told her during that fateful night, and it was enough to spur her on to end his reign of terror despite her horrific state. What’s sobering is the fact that during the trial, she was often made to be seen as a promiscuous by men with a machine of power behind them. Several witnesses even lied on stand under oath – common under Klan-controlled areas – that the victim “wouldn’t be so ashamed about allegedly losing her “virtue” on a train, the defense argued, if she was someone who slept with other women’s husbands, a home-wrecker.”
There’s something deeply troubling that despite evidence to the contrary, the defence attacked Oberholtzer’s character as a way to discredit her – something that continues to this day. What’s more was the fact of her boldness during a time when the Klan permeated every part of society. There were Klan-approved stores and Klan-biased news outlets spreading disinformation far and wide. Children could attend “Junior KKK” meetings or “Tri-K Club,” where they could learn more about the Klan and what they stood for.
Stephenson would hold lavish parties at his mansion, but he would also sign off floggings, whippings and acid-brandings of immigrants and opponents, safe in the knowledge that most police officers, and even lawyers and judges, were also oath-bound members of the hooded order. But Oberholtzer still was undeterred in her cause to get funding for the school literacy programme – unaware of his previous horrific misdeeds. She was an independent, forward-thinking woman at a time when the KKK ruled, which was a rarity.
A Fever in the Heartland is a cautionary tale
A Fever in the Heartland provides a peek at a dark chapter in American history. The book is also a cautionary tale about the dangers of demagoguery and the importance of fighting for equality and justice.
It brings into question the reach of fringe groups that manage to take control over entire areas, including the judicial system. Therefore, there is some truth to D.C. Stephenson’s claims that he was the law. We’ve seen this many times and over, and more recently with claims against hate groups such as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and modern iterations of the KKK in the form of the January 6 United States Capitol attack, where far-right Donald Trump supporters mobbed the building in a bid to keep him in power.
The book also shows we cannot be blind to the history that has led up to modern-day insurrections. Egan writes that Indiana had pioneered the world’s first compulsory sterilisation law. Not to mention, a new measure that Governor Jackson signed in 1927 was enforced until 1974, allowing the state to deny thousands of Hoosiers the ability to bring children into the world.
In 2022, Congress finally passed, and President Joe Biden signed, a bill making lynching a federal crime. This was 122 years after the first such legislation was introduced. According to the NAACP, nearly 5,000 lynchings took place between 1882 and 1968, which we saw in the book A Few Days Full of Trouble. What it shows is that the foundations of violence and separation is still very much ingrained into the system.
Key takeaways from A Fever in the Heartland:
The book provides a fascinating look at a time of great social and political upheaval in the United States. The Klan was able to thrive during this time because it tapped into the fears and anxieties of many Americans, and by using violence, intimidation, and propaganda to spread its message of hate.
- One of the key strengths of the book is its relatability and how it contextualises much of the hatred and violence seen in the US today.
- The Ku Klux Klan is still a dangerous and destructive organisation that preys on fear and hatred.
- Demagogues like David C. Stephenson are able to gain power by appealing to people’s prejudices and fears.
- It is important to fight for equality and justice, even in the face of opposition.
- It reminds us of the perils of hate and division.
- The Klan’s appeal was based on a combination of factors, including fear of immigrants, Catholics, and Jews, as well as a desire for social and economic change.
- The Klan was able to infiltrate and corrupt local and state governments, as well as the Republican Party.
- James Weldon Johnson, the leader of the NAACP from 1920 to 1930, urged Black voters to abandon the Republican ticket in 1924 because the party refused to denounce the Klan, sparking an epic political realignment to the Democrats.
In the final scene of the film and book with the same name Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth, we witness a cross burning and then the petrifying real-life footage of a young activist, Heather Heyer, fatally killed in Charlottesville, Virginia, by a white supremacist. It shows that we still need to be wary of those who dress in invisible hoods. A Fever in the Heartland is therefore a timely book and even though the Klan may not be as powerful as it was in the 1920s, white supremacy is still a major problem in the country. Egan’s book is a reminder of the dangers of extremism and the importance of fighting for justice.