Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

It was a warm, muggy day in early August 1921 in Philadelphia when F. W. Atkins of Jacksonville, Florida, and W. J. Bellamy of Cincinnati, Ohio, rented an office in the Bellevue Court Building to quietly recruit members for “a great and patriotic crusade to save the nation.” Their goal was to organize a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

Posing as a prospective KKK initiate, a reporter for the Public Ledger broke the story on August 10, 1921. When asked about the Klan’s mission, Bellamy replied that the Klan stood for “Americanism”; that it was out to crush the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), referred to as “Wobblies,” as well as the Sinn F&eacuteins, the Bolshevists, and “anything else that threatens the interests of the United States”; that the Klan opposed integrated schools and black men sitting on the same juries as white women; that the Klan intended to stay within the law, and that it wanted to make the streets safe for women and girls. “The various races, yellow, red, black, brown, must remain in their places. There must be no intermarriage,” Bellamy told the reporter. Reappearance of the infamous movement evoked nightmares of terrorism, murder, mayhem, and vigilante violence. Nonetheless, the Klan easily found eager supporters, both north and south of the Mason-Dixon line. Americans had elected President Warren G. Harding in 1920 on his promise to return the nation to normalcy – to the proverbial (and imaginary) “good old days” of small town harmony, racial and ethnic homogeneity, old-fashioned American values, and Protestant virtues. There was little chance of turning back the hands of time, though. Twenty-five million immigrants had poured into the nation in the half-century preceding the outbreak of World War I.

When wartime labor shortages forced northern industries to open their doors to black workers in 1916, a half-million African Americans fled the racial oppression of the South. (By 1930, Philadelphia’s black population rose from eighty-five thousand to two hundred and twenty thousand.) Intense competition for jobs and housing fueled tensions between poor whites and blacks that exploded into riots. Local white toughs rampaged through black neighborhoods in Chester in 1917, and in Philadelphia the following year.

In 1919, four million American laborers – fully one-fifth of the nation’s industrial workforce – went out on strike, one of the largest waves of strikes in American history. There were pitched battles and bombs exploded – one outside the Washington, D.C., residence of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer (1872-1936), a native Pennsylvanian, who responded to the nation’s fear of foreign radicals by ordering an illegal roundup of thousands of labor organizers, political activists, and other “anti-American subversives.” It was in this context that the KKK launched its 1921 recruiting drives.

On September 10, 1922, the Philadelphia Klan conducted its first outdoor initiation in a cornfield on the city’s northern border. Two Evening Bulletin reporters who covered the event reported a burning cross twelve feet high and eight feet wide visible to motorists in the distance. The ceremony was small compared to a Detroit rally of more than twenty-five thousand, or the ten thousand Klansmen who gathered in Chicago that summer to initiate twenty-three hundred new recruits. Nevertheless, a thousand men in white robes standing wider American flags illuminated by the flickering light of flaming crosses was a sight most macabre. More than one hundred and twenty-five “trembling candi­dates,” each paying a klectokon, or fee, of ten dollars to take the oath of allegiance, were inducted. A hooded figure warned the reporters to not ask too many questions and to not expect answers if they did. “In the dim illumination,” a reporter observed, “it appeared that a graveyard had yielded up its dead that they might perform mystic ceremonies in the pale beams of gibbous moon across whose wandering face drifted gray flecks of cloud.”

In reports dripping with sarcasm, the newspaper writers captured the duality of the Philadelphia Klan. “For before their very eyes,” one wrote, “Protestant men of mystery, danger and adventure – hooded Knights vowed to protect ‘Americanism’ by any means necessary – became happy go lucky picnickers, washing down ears of roast corn with thermos of ice cold fresh water. Here was the Janus face of American Nativism; the incongruous coexistence of the mundane and mysterious; of lofty ideals with dim-witted ignorance and intolerance, of reverence for the law with the will to vigilante violence.”

After nearly three decades of silence, the KKK was resurrected and revamped in 1915 in Georgia by William J. Simmons, a former Methodist preacher, and thirty-three associates, three of whom claimed membership in the original Ku Klux Klan that terrorized the South between 1866 and 1872. The Invisible Empire went nationwide in the twenties and by mid-decade, boasted a membership of more than two million men and at least a half-million women. By 1924, Pennsylvania emerged as the most important Klan realm in the Northeast, its two hundred and fifty thousand followers comprising perhaps the fourth largest state membership in the country. With thirty-five thousand members, the Philadelphia­Camden (New Jersey) klaverns trailed only Chicago and Indianapolis in size.

The Ku Klux Klan was popular in Pennsylvania because it was perceived as a brotherhood, with a “perfected lodge system,” devoted to the protection of the sanctity of the home, traditional sexual mores, and white Protestant control of the nation’s politics and culture. The Klan accused Catholics of placing their allegiance to the Pope above that of their country. The Catholic Church was “an octopus,” they argued, stretching its tentacles “into the very vitals of the body politic of the nation,” and once in power would take over the government and strip Americans of their constitutional rights. Jews, the Klan insisted, dominated the banking industry and controlled the motion picture industry, popular music, and bootlegging, using all three to promote sex and violence.

Anti-intellectualism and distrust of “experts” also drew ordinary individuals to the Klan. Catholics in the industrial and mining towns in the Keystone State’s western counties lived surrounded by a vast Protestant countryside. After World War I drew large numbers of southern blacks to this area, Klan­-backed state legislators representing rural counties in western Pennsylvania called for strict segregation, prevented passage of a new state civil rights bill in 1921, and introduced legislation to outlaw racial intermarriage and license black barbers.

With a booming steel industry, five thousand black workers were employed by the Bethlehem Steel Company’s Johnston plant and living in segregated labor colonies with their own flourishing vice districts and a history of poor relations with local police. After three police officers were killed by a “drink-crazed Negro” during a shootout in the early hours of August 31, 1923, Johnstown’s Mayor Joseph Cauffiel threatened to drive out of town every black and Mexican who had lived in the area less than ten years. Cauffiel’s threat was nothing more than blustery campaign braggado­cio to court the Klan vote in the upcoming election, but within weeks three thousand blacks and Mexicans had been laid off by Bethlehem Steel and fled the Cambria County community.

Less than a week before the John­stown shooting, ten thousand Klansmen had gathered on a hill overlooking Carnegie, west of Pittsburgh, for an initiation and parade into the tough steel town. Local officials denied a parade permit, but five thousand Klansmen decided to march anyway. Carnegie’s residents met the marchers with rocks and bottles. In the midst of an ensuing melee, a shot rang out, and Klansman Thomas Abbott dropped to the ground, killed by a bullet to his temple. Abbott’s death gave the northern Ku Klux Klan its first martyr. Within weeks, thousands of Pennsylvanians turned over their ten­-dollar klectokon to join the organization.

Spoiling for a fight, Klansmen from Altoona and Johnstown headed next to the mining town of Lilly, in eastern Cambria County, ready to “give the micks [a disparaging term for Irish Catholics] something to think about.” Lilly’s miners were ready for them, and drove them back to the train station with rocks and fire hoses. Fearing for their lives, the KKKers opened fire. When the dust had settled four men had died. Eighteen Klansmen and ten residents of Lilly were sent to prison.

Kleagles (KKK field workers) also found recruits among Philadelphia’s neighborhoods of tidy row houses. During the opening years of the Roaring Twenties, Philadelphians generally ignored the newly enacted prohibition on the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. In fall 1923, newly elected Mayor W. Freeland Kendrick issued a call for reform and sternly cautioned the citizens of Philadelphia. “The police force is demoralized,” he warned. “Banditry, promiscuous sale of poisoned liquor, the sale of dope, viciousness, lawlessness of all kinds are rampant.”

To combat these menaces, Kendrick persuaded President Calvin Coolidge to lend General Smedley Darlington Butler (1881-1940), then the most decorated figure in the history of the United States armed forces, to Philadelphia to serve as the new director of public safety beginning in January 1924. To convince Butler and the public that the police were cracking down on crime – without damaging commercial vice operations that supplemented their own meager salaries and funded the protection rackets of the city’s Republican machine – crackdowns were targeted to black and, to a lesser degree, Italian neighborhoods. The local press dutifully reported the raids on black gambling dens, bordellos, and speakeasies, perpetuating a tradition of biased coverage in which African Americans made the news primarily when they broke the law. As police raids and press coverage contin­ued, feeding public fears of Italian bootleggers and black newcomers, the Klan found growing support among Philadelphia’s Protestant majority.

The milling and mining counties in and surrounding the Lehigh Valley and the farming region south of Harrisburg were fertile grounds for the Ku Klux Klan. Pennsylvania Germans living south and west of Philadelphia found the Klan especially appealing. Militant Protestants proved to be among the Klan’s most devoted members. Klaverns in Bucks, Chester, and Delaware Counties staged cross burnings, drove away Catholic day laborers and their families, and hosted picnics, outings, and socials. In 1924, his­torian and economist Frank Tannenbaum (1893-1969) noted that Klan membership provided the “artificial thrills” which helped relieve the boredom and monotony of small town and rural life. Some­times, though, such thrills got out of hand. When two policemen were shot in summer 1924 while investigating a masked meeting on the campus of Haverford College, Lower Merion Township’s chief of police ordered his remaining officers to shoot to kill.

A year later, the Grand Kleagle (chief recruiter) of one of the largest KKK domains in the country, Paul Meres Win­ter, who had traveled from Reading to help organize Philadelphia’s klaverns in 1921, was planning a memorable celebration. During the summer of 1926, Philadelphia mounted a Sesqui-Centenni­al International Exposition to celebrate the nation’s one hundred and fiftieth birthday. With Mayor Kendrick’s approval, the Sesquicentennial Committee in June 1925 issued a permit to the KKK for a three-day national Klan Karnival, which was to kick off with a parade of five thousand marchers down Broad Street and conclude with a ceremony – featuring the burning of a cross – at one of the lakes on the fair grounds. The parade was to include the American Krusaders of foreign-born Americans of the Protestant faith, the Tri-K girls, Junior KKK teenage divisions, and the Women of the KKK. The Klan also reserved the new sixty thousand seat outdoor stadium for a rally.

Mayor Kendrick dropped his initial opposition to the permit after friends and KKK literature convinced him that the organization’s “aims and desires” were “acceptable.” His decision proved to be a major political gaffe. When Philadelphia newspapers broke the story of the permit in June 1926, a firestorm of protest erupted. Denying that he had any prior knowledge of the Klan’s plans, Kendrick canceled the permit “in the interest of peace, good order and safety of the City of Philadelphia and its inhabitants.” He then attempted to appease Klan voters by attending a demonstration of several thousand Klansmen in Eddystone, Delaware County. Unappeased by the mayor’s temporizing, Win­ter issued in July a pamphlet exposing the mayor’s perfidy.

For many, Philadelphia’s klaverns were primarily social clubs. Klan members staged late night initiations, gathered for Saturday afternoon picnics, and enjoyed boat excursions on the Delaware River. They generally did not engage in racial and ethnic intimidation practiced elsewhere in the state and country. The Philadelphia Tribune, the city’s African American newspaper of record throughout the twentieth century, contains only a handful of references to KKK activity in Philadelphia in the twenties. Most cross burnings in the region appear to have been staged by non-members who attempted to use the Klan’s reputation to drive away blacks, Catholics, or those they considered undesirable. A cross burning in 1924 at a camp for black youths in Upper Darby was traced to a group of locals led by a township policeman. The only documented incidents of Klan terrorism in Philadelphia took place in March 1926, when Klansmen burned nine crosses, three of which contained explosives that injured two people. Unlike elsewhere in the country, Philadelphia’s Klan never enjoyed the force of numbers or political power of white Protestants. The city was home to the second largest Irish Catholic population in the nation and to a large, well­-established African American community that was essential to the local Republican machine’s political control of the city so city officials gave the Klan no leeway. After the first cross burning in 1922, Director of Public Safety James T. Cortelyou issued the Klan a stern warning: “No fiery cross demonstrations or parades of white robed men in masks through the city streets frightening children and adults are going to be permitted.” Denied the veil of anonymity, many KKKers kept their membership secret for fear public exposure would draw public censure.

When the Klan staged its first organizational rally in July 1924 in quiet and decorous West Chester, a community with a small black and immigrant population – but a good number of Quakers – a crowd of several hundred surrounded Memorial Hall, greeted the Klan with boos and hisses, and called out their names to shame them publicly. KKK gatherings in the counties surrounding Philadelphia often drew crowds who attacked the organization’s members.

Poor leadership plagued the KKK from the start. After Kleagle F. W. Atkins absconded with the first twenty-five thousand dollars of initiation fees in 1921, Reading’s Grand Kleagle Winter ran the Philadelphia Klan. A big spender little interested in money management, Winter did well during the flush years of 1923 and 1924, when funds poured into KKK coffers. Eventually the flood of initiation fees dried up, but Winter’s extravagance continued unabated, and the Philadelphia klaverns grew restless. To silence his foes, Winter set up the Super-Secret Society, or “Triple-S,” a group of anonymous black­-robed thugs who assaulted his opponents, destroyed their property, and exposed their KKK membership in an attempt to ruin them financially. Some were merchants whose customers were the very people they viewed as enemies. Late in 1926, local Klansmen convinced the klokan (the KKK’s legislative body) to try Win­ter. The Klan’s tribunal found the charges against him to be true, but chose not to convict him. Buoyed by this show of support, Winter banished the Philadelphia Klansmen who had caused his prosecution.

In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan also appealed to some women because it embraced progressive politics, supported women’s suffrage and educational reform, and punished adulterous husbands and the women with whom they cheated. Outdoor excursions and picnics were much more profitable and well attended by men when attended by members of the women’s auxiliaries.

It was not long before the women’s chapters became embroiled in fights with the men’s organization over money and morals. They were outraged when the Klan reprimanded two of their sisters for fornication while their seducer went unpunished. Early in 1927, the Philadelphia and Chester County women’s klaverns broke away from the national organization. Outraged at Atlanta’s support of Winter and his ongoing suppression of dissent, Philadelphia’s male klav­erns followed them out.

In 1928, four former members sued the Klan in federal court in Pittsburgh, demanding to know what had happened to fifteen to twenty million dollars the organization had raised in Pennsylvania. This scandal was the last straw. By 1930, less than five thousand members remained in Pennsylvania, the majority of them in the eastern half of the state.

During the thirties, in the economic and social turmoil of the Great Depression, union members and Communists replaced Catholics and Jews as the enemy of choice. Local klaverns responded to the “threats” with picnics, minstrel shows, and singing groups. The York Klan, for example, became famous for its White Rose Male Chorus while the Hamburg, Berks County, Klan won renown for “goat lunches” that attracted “deutch­ers” from Reading and Doylestown.

In 1939, Grand Dragon James Cole­scott, a former veterinarian from Terre Haute, Indiana, attempted to revive the Pennsylvania Klan. State officials responded by immediately prosecuting his kleagles for operating without a license. In November 1941, a Pennsylvania jury convicted five KKK officials for illegal solicitation of contributions. Cole­scott attempted to revive the Pennsylvania Klan again in 1946. World War II had unleashed a second black migration north that dwarfed the great influx of the First World War. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans poured into northern cities, which greeted them with yet greater segregation and a renewed hostility that exploded into violence in dozens of places.

Economic hard times and a renewed fear of foreign enemies at the end of World War II were re-igniting white racism and anti-Communist hysteria. Alarmed at the “threat to Americanism” offered by union activities in Chester and unemployed black shipyard workers showing up as day laborers on local farms, aging Klansmen in Chester and Delaware Counties blamed Jews and blacks for hard times. Cross burnings in York, Abington, and Arden, Delaware, most of them set by teenage pranksters – ­black as well as white – fueled public alarm. Governor Edward Martin ordered a statewide investigation, and the Pennsylvania Klan sank back into obscurity.

The post-war revival of the KKK in the South fomented a bloody reign of terror against African Americans during the Civil Rights movement of the fifties and sixties. When the struggle for racial equality moved above the Mason-Dixon line in 1964, northern cities were again ripe for infiltration, and the Klan enjoyed revivals in Chica­go, Detroit, and Buffalo, but not in Philadelphia.

In October 1965, the House Un-American Activities Committee identified a new state Grand Dragon in Pennsylvania. He was Roy Franhauser, a scrawny twenty­-five-year-old neo­-Nazi living in Reading, who had helped organize the Pennsylvania Realm of the United Klans of America earlier that year. In 1962, Philadelphia police had arrested him wearing a Nazi uniform and handing out anti-Semitic and racist literature to crowds of holiday shoppers in center city. “There is a new Klan revival in this country which is moving northward,” Franhauser told the committee. “The new Ku Klux Klan includes Catholics, but not Negroes. The new Klan is a white man’s organization that has banded together in self-defense against the Negro Revolution,” which, he insisted, was led by Communists.

Convinced that white Philadelphians would rally to his cause, Franhauser and three friends drove to the city’s Kensing­ton section on October 7, 1966, to protest against a black family that had moved to Coral Street. They were quickly arrested and booked for disorderly conduct for handing out Klan literature. Their presence did, however, bring four hundred policemen to the area to prevent any disturbances.

The next morning Franhauser and company headed to Girard College, in North Philadelphia, which had been founded by financier Stephen Girard (1750-1831) as a school for poor, orphaned white boys (see “Girard Col­lege: A Story of Change and Continuity” by Michael P. McCarthy, Summer 1991). The integration of Girard College had become a rallying cry for the civil rights movement in Philadelphia. After the school refused to admit two black students, pickets marched outside its ten-foot high stone walls for weeks on end. Franhauser planned to establish a white “beachhead” in the black neighborhood, but his “troops” from Maryland and southern Pennsylvania failed to appear, white Philadelphians stayed away, and Franhauser and two compatriots were again arrested for their own protection. The anti-Semitism and anti­-Catholic nativism that had fired the crusade of the 1920s had lost its appeal and, without it, the Klan was unable to again take root in Philadel­phia. Franhauser and his organization faded into oblivion.

By the early 1970s, the moribund KKK was all but dead, down from nearly fifty thousand to several thousand members nationwide. Men who would have joined the Klan in previous eras drifted instead to other right­wing extremist organizations. The Klan regalia that had once been so attractive now appeared not only silly and dated, but also made the wearer a walking target. Its history of violence had made the Ku Klux Klan the most investigated and prosecuted of all white supremacist and hate groups. And despite its fleeting popularity among a quarter-million Pennsylvanians in the early twentieth century, the KKK remains regarded as one of the most heinous organizations to ever crusade – under the banner of patriotism – “to save the nation.”


For Further Reading

Blee, Kathleen M. Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

Davies, Alan T. Infected Christianity: A Study of Modern Racism. Kingston, Ontario: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1988.

Gottleib, Peter. Making Their Own Way: Southern Blacks’ Migration to Pitts­burgh. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Jenkins, Philip. Hoods and Shirts: The Extreme Right in Pennsylvania, 1925-1950. Chapel Hill: University of North Car­olina Press, 1997.

Loucks, Emerson H. The Ku Klux Klan in Pennsylvania: A Study in Nativism. Har­risburg: The Telegraph Press, 1936.


Charles Hardy III is a professor of history at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. An award-winning producer of public radio and video documentaries, he was the principal project historian and editor of The United States History Video Collection (1988), a ten-hour American history textbook on video­tape. His sound documentaries for public radio include The Popular Culture Show (1982-1984), I Remember When: Times Gone But Not Forgotten (1983), Goin’ North: Tales of the Great Migration (1985), and The Return of the Shad (1982). He is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, among them a Public Radio Program Award from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting i11 1983.