In the Shadow of the Klan: When the KKK Ruled Denver, 1920—1926

This hefty volume details the rise, rule, and fall of the Ku Klux Klan in Denver.  For a few years, Klansmen and Klan sympathizers occupied the Denver mayor’s office, claimed the state governor’s position, held both U.S. Senate seats and infested nearly other level of government in the state’s capitol and the city of Denver.

The early 1920s version of the Klan was different from the earlier terrorist  guerrillas that led an insurrection in the South through intimidation and murder. This new edition started in Atlanta in 1915. A vision, supposedly, and the film Birth of a Nation inspired a salesman to revive the KKK.

It spread to Denver where Klan organizers found fertile soil. Denver’s not an obvious host for this sort of disease. As a territory, Colorado fought on the Union side in the Civil War. The population of African-Americans was small — about 6,000 out of a city of 280,000. The state did not practice official segregation, although redlining and other de facto racial separations were in place.

But, in the overall stew of the early 1920s, the demands of African-Americans for equal treatment and the right to, say, sit where they pleased in a movie theatre, inflamed racists. A lot of Denverites hated Jews, too, and they loathed those immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe whom they blamed for stealing their jobs and their daughters.

But two other factors chiefly fueled the growth of the Denver Klan: anti-Catholic bigotry and the Klan’s promise to restore law and order. So, yes, absolutely: the KKK was about anti-Black racism. But it was also centered on a white supremacy that defined whiteness so narrowly as to exclude even the palest Irish and the pastiest Germans, let alone Italians and Slavs.

The Klan suspected the Pope of leading an international conspiracy and of preparing to overthrow the government. They accused priests and nuns of grotesque crimes and painted every Catholic as a subversive. And the religious bigotry overlapped with hatred of Italians, Irish, Poles, and Latinos.

Crime also fed the rise of the Klan. Denver was wide open. Prohibition powered bootleggers and gangs. Dealers sold narcotics openly. Hookers by the dozens plied the streets. The Denver Police Department, true to its DNA, turned a blind eye to these depredations, and the administration of Mayor Dewey Bailey was so dirty that it made even Chicago look like an immaculate example of good government.

So, the Klan had a point with their calls to clean up the corrupt city government. Only they weren’t so pure themselves. Once they had momentum, the Denver Klan ran its own bootleggers, put its own members in the vice squad to get a piece of the action, and even ran a brothel in the aptly named Hotel Bliss.

At its height, the Klan counted at least 30,000 Denver men and women in its ranks — an astonishing 10 percent of the adult population. This allowed them to corrupt juries, infiltrate the police force, install city council members, and win elections. 

These members — zealots or opportunists — were all disappointed in whatever aims they had for purifying the Republic and guarding white supremacy. Their representatives in the State Assembly had their agenda stymied by veteran politicians. The venality and corruption of the leadership further discredited the Klan.

Not a good look, ever, for a law-and-order society to be caught with its hands in the cookie jar. No one hates hypocrites as much as the petit-bourgeoisie — and that’s who the Klan’s fan base was in Denver.

And, from the beginning, the KKK faced a broad array of energetic opponents, from the arch-conservative District Attorney Philip Van Cise to the ultra-progressive Judge Benjamin Lindsey. Their principled resistance helped limit the scope and the extent of the damage the Klan could inflict. 

And luckily, the Colorado Klan did not murder or lynch anyone. As despicable a gang as it was, the KKK mostly stuck with harassing and intimidating people. Nasty, yes, bullying, absolutely, but it did stop short of full-on killing. 

(I’ll be writing about this incarnation of the Klan in future posts.)

I would have liked to write a completely positive review of In the Shadow of the Klan. I’ve seen Goodstein lecture. He’s lively, engaging, and seems like a fine person. He’s also an independent scholar, working outside of academia, another laudable activity. And Goodstein’s clearly done a mountain of research into a little-studied topic. The book is a goldmine for discovering events, personalities, and specifics about Denver in the the early 1920s.

But, In the Shadow of the Klan needs editing. A blizzard of details buries you — facts and facts about precincts, inconclusive recall elections, short bios of players who appear once and disappear. 

Goodstein neglects other details. Such as, how was the Klan structured? What were their secret rituals? What did the Denver Express exposés uncover? He focuses on Denver, fine, but what about some context from the national events outside of the city? Such as the Tulsa Massacre in 1921? Or how the 1925 conviction of the head of the Indiana Klan for rape and murder might have had an effect on the Denver Klan?

The wealth of information is at once its strength and weakness. If Goodstein had a better sense of narrative and an ability to compress some episodes, this would be a better history. As it is, it’s a chore to read despite the sensational events and its cast of weird, nasty, and occasionally admirable figures.

Burned

NCAR fire smoke photo by tim roessler timothy roessler

When the evacuation alarm sounded we were already packing.

Saturday, the sun burned unusually hot for March. A dry wind had blown steadily, chapping lips and blowing caps into the street. On our way home, we saw a column of grey and brown smoke rising over the hill to the west of our house. 

We said: Not again. 

And, we said: already? 

In the spring? 

Snow fell just last Monday. 

As we drove up the block to our house, men stood in the street staring hard at the billows of smoke. With the fire that close – a mile at most and the wind blowing in our direction–we figured we’d pull some things together and track down the cat. 

Just in case.

In tense situations, I shut down, focus, and fall into a kind of tunnel vision. I become formal with an occasional tinge of irritability. Even if I say so myself, I’m good at projecting calm while getting sick children to emergency rooms, sopping up my friend’s blood, dealing with heart attacks, that kind of thing. But:

“Any idiot can face a crisis; it’s this day-to-day living that wears you out.”

Anton Chekov

Filing taxes stresses me out much more than evacuating before a life-threatening inferno. Who knows why?

We packed the cat, the overnight bags, a bin of photo albums, a case with our important documents, and left. I immediately pulled into a huge traffic jam so slow that it took 25 minutes to drive three long city blocks. (Preppers, take note: Plan your escape route ahead of time. And maybe buy one of those heavy-duty scooters.)

table mesa traffic jam photo by tim roessler timothy roessler

Once safely out of reach of the traffic, I looked around at all the people walking, driving, shopping, and going about their usual business. As if nothing was happening. I felt like a sailor washed up on shore from some cataclysmic shipwreck only to be greeted by a fat man in shorts licking an ice cream cone. 

It would be ridiculously melodramatic to make a big deal out of my little evacuation fandango. We were at home, luckily, so we could grab our things. The wind changed direction. Firefighters had the experience of the all-too-recent Marshall Fire to draw upon. The weather cooperated, and the emergency teams won effective control of the blaze in a day.

What’s more, my experience is common. Nearly every week a flood hits, a tornado strikes, a hurricane blows, or a fire incinerates acres of land. 

Because of climate change, we’ve all pitched our tents on the slopes of a volcano, whether we like it or not.  Without knowing it, I’d made an unconscious bargain with the universe: if I live in a generally safe place, I should enjoy security. If I don’t, for example, live in a flood plain, or by the ocean or deep in the forest far away from help, I should be okay. If you build on sand, that’s on you. If you build on rock, then you’ll be fine.

That’s not the case anymore. The unspoken bargain changed. I look at the pines and spruces and waving grasses differently now. The jade mountains with their rose-colored outcroppings hold more than scenic beauty.

Nomad

As I drove away, I imagined all our things going up in smoke: flames eating my books and CDs, roasting my cameras and photo albums, incinerating the grandfather clock my great-grandparents brought over from Scotland, the hand sewn quilts my mother made, and the toys and paintings from my children’s early years. 

The chance that they would turn into cinders and ash saddened me, but a small part of me felt relief. Finally. Rid of all that stuff.

It forced me to consider: What do you really own? And: What’s truly valuable?

I had to answer that you don’t own anything, you only rent it, and you pay the lease with your time and labor.

What determines value is the difficulty of replacing something. Irreplaceable items are the photos, for example, or the object that holds some meaning beyond itself.

More than that, though, I remembered Bruce Chatwin’s writings on nomads. Perhaps we’re not meant to own more than we can easily move ourselves. Perhaps agriculture was indeed the primal sin, the Fall from the Garden of Eden.

What do you need more than a sturdy pair of boots and the right clothing for the weather? And nomads make beautiful art, some of the best in the world, but they’re able to carry it with them, either in their souls or their packs.

I was happy to return to my house with its comforts, its chairs and books, my daughter’s prints, and my son’s piano.

But I’ll never look at any of it in the same way.

And I’m keeping that go-bag packed. I’ll need it.

Review: Jewish Denver 1859-1940

Golda Meir, standing, when she lived in Denver.

I love albums of family photos. You can spend hours pouring over the images, seeing the changes time makes to the young girl or study the former elegance of men on Sundays.

Jewish Denver 1859-1940, by Jeanne E. Abrams, is a picture book with well researched captions. The Wild West in general and Colorado in particular aren’t really associated with Jews, yet they played a large role in the settling and development of the Rocky Mountains.  The first wave of Jews came mostly from Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Many scrappy families established businesses in the mining camps of Central City, Leadville, and Cripple Creek, along with Denver. 

They came largely because, however hard life in the mining camps or out the dusty plains was, the West offered promise and greater social mobility than any European country. Not to mention those pogroms back in the old country — nothing like watching a Cossack slice up grandpa to make you want to book a spot on the next boat out of Warsaw.

The range of faces in these antique photos are amazing — toughs, weisenheimers, machers, saints, scholars, mothers, fathers, and children. And it seems that nearly all of them did pretty well and then immediately set up charities as soon as they made an extra dollar.

Many of the businesses the Jewish immigrants started lasted well into my lifetime: Fashion Bar, Neusteters, the Robinson Dairy, and Samsonite luggage were all fixtures at the local shopping malls — all started by Jews in Colorado bootstrapping their way out of poverty.

Ruth Handler, inventor of the Barbie doll, stands center, in a nurse’s costume

Among the faces, two stand out: a darkly and surprisingly pretty Golda Meir as a young woman and Ruth Handler, the inventor of the Barbie Doll.

I’d like to have seen some note of the conflicts the Jewish community faced. Denver had a few pogroms of its own in the 1910s. The rise of the  Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s was fueled by anti-Semitism. The Jewish community resisted  these evils bravely and in the end, victoriously.  Nor is there any mention of the role of Jews in the Denver underworld. And I remember well Green Gables Country Club, started when the Denver Country Club refused to allow Jews to become members.

Overall, this is the kind of book you might give to your grandma on her birthday. It’s a triumphalist narrative as it ought to be, sweet tempered and focused on the outsized impact of the Colorado Jews.

Jewish Denver isn’t an especially substantial book, but it’s worth a look if you like Colorado or Denver history. 

Or old family photos.

Brothels, Bordellos, and Bad Girls

(Madame Mattie Silks, from the Colorado Historical Society)


Prostitutes don’t get much respect. This is especially true in the sex-mad and puritanical United States. That makes nearly any book that tells the story of “sporting ladies” worthwhile in itself. For Brothels, Bordellos and Bad Girls: Prostitution in Colorado 1860 – 1930, author Jan MacKell put in more than 12 years of research. And it shows in the both the broad scope and in the details she’s discovered. 

As you’d expect, many of the stories are tragic. Girls escaping horrific families only to plunge into disease or drug addiction. Suicides, overdoses, and murders run throughout the pages. If the life didn’t kill you, gonorrhea lurked, ready to take your job and melt your brain. Denver even had its own Jack the Ripper in the 1890s, serially murdering working girls. 

But there’s another side, one that you don’t hear about much. Several resourceful and tough women made the best of their time in the demimonde. Some married well, to newly rich miners and traders. Others made durable fortunes as madams and owners of saloons. 

Not only that, but a few showed that some whores do have a heart of gold. A surprising number donated to charity, helped the poor, fed strays, and sent money back home to poverty-stricken families. Many worked as nurses in the 1918 pandemic, something that seems remarkably brave.

In Trinidad, a group of sex workers got together and created a union of sorts, that looked after each other, set up a mutual aid society and even provided a retirement home.

So it’s a rich story, and more complicated than you’d guess.

Among the many large and colorful characters, the epic madame Mattie Silks stands out. You wish a writer with the combined talents of a Balzac and a Twain would would record her story one day. Out of nowhere, she makes it big as a beautiful madame. The chamber of commerce even hired her to persuade a railroad honcho to build a line into Denver. She pocketed $5,000 for the month or so she spent with the executive. 

Mattie once fought a duel, topless, with another madame over her cheating fancy man. Luckily for both of the ladies, the bullets missed them and, in a stroke of poetic justice, one hit the guilty guy right in the throat. He survived. Mattie took him back. She retired a few decades later at the top of her game.

MacKell focuses largely on the period up to 1912, reasonably enough because that’s when the West was wild. A flaw is that there’s not much broader context for the prostitution. It’s specific and granular, which is good, because you don’t get a lot of ideological slant thrown in. Yet, it’s not so good because you miss the larger societal trends.

You’ll  learn a great deal about these remarkable and often admirable women who changed the West as much as those more respectable whores in politics and business. 

Review: Voice of Empire

This collects the series of columns celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of the Denver Post newspaper. It offers a brief overview of the paper’s history, and, by extension, Denver and Colorado. 

It’s a colorful story. Frederick Bonfils and Harry Tammen bought the failing daily. Then they applied their skills as grifters, circus owners and hucksters to transform it into a gloriously yellow slab of entertainment. No headline was too wild, no story too sensational, and certainly, no promotion too crazy not to try. 

(Consider hiding a sexy showgirl “Eve” in the “Eden” of Rocky Mountain National Park and having a contest to see who could find her first. Or this headline from a slow news day; “Does It Hurt to Be Born?”)

William Hearst studied their formula and applied it to his chain with equal success. Some straight journalism did appear on the pages of the Post. Accidents do happen, after all.

Much like the city, the Post became more respectable and orderly in the post World War II era. Palmer Hoyt took over the job as editor and publisher in 1946. He made the paper over into an objective, nationally recognized example of fine journalism. Hoyt was a power player, promoting sensible water policy (a big deal in the dry West) good governance, and a centrist approach to politics. 

Author William Hornsby wrote this book in 1992 when the biggest threat to the newspaper was the local TV stations. No one could predict the impact of the internet and digital media. Still, the Post managed to negotiate the new landscape pretty well until an even greater threat arrived.

A venal hedge fund with zero commitment to journalism, much less the city or the region, saw a juicy little prize. They gutted Post, slashing costs, selling off its assets and leaving it a hollow shell of its former self.

The Post survives, barely.

This is a short book, but probably more for an enthusiast or a specialist. More thorough histories for general readers cover the same territory, and Bill Hosokawa’s Thunder in the Rockies offers greater depth for people wanting all the details of the history of the Post.