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.

Anti-Catholic Bigotry Feeds the Klan

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.

More than 30,000 Members

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.

Happy Easter

I’m not a Christian, although I was raised in the Church and was a religious child. I lost my faith when puberty hit. C.S. Lewis stopped making sense, and I took all the wrong lessons from Dostoyevsky’s characters.

But I still like to observe the holidays one way or another. I read Bible chapters, check out the Book of Common Prayer, put Bach on, and look at paintings. 

Nearly everything but attending an actual church.

So I was looking at reproductions of Mantegna, whose Dead Christ is one of the greatest paintings ever made. Then I found his version of the resurrection. Two versions, in fact.

His painting of the resurrection is more traditional and triumphant. Christ, surrounded by angels, rises from the tomb, golden rays radiating from him. Clearly, a divine presence. And it’s a masterful painting.

I also found his drawing of the resurrection. It may have been a preliminary study.

I prefer the drawing. 

Here, Jesus is the least resurrected in any art work I’ve ever seen.

He bears the traces of his sufferings on the cross. His eyes are sad, as if He can’t forget the souls He saw when He harrowed Hell. Deep lines score His face.

The tensions between the humanity of Jesus and the divinity of the Son of God are hard to understand. It’s one of those mysteries the priests and preachers like to explain, but it’s completely paradoxical. Artists tend to paint Jesus as unmarked. He’s a man, 33, but idealized, and depicted as more the way the Greeks portrayed their gods.

In Mantegna’s drawing, though, you see Jesus, or rather, Yeshua of Nazareth, a man. A man who’s worked hard going up and down Israel for three years, then was tortured, and then was executed with one of the most excruciating methods possible.

It’s a truthful drawing. It shows an experience I can understand, and this work reveals a history that leaves marks behind which even the miracle of the resurrection cannot erase.

Happy Easter.

Read: At Heaven’s Gate

photo of a copy of At Heaven’s Gate by tim roessler timothy roessler

At Heaven’s Gate by Robert Penn Warren is worthwhile hunk of American realism with extraordinary characters. It centers on a young woman’s quest for liberation as she tries to move out from under the domination of her wealthy and powerful father. Warren savages the materialism of the 1920s and the greed and corruption that inevitably accompany the lust for money and power. A second narrative is built in to the book. This first-person account of a backwoodsman’s journey from violence to redemption would make a fine novella on its own. 

This is the novel that Warren wrote just before All the King’s Men. I recently re-read that book and found every bit as masterful and brilliant as I did the first time. I wanted to see where that masterpiece had come from and get a sense of Warren’s development as a writer.

At Heaven’s Gate doesn’t hit the high mark of All the King’s Men, but it’s still a fine piece of work with some narrative twists and those amazing sentences that Warren rolls out. A few story elements are surprisingly melodramatic, but that said, many of the scenes remain indelible. Even with its flaws, this dark and scorching vision of a rotting America will haunt and harrow you.

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.

Coming Through Slaughter

image by tim roessler timothy roessler

This is a masterpiece. It’s a story, if you want to reduce it, of a musician who pushed the boundaries of his art into madness

Some novels take you to place where dreams and memories lie, some almost pre-verbal unconscious condition, hypnotic, intimate as the smell of your own breath. This is one.

Michael Ondaatje, with the density and specificity of a poet, tells a version of the life of Buddy Bolden, one of the creators of jazz. Bolden’s a historic and nearly legendary figure who lived and blew his cornet in New Orleans. Ondaatje brings him to life with grace and ferocity.

Along the way, we meet another artist chasing an original vision: E.J Bellocq, the photographer of prostitutes in Storyville. We know Bolden’s women, his friends, his children. And his steadily bending mind.

Bolden eventually broke blood vessels in his throat, and shattered his sanity. He ended up in the state asylum, a pace as grim as you’d imagine, by passing through the Louisiana town of Slaughter.

It took me a long time to read. Partly, because the prose is as dense as poetry. Partly, too, because of the sheer intensity. 

Read it, even if you’ll end up scorched and blistered. Because it’s beautiful on every damn page, and beautiful in a way that’ll be new to you and change you.

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. 

Burr, by Gore Vidal

This was an entertaining read and delightful in every way. Gore Vidal tells the life of Aaron Burr, our great national Satan, with skill and panache.

Using the framing device of having Burr dictate his memoirs to a naive young lawyer/wannabe writer gives Vidal the ability to create a suave, patrician voice for Burr. He also gives a broader context through the point of view of Charlie Schuyler, the man to whom Burr is passing along his memories. Burr gives us an inverted view of the time of the Founding Fathers, who are suddenly more human, fallible and realistic than the marble version we usually get.

Vidal reminds us of the chaos and uncertainty of the early days of the United States. The Revolution was hardly won by us, rather it was lost by the British. Washington was a lousy general. Jefferson, the agrarian, was actually a gifted empire builder, the most successful one of the 19th century. Hamilton comes off better than you’d expect. (Still, it’s a mystery how such a banker-loving monarchist became the hip hop musical star he is today.)

I have no idea how accurate the book is, but I trust in Vidal’s brilliance and work ethic. More importantly, the historical characters make dramatic sense and the story is completely plausible. And it’s a lot of fun from start to finish.

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.

1917 by John Dos Passos

The only good that came out of the first world war was the literature. The generation that survived that particular slaughterhouse — and some that didn’t — wrote brilliant poems, memoirs, and novels. Keith Douglas, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Robert Graves, Erich Maria Remarque, Ernst Jung, Ernest Hemingway… and that’s just the beginning of a very long list.

One Man’s Initiation: 1917 by John Dos Passos belongs up on the shelf with the best of them.

It’s an episodic tale about an American volunteer with a French ambulance unit (yeah, pretty much like Hemingway in Italy). We follow Martin Howe from his voyage to France, through a series of actions, a brief leave in Paris and back once more to the trenches and the non-stop abattoir. 

This sequence of vivid scenes bring the horrors of war home. The settings are significant — that is, it’s not simple journalism or memoir but the search for the poetic truth underlying the events. This structure — disjointed, fragmented, poetic — must have reflected the experience of the soldiers at the front. The prose is beautifully rhythmic, powerfully descriptive and effective in every way. You feel the bombardments, the horror of a gas attack, the bitter disappointment of an anti-climatic leave, the pleasures of comradeship, as well as the brutal and overwhelming absurdity of the war itself.

This powerful and lyrical novella offers you an incredibly intense and compressed picture of men at war. It’s absolutely worth your time.

Life of a Klansman

This is a tough read. Reconstruction, the period after the American Civil War, is a period no one likes to think about. Whole libraries have been written about campaigns in the Civil War. About Reconstruction, not so much. Of course not. Because that period ended in a shameful, dishonorable defeat, and no one likes to think about losing.

From John Dolan, I learned to think of the Civil War as really being two phases: the famous, official one filled with generals and huge battles and gruesome butchery. We won that one, and Lincoln freed the slaves. But then the second phase came — a guerrilla insurrection, using attempted coups, subversion, terrorism and the deliberate slaughter of innocents. 

We lost that one. It would take a massive civil rights struggle, the gifted leadership of Martin Luther King and all of LBJ’s dark arts to strike a balance one hundred years later.

The Klansman of the title is Constant Lecorgne, the great-great grandfather of author Edward Ball. Lecorgne fought in both wars on the side of white supremacy. His life is the spine of the book, one that unites subjects that’d make for important books on their own: Creole society, race theory of the 1850s. the beginnings of jazz, the role of blackface. Heroes appear in the story, but Lecorgne, almost comically inept, isn’t one.

He belonged to a social tier you don’t read about much. White, but not rich. A slave owner, but not a land holder. He inherited a few slaves, the way you or I might a grandparent’s condo. His slaves lived out back in a house and did chores for his family. One was a young mulatto woman, who was worth nearly double the price of the others. You wonder what her chores might have included.

Constant Lecorgne was, essentially, a loser. He seems to have excelled at nothing except for reproduction, resentment and violence. His long slide down the social ladder ended up with his widow doing menial chores for a few pennies — the same ones his slaves used to perform. 

He joined the Klan to get back what he’d lost. In his case, it meant spilled blood and terror for black people, but no change in his grubby life.

Ball writes well. He uses a wide range of sources to show the horrors and banality of slavery in the South and the subsequent imposition of white supremacy.  I learned a great deal about ante bellum New Orleans and even more about the horrors and massacres of Reconstruction.

Evil, we think, has glamor. That’s what novels and movies tell us; all the best roles are villains. But you can be cruel and boring. Evil and dull. Lecorgne was a failing carpenter, a useful idiot for powerful white men.

Just as Ivan was another mouth breather until he got the gig with the Party and got to put a revolver up against the head of a kulak. Or the way Klaus was machinist until he became a guard at Bergen Belsen, or how even old Adolph himself was just a lazy house painter who farted too much.

They’re all little people, these bullies, small and mean, and Ball’s book reminds of us of how vicious a loser can be. And how disastrous the consequences are when those thugs serve racists, ideologues and cheap hustlers who are just a few notches smarter and richer than they are.