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.