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.

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.