Ku Kluxers in a Coal Mining Community: A Study of the Ku Klux Klan Movement in Williamson County, Illinois, 1923-1926

Article excerpt

On the night of April 14, 1926, John H. Smith was standing in front of his auto garage with countless bullet holes. According to the Chicago Tribune, he said, "Look at my garage. It is like a sieve. I'm through. I want peace. For six years I've fought for law enforcement, but I'm through now. For the last two years I've slept up here in my garage with a sheet of steel screen around my bed. Yes, I'm tired of it all and I want peace. They can open up a saloon on both sides of my place if they want to. I won't fight no more." The next day, Smith sold his business and left the town.2

John H. Smith was a successful businessman of Herrin, Williamson County, Illinois. In the early 1920s, he owned two auto garages in southern Illinois, one in Herrin and the other in Harrisburg, Saline County. An advertisement in the Marion Daily Republican introduced his shop as "the largest accessory house in Southern Illinois." The federal census of 1920 listed John H. Smith as garage mechanic, thirty-four years old, husband with a stepson, renter, and a native of Kentucky. Besides being a leading businessman, he was an active participant in local civic affairs. During the big religious revival of 1925, he served as a lay leader and when it was too hot in the tabernacle, donated fans for use by the sweating crowd.3

In the mid-1920s, John H. Smith had another face, one as a member of the Herrin chapter of the Ku Klux Klan (Herrin Buckhorn Klan). From December 1923 to April 1926, Williamson County was in a state of civil war in which Klan and anti-Klan factions engaged in fierce battles over Prohibition enforcement on the streets as well as at the polls. Led by a freelance detective named S. Glenn Young (not a resident of the county), Klan vigilantes conducted a series of massive raids on illicit liquor joints in the winter of 1923 to 1924. The raids were very successful, resulting in fifty-five jail sentences and $55,025 fines at the federal court. The following April, the triumphant Klan had its members elected in the city, township, and county elections.Yet, the raids were violent. Klan vigilantes kicked doors open, beat up men and women, and even stole money and other valuables. The raids angered the bootlegging gangsters, including Charlie Birger and Earl Shelton (they were among the arrested), and the officials allegedly in league with them, notably Sheriff George Galligan. The gunfights between the two factions left nineteen men dead and brought state troopers into the county five times in little more than two years. John H. Smith played a part in the Klan war, and two of the five major gun battles took place at his Herrin garage. During the last of these battles, the "election day riot" of April 13, 1926, anti-Klan gangsters poured hundreds of shots into the Smith garage, making it look like a "sieve." The riot concluded the civil war in favor of the bootleggers and put the hooded organization out of existence in "Bloody Williamson" County.4

The history of the 1920s Klan has received more thorough historical investigation thanks to the series of studies on Klan membership that appeared in the 1980s and 1990s. Focusing on specific communities and using Klan membership rosters, these "revisionist" studies have shown that Klansmen were ordinary Americans representing an occupational cross section of the local white Protestant society. They also indicate that the secret order recruited those who had taken an active part in the community's civic and political affairs. These men donned the white robe, believing that the hooded organization would help solve community problems, such as bootlegging and gambling, and create a more moral and orderly society. This article tests the validity of the revisionist thesis by looking at Williamson County, Illinois - one of the nation's largest coalmining communities during the 1920s.5

No membership lists survive for the Williamson County Klan. Yet, it is possible to collect sufficient data from local newspapers and make lists of "suspected Klansmen" and "Klan supporters. …