In the 1920s, D.C. Stephenson was the most powerful man
in Indiana. He owned politicians, up to and including
the governor. He could send hundreds of hooded klansmen
marching through the streets. He could have a man beaten
up or make him disappear. He raped women and got away
with it. Except once.
In 1925, at the height of his power, David Curtis
Stephenson was charged with murder and the chief
witness against him was the victim herself, Madge
Oberholtzer, who dictated her testimony to
prosecutors before she died.
Madge was in her 20s and sometimes worked for
Stephenson. She also sometimes socialized with him and
on March 15 she accompanied him on a train trip to
Chicago. She might have gone willingly, or he might have
forced her -- he wasn't an easy man to say no to.
Stephenson had been drinking heavily -- as he often did
-- even before they got on the train.
On the trip he got Madge into a sleeping compartment
where he raped and brutalized her, viciously biting her
as he held her down. They got off the train in Hammond,
just on the Indiana side of Chicago, and Stephenson took
her to a hotel. When he fell asleep she found the gun he
always kept with him. She might have shot him as he
slept, passed out drunk in the hotel room, but that's
not what she was thinking of doing. She later said she
wanted to shoot herself but could not pull the trigger.
In the morning Stephenson was acting like everything
was normal, and to him perhaps it was. He was used to
taking what he wanted.
Madge told him she needed to go out to the drugstore to
buy makeup. He let her go, but sent one of his henchmen
to escort her. At the drugstore, Madge didn't buy
cosmetics. She bought a box of mercury bichloride
tablets -- a powerful poison. This was the era before
antibiotics and mercury bichloride was sometimes used to
treat external infections. It was also a pesticide and
women sometimes used it to induce abortion.
Back at the hotel Madge swallowed six tablets. She had
intended to take all 18, but she started vomiting before
she could finish them. When Stephenson realized what
she'd done he had a choice. He could take her
immediately to a doctor there in Hammond.
But he didn't. Instead he had his men put her in a car
and began the long drive back to Indianapolis. That
drive took four or five hours in those days.
Madge lived with her parents in Irvington not far from
mansion. When their daughter didn't return as
expected, George and Matilda Oberholtzer
watched all the trains coming into Union Station the
next morning, but she wasn't on any of them. While they
were away from the house one of Stephenson's men carried
Madge through the door and up the stairs, put her on a
bed and left.
Although Madge finally got medical attention, by that
point the poison had been in her system too long and all
the doctor could do was pump her stomach and wait.
The doctor, John Kingsbury, would later testify that
Madge had bruises from her face down to her ankles and
open wounds all over her chest. Those wounds, he said,
appeared to have been made by human teeth.
In the coming days, as Madge lingered, her parents had
a lawyer meticulously write down every word of her
story. The lawyer, Asa Smith, took the statement to
Marion County Prosecutor Will Remy. Madge died a few weeks
The Stephenson trial was moved to Noblesville in
Hamilton County where a jury was selected and the trial
began in late October and the first half of November,
1925. Stephenson himself never testified. Remy brought
in Madge's mother and the doctor who treated her, both
of whom described the extent of her injuries. She had a
deep bite mark on her cheek and many more down her
Led by noted Indianapalis attorney Ephraim Inman,
Stephenson's defense team pressed the point that Madge
had taken her own life. She bought the poison and took
it voluntarily in secret. The prosecution brought in
medical witnesses who said Madge may have died from
infection due to her extensive external injuries. If she
died from the poison, they said, she would have had a
better chance of survival had Stephenson taken her to a
doctor up in Hammond instead of delaying treatment for
five crucial hours.
On Nov. 14 the jury found Stephenson guilty of
murder in the second degree. Stephenson's two bodyguards
from the train trip were acquitted.
A week later the once-mighty D.C. Stephenson was on his
way to the Indiana State Prison facing a life sentence.
Stephenson had probably expected to be pardoned by his
Ed Jackson whom Stephenson had gotten elected.
He'd gotten a lot of people elected, including newly
elected Indianapolis Mayor John L. Duvall.
From each candidate Stephenson had helped, he'd gotten
something in return -- a signed contract pledging
loyalty to Stephenson. He had kept all of these and when
he realized there would be no pardon he began releasing
these documents to the press and to a grand jury which
had been impaneled to investigate political corruption
in the state.
Release from prison:
Stephenson, who had reached the pinnacle of his power
while still in his early 30s and was only 34 at the time
of his conviction, grew old in prison. Sentenced to
life, he spent the next 25 years in prison and was was
granted a parole by Gov. Henry Schricker in 1950.
However, eight months later he violated the terms of his
parole sent back to prison until 1956 when he was again
released. He was released again in 1956 and lived
another 10 years, dying in obscurity in Jonesborough
Tennessee on June 28, 1966. Records show he was arrested
in 1961 in Missouri on a charge of attempting to mollest
a 16-year-old girl, but the case apparently never went
to court and Stephenson's infamous past was not
discovered by local officials.
Sources: Indianapolis Star and News clippings;
"Grand Dragon: D.C. Stephenson and the Ku Klux Klan,"
by M William Lutholtz, 1993.