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Grand Dragon
D.C. Stephenson

He was "the law" until a girl he raped brought him down from her deathbed

By Michael Jesse

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 Stephenson's 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 later.

Stephenson's trial:

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 torso.

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.

Political fallout:

Stephenson had probably expected to be pardoned by his friend, Gov. 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.