Irvington, Indiana, and the Sad Story of Madge Oberholtzer

On Saturday, I had the opportunity to meet a fellow Pi Phi with whom I have shared e-mail conversations. She loves history, too. She lives in Irvington, Indiana. From 1875-1928, Irvington was the home of Butler College (now University). Today, the only Butler University school building which survives on the Irvington campus is the former Bona Thompson Memorial Library, now known as a center rather than a library. The Center has a model of the former Butler campus as well as pictures of the campus buildings and a map of where they were located.

The first e-mail I received from my  history buff friend years ago was about verifying the membership of Madge Oberholtzer, a former resident of Irvington. She is listed in a Butler yearbook as a pledge of the Indiana Gamma chapter of Pi Beta Phi. I confirmed that she was initiated in 1916.

Madge

Madge Oberholtzer

Oberholtzer’s story is a sad one, but through her death, she played a role in the rapid decline of the Ku Klux Klan which took place in the 1920s. We drove by the Stevenson mansion and the home a few blocks away where Oberholtzer lived with her parents. When she and David Curtiss Stephenson crossed paths, Oberholtzer was manager of the Indiana Young People’s Reading Circle, a special section of the Indiana Department of Public Instruction.

Stephenson, who was Grand Dragon of the Indiana Branch of the Ku Klux Klan, and Oberholtzer met in 1925 at a gala honoring Indiana Governor Edward L. Jackson. She was helping with the distribution of name tags. Stephenson hired her to help write a book, One Hundred Years of Health. His plan was for it to be the book that would be used when the legislature required that a course in diet and health be taught in the public schools. He would make sure that the only text which filled the requirements set forth in the bill would be his book.

Some say he lured Oberholtzer to meet with him late in the evening on March 15, 1925 by saying he needed to talk about the book. Others say he told her they needed to discuss the Reading Circle program and her job, which she thought was about to be eliminated. Sometime after 10 p.m., Stephenson sent a bodyguard to Oberholtzer’s home to escort her to Stephenson’s home. After being forced to drink alcohol, she was kidnapped and put on Stephenson’s private train to Chicago. 

The Graham Stevenson House as it appears today.

The Graham Stevenson House as it appears today.

While on the train she was raped repeatedly and Stephenson bit her all over her body. There were many deep wounds from her face and neck down to her ankles. The alcohol she was forced to drink affected her ability to fight back. They never made it to Chicago. They got as far as Hammond, Indiana, where they checked into a hotel.

Oberholtzer ingested poison which she was able to purchase while being chaperoned by Stephenson’s henchmen. She became violently ill and the group headed back to Irvington. After hiding her for a short time in an apartment above Stephenson’s garage, she was taken to her family home and deposited in a bedroom. Two days had elapsed since the rape.

Her family was told she had been in a car accident. The Oberholtzers summoned a doctor. On March 28, 1925, she recounted her ordeal and signed a statement attesting to its truth so that it could be used in future legal actions. The statement of her ordeal was ultimately used to convict Stephenson. 

She died on April 14, 1925. The cause of death was a staph infection attributable to the bites. There was also kidney failure from the mercury poisoning.

During the trial her Pi Phi sisters sat in the courtroom, making the trek from Irvington to Noblesville, where the trial was held. Stephenson was convicted of second-degree murder on November 14, 1925. He was sentenced to life in prison. He was paroled in 1950 but spent a little more time in prison for violating parole. His accomplices, Earl Klinck and Earl Gentry, were acquitted.

Stephenson’s home was built in 1889 for William H. H. Graham. Before Stephenson purchased it in 1923, it was rented by the members of the Butler chapter of Kappa Kappa Gamma for use as the chapter house. Stephenson added the the Ionic portico after he purchased it. After his conviction, the home was rented to Chi Rho Zeta fraternity and Phi Delta Theta fraternity.  Soon afterwards, the chapters moved along with the rest of the University to the new location.

The Graham-Stevenson home when it was the chapter house of the Butler Unversity chapter of Kappa Kappa Gamma. (Photo courtesy of vintageirvington)

The Graham-Stevenson home when it was the chapter house of the Butler Unversity chapter of Kappa Kappa Gamma. (Photo courtesy of vintageirvington)

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Happy Founders’ Day, Kappa Kappa Gamma. Sorry not to have a Kappa post. The above picture will have to suffice for now. I promise a Kappa post in the near future, my Monmouth Duo friends.

(c) Fran Becque, www.fraternityhistory.com, 2014. All Rights Reserved. If  you enjoyed this post, please sign up for updates. Also follow me on twitter @GLOHistory and Pinterest www.pinterest.com/glohistory/

 

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