Evidence Exposed a Crumbling Klan: KKK v. John F. Strayer et. al.

Today’s post comes from Grace DiAgostino, an archives technician in Research Services at the National Archives at Philadelphia.

Women of the Ku Klux Klan on parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, DC, 1928. (Records of the U.S. Information Agency, National Archives)

The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) is one of the most infamous hate groups in American history.

Founded in the aftermath of the Civil War as a social club, the KKK throughout the 19th and 20th centuries engaged in lynching, instigated riots, and hosted demonstrations.

Although commonly known for their use of extralegal methods, the KKK took a more orthodox approach in 1928 when they took five former members to court for falsely operating as a legitimate unit outside of the national organization.

The case, Ku Klux Klan v. John F. Strayer et al., contains revealing affidavits from both the plaintiff and defendants, all of which are riddled with drama and accusations.

Exhibit Y, photograph of KKK tally, from  Ku Klux Klan v. John F. Strayer et al. case file. (Records of the United States District Court, National Archives at Philadelphia)

While the case itself offers an insightful look into the decline and fall of an increasingly fractured Klan of the late 1920s, some of the most interesting evidence and testimony was completely unrelated to the dispute in question.

In Ku Klux Klan v. John F. Strayer et al., the KKK brought suit against banished klansmen John F. Strayer, Dr. Chas S. Hunter, Dr Charles F. Oyer, Van A. Barrickman and William C Davis in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.

The KKK asserted that the defendants were no longer entitled to use the Klan’s name, privileges, rights or regalia.

According to the KKK, they “falsely, fraudulently, and maliciously represented to the membership of this plaintiff, and the public in general in Pennsylvania, that they are members of good standing of the plaintiff organization.”

The Klan estimated that the damage done to their reputation alone was worth $50,000. They also claimed that they were owed an additional $50,000 for robes, helmets, lodge altars, flags, bibles, officers’ robes and helmets, records, books, papers and membership dues still held in the defendants’ possession.

Ku Kliux Klan propaganda flyer, 1922. (National Archives Identifier 6857739)

Asking the court for legal aid was ill-advised, however, as the judge had no sympathy for the organization. The opinion from the bench stated that the KKK “could hardly hope for judicial assistance from a Court of the United States” and that they had “come in vain asking for the Court of Equity for injunctive or other relief.”

Through various testimonies, the judge had found that the Ku Klux Klan had been responsible for numerous horrific crimes in western Pennsylvania.

Some of their crimes included the kidnapping of a three-year-old child who was never found in Beaver County, the kidnapping and beating of an African American man in Allegheny County, and a deadly riot in Carnegie, Pennsylvania, on August 25, 1923.

The court also found evidence that Imperial Wizard Hiram Wesley Evans was directly responsible for the Carnegie riot, having been present and given the command to march after the local authorities denied their request to have a demonstration.

Included in the evidence submitted by the defense was the original charter of the second Ku Klux Klan, which stated that “the purpose and object of said corporation is to be purely benevolent and eleemosynary, and there shall be no capital or profit, or gain to the members thereof.”

The court found that although the Klan had been chartered as a patriotic and benevolent society, it had been operating under that guise to carry out a form of despotic rule, flouting laws, and constantly violating its own charter and constitution.

Judge Thomson stated that the Klan’s criminal activities successfully “stirred up racial and religious prejudices, fomented disorder, and encouraged riots and unlawful assemblies, which have resulted in flagrant breaches of peace, defiance of the law, bloodshed and loss of life.”

The Klan’s plea was denied, and the bill was dismissed at their expense.

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Exhibit A, image of Robbie Gill Comer, Imperial Commander of the Women of the Ku Klux Klan, from Ku Klux Klan v. John F. Strayer et al. case file. (Records of the United States District Court, National Archives at Philadelphia)

The defense submitted affidavits and exhibits in order to defame and vilify the plaintiff organization, which they did successfully. One especially interesting affidavit included an unexpected exhibit: a photograph of the Imperial Commander of the Women of the Ku Klux Klan (WKKK) in full regalia and a bejeweled crown.

The defense alleged that Imperial Wizard Hiram Wesley Evans had purchased a $30,000 diamond-encrusted crown for  Imperial Commander Robbie Gill Comer. The photograph was used to highlight the inappropriate use of Klan funds and the intra-organizational conflict.

The WKKK, formed in 1923, consisted of existing pro-Klan women’s groups, such as the Grand League of Protestant Women, the White American Protestants, and the Ladies of the Invisible Empire. It was created to act as an auxiliary to the male-based Ku Klux Klan.

Similarly, the Women of the Ku Klux Klan accepted only white, Protestant, American-born women in to their ranks and shared the same anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, anti-immigrant, and anti-black sentiments as their male complement.

As the head of the organization, Robbie Gill Comer published and circulated many pamphlets in order to promote Klan ideals in the home and lives of WKKK members.

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The Equality of Women pamphlet, an exhibit from Ku Klux Klan v. John F. Strayer et al. case file. (National Archives at Philadelphia)

One of Comer’s pamphlets, The Equality of Women, detailed how vital the WKKK was to their cause, and that women’s ability to vote was “a power in the preservation of America for Americans in our home life and in the development of the ballot now, and we will vote with our men for right men and right programs and right government.”

In addition to their newly acquired ability to vote, the WKKK also placed great importance in their roles within the promotion of the Klan’s national agenda, particularly as mothers and caretakers.

Comer’s reign came to an abrupt end in 1925, when a fellow Klanswoman revealed that Comer had secretly spent $70,000 in organizational funds on unsanctioned or personal items. After the scandal, the Women of the Ku Klux Klan fractured internally, and membership plummeted. The group had dissolved completely by the early 1930s.

Amid the collapse of the WKKK, the KKK began a downward spiral, as membership plunged to less than 1 percent of what the group had achieved at the height of the movement.

As the proceedings of Ku Klux Klan v. Rev. John F. Strayer et al. revealed the crimes of the KKK in Pennsylvania, the Klan was also receiving negative media attention across the country. A particularly notable scandal was the rape, murder, and partial cannibalization of a school teacher by the Grand Dragon of Indiana.

The negative press exposed much of the Ku Klux Klan’s internal dissonance, and suddenly association with the Klan was no longer socially advantageous. By the end of the 1930s, the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan had also collapsed due to a series of financial issues, legal scandals, and internal battles.

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