The Worcester Klan Meeting & Riot of 1924

posted by Mike on August 27th, 2018

KLANSMEN BEATEN IN STREETS, CARS STONED, WOMEN INJURED

Thus read the front page of the Worcester Telegram, October 19, 1924.

There was a KKK in Worcester, and a weird one. It’s worth explaining how the Worcester Klan ended up being a half-Swedish organization that directed its hatred towards Irish and Italians, not blacks.

The first version of the KKK or “First Klan,” was a racist terrorist group formed in the wake of the Civil War. It died out in the 1880s. Then, in 1915, the smash pro-Klan film “Birth of a Nation” inspired a rebirth of the movement, the “Second Klan.” It really took off in 1920 when it adopted aspects of multilevel marketing, with some Klan recruiters getting rich and Klansmen buying lots of crap from the national organization like helmets and even robes—DIY Klan gear was frowned upon.

The KKK had a whole menu of hatred to choose from, whether anti-Mormon, anti-semitic, anti-black, anti-immigrant, or anti-Catholic. Worcester Klansmen were especially interested in these last two. A boom in immigration from Catholic areas like Ireland and Italy was putting pressure on the labor market. (Immigrants were a huge part of Worcester in the 20s, when only 70% of the population was native-born.) Klan membership was a way to push back. (The Worcester Klan was a little more upscale than you might think, consisting of many fewer “unskilled and menial workers” and many more “semi-skilled and skilled” workers than Worcester overall. And it was vastly more white collar than Worcester’s immigrant population.) While most Klan groups were hostile to immigrants in general, the Worcester Klan had great success recruiting among first- and second-generation Swedish immigrants. The Swedes were among the more established immigrant groups in the city, and the Klan saw Nordic peoples as being a lot better than those dirty mongrels from Southern or Eastern Europe, and on that basis an alliance was built. Worcester was comparatively very Swedish, percentage-wise the second-most Swedish city in the US (behind Minneapolis). In Kevin Hickey’s 1981 paper “The Immigrant Klan,” he estimates there were 4000 Klan members in greater Worcester in 1924, and that half were Swedish (whereas 10% of Worcesterites were Swedes). George N. Jeppson, a high-ranking executive (he would eventually be president) at the Norton Company, one of the city’s largest employers, was a big Swedish booster and had been recruiting Swedish employees for decades. So it came to be that 30% of Worcester-area Klansmen were Norton-employed Swedes, and 60% of Worcester-area Klansmen worked at Norton. The Worcester Klan even went rogue and changed one of the questions on the official KKK membership form from “Were your parents born in the United States of America?” to “Are you a Nordic American?” (Questions like “Are you a Gentile or Jew?”, “Are you of the white race or a colored race?”, and “Do you believe in White Supremacy?” remained unchanged.)

The Central Massachusetts Klan seems to have started off in outlying areas, then spread to Worcester where Clarence J. Kearney and Bertram B. Priest were the organizers. Klansmen tried keeping their identities and meetings secret (always denying involvement if asked by the press), but protests at their events were common. The area around Leominster had it especially bad. At one clash between Klansmen and anti-Klan groups (called “antis” in the press) Klansmen opened fire with a couple shotguns, leading to 6 people (including a cop) being shot non-fatally and 6 arrests (from both sides). Two Catholic schools were burned down.

Closer to Worcester, cross-burnings were held in many towns, including in front of a Catholic church in Charlton and in front of the Notre Dame convent on Plantation Street in Worcester. One Klan event at Mechanics Hall drew thousands of people on both sides. (Maine KKK head Eugene Farnsworth was the speaker, and later bragged he “never expected to get out of the city alive.”) Up to 300 antis gathered outside regular Klan meetings at Upton Methodist Church, drawing the notice of state police.

And so in October 1924 the KKK planned the largest Klan event New England had seen or would ever see. They rented the fairgrounds in Greendale and held a one-day event that drew 9,000-15,000 attendees. A thousand people wore full KKK costumes, and 2,600 people were inducted into the KKK.

(15,000 people sounds like a lot, but it’s worth noting that less than a month before, a garden party fundraiser for Worcester Boy Scout Troop 46 drew around 3,000. People were bored in 1924.)


Worcester Telegram photo

An airplane flew circles over the crowd, decorated with KKK symbols and a glowing red cross of lightbulbs on the bottom of the fuselage. (One press report described it as “like a red ruby in the sky.”) There was a fireworks show. A national Klan leader spoke against immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe and hustled the crowd to buy some $10 KKK memberships.


Worcester Gazette photo

Crowds gathered outside the fences but stayed away from the gates, where the Klan had posted guards. As midnight approached the event ended, and people began to drive home. A couple hundred yards from the main gate some kind of conflict flared up, and an anti-Klan mob began throwing rocks through their car windows. Auburn teen Michael Burke was arrested for rock-throwing (and later fined $25), and the crowd calmed down, only to get rowdy again once most of the Klansmen were gone, flipping one car and setting the fireworks technicians’ car ablaze.

Meanwhile, downtown things got crazy. Most of the Klansmen were from out of town, so they drove through that part of the city to get home. Sometime after midnight, 800 antis gathered at Harrington Corner, where Main Street and Pleasant Street meet near City Hall. (As a point of comparison, if you’ve been at a very large demonstration at City Hall that’s about 2,000 people.) They yelled anti-Klan insults at the passing cars, and if anyone yelled back they threw rocks through their windows. Dozens of men, half a dozen women, and one cop were injured that night. The newspapers noted that occasionally the mob “climbed on the running boards of machines and assaulted the occupants.” As well “one victim of the crowd was dragged from his machine on Federal street and severely beaten by a mob of young men. He left a trail of blood when he made his escape through Allen court.” At one point 50 antis “commandeered passing automobiles” to chase a Klan car down Southbridge Street. (It escaped.)

All this continued for several hours. When the KKK figured out that their route home contained a riot, they started leaving via Lincoln Square or Chadwick Square, and part of the mob dashed to these places to harass them. In Lincoln Square, Klansmen Roy Salten and Richard Whitten brandished revolvers and were arrested. (The charges were later dropped in court. Also, Whitten identified as a “Nova Scotian.”) A couple others were charged with things like disturbing the peace or, in one case, driving at night with no headlights (after the mob had ripped out his headlight cables).

The debate afterward was pretty much the same thing you’d expect nowadays after antifascist violence. The newspapers condemned the Klan while spending considerably more ink condemning the antis. There were various arguments about the right to peaceable free speech vs. people conspiring to oppress large chunks of the populace. The state Democratic Party had been gleefully condemning the Klan by name, while the Republicans condemned “any organized effort to create racial or religious prejudice” while not naming names. The city council had a bunch of debates (in which one Councilor said he’d been at Harrington Corner and the mob were not “hoodlums”) and took a bunch of votes, none of any consequence. A bunch of people blamed Mayor O’Hara, but really what could he have done? His Democratic opponent in the mayoral election said he planned to ban Klan meetings if elected, that he felt his views reflected those of the great Worcesterite and Senator (and Republican) George Frisbie Hoar, that “the most anti-American thing in America is the Ku Klux Klan,” and lost the election. Klan leaders and their supporters were defiant, with Rev. U.H. Layton of Trowbridge Memorial Methodist Church saying “every stone thrown at the Klansmen will mean one thousand new members.”

Burning crosses popped up in the middle of a pond in West Upton, and on the hillside behind a GOP parade in Clinton, sparking another little riot. (Everybody blamed everybody else for the cross.)

Klan riots were common nationwide. Two days after the Worcester riot, Detroit police used tear gas to disperse a crowd of 10,000 Klan sympathizers trying to keep people from attending a talk by the president of the National Anti-Klan Association (who was, weirdly enough, very into white supremacy).

One of the more interesting consequences of the Worcester Klan Meeting & Riot happened in nearby Milford. The driver for the fire department, Adna Hutchins, had long been suspected by other firemen of being a Klansman. There was not much Klan activity in Milford, but they figured he was frequenting the vibrant Klan scene in adjacent Upton. He was spotted at the Worcester rally, and all doubt was removed. At an emergency meeting, the other firemen unanimously demanded Hutchins resign, and said they would not ride in any firetruck he was driving. The people in charge of the department subsequently demanded he resign, and when Hutchins refused he was suspended and they hired a new driver. (For the one fire that happened in the interim, the chief drove the truck.)


Worcester Telegram

At some point in 1925, the Worcester Klan collapsed. This reflects the nationwide fate of the Second Klan, which like so many pyramid schemes boomed before falling apart overnight. The Klan went from half a million members in 1921 to 4 million in 1925 to less than half a million in 1926 to basically nobody in 1928.

Opposition to racist or fascist organizing in Worcester was mostly not riot-based in the following decades. The closest thing to an exception in recent years was when the wannabe-nazi group NEWP attempted to hold an organizing meeting at the Worcester Public library in 2011, at which a dozen masked opponents showed up, the emcee was brained with a bike lock, and the meeting was then adjourned.

Many thanks to the passionate librarians of the Worcester Historical Museum and the Worcester Public Library for their help in researching this article. Al Southwick’s writing on Worcester history was, as always, a big inspiration.

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One Comment Leave a comment.

  1. On August 27, 2018 at 09:55 Mike said:

    Footnote:

    I am reluctant to explain why “It is not likely that a KKK airplane was shot down at the Klan rally” because it’s so easy to forget “It is not likely that” and just remember the juicy part, “a KKK airplane was shot down at the Klan rally.”

    Paul Robinson of Spencer occasionally got work flying a KKK plane at Klan rallies or as an uninvited part of non-Klan airshows. It had “KKK” painted on one side and Klan symbols on the other. Lightbulbs formed a glowing red cross underneath the fuselage.

    Journalists in Worcester writing about the rally that day said that the plane was one of the highlights. After flying around awhile, it landed suddenly in a nearby field. A rumor started it had been shot down. Journalists observed a “bullet hole” but were told it had been there awhile. (As well you might expect a plane with a lightshow underneath might have the stray drill hole.) Robinson fixed what he said was a clog in the fuel line and was back up flying.

    If the plane was shot down: Why was Robinson eager to continue flying? (The Second Klan was a secrecy-obsessed pyramid scheme, not a hotbed of martyrs.) If the plane was shot down: Why wasn’t the plane, lit up like a Christmas tree, shot down again? If the plane was shot down: Why didn’t anything else that crazy happen that day? If the plane was shot down: Why didn’t the Klan, like modern American fascists always eager the play the victim, make a huge deal about it?

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