Thursday, June 1, 2023

The Ku Klux Klan in Southern Illinois in 1875.

The first Klan was established on December 24, 1865, in Pulaski, Tennessee, a group of Confederate veterans convenes to form a secret society that they christen the “Ku Klux Klan” in the wake of the Civil War and was a defining organization of the Reconstruction era. Former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest was the Ku Klux Klan’s first grand wizard.

Organized in numerous independent chapters across the Southern United States, federal law enforcement suppressed it around 1871. It sought to overthrow the Republican state governments in the South, especially by using voter intimidation and targeted violence against African-American leaders. Each chapter was autonomous and highly secretive about membership and plans.

The second Klan started in 1915 as a small group in Georgia. It suddenly started to grow after 1920 and flourished nationwide in the early and mid-1920s, including urban areas of the Midwest and West.

The third and current manifestation of the Klan emerged after 1950 in the form of localized and isolated groups that use the Ku Klux Klan name. They have focused on opposition to the civil rights movement, often using violence and murder to suppress activists.

The Ku Klux Klan in Southern Illinois operated between 1867 and 1875 in seven counties — Franklin, Williamson, Jackson, Saline, Johnson, Union, and Pope. The "worst Klan years" were in 1874 and 1875.

Acute lead poisoning had overtaken a number of members of the original gang in 1875, and I suggested the same "remedy" for the then-current epidemic of night riding.
At the time I wrote my newspaper article Klansmen were so numerous throughout the southern part of the state that few people dared to speak or write disparagingly about the organization for fear of a boycott in one form or another. Nor would many newspapers publish anything detrimental to the interests of the Klan. One exception was Edwin Rackaway, the Mt. Vernon Register-News editor, who never missed an opportunity to tell the white-hooded hoodlums what he thought of them. Many other newspapers reprinted my story after he had taken the lead. 

On the July afternoon that the article appeared, squads of supposed Klansmen could be seen reading the paper, gesticulating, and pointing toward my office. Many of them were predicting, so my friends told me that I had ruined myself socially and financially and that I would certainly have to leave the county if I expected to continue the practice of medicine. I also received a number of anonymous letters criticizing my attitude toward the Klan and the Masons, who were said to have united with the Klan in their earlier escapades. 

Some of my critics said that my story about Klan activities in Franklin and Williamson counties in the decade after the Civil War was a pipe dream, that nothing of the kind had ever happened and that my article would be refuted in a few days. Of course, it never was.

The Klan's defeat and downfall in 1875 resulted when a posse ambushed a gang of fourteen-night riders at the farm of John B. Maddox in Franklin County (the Maddox farm was three or four miles northeast of West Frankfort). I knew several posse members personally; my brother had lived at the Maddox home while teaching school in the neighborhood, and one of the Maddox daughters was my aunt by marriage. I had heard the story from several sources and knew what I was writing about. More recently, I have come across a copy of The History of Williamson County) Illinois by Milo Erwin, an attorney, which was published at Marion in 1876, and also a scrapbook kept by W. S. Cantrell of Benton in which are pasted newspaper clippings of the time the raid took place. These publications confirm and expand my statements about the Klan some thirty years ago. 

The earliest mention of the Klan in the Franklin-Williamson section is contained in Erwin's history: 

On April 15, 1872, Isaac Vancil, the first white man born in this Williamson] county, a man seventy-three years old, living on Big Muddy, was notified to leave the country or suffer death. He did not obey the order, and on the night of the 22nd, ten men in disguise as Ku Klux rode up to his house, took him out about a mile down the river, and put a skinned pole in the forks of two saplings and hung him, and left him hanging. The next morning, when he was found, all around was still, blank and lifeless. Vancil was an honest, hardworking man but had some serious faults. Still, God gave an equal right to live and none the right to deal death and ruin in a land of peace. Soon after his death, eighteen men were arrested in Franklin county, charged with the murder, but all were acquitted." 

There was an off-and-on continuance of Klan activity for the next two years, and Erwin records some of it: 

During the summer of 1874, there was an organization of fifteen men near Carrier's Mills in Saline County who extended their operations up into Williamson County. They called themselves "Regulators," dressed in disguise, and went around to set things in order. They did not injure any person but simply notified those whom they thought were out of line on domestic duty and even in financial affairs to fall into line again. They generally gave the victim such a scare that he was willing to do anything to be left alone. Such a band is a disgrace to any civilized country, but no serious results or disparaging influence came from this one. 

There was probably an organization of a more serious character in this county. Several men were taken out and whipped, and some ten or fifteen were warned to leave the county. This was during the years 1874-5.

On the night of October 23, 1874, a party of twenty men in disguise visited the family of Henry D. Carter in Northern Precinct, Thompsonville, Franklin County, and ordered him to leave the county within four days, whereupon a fight took place, and twenty-two balls were lodged in his house. In a few days, fifty-two men met in arms at the County Line Church in daylight and ordered six of the Carters to leave the county. Mr. Carter wrote their names to Governor Beveridge, imploring protection. The Governor wrote to Jennings, the state's attorney of Williamson County, to enforce the law, and of course, that ended it." 

The Carters must have given a pretty good account of themselves in holding the fort because Dr. Randall Poindexter of Cave Township, Franklin County, was called out that night to treat several of his neighbors who were suffering from lead poisoning.

At this time, the headquarters of the Ku Klux gang that infested Franklin and Williamson counties were at a village with a bad name and a bad reputation known as "Sneak Out." It was located in Franklin County on the west bank of Ewing Creek, where the road between Benton and Thompsonville crossed it. Members of this gang wore the usual white robes and high peaked hats and had their horses covered with sheets. They traveled over the country in the dead of night and visited isolated farm homes where they called out the occupants and warned or threatened them about their conduct.

Early in August 1875, Bill Jacobs, a Mason who had recently joined the Klan, notified Captain John Hogan and John B. Maddox that they were soon to be visited by the night riders. The latter was also a Mason, and Jacobs thought more highly of his Masonic connections than of the Klan. Maddox, at the time, was one of the commissioners of Franklin County, a successful farmer and perhaps the wealthiest man in the Crawford's Prairie section where he lived. (Maddox lived on the western edge of Crawford's Prairie, which was about 2½ miles east and west and 1½ miles north and south, and ½ mile wide.) Hogan, likewise, was a respected citizen and had served in the Union Army. He had gone to California in a covered wagon during the gold rush and spent several years there. 

Captain Hogan did not propose taking orders from the Klan, so he went to Springfield to seek the aid of Governor Beveridge. He told the Governor of conditions in Franklin County and said that if given the authority and means, he could raise a volunteer company and arrest the Klansmen. The Governor advised Hogan to go back to Franklin County and to cooperate with Sheriff James F. Mason in organizing a volunteer company. He also said that the state would provide a hundred muskets and ammunition for the group. 

On his return to Benton, Captain Hogan met with Maddox and Sheriff Mason and discussed the matter, with the result that a "reception committee" of thirty or forty men armed with shotguns and revolvers gathered at the Maddox home on the evening of August 16, the date set by the Klan for its visit. Bill Jacobs had told Maddox that the Klansmen planned to approach from the south, where there was a lane bordered by stake-and-rider fences. The posse, under the command of Sheriff Mason, blocked this lane at the end near the house with threshing machines, wagons and other farm implements and lay in wait for the raiders.

At 2 am on August 17, 1875, the Klansmen, fourteen of them, rode silently up the lane, two abreast, fully covered by their long white robes, high white hats and masks. In the grim darkness, they were, as one of the posse described them, "enough to frighten the devil." When the leader reached the barricade, Sheriff Mason and Robert H. Flannigan stepped out of their hiding places, and the Sheriff commanded the group to halt and surrender. The leader answered by firing his pistol at the Sheriff but missed his target.

The Klansmen then wheeled their animals, attempting to escape back down the lane, and the posse opened fire. When the smoke of battle had cleared away they found one wounded Klansman, John Duckworth, lying in the road, shot in the neck. Also, there was one dead horse, a live horse belonging to one of Maddox's neighbors with its saddle filled with shot, a mule belonging to another neighbor with a saddle that had been borrowed from Maddox's son a few days earlier, and numerous bloody robes discarded on the route.

Duckworth was carried into the Maddox home, where he was examined by Dr. Thomas David Ray of Frankfort Heights, a member of the posse. Dr. Ray thought the man was mortally wounded and told him so. Believing he was making a deathbed confession Duckworth told all that he knew about the Klan. 

Only one of the fourteen-night riders escaped from the battlefield with his skin whole. The horse with the saddle filled with shot was identified as belonging to Green Cantrell, who lived two miles east of Maddox. He was arrested and taken to Benton, where Dr. Zachariah Hickman picked more than forty shot out of the posterior of his anatomy, and the Benton paper commented: "How many shot must be embedded in the carcass of a klansman before a human would consider him wounded? One of the Ku Klux Klan's captured had forty-one shots in him and still persisted in saying he was not injured."

The dead horse had been ridden by George Proctor and belonged to his father, an aged minister. Young Proctor was wounded in the heel but was helped away by another Klansman. The next morning the two of them were found in the straw stack of Henry Hunt, a neighbor of my father" who lived twenty miles from the Maddox farm. They had ridden one horse from the scene. On the day after the battle, the citizens of Benton called a meeting and passed resolutions that said:

We, as law-abiding and peaceable citizens of Franklin County ... do hereby cordially endorse the action of the Sheriff and his posse in their conduct last night; and ... we condemn in the strongest manner, these armed and disguised marauders, and ... to their suppression and the maintenance of the laws and liberties of our citizens, we do hereby pledge our lives and money."

Another result was the formation of a "military company," as authorized by Governor Beveridge, to "assist the Sheriff in the execution of the Laws, and be subjected to his orders." 

About sixty men were enrolled, and John Hogan was elected captain; G. S. Hubbard, first lieutenant; J. L. Harrell, second lieutenant; R. H. Flannigan, third lieutenant; and William Drummond, orderly sergeant. Following the organization of this company, a number of the Klansmen were arrested and brought before a United States Commissioner. A newspaper clipping in the Cantrell collection gives the following exciting account: 


Centralia, Illinois, August 28, 1875 - Deputy United States Marshalls, John H. Hogan] and James F. Mason, with a number of guards armed with shot-guns and revolvers, arrived at this place last night at 7 o'clock, in charge of Aaron Neal, the reputed grand master of the Franklin County Ku-Klux, or Golden Ring, and Green M. Cantrell, John Duckworth, Williamson Briley, James Lannlus, James Abshear, and Frank Fleming, who are said to be members of his band of night riders. The railroad platform was densely crowded with people, all anxious to catch a glimpse of the live Ku Klux, and the only thing necessary to make the reception an ovation was a brass band. 

Proceeding Commenced at 20 minutes past 9 this morning, United States Commissioner Zabadee Curlee of Tamaroa, assisted by Wm. Stoker of Centralia, organized into a United States commissioners' court for the trial of the prisoners upon the complaint and information of John H. Hogan and Wm. W. Jacobs, the last named member of the Golden Ring, under sections 5,507 and 5,508 of the United States statutes, chapter 7, entitled "Crimes against the elective franchise and civil rights of citizens." 

The complaint and information against Neal were made by John H. Hogan, that he did the band and conspire with other persons, and did go with them in disguise upon a public highway in Franklin County, and upon the premises of one John B. Maddox, injure, oppress, threaten and intimidate the true right, the exercise and enjoyment of which the said Maddox was entitled to, the right and privilege thereof being guaranteed to him by the constitution and laws of the United States.

Mr. John B. Maddox was the first witness. He testified that he had lived in Franklin since 1837, that he had received notice from Mr. William W. Jacobs through Mr. John H. Hogan of the proposed attack upon him by members of the band who were repulsed in his lane on the night of that day. On cross-examination, he testified that his relations with Neal were of a friendly character. Mr. W. W. Jacobs testified that he was initiated into the Ku Klux or Golden Ring on July 29. He was sworn into the organization.

The objective of the band was to do simply as it pleased without regard to law or anything else. Calvin Moore administered the oath to him. Neal was present at that time and was also present with the band in the battle of Maddox's Lane. Several other persons were sworn in the same night. A witness was detained til a uniform came and then proceeded toward Crawford's Prairie. When we were within two or three miles of the prairie, several men in uniform and mounted dashed up behind us. We then dressed in uniform and went to Brown's; then to Calvin Moore's; then to James Moore's; then to Rice's, and then Maddox's. Neal was with us during all this time. We were at Brown's at about 11 or 12 o'clock. We inquired at Brown's where he was, and so forth and so on, and about a gun he had. Fourteen of us were at Brown's, all disguised. I think Neal professed to act as our captain. He and Calvin Moore gave commands. We went to Brown's to whip him. We had given orders which he had not complied with, and we were going to whip him and broke the gun he had.

We then went to Maddox's to give him orders. When we left the main road, we debated whether we should go to Maddox's. We decided to do so, and when we got into Maddox's lane, I thought I saw someone run across it near the house. As we came up in front of the house, I heard the command "Halt" and the order to surrender in the name of the people of the State of Illinois. I next heard a cap burst; next, a pistol shot. All of us wheeled, and the firing commenced. I saw Neal's mule run past me. Neal rode up on the mule but was not on it when it passed me. I heard that it was the intention to give Maddox orders first, whip him if he disobeyed, and hang him if he persisted in disobedience.

We went to Brown's to whip him because he had accused people wrongfully. We went to Maddox's because he had been a little too free with women and with Rice's wife. We intended to talk to Maddox, and if he didn't come out to fetch him out.

Mr. John Duckworth, the wounded Ku Klux, then took the stand as a witness for the prosecution. His evidence was a little confusing. He testified that he had been a member of the Golden Ring for about three months; that he had been initiated with Jacobs, who testified that he became a member less than a month ago. He was initiated in Eli Sommers' lot. Jacobs testified that he was initiated by Hiram Summers', a whiskey seller at Sneakout. Neal acted as captain or, as the members designated him, grand master. He was at Maddox's and rode a mule. I had a pistol. Calvin Moore had a gun, and George Proctor had a gun. The object of the organization was to make fellows da as we wanted them to.

The law could not get at us. We gave a man orders, and if he did not obey, we whipped him and would hang him. If he did not, then obey. Neal was alone at the time of the Maddox affair. He was in front. I was in front, too. I was shot and did not know anything more. 

Matilda Brown testified that her late husband had been visited twice by the Ku Klux. The first time was June 24. Four came and wanted water. They asked about Maddox. They were inside the house, but one only talked.

She recognized Neal by his voice. I have known him since his youth and knew his voice. I recognized Calvin Moore by his actions; by a peculiar walk; by a proud, hasty walk. I told my husband they would be back to see him. Fourteen called the second time and inquired about Brown. I told them he was in bed, sick. They asked if he had a gun and revolver. I told them no. They told me he was measuring horse tracks and must stop that in the country. I recognized the voice of Calvin Moore on the second visit. My sick husband was frightened. He didn't appear like the same man and died the next day. I think fright hastened his death. Dr. Thomas David Ray testified that he was waiting on Brown at the visit by the Ku Klux and thought the excitement hastened his death.

The second case against Neal, of conspiring with others to injure, oppress and intimidate citizens, was submitted on the same evidence. The cases were submitted without argument. Commissioner Stoker, Commissioner Curlee being absent from the room, having been attacked by sickness, dismissed the second case against Neal as insufficient and said he would consult with Commissioner Curlee on the first case and announce his decision after supper. The court here adjourned at half-past 7 o'clock.

After a conference of several hours, United States Commissioner Curlee decided to hold Cantrell in fifteen hundred dollars bond and Briley in one thousand. The sum is considered low, and regret and indignation are expressed that Neal, the leader, should have been let off on a two thousand dollars bond.

In a long talk with Captain John Hogan, who was Captain of the Franklin County Militia, I gathered some interesting facts. It is owing to Captain Hogan that the first organized resistance was made to the Klan. He provoked their hostility by prosecuting Hiram Sommers, of the Klan, for selling his boy whisky and was warned to pay Sommers back the amount of the fine of $100 and costs. He was to have been visited on the 20th inst., and on a second warning, was to have been hung. He aroused Maddox and Sheriff Mason and procured necessary arms and accouterments from Governor Beveridge to form a militia company for the arrest of the offenders. The arms were furnished by the State, which of course, also bears the expense of their subsistence.

A careful estimate shows that nearly fifteen hundred men are more or less directly connected or in sympathy with the band in Franklin, Williamson and adjoining counties. Aaron Neal, the leader, is an old member of the Southern Ku Klux Klan. 

Great credit is due to W. W. Jacobs, who has voluntarily exposed the Klan and its membership. He joined it for the purpose of exposing and breaking up the organization. Another object he had was to discover the murderer of old man Vancil, who was hung by a band of Ku Klux for disobedience of their orders about two years ago. Several men were arrested for the murder but had to be discharged after the main witnesses against them had been shot and killed. It has been discovered through Duckworth, Jacobs and others that Aaron Neal, Calvin Moore and a man named Jesse Cavins were all present at, if they did not assist in, the hanging of Vancil. This brutal murder will probably never be avenged. 

The passwords of the Klan were simple. On meeting a supposed member, they would put their hands in their pants pockets and move the pinky fingers on the outside. If he was a member, he responded by moving his coat by the lapels with his hands or the lapels of his vest by the same means. Then, taking him by the hand, they would put two fingers on his hand between the thumb and first finger, and if he was a member he would say something about doing well. The last two spoken words were the passwords and were sufficient if used in any sort of phrase. 

So far as reports indicate, no member of the first Ku Klux Klansmen, even those who were caught red-handed, was ever convicted in Franklin County. However, the dose of lead poisoning administered by Sheriff Mason, Captain Hogan and their posse was an effective cure for Klan activities in 1875. 

The Ku Klux Klan reorganized in southern Illinois in 1923.
A Ku Klux Klan Wedding, 1926


By Andy Hall, M.D., 1953
Edited by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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