Madge Augustine Oberholtzer
(10 November 1896
– 14 April 1925
) was an American schoolteacher who was born in Clay City, Indiana
, grew up in Fulton County, Indiana
, and worked in an Indiana state program to combat illiteracy
. She was a key figure in the downfall of the 1920s Ku Klux Klan
Events of the case
On 15 March 1925
, David Curtiss Stephenson
, a powerful political figure (then a member of the Republican Party
, earlier a member of the Democratic Party
, and “Grand Dragon” (state leader) of the Ku Klux Klan, kidnapped Oberholtzer after enticing her from her parents' home to his. Stephenson took her onto his private train
car and forced her to drink. He then raped her while the train went towards Chicago. Stephenson also chewed and bit Oberholtzer all over her body. A doctor who examined her later on said that these injuries and the resulting infection could have itself been fatal. One historian described her condition as akin to having been “chewed by a cannibal”. On the second day of her ordeal in an Indiana hotel
, Oberholtzer attempted to shoot herself, but was foiled by Stephenson. Oberholtzer then purchased mercuric chloride
tablets under the guise of shopping for something else, and consumed them in another attempt at suicide
. She was discovered vomiting blood by Stephenson and his companions, and they drove her back to Indianapolis
. Before leaving his house she threatened him, saying “The law will get their hands on you!” He laughed and said, “I am the law.” Stephenson's Klan connections gave him a good deal of political power in the state.
When Oberholtzer got home, she sought medical attention, though it was too late. With what strength she had left she accused Stephenson and, dying of mercury poisoning, made a deathbed statement on 28 March detailing her treatment at his hands. Oberholtzer died on 14 April from an infection and kidney failure, and Stephenson was indicted on charges of rape and second-degree murder. His lawyer's defense was that Oberholtzer had committed suicide. The prosecution pointed out that Madge had vomited so violently that there might not have been enough mercury to prove fatal and that prompt medical attention could have saved her. During closing statements, Stephenson was decried as a “destroyer of virtue and womanhood”. He was found guilty of second degree murder, and was sentenced to life in prison.
The assault on Oberholtzer by Stephenson outraged many members of the Klan to the point that entire lodges left the Klan as a group. By 20 February 1928 Indiana Klan rosters had decreased from over 178,000 members to approximately 4,000 members.
Stephenson was paroled on 23 March 1950, but violated parole by disappearing on or before 25 September 1950. On 15 December 1950, he was captured in Minneapolis, and directed in 1951 to serve a further 10 years in prison. On 22 December 1956, he was paroled again, on the condition that he leave Indiana and never return. In 1961, he was arrested on charges of sexually assaulting a sixteen-year-old girl, but the charges were dropped on grounds of insufficient evidence. He died in 1966.
Madge Oberholtzer is buried in Memorial Park Cemetery in Indianapolis.
Actress Mel Harris portrayed her in the TV mini-series Cross of Fire (1989).