Looking Back: The Local Klan

In 1920s, KKK’s reach extended into Highlands

By Chip Rowe

The Ku Klux Klan, which has been in the news lately, had its heyday in the 1920s, following the social upheaval of World War I. Although there was pushback from millions of Americans, white supremacists were embraced, or at least tolerated, in many places in New York state, including the Highlands, and across the country.

The Klan presented itself as a patriotic, fraternal organization while targeting Catholics, Jews, immigrants and blacks, in that order. According to social historians, its rhetoric was appealing to dispossessed white Americans who longed for a simpler time when everyone “knew their place.”

At its peak in 1924, the Klan had 6 million members. By 1930, that had dwindled to 30,000 (today it is 3,000 to 6,000, in about 190 chapters). Historians generally blame corruption within the organization and exposure of its hypocrisy by newspapers and civil-rights activists for the sharp decline. Here are news items gleaned from local newspapers from the time:

Sept. 23, 1921

The Republican County Committee, led by U.S. Rep. Hamilton Fish, met in Carmel to adopt its platform, which included a resolution denouncing the Klan as “un-American” because of its campaign to “to arouse religious and racial hatred.” The resolution also urged “drastic state and national legislation to suppress its pernicious activities which threaten to undermine the Constitution and respect for law and order.” (Putnam County Courier)

June 30, 1923

After a 12-foot cross was lit on Burned Hill at 11 p.m. at the conclusion of the annual firemen’s parade, the Daily Herald asked, “Has Beacon a branch of the Ku Klux Klan?” Newburgh is said to have about 600 members, but the paper concluded Beacon residents were joining the Peekskill branch.

Dec. 5, 1923

A burning cross visible atop Bull Hill is thought to have been placed either by “the ridiculous Ku Klux Klan” or pranksters. (Cold Spring Recorder)

April 1, 1924

During a Sunday evening service at First Methodist Church in Cold Spring, a dozen hooded Klan members marched into the sanctuary double-file and silently presented a purse with $50 in gold to the Rev. Jonas Inman. He declined to accept it unless the men removed their robes and presented the offering as “plain citizens.” Instead, the Klansmen re-formed their double column and marched out. (The Evening Star, Peekskill)

Beacon Daily Herald, March 31, 1924

July 17, 1926

As many as 7,000 people assembled for the second annual outing organized by Peekskill Klan No. 203. Armed with baseball bats, Klansmen patrolled the boundaries of the event. (The Highland Democrat, Peekskill)

July 26, 1926

Four hundred robed Klansmen gathered near the former motorcycle race course at the upper end of East Main Street in Beacon, where at 9:30 p.m. they burned a 25-foot cross and heard addresses by men “thought to be high officers in the order” while hundreds of spectators looked on. The state police directed traffic. (Beacon Daily Herald)

July 15, 1927

The Klan organizations of Westchester, Putnam and Dutchess counties scored a coup by convincing Imperial Wizard Hiram Wesley Evans to speak at the annual outing near Peekskill. The Klan claimed 24,000 men, women and children were in attendance, although a reporter estimated the crowd at closer to 10,000. Highlights included a drill by the Klan Auxiliary of Beacon and another by 1,000 white-robed figures. The day ended with fireworks. (Putnam County Courier)

A funeral procession for a Klan member at Cold Spring Cemetery in the 1920s (New York Public Library)

Sept. 14, 1927

B. Cohen, the manager of Camp Nitgedaiget in Beacon, received a letter signed “Ku Klux Klan” demanding the Jewish resort leave town. (Cold Spring Recorder)

Aug. 31, 1928

In a straw poll held in Nelsonville, “where Klan sentiment is high,” there were seven votes for Al Smith, the Democratic candidate for U.S. president (and a Catholic), and 53 for incumbent Herbert Hoover. (Putnam County Courier)

July 17, 1931

Handbills promised to have 10,000 parking spaces available for the annual field day near Peekskill and asked, “Who said the Klan was dead?” (Putnam County Courier) Apparently many people had reached that conclusion.

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11 thoughts on “Looking Back: The Local Klan

  1. We were talking about this last night. The KKK burned a cross in Altamont during the 1928 election as opposition to Al Smith. Of course the brave bastards didn’t have enough nerve to do it in Albany!

  2. This photo was from about 97 years ago. I’m sure that they may have been here then. The question is are they still here in the very same place now today? Is there any indication that they are back?

  3. I’ve lived in Dutchess County since the mid 1980s. Over the last two years, I have personally observed Confederate flags, decals, T-shirts and various other white supremacist symbols and tattoos. A few weeks ago, I untied a noose conspicuously displayed in the Poughkeepsie Home Depot.

    It appears that our current political discourse is devolving.

  4. My mom’s family immigrated into America through Canada and settled as dairy farmers on plentiful land with the shortest growing season in the eastern time zone. Even north of Potsdam, the Klan had members before World War II. That was before nation and the west were saved — in no small way — by the Klan’s enemies.

    When we were children my sainted mother would recall the pejorative slogan of her childhood that the Klan used to identify their targets: “Katholics, Kikes and Kolored.” Then she would admonish us, “… and never forget the order.”

    Protecting Freedom of Assembly is fundamental to the long-term success of our civilization. From time to time it will shine a light on cultural or societal dysfunction that needs redress. There’s no better known way to protect individual liberty than to protect the very same rights of those we abhor.