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Fiery Cross Burns

April 29th, 2016

By Alice Askins, Education Coordinator at Rose Hill Mansion

Fiery Cross Burns on East Shore of Seneca Lake

The Boody farm, directly across Seneca Lake from Geneva’s business section, was selected for another “fiery cross” demonstration by members of the Ku Klux Klan . . . The cross was observed burning brightly about 9 o’clock Tuesday evening . . . It was . . . about 10 feet wide and sixteen feet high.  The planks were wrapped in rags soaked in oil.  The cross was clearly visible in Geneva and was seen by a number of persons (Geneva Daily Times June 5, 1924 p 12).                  

While looking for information on Rose Hill (called the Boody Farm when Edgar Boody owned it) I found this account. I had heard a little about Klan activity in the 1920s, but had never pursued the subject. Now I wondered about the history of the Ku Klux Klan in Geneva and I started poking around in the local newspapers.

The first Ku Klux Klan arose during the Reconstruction of the South after the Civil War. Wikipedia says it tried to overthrow Republican state governments, especially by violence against African American leaders. The Federal government suppressed it by the early 1870s.

In 1905, a North Carolina minister and author named Thomas Dixon Jr. published a novel called The Clansman. He described the Klan burning crosses and wearing white robes. These ideas came from Dixon’s romanticized reading of Sir Walter Scott’s novels about medieval England and Scotland. The original Klan wore many colors and did not burn crosses. In 1915, film director D. W. Griffith released the Birth of a Nation, based on Dixon’s novel and using his imagery. The film glorified the Klan, grossly insulted African Americans, and championed white supremacy.

That same year, the revived Klan adopted the white robes and burning crosses. The second Klan was founded by William Joseph Simmons in Georgia. It grew in response to perceived threats. With newspapers were full of stories about divorce, adultery, defiance of prohibition, and the rise of criminal gangs, some Americans worried about the national morals. Cities were seeing waves of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, often Catholic or Jewish, plus black and white migrants from the southern United States. Presenting itself as a Christian fraternal organization, maintaining American traditions, and strongly patriotic, the Klan grew rapidly in industrializing cities and tended to attract white middle-class whites who thought they were protecting their jobs and values.

At its peak around 1925, the Klan claimed over 4 million members. It was most popular in the Midwest and South, and at its strongest in Indiana. Most Klan members, though, did not stay in the organization for long. Membership turned over as people realized that it was not what they had wanted after all. Increasing resistance to its aims and methods, lessening social tensions, and even scandal in the order’s national leadership, all contributed to the decline of the second Klan, though it still survives in small isolated groups.

The Geneva paper, so far as I can find, did not discuss the second Klan until 1921. When it did take notice, it was largely disapproving.

The revival of the Ku-Klux-Klan is no credit to the country, even on the pretext of upholding Americanism and aiming for the supremacy of the white race. Both America and the white race are subject to the law of the survival of the fittest. They will survive if they deserve to without resort to methods of terrorism and secrecy (Geneva Daily Times August 19, 1921 p. 4).

It is noticeable, though, that the paper’s wording here suggests that “aiming for the supremacy of the white race” might be considered a legitimate goal. On September 15 of that year, the paper deplored the Klan’s “racial and religious antagonism,” and its hostility to immigrants, finding these tenets un-American.  The ambiguity seeped back in, though, when the writer declined to decide whether the Klan’s “midnight terrorism” was “perpetrated by rogues or patriots.”

In May 1922, the paper reported on the political power of the Klan, which had taken the federal government by surprise. It quoted R. L. Henry of Waco, Texas, a Klansman who was running for Senator against an incumbent who condemned the Klan. Henry said that he hoped the opposition would not force the Klan into religious warfare, but that if it did, he would always be found “with the fiery cross in one hand, symbolizing the Christian religion, and the American flag in the other” (Times May 24, 1922 p. 1).

Later that year, the Daily Times recorded the condemnation of the Klan by Masonic Grand Masters in Massachusetts and New York, the Governor of Kansas, President Harding, and the Reverend Doctor E. H. Dickinson of Geneva’s First Presbyterian Church. On December 16, the paper conducted a “careful investigation” of rumored local Klan activity. It asked “twenty or more citizens in various walks of life” what they knew about it, and concluded that there was nothing happening in Geneva. The paper followed a story about Klan murders in Louisiana, and continued to notice Klan crimes as they happened across the United States.

In January 1923, the Times observed that Winnek Post of the American Legion in Geneva had formally declared its opposition to any and all Klan activities. This action was “believed the first of its kind taken by any fraternal, social or civic private organization in the city” (January 8, p. 9).

Meanwhile, the Klan was coming closer. In January 1923, a Seneca Falls man was chased, shot at, and accused of being a Klan leader. He advertised in a Syracuse newspaper that he did not and never would belong to the order (Geneva Times, January 13, p. 9). That October, a threatening poster was pasted to the doors of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Waterloo during a service. The Times said that this was the work of a fanatic, not the Klan itself, because the poster was unlike the hundreds of Klan stickers posted in Waterloo the previous week. This tells us, though, that the Klan was in the area (October 23, 1923 p. 3).

By the following June any lingering doubts were removed.  The cross was burned at the Boody Farm, and a few days later a large gathering was reported on the east side of the lake, where another cross was burned.  There were Klan gatherings all around the area, including a parade in Penn Yan in June 1925.  The Times sounded a bit gleeful to report in October 1925 that bad weather ended a Klan assembly near Geneva:

. . . It was a cold reception Geneva gave the Klan today.   . . .  A large delegation came down from Buffalo, but were frozen nearly stiff when they arrived and after standing around in the Arctic breezes for a while they packed up their pillow cases and sheets and went home.   . . . It surely was enough to discourage even a Klansman.. . . (October 10, p. 9)

By 1927 the Klan was declining, but was still active enough locally to hold a parade on Washington, Main, and Seneca Streets in Geneva.  Authorities did not expect trouble but prepared for the possibility.  The police, in fact, led the parade on motorcycles. At the beginning a few spectators jeered, but more clapped, cheered, and joked.  On Seneca Street, the audience was less friendly, and there were fights on Seneca near Linden, and on Main Street near the Armory.  The police and two fire companies broke them up, leaving some cuts and bruises and a Stanley man in custody for assault with a club  (Times, September 6, 1927 p 7).

After 1927, the Times seldom mentioned the Klan.  The paper printed an ad in September 1931 for a Klan gathering at the “Ontario Kounty Kountry Klub,” where there would be a presentation about the birth and rise of the order – “Don’t Miss This Spectacle!”  (September 18, p. 9).

In 1937, the President of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Dr. William Alfred Eddy, broadcast a speech from New York City to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the US Constitution. He said, “. . . The Ku Klux Klan is as unamerican [sic] as Karl Marx.  American life is an experiment with human nature in all of its rich variety and potentiality. The experimentation must go on.”  (Times September 18, 1937 p. 9.)  In 1944, the paper printed a piece by James Thrasher, NEA Service Writer, that compared the Klan to Nazis, and expressed astonishment that the order still existed.  (June 12, p. 4)

When I first saw the account of the cross burned at the Boody Farm, I wondered whether it was intended as a threat to anyone who lived there. The Klan sometimes burned crosses on the lawns of Catholic families. My mother, for example, saw that as a child in Detroit. I still do not know for sure if a threat was intended here, but the Klan seems to have used fiery crosses for purposes other than intimidation. They were often a feature of Klan meetings. The Phelps Citizen reported that the Klan held an immense meeting near Lafayette (south of Syracuse) in September 1924. It featured three huge flaming crosses and fireworks  (September 4, 1924, no page #).  Similarly, in 1926 a Klan meeting began around 10 p.m. with fireworks, followed by the burning of a cross (Phelps Citizen July 19, 1926, no page #).

As we saw, the Klan spread stickers around Waterloo in October 1923. The order seems also to have used the burning cross to advertise its presence in an area, as in Binghamton in April 1923. The crosses were set on the hills around the city for visibility, and “Dozens of hooded figures danced in the fire light.” (Geneva Times, April 24, p. 9) The cross burning at Boody’s Farm would have been strikingly visible from Geneva. It was probably a spectacle, perhaps even a recruiting tool.

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