It might seem unimaginable to residents of Boscobel today, but there was a time when the town found itself a target of racism and bigotry. It embroiled the village of Muscoda, too, and reflected a growing problem nationwide – a reaction to a rapidly changing society that began shortly after World War I. It appeared on the streets of Boscobel on August 16, 1924, clad in white robes and hoods. It was the day the Ku Klux Klan held a rally in town.
The tale begins well before that day and carried forward in a state Supreme Court case that made a local hero of the city police chief. And in the midst of the fray, newspaper editor, William Victora, of Muscoda, chronicled the Klan effort to organize in the village, their activities, his disapproval, and the general attitude within the community of religious tolerance.
Issues in post-World War I America bear some striking resemblance to today. Rapid changes in technology were changing family life and social structures. The days of travel by horse and buggy were dwindling. Communication was faster than ever with radios and telephones becoming more common household fixtures as the number of people living in villages and cities – hence access to electricity – increased. The racial and religious landscape was changing, as well.
A changing people
Between 1880 and 1920, a time of rapid industrialization and urbanization, America received more than 20 million immigrants. Beginning in the 1890s, the majority of arrivals were from Central, Eastern and Southern Europe – most of whom were Catholic. Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia were fleeing religious persecution, with over two million entering the U.S. during those years.
Many of these immigrants were unskilled workers. Men, women and children worked long hours for low wages. Banding together in unions and generally promoting socialist ideas as a solution to ending the degradation of the working class, they were seen as threats by some to the status quo of pre-war America.
Fear over their impact on the culture of the nation prompted passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, creating a quota system that restricted entry to 2-percent of the total number of people of each nationality in America as of the 1890 national census – a system that favored Protestant immigrants from Western Europe – along with prohibiting immigrants from Asia entirely.
American women had only had the vote for a few years, a right only granted nationally in 1920, and which had been fought for since the 1840s. More women were working outside the home. It wasn’t just hemlines changing for women. They expected greater independence.
While the KKK had largely disappeared at the end of the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, the early 1920s saw it reappear preaching a new creed – pure Americanism or “real American manhood” as some sought a return to “normalcy.”
It railed specifically against three groups – Jews, black Americans, and Catholics.
The KKK supported militant patriotism, national quotas for immigration, racial segregation, and anti-miscegenation (mixing of races through marriage and children) laws. And they were quick to make donations to Protestant ministers in their effort to garner support for their politics.
The Wisconsin branch of the Klan generally abstained from preaching the same level of violence encouraged elsewhere and it found support in rural communities.
For some time, the Klan had a substantial following in Grant County, with Lancaster being noted as a stronghold by later historians.
It was a support that waned by mid-decade as they continued to preach intolerance. But not before the rally in Boscobel.
A city with a large Catholic population, Boscobel was also the birthplace of then-Governor John J. Blaine, a stalwart opponent of the KKK. Blaine had publically denounced the Klan and refused them the right to use public properties for rallies on the basis that "state property will not be used by any organization which suppresses the identity of its membership, or permits the masking of its officers and members operating in the dark or otherwise.”
With Blaine up for reelection, the KKK wanted to make a show of power defying the Governor whom they were actively campaigning against while showing a Catholic community that they could not be stopped from rallying. To that end, they began the “Back to Boscobel” campaign backing Blaine’s election opponent and planning the Boscobel rally.
But the largely Catholic city with a Russian born mayor of Jewish heritage (Ben Marcus) wasn’t a hospitable place to organize. Apparently, no one would rent to them.
Gathering in Muscoda
The KKK ended up settling on renting a piece of land on a farm outside of Muscoda.
Muscoda Progressive editor William Victora was quick to respond to their presence in the village, printing denunciations of the organization by Protestant theologians, Southern politicians, and his own view of the Klan as an un-Christian and un-American membership.
Marking sermons given in Muscoda and “some other Protestant churches,” Victora called the preaching inspired by the Klan as bringing about “race and religious prejudice and hatred between life-long friends.”
Responding to inquiries as to who had leased grounds to the Klan to organize and gather on, Victora named Muscoda farmer Fred Postel, whose farm was in foreclosure. The land was under receivership with L.H. Mohr, who rented the land back to Postel pending legal closure of the case. Mohr was quick to disavow any affiliation with the KKK and lay responsibility entirely at Postel’s feet.
Postel never responded.
The public fight proved to be good for subscription rates. After the week’s edition outing Postel as the rentor to the KKK, Victora noted that while he had lost one subscription for addressing the Klan, he had gained 13.
The Klan fought back, distributing flyers throughout the village claiming that Catholics owed only allegiance to the Pope and were part of a conspiracy to “extirpate (destroy) the heretical Protestant or Masonic doctrines.”
In the wake of a burning cross on Muscoda’s Main Street, Victora continued on, now calling for the Klan to publish its membership.
“A number of men in Muscoda and this vicinity who have been accused of passively or openly belonging to the Klan are publically denying it,” Victora wrote. He offered to publish the membership so “innocent people will not be accused.”
“We must not forget one thing: there would be no Klan meetings in Muscoda if there were no members here.”
Still, no member stepped forward to claim membership. Still, none appeared in robes without the hood to hide their face.
Long-time local resident and immigrant, Joseph Bricks wrote to the Muscoda Progressive that “If my fate is in the hands of the Klan, I presume my time here would be short.
Each week, Victora called out the Klan for its bigotry in a community in which Catholics and Protestants had lived side-by-side in friendship and tolerance.
Hearing claims that Klan claiming politics were meant to protect the family and morals of the nation, Victora responded with, “If there are any ‘deadbeats,’ ‘bootleggers’ and ‘women-chasers’ in Muscoda that don’t belong to the Klan, we don’t know about it. From inquiry in other towns in this neighborhood we find the same thing is true.”
The Boscobel Dial remained silent.
To be continued…