Daisy Douglass Barr, Imperial Empress of the Women of the Ku Klux Klan, circa 1923.
Women are often the most fascinating characters in Hoosier history. Their lives continue to be relevant to pressing issues today. Yet while most notable Indiana women could still be held up as role models, a few figure into the dark side of history.
One especially complicated Hoosier woman was Daisy Douglass Barr. In the mid-1920’s, Barr — a Quaker minister and touring evangelist since the age of 16 — served as the Imperial Empress of the Queens of the Golden Mask, the women’s auxiliary of the powerful Indiana Klan. The queen bee later morphed into the head of the state’s WKKK (Women of the Ku Klux Klan), a group sponsored by Indianapolis’ famous Kleagle, D.C. Stephenson.
During the 1920s, when Klan membership in the Midwest outstripped that of the Deep South, Barr was an influential woman. Yet when her secret involvement with the infamous organization became public, the scandal led to her downfall.
She was born Daisy Douglass Brushwiller in 1875 in Jonesboro, near Upland and Marion in Grant County, where the most famous image of an American lynching was made in 1930, showing the murder of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. Her father was a Civil War veteran who had converted to Quakerism at a time when the Society of Friends was undergoing dramatic changes. Unlike the stereotypical image of Quakers, by the late 1800s the Friends weren’t always sitting in silence waiting for divine inspiration and “quaking” when it came. Instead, some Quaker meetings began to bring on regular ministers and participate in pan-Protestant revivals and tent meetings, sometimes even drawing close to Christian fundamentalism, a new movement born in reaction to Darwinism and liberal readings of the Bible — and which was tearing the Protestant world apart by the days of the Scopes Monkey Trial. Barr’s mother was a Methodist.
Daisy got her call to preach, she said, during a trip out to the woodshed to seek solitude. It is thought she preached her first sermon at age 16. This would make her one of the few “girl evangelists” of that age.
In 1893, the 18-year-old married Thomas D. Barr, a teacher from Fairmount, Indiana, then moved around the east-central part of the state with him. She also began to lead evangelical revivals in Indiana and Michigan. Around 1900, the 20-something Barr took up the cause of temperance and the reform of prostitutes, a cause that would later drag her into the tempestuous battle between “wets” and “drys” as Hoosiers of different cultural stripes battled over whether to ban booze.
In the 1910s, Barr was becoming famous as a preacher. Indianapolis newspapers reported large crowds coming to hear her sermons at city churches, many of them now closed as mainline Protestant membership has hemorrhaged. In Indy, she preached at Roberts Park Methodist Church, Tuxedo Park Methodist on the Near East Side, the old Meridian Street Methodist Episcopal Church (this is the Gothic building, abandoned in 1946, across from the Central Public Library and recently turned into condominiums), as well as at Baptist and Quaker houses of worship, including Indianapolis First Friends.
Indy’s huge Cadle Tabernacle, a “megachurch” that later hosted some major KKK rallies in the 1920s and became home to a radio ministry in the ’30s, gave her the pulpit. In 1916, a special tabernacle for Barr to speak at was built at College Avenue and the canal in Broad Ripple, still a remote rural spot on the northern end of town best-known for its amusement park, The White City. The Broad Ripple revival was expected to attract about 1,200 people. In Greencastle in 1920, another tabernacle was built at the corner of Poplar and Vine, one block north of DePauw University — the cultural center of Methodism in Indiana — specifically for Barr to lead a several-week-long revival.
In 1917, Thomas and Daisy Douglass Barr moved into a large new house on the then far-eastern edge of Indy, along Pleasant Run Creek in Irvington. An elderly man next door wasn’t happy about my interest in the place and told me to get out of his neighborhood — but it seemed obvious to me that he knew its history and didn’t want it told. Out of respect to the neighbors and current property owners, I don’t disclose the address and strongly advise against curiosity here. I hope he was simply uncomfortable that Barr once lived next door a century ago. He insisted, however, that the Klan was “all south of 40.” William Faulkner was more accurate when he said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Barr was a powerful, reform-minded preacher. To be fair, much of her concern over the pressing social issues of the time was legit. Alcoholism and the sexual exploitation of women were serious business. Her later political associations make us recoil, but in 1919, she went to bat for women “castaways,” including the homeless:
Daisy Barr’s struggles in towns like Muncie, New Castle (where she was the pastor of the local Quaker meeting), Greenfield, Alexandria and elsewhere possibly would have earned her a lasting reputation as a progressive reformer. . . if she hadn’t cast her lot with the Klan around 1922.
Well-meaning Prohibitionists, who often included ministers and suffragettes among their number, had an up-hill battle when it came to shutting off the tap. Americans’ views on liquor had a lot to do with their views on labor unions, certain kinds of immigrants, and Catholics. These groups typically didn’t share white middle-class Protestant cultural views. Though booze-busters often had strong reasons for opposing drink — many had seen good men and families wrecked by alcoholism and the poverty that often ensued — there’s a dark side to Prohibition. “Drys” vs. “wets” tended to fall into religious and class camps, with the Protestant battle against the bottle sometimes just a thinly-veiled excuse to drive out Catholics and unwanted immigrants hailing from Germany, Italy, and Eastern Europe. Daisy Douglass Barr’s tangle with Alfaretta Hart, Muncie’s “millionaire policewoman” — Hart was a “wet” Catholic who threatened to “tear the town wide open” over corruption and sex abuse — is a great example of the conflicts that grew out of the hypocrisy and stuffiness of many Prohibitionists.
Enter the Klan. Revived in the ’20s partly as a response to the loose enforcement of local, state, and national liquor bans, the KKK was primed to appeal to passionate reformers like Barr since its “official” views on racial and sexual purity struck a chord with many women. Its virulent anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism — arguably stronger at that time than its views on African Americans — funneled into its ranks many Protestants concerned about alleged papal takeover of American schools and the rise of labor unions. We think of the Klan today as “inbred white trash,” as one blogger has written. But in the Jazz Age, membership was broad, with Klan rallies and parades as far north as Michigan, Chicago and Maine.
The gist of some of Barr’s evolving views on the social problems of the ’20s appeared in the Rushville Republican in Rushville, Indiana, where she spoke at the town’s Coliseum on March 1, 1923. Barr spoke under a “fiery cross” hanging from the ceiling — actually an electric light.
She then lashed out at the Catholic Church, which she said was training “100,000 negroes” to be Catholic priests, and at Jews, whom Barr accused of profiting from World War I and from loans given to the American government. By now a “Klan Klucker,” Daisy Douglass Barr also urged — ludicrously — that “the Klan was the friend of the negro race.”
Her role in the Invisible Empire was so important that she worked directly with D.C. Stephenson to organize women’s branches. In Indianapolis, a proposed Klan hospital, reserved exclusively for Protestants, was slated to be built at 2114 North Alabama Street in the Herron-Morton District. This was to be named the Daisy Barr Home. The hospital’s articles of incorporation specified that its seventeen directors must be appointed directly by the Women of the Ku Klux Klan. Francis F. Hamilton, city building commissioner, nixed the application on January 17, 1924.
The Quaker Klucker was now attending national speaking engagements. In July 1923, Barr — the only woman on the program — addressed the assembled Grand Dragons of the Klan in Asheville, North Carolina, where she read a poem she’d written. Starting out in first-person, Barr spoke about my “all-seeing” eye and revelations and “the love of Christ.” Chillingly, it becomes clear that the “I” of the poem is “the Spirit of Righteousness”: “They call me the Ku Klux Klan. I am more than the uncouth robe and hood / With which I am clothed. / YEA, I AM THE SOUL OF AMERICA.”
That autumn, she would address a crowd of over 20,000 people gathered in Monticello, Indiana, for that town’s Fall Festival, which involved a Klan parade featuring 500 robed Klansmen. Other towns over the years featured floats bearing fully-outfitted Klanswomen.
The year 1924, however, brought Reverend Barr’s downfall. Oddly, her role in the Invisible Empire had been kept mostly secret. The attacks against her seem to have been started by the legendary newspaperman George R. Dale, editor of the fervently anti-Klan Muncie Post-Democrat. Dale later served as Muncie’s mayor in the early 1930’s. His much-lionized claims to have been beaten up and shot at by Klansmen are possibly exagerrated. In any case, Dale despised Daisy Barr, whom he lampooned as “Doodle,” penning satirical poems about her in his newspaper and launching all-out broadsides against her reputation. Hilariously, the editor mocked the absurd titles Klansfolk gave each other, writing that when Barr went down to Atlanta to meet with the infamous Imperial Wizard Hiram Wesley Evans, she got the right to call herself “Quaker Queen Quince of the Giosticuticus of the Jimpelcute.”
George Dale’s announcement that the Klucker had raked in over $1,000,000 from the sale of Klan robes and memberships to women turned out to be true. Already forced to resign from the board of the Indiana War Mothers, who were uncomfortable with her status as a Klanswoman, the Women of the KKK sued her in 1924 for fleecing them. The infamous D.C. Stephenson, Indiana’s mighty Grand Dragon, would fall under the same type of suspicion, though his real downfall came in 1925 for the kidnapping, rape and murder of a young Indianapolis woman — exactly the kind of sex abuse that the WKKK initially set out to prevent.
Yet Barr’s story wasn’t quite over yet. Her husband was prominent member of the Indiana G.O.P. and served as deputy state banking commissioner. Daisy Douglass Barr went on to become the first female vice-chairman of the Indiana Republican Party. She briefly left the state in 1925, moving to Brevard County, Florida, where in 1926 she ran for the U.S. Congress in Florida’s Fourth District, then dropped out before the election. In 1933, Barr was back in Indianapolis and in the good graces of the American War Mothers, whom she represented as their Indiana chaplain. That year, she and the War Mothers spoke out against the recognition of the U.S.S.R., the same year that Joseph Stalin’s forced famine in the Ukraine killed millions.
In 1934, her husband suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, possibly under the influence of stress, since he was a banker during the Depression. Though Thomas Barr recovered, in January he walked into a bathroom and slit his throat with a razor. The man survived again, but his last years were apparently pretty bleak.
Daisy Douglass Barr’s end came on April 3, 1938, on U.S. 31 between Speed and Memphis in southern Indiana. While riding in a car with four other people, including a 3-year-old girl named Sheron Carroll, they were struck head-on by another vehicle passing on a hill top. The 3-year-old died at a hospital in Louisville. The 62-year-old Daisy, her neck broken, expired before doctors could help her. Her husband died that August.
There’s an astonishing coda to this story, an amazing genealogical twist.
The former Imperial Empress was buried at Park Cemetery in Fairmount in Grant County, just down the road from her birthplace.
In The Thirteenth Turn: A History of the Noose (2014), writer Jack Shuler makes a staggeringly interesting claim — that Barr rests “just a few rows away from her great-nephew, Grant County native son James Dean.” It’s not clear if this is accurate, but the star of “Rebel Without a Cause” might have been related to the “Imperial Empress” through her husband Thomas D. Barr, whose middle name was Dean.
In any case, the funeral of the Hollywood actor — who was raised in a Quaker household in Fairmount — was held on October 9, 1955, at the very same Friends Church where Daisy Douglass Barr was once the pastor. James Dean would have been 7 years old when she died in the car wreck. He left town in 1949.