The Graham-Stephenson House in Irivington – Photo by Ryan Hamlett
As the nights grow crisp and cool, the coming fall always reminds me of my childhood in Irvington. Though the October festivities at Connor Prairie are always a favorite, for me, Irvington has the market cornered in the Halloween department. And in an area with its fair share of history and haunts, there is a single building that stands alone in my mind as an example of something both beautiful and ominous. Riding in the back seat to pick up my father from work on Downey Ave., I always craned my neck to catch a glimpse of the giant house with the imposing white columns. It was only later that I would learn the history of the house on University Avenue and understand that my misgivings were correct. I speak, of course, of the Graham-Stephenson House.
The grand house at 5432 University Avenue was built in 1889 by Kentland, Indiana attorney and Civil War Veteran William H. H. Graham for he and his wife Ellen. However, he would only enjoy his mansion a short while before passing away in 1906, leaving Ellen alone in the huge home. With William gone, Ellen invited her sister to live with her and rented out the occasional room, but the house was simply too big for her to handle. Now in her 70s, in 1920 Ellen decided to rent out her stately mansion to the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority and later Phi Delta Theta Fraternity of Butler University, then, a half-block away.
After only five years of housing students, Mrs. Graham finally opted to sell the mansion, a decision that would seal its infamy and add a second surname to the house’s identity. While its uncertain that she knew the background or character of the Texan who bought her house, she did live long enough to see his misdeeds play out in the papers, passing away in 1940 at 93 years old.
The house’s new owner, one David Curtiss Stephenson was born in Houston, Texas in 1891, worked as a printer’s apprentice as a youth, enlisted in the Army and served as a Second Lieutenant during World War I and moved to Evansville, Indiana in 1920, working with a retail coal company. While in Evansville, Stephenson was recruited by fellow Texan Joseph Huffington to join the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacy organization that had died off since its post Civil War origins but was re-founded in 1915 by William J. Simmons and again grown in power by 1920.
Stephenson relocated to Indianapolis in 1922, where he helped to grow the scope of the Indiana Klan, offering Protestant ministers free membership and helping to create the Klan newspaper The Fiery Cross. When Klan recruiter Hiram Evans unseated Simmons as the Imperial Wizard (national head) of the national KKK, in a ceremony attended by 100,000 people, Evans appointed Stephenson as the Grand Dragon (head) of the Indiana Klan. As the Klan grew in Indiana, Stephenson’s power began to extend both to the Statehouse and City Hall, backing the elections of Governor Edward Jackson and Mayor John Duvall.
At the height of his power in Indianapolis, Stephenson bought Mrs. Graham’s mansion on University Avenue and immediately renovated it. Stephenson tore down the one story columned porch and added a two story ionic portico, its grand columns portraying the sense of power that D.C. had come to enjoy. However, his time in the mansion would be even shorter lived than Mr. Graham’s.
Though Stephenson was an outspoken Prohibitionist and defender of “Protestant womanhood” behind closed doors he was an alcoholic and sexual predator, reportedly hosting booze-filled orgies in his new mansion. Twice divorced (he abandoned his first wife, while pregnant, in 1917 and beat his second, divorcing in 1922), Stephenson gave a glimpse of what was to come in Columbus, Ohio where he was establishing Klan offices. At the Deschler Hotel, a whiskey fueled Stephenson had offered the staff manicurist a hundred dollars to have sex with him. When she refused he said “You will or I’ll kill you.” The manicurist escaped his room. Stephenson escaped prosecution.
Returning to 1925, while attending the January 12th inauguration party for the Klan supported Governor Edward Jackson, Stephenson met 28 year-old Madge Oberholzer and immediately began to pursue her. She had attended Butler, worked with the Indiana Department of Public Instruction and lived with her parents. She and Stephenson began dating, she served as his aide, and helped him to pen a book on nutrition titled One Hundred Years of Health.
On March 15th, she received a message that Stephenson was leaving for Chicago and needed to see her at once. She was picked up by one of his body guards and taken to University Avenue. Stephenson, roaring drunk, forced her to drink as well and insisted she travel to Chicago with him. She was taken to Union Station, forced into his private compartment and suffered a northbound trip of nightmares. “Bitten, chewed and pummeled”, the two never made it to Chicago, instead staying in Hammond, Indiana, where they checked into a hotel. The next morning, under the pretense of purchasing a hat and makeup at a drug store, Oberholzer instead bought mercury bichloride tablets, intended to take the entire box, but only managed to choke down three.
Upon discovering what she had done, Stephenson panicked and had the two of them driven back to Indianapolis and had her dropped off by his bodyguards, telling her parent’s she had been in a car accident. Summoning their family doctor, she told him she didn’t expect nor did she want to get well. After some time, she related the whole terrible event.
One month later on April 14, 1925, Madge Oberholzer died, officially, from mercury poisoning, though her doctor later testified that the injuries inflicted by Stephenson were enough to be fatal on their own. County prosecutor William Remy, one of few public officials not in Stephenson’s pocket, charged the Klansman with rape, kidnapping and second-degree murder for which he was convicted after an ugly trial. Abandoned by the very city officials he helped elect, Stephenson released records on public officials who had been on the Klan payroll to the Indianapolis Times (who recieved a Pulitzer Prize for their investigation into Klan corruption). Stephenson’s trial and the ensuing political scandal was the death knell for the Klan in Indiana, its membership dwindling as fast as it had swelled throughout the 20s.
The University Avenue mansion once again housed fraternities until Butler’s relocation in 1928 and stayed in Stephenson’s ownership until 1943. It has passed through a few sets of hands since Stephenson (who finally died in Tennessee in 1966, but only after he tried to assault a 16 year old girl while in his 70s) and while all kinds of morbid lookie-loos (such as myself) would love to tour the house, Irvington Historical Society President, Steve Barnett says that the current owners are intensely private. So while stopping by the 65th Irvington Halloween festival, a quick pause to check out this piece of dark Indianapolis history is highly recommended, an unsolicited knock on the door is not.
Post Script 2023: Check out Timothy Egan’s new book that goes into gripping detail of this harrowing chapter in Hoosier history: A Fever in the Heartland