Mar 26, 2021
She was the victim of one of the most lurid crimes in Indiana history, the brutal rape in March 1925 by D.C. Stephenson, Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, that led to her eventual death after a suicide attempt. The deathbed testimony of Madge Oberholtzer, a resident of the Irvington neighborhood of Indianapolis, resulted in the eventual conviction of Stephenson of second degree murder, a pivotal episode in the downfall of the Klan in Indiana during the 1920s.
For several years, Charlotte Ottinger, a registered nurse who has lived in Irvington for more than 20 years, has been working on a biography of Madge, digging up new information about the 28-year-old state employee and former teacher. Madge Oberholtzer was raped during a train trip to Chicago with Stephenson, who also lived in Irvington. One of his associates accompanied them on the trip.
Charlotte, who is convinced Madge did not willingly go on the train trip, will be Nelson's guest to discuss her extensive research. She has interviewed four grandchildren of Madge's brother, who have given her family documents, photos and other artifacts never seen by the general public or used by other researchers. Some of the material is now in the archives of the Irvington Historical Society; Charlotte is a former board member.
There's even a Women's History Month aspect for our show. According to Charlotte's research into Madge's youth, she was mentored by several Indiana suffragists. Madge graduated from Manual High School in 1914 and attended Butler University, which then was Butler College and located in Irvington. According to Charlotte, the talent in painting and drawing that Madge displayed at Manual earned her scholarships to study at the Herron School of Art.
During our show, Charlotte will describe the impact of Madge's tragic death on her family. Madge's mother, Matilda Oberholtzer, was a short-term patient in a sanitarium in Martinsville after her daughter's death.
An American Sign Language medical interpreter as well as a nurse, Charlotte says her medical background helped her sort through the treatment provided to Madge, the autopsy results and the extensive medical testimony at Stephenson's sensational trial. After her brutal rape in Stephenson's private train car, Madge swallowed poison in a hotel room in Hammond.
Hoosier History Live has discussed the frightening power of Stephenson - who once declared "I am the law in Indiana" - during previous shows. They have included a show last September in which Nelson interviewed James Madison, author of The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland (IU Press).
Charlotte's book, tentatively titled The Life and Times of Madge Oberholtzer, is scheduled for publication in October.
At the time of her death, Madge was working at the Indiana Statehouse as the manager of the Young People's Reading Circle, a lending library program for teachers organized by the Department of Education (then called the Department of Public Instruction). Madge was living with her parents in their home in Irvington. That house, as well as the residence of D.C. Stephenson, are still standing and privately owned.
According to Charlotte, other women had been physically and sexually assaulted by Stephenson (1891-1966). "None of them came forward to expose him," Charlotte notes. "Madge was the only woman who publicly exposed him."
A native of Texas, Stephenson already had abandoned a wife and daughter in Oklahoma before arriving in Indiana in 1920, according to Grand Dragon: D.C. Stephenson and the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana (Purdue University Press, 1991) by William Lutholtz. Stephenson, Lutholtz wrote, was a chronic liar who "told so many lies so often that it's difficult to know the truth" about his early life.
Following Madge's death in 1925 in her family's home - where Stephenson had her returned after the train trip - his trial for second-degree murder was held at the Hamilton County Courthouse in Noblesville. Charlotte Ottinger notes that Madge's father died two years later, "some say of a broken heart."