Why and how did Kittery-ites join the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s? The Foreside parade in this undated J. Frank Walker photo likely took place on either June 30, 1924, or August 17, 1925, when Portsmouth Herald articles document these two “Konclaves” .
The 1924 parade concluded with a “naturalization” ceremony — an initiation ritual that echoed the ceremony for becoming a U.S. citizen. The festivities wrapped up at Locke’s Cove with a cross burning.
But even though these two parades are fairly recent events, we have only fragments of history about the Kittery Klan. Were the marchers — an estimated 400, according to some — all from Kittery, or was this a region-wide gathering? Kittery was a small town of 4,700, so it seems unlikely that a single organization would draw 400 locals, especially at a time when many belonged to one or more fraternal organizations. Then again, 1924 lacked the myriad entertainments of the current era, so maybe the Klan parade provided an opportunity for a summer social event. On Labor Day, 1924, a Klan parade in Saco drew 300 marchers–reportedly a mixed crowd of locals and Klan members from throughout New England–so perhaps Kittery’s parades drew a similar crowd.
Some say–and again, this is hearsay based on fragments of talk and memory — that the parades were organized to protest the construction of St. Raphael’s Catholic Church in Kittery. But in the 1920s, no construction was happening at St. Raphael’s, established in 1916 to serve the town’s small community of 77 Catholics. Parishioners celebrated Mass in a small chapel, constructed in 1916 within the existing foundation of a one-time stable; the church was built in 1933-1934 at the same Wentworth Street location. St. Raphael’s history book mentions that Catholics faced some bigotry, including the burning of a cross on the grounds of the basement church, but includes no dates.
Between 1923-1925, Klan membership surged in Maine to over 20,000 people (as reported by the Klan, with other sources reporting higher numbers), mostly due to a charismatic leader, F. Eugene Farnsworth, and a fear that French-Canadian immigrants might gain political power. Thousands of Quebecois were working in the mills of Biddeford, Saco, Sanford and other Maine towns, with more crossing the border each year.
What was happening in Kittery at this time? The town didn’t have the large mills with hundreds of employees. However, U.S. Census records show a population surge in Kittery from 1900, when 2,872 people lived in town, to 1920, when 4,763 residents were counted–an increase of 66%. U.S. immigration as a whole peaked in these years. Was Kittery’s population increase fueled by immigrants? Or was the surge due to expanding job opportunities at the Shipyard as it built up during World War I?
In the early days of St. Raphael’s, the parishioners were not French-Canadians; the original membership list includes names such as Curran, Witham, Bridges, and Drake. This small group had been around for years, initially rowing to Portsmouth to attend Mass and then later traveling to South Berwick’s St. Michael’s Church.
Further north, in Portland and beyond, King Kleagle F. Eugene Farnsworth, a one-time hypnotist best described as a huckster, had capitalized on fears of French-speaking Canadian immigrants to generate interest in the Klan. In 1923, Governor Percival Baxter, a Republican, spoke out against the Klan, predicted that the organization would fail to influence the “level-headed citizens of Maine.”
But he was wrong. Two years later, Republican Ralph O. Brewster became Maine’s governor, thanks in large part to the support of the “White Knights” who backed him.
Farnsworth promoted “100% Americanism,” by which he meant White Anglo-Saxon Protestantism. By this time, Irish Catholics were mainstream in East Coast cities, and politically powerful, and Maine had a small Irish-Catholic population (the oldest Catholic church in New England, Saint Patrick’s, was established in Newcastle in 1808).
But a new horde of non-English speaking Catholics in a rural state like Maine posed a threat. They might take all the jobs or spread diseases in their tenement houses. They might gain political power and demand funding for parochial schools, or worse.
These sentiments echoed national anxieties about immigrants, especially the “yellow swarms” from Italy and other southern and eastern European countries. By the early 1920s, the Klan claimed 6 million members, many recruited with its “100% Americanism” rhetoric.
Today, when I see these photos of ordinary citizens marching in white robes, I wonder who they were and why they marched. Were they “old Kittery” residents, fearful of being displaced by industrialization and a changing economy? Were they suspicious of French-speaking immigrants, even if they didn’t know any of these “outsiders” who didn’t speak English, practiced a “foreign” religion, and allegedly owed their allegiance to a religious leader in a faraway country? Were they seeking connection and community with others who made them feel safe?
During the Gilded Age of the 1890s, the outside world rediscovered Kittery, which became a popular summer destination for tourists who stayed in the town’s five large hotels.
But before the tourists came, Kittery, along with the rest of the Piscataqua region, was a sleepy backwater, in decline since Jefferson’s Embargo in the 1800s killed off the merchant economy (Kittery lost 35% of its population between 1800 and 1810). Although many stayed and got by with farming, fishing, building ships, more than 100 years passed before the Kittery reached its pre-Embargo population of about 3,100 people. Vital records in the Town Reports — births and deaths — show the same names over and again, many from families who had settled here during colonial times.
The last documented Klan event in Kittery is a 1933 notice about a social event at the Kittery Grange. By then, the Klan’s national membership had dropped to 45,000, with 225 members reported in Maine in 1930. The Klan had imploded, due in part to the murder trial and unveiling of King Kleagle D.C. Stephenson, a one-time salesman who had murdered his girlfriend, along with a variety of other allegations of corruption and abuse of power. In some parts of the country, the Klan continued to terrorize its victims, especially African-Americans, but it had lost its force as a national organization.
But before its implosion, the Klan had achieved several goals: it had helped to secure the passage of the 1924 National Origins Act, which limited the number of immigrants, especially non-Protestants from southern and eastern Europe. Then in 1928, the Klan helped to defeat presidential candidate Al Smith, a Catholic.
Still a small group in Kittery hung on. I wonder who these ordinary people were, and why we have forgotten about Kittery Klan No. 5 so easily.
Sources and resources
I welcome all additions, corrections, comments, or suggestions for further information about the Klan in Kittery, via the Comments section.
Many thanks to Kim Sanborn, Executive Director of the Kittery Naval & Historical Museum, for sharing her insights on the Klan’s presence in Kittery.
U.S. Census data is compiled in an easy-to-read format on the Kittery, Maine Wikipedia page, but I have not been able to verify the accuracy of this data.
“The King Kleagle of Maine’s Ku Klux Klan was an opportunist,” by Sharon Cummings. SoMeOldNews: Surprising Southern Maine History. Cummings’s research suggests that anti-immigrant King Kleagle Farnsworth was himself a Canadian immigrant from New Brunswick, although he claimed Columbia Falls, Maine as his birthplace.
“The Ku Klux Klan in New Hampshire, 1923-1927”, Stephen H. Goetz. Historical New Hampshire, Vol 43, No. 4, Winter 1988. Goetz also looks at the brief time of the KKK in New Hampshire, where long-established French-Canadian communities had largely assimilated into the mainstream. He speculates that the national “social hysteria” over immigration and other issues fueled Klan membership (which required the significant expenses of a $10 initiation fee and $5 for the white robe), as well as the general popularity of all fraternal organizations.
“The Nativist Klan.” Maine Memory Network of the Maine Historical Society.
Not a Catholic Nation: The Ku Klux Klan confronts New England in the 1920s, by Mark Paul Richards. Amherst/Boston, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015.
Richards’s book offers insightful and evidence-filled chapters on the rise of the Klan in Maine in the 1920s. By the mid-1920s, Roman Catholics were the largest single religious group in the state, with 173, 893 adherents, compared to the Northern Baptist Convention, at 32,031, and the Methodist Episcopal Church, at 22,938. Richards also cites a 1930 Washington Post article claiming a peak membership of 150,141 Klan member in Maine, the largest in New England, and almost 20% of Maine’s population, or 30% of the white native-born population.
U.S. Immigration Legislation: 1924 Immigration Act. U.S. Immigration legislation online. The National Origins Act set limits on immigration and set up a quota system based upon the current population of the United States which basically guaranteed that the majority of immigration slots would go to immigrants from northern Europe (Ireland, Germany, Scandinavia).
“Uncomfortable History,” by Candace Kanes. Maine History Online. Maine Historical Society.