From 1921 to 1926, a series of murders shook the Osage Nation in Oklahoma. An oil rich tribe, the Osage fell victim to a nefarious individual who engineered a scheme to kill off tribal citizens and inherit their headrights, which were the royalty payments each tribal citizen received from oil leases on tribal lands. The man who masterminded the scheme was William King Hale, an affluent rancher with banking and business interests in the area. He also held political power and was active in Osage affairs, referring to himself as the “King of the Osage Hills.” Like many influential men in the early part of the twentieth century, Hale was a Freemason, having been initiated into Grayhorse Lodge No. 124 in 1907. As a recent Grand Master of Masons of Oklahoma has remarked, there are men who are Masons and then there are men who are simply members. Owing to Hale’s conduct, he likely fell into the latter category. Upon his arrest in 1926 for the murder of Anna Brown, Hale was expelled from the Masonic Fraternity for life. Hale was not the first Mason whose conduct was not in line with the principles of Freemasonry, but the incident highlights the importance of guarding the West Gate (exercising caution in membership selection) to preserve the integrity of the Fraternity. As we will see, the period from 1916 through the 1920s marked an era in Oklahoma where guarding the West Gate could have been exercised to better effect; a lesson that future generations should pay heed to.
In January of 1915, Robert L. Williams was inaugurated as the third Governor of the State of Oklahoma, after having served as the first Chief Justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court. His biographers have said that Williams was possessed with a blistering tongue, bad temper, and an aggressive manner. It was further said that he was intolerant of those who disagreed with him. Williams was also a Freemason, having received the degrees of Freemasonry in Durant Lodge No. 45 in 1905. Williams came to office promising “economy until it hurts.” He cut salaries and institutional funds and halted scheduled building projects. Through a concentration of power by eliminating state boards and consolidating others under the newly created State Board of Public Affairs, Williams became a strong executive, personally overseeing many appointments to various offices. He also tended to reward friends with appointments, such as when Ancel S. Earp was appointed Adjutant General in July of 1916, with the rank of brigadier general at the age of twenty-three. Earp began working as a secretary for Williams in 1912. Earp also noted that Williams was difficult to work for and never said a kind word to him. (Earp became a Mason himself in 1923 in Oklahoma City Lodge No. 36.)
The Tulsa County Council of Defense
The Great War would see the creation of Governor Williams most diabolical institution. The Oklahoma Legislature did not convene during the war, so when the Council of National Defense asked the states to form their own councils of defense in 1917, Williams acted on his own. Not wishing to call the Legislature back into special session to consider the matter, Williams established the extralegal Oklahoma Council of Defense, augmented by individual county councils. He personally appointed each member of the county executive committees. The state councils were given vague direction from Washington, D.C., and generally took up issues such as conservation of food and fuel, military preparedness, promoting Liberty Bonds, and Red Cross campaigns. The state council in Oklahoma went further by establishing the Oklahoma Loyalty Bureau, requiring Oklahomans to sign loyalty pledges and report dissenters. They also encouraged cities and towns to pass anti-sedition ordnances. It was in the realm of disloyalty that the Tulsa County Council of Defense proved to be the most aggressive.
The man appointed by Governor Williams as the Tulsa representative to the state council of defense was Stephen R. “Buck” Lewis, a Tulsa Freemason. The chairman of the Tulsa County Council of Defense was Joseph B. Gibbons, also a Freemason. In time, a total of twenty-three men would come to serve the executive committee of the Tulsa County Council of Defense in some capacity. Of those twenty-three men, sixteen were members of the Masonic Fraternity in Oklahoma. The members of the executive committee who were Freemasons are as follows:
Though these councils of defense were extralegal, the official history of the Oklahoma State Council of Defense stated that its rulings and “the dictates of the county councils of defense have been the supreme law of the land.” This is an interesting position as the state council went on to concede that it was “endowed with no mandatory or judicial powers under any statute of the commonwealth.” County appointees were even notified by an accompanying cover letter with their appointments that they had no legal status. One of the goals of the county councils of defense was to whip the populace into a frenzy surrounding the war effort. To achieve this aim across the state, newspaper editorials were used to great effect. The Tulsa Daily World often ran editorials advocating for vigilante violence, including lynching. A popular target of the Tulsa County Council’s angst was the Industrial Workers of the World (the I.W.W. or the Wobblies), who were pushing to unionize labor in the Oklahoma oil industry. After an explosion at a Tulsa oilman’s home in 1917, which was blamed on the I.W.W., the Tulsa County Council organized a 250-man Home Guard, which served as the council’s muscle due to the National Guard having been federalized for service in France. Funding for the Home Guard was provided by Tulsa Freemason, and defense council committeeman, Robert M. McFarlin, who was Director and Vice President of The Exchange National Bank (today’s Bank of Oklahoma).
In Oklahoma during the early part of the twentieth century, socialism had gained a foothold with the Socialist Party candidate for governor in 1914 receiving more than twenty percent of the vote. The Socialist Party worked closely with organized labor, including the I.W.W., and condemned American involvement in the Great War. This condemnation resulted in the Wobblies and socialists at large being viewed as disloyal. According to The Tulsa Tribune in 1924, the establishment of the Home Guard was to address “a general uneasiness regarding the possible actions of the I.W.W.” There was also a fear concerning the presence of spies in Tulsa. The Tulsa County Council of Defense wasted no time in addressing the perceived threat of the Wobblies and in November of 1917 had the Tulsa Police raid the I.W.W. headquarters, arresting eleven men as vagrants. In the trial that ensued, Tulsa City attorney and Freemason John B. Meserve mostly questioned the I.W.W. men about their attitudes toward the government and whether they supported the Liberty Loan drives. Convictions followed and then details of what happened to the men next are disputed. Tulsa Police removed the men from the city jail to either transfer them to the county jail or to give them the opportunity to leave Tulsa. During the process, the caravan was overtaken by armed men in black robes and the I.W.W. men kidnapped. First taken to the Home Guard’s armory at Convention Hall, where more robed men joined the group, the I.W.W. men eventually found themselves at a ravine where it was announced that they were in the custody of the “Knights of Liberty,” who proceeded to whip, tar, and feather each man. Statements from the victims identified several Tulsa Police officers including the chief as “Knights.” They also identified John B. Meserve and W. Tate Brady, who was a member of the Home Guard. A Tulsa Daily World headline, covering what became known as the Tulsa Outrage of 1917, read “Modern Ku Klux Klan Comes Into Being.”
John B. Meserve’s service to the Tulsa County Council of Defense, acting as the counsel’s prosecutor, was marked by countless secret investigations and extralegal star chamber proceedings. Eighty-four such proceedings concerned disloyalty and many of those found to be disloyal were dispatched to the state’s mental hospitals. Under the Lunacy Law of 1917, Oklahoma’s three mental institutions were placed under the direct control of Governor Williams’ State Board of Public Affairs. That board had the exclusive ability to appoint superintendents at the mental hospitals. The Lunacy Law further said that any sheriff or peace officer in the county where an alleged insane person resides could petition the County Court for an order directing the admission of a person to a mental hospital. The Home Guard also continued its activities and in 1918 conducted a major “slacker” raid, rounding up around 2,000 men who could not produce a draft card, detaining them overnight.
With the end of the Great War, the Tulsa County Council of Defense somewhat came to an end; they changed their name and became the Tulsa County Historical Society. What the Tulsa County Council of Defense did accomplish was creating a heavily charged atmosphere in Tulsa, an atmosphere that led directly to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. In fact, some vestiges of the Council were still present in 1921. With the fear of a socialist uprising, the Tulsa County Council of Defense installed a riot signal at the Public Service Company of Oklahoma plant in 1917. If citizens heard the siren or whistle, they were to descend upon downtown Tulsa with their guns, to become a “bristling arsenal at a moment’s notice.” The riot signal was later upgraded so that it could be heard for twenty miles. Numerous eyewitness accounts of the Massacre of 1921 mention hearing a whistle the morning the white mob descended on Greenwood after a night of exchanging gunfire across the Frisco Railway tracks; that whistle was most likely the riot signal at the Public Service Company plant. Eyewitnesses also identified former Home Guard members as comprising the special deputies that were roaming Greenwood. These vigilantes had been created by Tulsa Police commissioner James M. Adkison. Prior to public service, Adkison had been in the real estate and loan business, he was also a Tulsa Freemason. In the aftermath of the massacre, Tulsa’s black citizens were placed into detainment camps. The man overseeing the camps was former Tulsa County Council of Defense executive committee member and Freemason Newton R. Graham.
The Ku Klux Klan
The Tulsa Daily World announced the birth of the “modern” Ku Klux Klan in Oklahoma in 1917. Nationally, the organization had been established in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1915. Adopting a constitution in early 1916, the basic principle of the “modern” Klan, now known as the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, was the promotion of Americanism. Considering this principle, in covering the Tulsa Outrage of 1917 when I.W.W. men were tarred and feathered, perhaps this is what the editor for the Tulsa Daily World had in mind with their birth announcement. An early appearance of the Klan occurred at Skiatook in October of 1919 when sixteen Kluxers (members of the Klan) appeared on horseback in white hoods for a Liberty Bond drive. Carrying banners targeting three specific men, the Kluxers warned that ropes awaited them if they refused to buy bonds. Even though members of the Klan existed in Oklahoma prior to 1920, it was not until that year that the Klan began officially recruiting in Oklahoma, having first established a presence in Texas with a firm financial base. While there was no Klavern (a local body of the Klan) in Tulsa in June of 1921, there were certainly Kleagles (Klan recruiters) at work in the area. The Race Massacre that occurred in Tulsa on May 31 and June 1 of that year greatly assisted the Kleagles in their organizational efforts among an angry and fearful white populace. Tulsa would first see the establishment of a self-appointed posse, warning lawbreakers and blacks that dire consequences awaited those who did not conform to approved conduct, before a Klavern came into existence.
Although the Klan was highly organized with local, state, and national entities collecting dues and holding assemblies of varying scale, it was still a secret society. In Oklahoma, no records or member lists remain, outside of one for a women’s sect of the order. However, we have some idea as to how Klan recruitment worked in Oklahoma based on interviews. Writing in the 1930s, with the memory of the Klan’s activities still vivid in the minds of many, Inez L. Clubb noted that it was “the better class of citizens that belonged to the Klan.” In the summer of 1920 when the first Kleagles arrived in Oklahoma City, they brought with them letters of introduction from various fraternal orders in Texas. Seeking new members from established patriotic and fraternal orders, the Freemasons quickly became a primary focus of Klan recruitment; with Masonic and Klan membership in smaller towns becoming nearly interchangeable. John H. Montgomery noted that the Klan came to include “many very prominent men – men you would look on with respect and confidence.” This was echoed by State Senator Clark Nichols of McIntosh County who said of the Klan in 1923, ”a big percentage of them were Masons.” When the Klan conducted a statewide cross burning as a memorial to President Harding in 1923, the Eufaula Klavern raised there cross on Foley Hill. Situated on the western edge of the city, visible across all of Eufaula, Foley Hill was thus named as it was the location of the grand home of Eufaula banker and entrepreneur Cornelius E. Foley. A Past Master of Eufaula Lodge No. 1, it is not known if Foley was a Klansman, but the message would have been clear to the citizens of Eufaula that prominent men were tolerant of the Klan. Klan meetings also operated in a fashion that was best conducted in lodge halls, highlighting its structure as a fraternal order. In Carter County for example, the local Klavern would rent the hall of the Odd Fellow’s Lodge. The Klan seems to have met in the Watonga Masonic Lodge hall, if only briefly. In recent years, Watonga Lodge No. 176 was in possession of a piano that belonged to the Klavern there.
It has been said that if Oklahoma Masons were members of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, they were certainly not prominent Masons. This would highlight the statement that there are men who are Masons and then there are men who are simply members. Klan membership is difficult to nail down without membership records; however, it is known that the Klan was at its height in late 1923 with between 67,000 to 300,000 members in Oklahoma. Carter B. Clark indicates that one in ten eligible Oklahoma men were members of the Klan with two to three hundred local Klaverns existing at various times. A conservative estimate of Klan membership in Oklahoma appears to be around 95,000 members. If we look at Masonic membership in Oklahoma from the same period, there were 62,793 men who were Masons. The Oklahoma City and Tulsa areas naturally accounted for the largest numbers with roughly 3,700 Masons in Oklahoma City and 2,600 in Tulsa. Klan membership in Oklahoma City and Tulsa was estimated at 2,500 and 3,200, respectively.
Dispelling the argument that prominent Masons did not affiliate with the Klan is the state leadership of that organization. The man who became the first Grand Dragon of the Klan in Oklahoma was Edwin DeBarr. One of the original professors at the University of Oklahoma, DeBarr was the first High Priest of Lion Chapter No. 24, Royal Arch Masons, established at Norman in 1898. He was both Worshipful Master of Norman Lodge No. 38 and Eminent Commander of Oklahoma Commandery No. 3, Knights Templar, at Oklahoma City in 1901. DeBarr then served as Grand Prelate of the Grand Commandery Knights Templar of Oklahoma in 1902. Internal politics ultimately led to DeBarr’s removal as Grand Dragon, but he was appointed to the national position of Imperial Kludd (chaplain) in 1923 and given a seat on the Imperial Kloncilium, the national advisory board of the Knights of Ku Klux Klan. DeBarr was replaced by Newton Clay Jewett, a dental supply salesman. Jewett, like DeBarr, was an active Oklahoma City Freemason. He was a member of Siloam Lodge No. 276; Cyrus Chapter No. 7, Royal Arch Masons; and Bethlehem Commandery No. 45, Knights Templar. Appointed Grand Dragon of the Klan in 1923, Jewett served as Potentate of the India Shrine Temple in 1924. A member of the Guthrie Scottish Rite Valley, he was coronetted a 33rd degree in 1928. Under Jewett’s leadership, the Klan became a political force to reckon with, second only to the Klan in Indiana.
While membership lists of the Klan in Oklahoma do not survive to this day, the organization was an institution in Tulsa. As previously noted, at its peak in 1923, Klan membership in Tulsa was estimated to be 3,200 strong and Tulsa Klavern No. 2 had only been established the year before. To oversee the business affairs of the Klan in Tulsa, a holding company was created known as the Tulsa Benevolent Association. The five trustees of that entity, prominent Tulsans in the fields of law, banking, and engineering, were then officially known as Klansmen. Those five men, listed below, were also Tulsa Freemasons:
In addition to the national objective of Americanism, the Oklahoma Klan concerned themselves with vice and morality. “Alfalfa Bill” Murray remarked upon the Klan saying: “It is a sad commentary that just now the hope of good morals and restraint against criminality is found in a body of men whose organized method is not sanctioned by law.” The Klan saw thieves, bootleggers, gamblers, and other sinners going unpunished and turned to vigilantism, a method which was somewhat tradition in Oklahoma. The young state in the 1920s was not that many years removed from territorial days when rough justice, including lynching, was frequently doled out. The oil boom of the period brought many unsavory elements and crime to Oklahoma, as was evidenced in the Osage Nation. A Muskogee Klansman once remarked:
The threat of the gowned fraternity moves out the gangster, the bootlegger, and the man who abuses and neglects his wife and children. It certainly was born of great necessity in this oil country.
Coming back to Americanism, one must ask, exactly what did the Ku Klux Klan view as Americanism? The Great War had seen the Councils of Defense take up the fight against those who were lukewarm about the war effort. Oklahomans in the period continued to have a strong desire for restrictions on immigration, laws that would assure the assimilation of immigrants, and controls on the rights of foreigners. The Kleagles at work in the state, recruiting for the Klan, were easily able to use this suspicion of immigrants to their advantage. Another target of the Oklahoma Klan was the I.W.W. and the Socialist Party. A common sentiment at the time was that the socialist philosophy “favored free love, destruction of the home, overthrow of the Constitution, and replacement of the Stars and Stripes with the international ‘Red’ flag.” Membership in the Klan and opposition to Socialism quickly became synonymous. Intertwining Americanism and morality, the Klan defined Americanism as: Protestantism, Puritanism, Capitalism, and Nationalism. In his 1921 address to the Freemasons of Oklahoma, Grand Master Frank A. Derr referenced the social unrest of the day, noting labor disputes, and placed the blame upon “agitators of seditious movements.” In the words of Derr, that all-encompassing label included “I.W.W. ‘ism, bolshevism, and many other ‘isms.” With the wartime legacy of antagonism towards those perceived as foreigners, it should come as no surprise that early Klan recruitment efforts not only focused on Freemasons, but also members of the wartime Councils of Defense.
Taking the actions of the Councils of Defense, the Tulsa County Council in particular, and the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan into consideration, a distinct modern term comes to mind: extremism. It is without question that the means pursued by the two entities were extremist: beatings, tarring and feathering, intimidation, etc. What is of great concern is how the aims of these two entities, and how they achieved them, are eerily familiar to the activities of modern organizations. In Oklahoma for example, the sheriff of Canadian County recently established a posse, which he describes as a “rapid response force of citizens who could be called upon in a minute’s notice.” The Tulsa County Council of Defense’s Home Guard was described in much the same way. Other examples include the Oath Keepers group which vows to the defend the Constitution against a one world socialist government. There is the Proud Boys group, which styles themselves as a fraternal organization with four degrees, who believe that Western culture is superior to all others. And there is the Boogaloo movement which desires to overthrow the current democratic system in the United States, believing it has been perverted. Sadly, these organizations, which participated in the January 6 Insurrection, have drawn some Freemasons in with their ideology. This caused the Grand Masters of both North Carolina and Wisconsin to issue statements concerning Freemasons associating with extremist groups. The Grand Master of North Carolina specifically named groups, going on to say that it is impossible to be a Freemason and to be aligned with such groups. W. Mark Sexson of Oklahoma, serving as Grand Master of Masons in 1928, spoke to a similar matter. When some members attempted to bring politics into Freemasonry, he responded by calling the prospect “a deadly poison in the very blood stream of our Craft;” adding, “and no Grand Master or Grand Lodge can save Masonry in Oklahoma from serious injury if it is persisted in.” Freemasonry in Oklahoma was able to survive the association of its members with the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, primarily because Freemasonry was in a healthy position membership wise. It has been said today that Oklahoma Freemasonry is at a crossroads, where in the next ten years it could become irrelevant if membership trends are not reversed. At this moment, it is essential to guard the West Gate in order preserve the Fraternity’s integrity. If extremism is allowed to proliferate, such as it once was, many good men may find Freemasonry to be an entity they do not wish to associate with.