The late Pauline McCormick Russell supplied the most delicious irony in an oral history.
In the years after World War I, America was struggling with new problems. Labor strikes threatened railroad service, driving up prices. Refugees from war-torn Europe flooded American cities. Rumors circulated of communist plots. Someone must be to blame. Who?
Across the Midwest one answer was “Catholics.” Many of the new immigrants were from Catholic countries, and “everyone knew” that Catholics couldn’t be “real Americans” because they would always owe their first allegiance to the Pope in Rome. One result in the Midwest was the growth of the Ku Klux Klan. Originally a move in the South to maintain white supremacy over former slaves, the Midwestern Klan focused on Catholics.
A Klan chapter organized in Greene County. Members wore white robes and hoods to meetings so they could remain anonymous. (Robes didn’t help them in Perry where the local shoe repairman claimed “feets” of recognition.) There were rallies at several locations, including one march around the Greene County Courthouse square. Two pastors of small Protestant churches were reputed to be active members. There were rumors that Catholics were storing guns in the basement of St. Patrick’s Church in Cedar Township to be ready when the Pope gave the order to take over America. While there were no reports of violence and Klan membership remained small, it nevertheless created a tension within the community.
Pauline and her sister, Margaret McCormick Baker, were young girls in the 1920s. The McCormicks were Irish, along with most of the few other Jefferson Catholics. On a Sunday afternoon, the family was taking a drive and reached the top of Danger Hill west of the river. There they encountered the Klan. Here is how Pauline remembered it:
“There were three men dressed in white and they had torches… They were having a meeting some place down there in the timber. My dad always protected us, so we got by there in a hurry… It was kind of in the fall of the year. I know the car was open, and the men were standing out there with the white outfits on, and I can see them yet. Their outfits didn’t go clear to the ground, you know. The only one we’d ever seen (in outfits like that) was my dad’s sister who was a nun, and so, gosh, we just hadn’t ever seen anybody in anything like this.”
I loved her story. Those anti-Catholic defenders of the American way, in their flowing white robes, were remembered for decades because they looked so much like nuns. Delicious.
Tom Morain, a native of Jefferson, is one of Iowa’s most noted historians. In 1988, he wrote an award-winning book about his home area, “Prairie Grass Roots: An Iowa Small Town in the Early Twentieth Century.” He is now on the faculty and staff of Graceland University in Lamoni, but advises and assists the Greene County Historical Society.Information submitted by Tom Morain, Greene County Historical Society.