The Indiana General Assembly, A History: Part Five (1891-1928)

The 11th Infantry at Fort Harrison, Indianapolis- 1917. Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society Digital Collections.

The 11th Infantry at Fort Harrison, Indianapolis- 1917. Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society Digital Collections.

D.C. Stephenson (Left) used his power as Grand Dragon of the Indiana Ku Klux Klan to help elect  an Indiana Government  sympathetic to the Klan's wishes, with Governor Ed Jackson (Right) being the embodiment of that influence. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society Digital Collections.

D.C. Stephenson (Left) used his power as Grand Dragon of the Indiana Ku Klux Klan to help elect an Indiana Government sympathetic to the Klan’s wishes, with Governor Ed Jackson (Right) being the embodiment of that influence. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society Digital Collections.

The Progressive Era

The turn of the century saw Indiana growing increasingly more urban, more diverse, and more socially conscious, at least in the ambitions of the Progressives. Progressivism, as a philosophy of governance and life, was dedicated to the use of governmental power to improve the material, political, and economic conditions of the working classes. Indiana, always a more pragmatic state, typified its own version of Progressivism. While some of the more nationally-known progressive ideals like women’s suffrage and the income tax were put on the back burner, the Indiana General Assembly did enact some deeply progressive reforms.[1] In 1899, the legislature passed the Hurty Pure Food and Drug Act (named for Indiana’s Secretary of the State Board of Health Dr. John N. Hurty), which served as a basis for the national Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.[2] One of Indiana’s most Progressive reformers, Albion Fellows Bacon, also championed the need for better housing for the poor.[3] Her efforts led to the passage of Indiana’s first housing law in 1909, which was later expanded in 1913 to include all cities of the state.[4]

Two of the biggest legislative accomplishments during the Progressive Era were the General Primary Act of 1907 and the Statewide Enforcement Law of 1915. These two pieces of legislation secured the direct election of all primary nominees for local, state, and federal elections. It also made sure that party delegates for Presidential elections were chosen through a direct, majority vote. For the first time in Indiana’s history, nominees were chosen directly by the people, rather than through the traditional party process. These reforms, along with the nineteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing women’s suffrage, helped to broaden the enfranchisement of voters throughout the state. While attempts were made to repeal these laws during the 1920s (with a serious repeal of the 1915 law in 1929) the voter reforms endured and the process was largely readopted in subsequent years.[5] In all, the Progressive era came to Indiana through pragmatism and a concerted effort, by both legislators and activists alike, to improve the lives of Hoosiers.[6]

Ralston’s Progressivism and the Indiana Centennial

In 1916, Indiana turned 100 years old, and the legislature prepared for the joyous occasion with resources and celebrations. No one quite embodied the progressive spirit of Indiana during the period like Governor Samuel Ralston, elected 1912. His governorship brought Indiana swiftly into the twentieth century, ushering in a new era of rapid industrialization and urbanization and believed that government’s role was to secure these economic gains through legislation that served the needs of all citizens. One of his greatest achievements was the creation, with the passage of a public utilities bill of the Indiana General Assembly, of a Public Service Commission that would help regulate public utilities throughout the state.[7] However, Ralston’s commitment to the Indiana Centennial remains another key achievement of his time as Governor.

The Indiana General Assembly, after a request from Governor Ralston, passed a bill that appropriated $25,000 to the creation of an Indiana Historical Commission that would oversee the Centennial celebrations.[8] Interested in creating displays and programs that were in keeping with the patriotic fervor of the Governor and the Historical Commission (of which he was President). While the General Assembly agreed to the Commission and its subsequent funds, it was not interested in some of the Governor’s specific initiatives. One of these initiatives was a state highway system, originally introduced in 1913. The “Hughes Bill” called for a statewide system of roadways and taxes that would connect the rural and urban sectors of Indiana. Pressure from rural citizens, who thought it was their responsibility to handle local roads, brought the Hughes bill to defeat, with a vote of 79 to 13. While federal funds insured the creation of some roads in the state, a state highway system would have to wait.[9] Nonetheless, Ralston’s leadership during the centennial era saw both successes and failure, and both were inexorably tied to the interests of the General Assembly.

World War I

            World War I, known in its time as the “Great War,” ravaged Europe for three years before the United States joined the conflict in 1917. While many soldiers served honorably during the war, the General Assembly’s actions towards German-Americans on the home front presented deep challenges to the Hoosier State. At the time, the Indiana population had nearly 500,000 immigrants from Europe, with a significant number from Germany and Austria. Once the war broke out, a form of “superpatriotism” took hold on the country and Indiana, one that began to see German-Americans as an antagonistic force (even though German-Americans had become a well-respected sector of the state and the city of Indianapolis). This nativism and jingoism saw its way into the public school system, where new laws, passed in 1919 by the General Assembly, ended the decades-long German language classes in Indianapolis Public Schools.[10] Indiana’s treatment of German-Americans during World War I presented a clear contradiction to the Progressive era’s humanitarian goals.    

The General Assembly and the Klan

            During the 1920s, the Indiana state government came under control by one of the most discriminatory and oppressive regimes in American history: the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan, by 1925, had control over not only the majority of the General Assembly but also had the blessing of Governor Ed Jackson. Their objectives not only pushed for discrimination against African-Americans, but they also had a strong antagonism towards Catholics and immigrants. This “second wave” of the Klan (the first wave appeared during the tumultuous years after the Civil War) had nearly 300,000 members, and its explicit purpose was to use governmental influence to push forward its discriminatory agenda.[11] The man behind the Klan’s control of Indiana state government was David Curtis (D.C.) Stephenson. Stephenson, who became the head (“Grand Dragon”) of the Indiana chapter in 1923, used his power and influence to both break off from the Klan’s national leadership (and its leader, Walter Bossert) in 1924 and to elect a state government sympathetic to the Klan’s agenda. His victories led Stephenson to being referred to as “the law in Indiana.”[12]

When Governor Ed Jackson and the “Klan Assembly” came into power in 1925, it had specific legislative goals that represented both the Stephenson-led and Bossert-led factions of the Klan. Their educational agenda, focused on the dismantlement of religious freedom in parochial schools and textbook requirements in all schools, was a strategic move to disrupt the lives of Catholics in Indiana.[13] Known as the Murden Bill, these educational requirements did pass the Indiana House, but would die in the Indiana Senate. The Senate never came completely under the Klan like the House did, which led to the death of many pieces of Anti-Catholic and Anti-African-American legislation involving schools, highways, and places of public accommodation.[14] After each successive legislative failure, the Klan began to lose its grip on Indiana government. Later that year, Stephenson was convicted of the rape and murder of Indianapolis woman Madge Oberholtzer and sentenced to life in prison. When Governor Ed Jackson refused to pardon Stephenson, the former Grand Dragon turned in evidence against Jackson, noting his collusion with Klan in state government. Jackson was charged with crimes of bribery and underwent trial while he was still in office. While acquitted in 1928, Jackson left office in disgrace and never sought another public position.[15] The Ku Klux Klan, for a brief moment, had a severely tight grip on Indiana government, to the detriment of all citizens of the state. While this political storm consumed Indiana during the 1920s, the next decade would bring an equally traumatic economic storm that would test Indiana government in a way unseen since the Civil War.

Notable Legislators

  • Booth Tarkington

Booth Tarkington, one of Indiana’s most successful and critically-acclaimed novelists, found inspiration for his writing from his time as a member of the Indiana General Assembly. Born July 29, 1869 in Indianapolis, Tarkington came from a wealthy family and was educated at the prestigious Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. He also graduated from Purdue and Cambridge University, in 1891 and 1893, respectively. He served as a State Representative during the 1903 session, and he came into the session “to help some blind constituents who did not want to go to the poorhouse.”[16] Tarkington introduced a bill that would have given blind citizens training in broom making, and while it passed in the legislature, it was vetoed by Governor Winfield T. Durbin.[17] His experiences in the House, particularly his support of a controversial bill for Sunday baseball, inspired his novel In the Arena, published in 1905. Tarkington’s two nephews, John Jameson and Donald Butler, assisted their uncle in the General Assembly and inspired the characters for his successful Penrod trilogy of novels.[18] Tarkington’s time in the General Assembly served as a backdrop for many of his novels, and along with his contemporary James Whitcomb Riley, ushered in the “Indiana Renaissance” of literature in the early twentieth century.

  • Herbert P. Kenney, Sr.

Representative Herbert P. Kenney, Sr. was one of the many legislators who expressed their opposition, often with more than his voice, to the Ku Klux Klan’s control of Indiana state government during the 1920s. Born April 5, 1883 in Lake County, Indiana, Kenney was a graduate of the Jefferson School of Law in Louisville, Kentucky and admitted to the bar in 1913. Alongside his law practice, he also had a successful career as a dairy farmer. Kenney, a Democrat, was first elected to the Indiana House of Representatives in 1923, and was reelected in 1925 and 1931.[19] Kenney’s shining moment in the Indiana General Assembly came in 1925, during the infamous “Klan Session” of the legislature. He opposed the Murden Bill, which required that religious and parochial schools use the same textbooks as public schools (which had been grossly edited to the Klan’s approval). The legislators who supported the measure and the Klan tried to strong-arm him into the supporting the measure, he displayed a pistol on his belt. They never tried to intimidate him again.[20] Kenney was one of the strongest objectors to the Klan’s abuse of power, and he used his wits, and his weapon, to defend the Indiana Constitution.

[1] James H. Madison, The Indiana Way: A State History (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1986), 222.

[2] Madison, The Indiana Way, 222-223.

[3] For more on Albion Fellows Bacon and her impact on the Progressive Era on Indiana, see Robert G. Barrows, Albion Fellows Bacon: Indiana’s Municipal Housekeeper (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000).

[4] Madison, The Indiana Way, 222-223.

[5] Justin E. Walsh, The Centennial History of the Indiana General Assembly, 1816-1978 (Indianapolis, Indiana Historical Bureau, 1987), 360-363. For more on the movement to allow direct voting of primary nominees, see Ray Boomhower, “To Secure Honest Elections’: Jacob Piatt Dunn, Jr., and the Reform of  Indiana’s Ballot,” Indiana Magazine of History 90, no. 4 (December 1994): 311-345, accessed February 20, 2015,

[6] The Progressive Era was not without its controversies. Eugenics, the supposed method of population and pregnancy control, became very influential to the Indiana General Assembly. They passed many pieces of legislation that curtailed the reproductive rights of many Indiana citizens, which led to state-sanctioned sterilizations. The state removed many of these pieces of legislation under the leadership of Governor Otis Bowen in the 1970s. For more on this subject, see Alexandria Minna Stern, “We Cannot Make a Silk Purse Out of a Sow’s Ear’: Eugenics in the Hoosier Heartland,” Indiana Magazine of History 103, no. 1 (March 2007): 3-38, accessed April 15, 2015,

[7] Suellen M. Hoy, Samuel M. Ralston: Progressive Governor, 1913-1917 (Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of History, Indiana University, 1975), 60-78.

[8] Suellen M. Hoy, “Samuel M. Ralston and Indiana’s Centennial Celebration,” Indiana Magazine of History 71, no. 3 (September 1975): 248, accessed March 13, 2015,

[9] Ibid, 260-266. Another key victory during the Ralston era was the creation of the state park system, particularly the crown jewel of the era, Turkey Run. For more on this see Ibid, 253-259.

[10] Paul J. Ramsey, “The War against German-American Culture: The Removal of German-Language Instruction from the Indianapolis Schools, 1917–1919,” Indiana Magazine of History 98, no. 4 (December 2002): 286-303, accessed April 8, 2015,

[11] Ron F. Smith, “The Klan’s Retribution Against an Indiana Editor: A Reconsideration,” Indiana Magazine of History 106, no. 4 (December 2010), 381, accessed April 15, 2015,

[12] M. William Lutholtz, Grand Dragon: D.C. Stephenson and the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 1991), 114. This particular phrase is almost apocryphal at this point; while Stephenson may have never said it in exactly these words, it was referenced in the Indianapolis News in 1925. See ibid, 332n1.

[13] Ibid, 153-154.

[14] Walsh, Centennial History, 319-324.

[15] Madison, The Indiana Way, 294.

[16] Charles W. Calhoun, Alan F. January, Elizabeth Shanahan-Shoemaker and Rebecca Shepherd, A Biographical Directory of the Indiana General Assembly, Volume 2: 1901-1984 (Indianapolis, Indiana Historical Bureau, 1980), 96.

[17] Walsh, Centennial History, 409.

[18] Walsh, Centennial History, 410.

[19] Charles W. Calhoun  et. al., A Biographical Directory of the Indiana General Assembly, 96.

[20] Walsh, Centennial History, 317-319, 322.


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