The weekend’s news was dominated by the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white nationalist sympathizing with demonstrators there killed a woman after he allegedly plowed into a crowd of counter-protesters with a car.
It began with a protest of Charlottesville’s pending move to take down a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The Southern Poverty Law Center called the gathering “the largest hate-gathering of its kind in decades” and it drew fringe neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
Some of those were members of the Ku Klux Klan, whose historical reputation as a terrorizing, racist movement across the South in different iterations belies its small membership now, estimated at between 5,000 and 8,000 members in loose factions across the country.
But they were millions strong in the 1920s and one stronghold was Maine, where the KKK mostly formed as a Protestant nativist group opposed to the rise of Catholicism, which came with a wave of immigration from Quebec, Ireland and Italy during the preceding 90 years or so.
Their leader was a charismatic man named F. Eugene Farnsworth, who proclaimed that he was head of the Maine KKK in a 1923 speech, according to a history of the group on Mount Desert Island. But there was much more to his story.
In 1901, he was doing a stage act in Rhode Island that required an assistant to balance a large rock on his stomach while an audience member tried to break it. But the rock slipped and killed his assistant, so he left there in disgrace.
After bouncing around and using a different name, he proclaimed himself head of Maine’s KKK in a 1923 speech in Portland. The group largely portrayed itself as a fraternal one and it avoided violence. According to a book on Maine’s villains, Farnsworth once said while he didn’t hate Catholics, the U.S. will always be “a Protestant nation.”
Klan chapters popped up all over Maine and they held parades, rallies and even a “Klam Bake” in Trenton after helping elect Republican Gov. Owen Brewster in 1924. Rallies persisted into 1925, but it was a quick fall for the group after that.
The national KKK didn’t like Farnsworth: He charged women $10 to join (more than the male rate of $5), signed up Canadian members (including his wife and daughter) and he was suspected of keeping $4 out of every $10 he collected. He resigned in 1926 and died just after.
In the 1970s, a contractor from Mount Desert Island told a local historian that young people joined the group thinking it was “kind of like a cross between the Masons and the Boy Scouts.” Here’s an excerpt from that account:
“It wasn’t long before we were told we had to hate black people. We weren’t excited by that, but there weren’t many blacks around MDI then, so it didn’t make much of a practical difference. …
Next, we were told we had to hate Jews. Guys started to get uncomfortable, then. There weren’t many Jews around but there were people like Dan Rosenthal, a peddler who came in summer. Everybody liked Dan. He was a good man.
Then we were told we had to hate Catholics. Well, that did it. There were a lot of Catholics around. We knew damned well they were good people. A Catholic priest in Northeast — Father Kinney — was active in the fire company, for example. There was a Catholic church on Lookout Way in Northeast Harbor. The Catholic church had just bought one of the old local houses on Summit Road and was renovating it for a rectory. The Catholic church was enlarging that story-and-a-half little house into a larger three-story rectory.
Well, just about all the workmen in Northeast Harbor donated at least a day’s work on that rectory job and we all signed our work. That was our message to the Ku Klux Klan, from every damn one of us. You’ll find our signatures all over that house. That was the end of the KKK for Northeast Harbor.”
This item was originally published in Daily Brief, a free political newsletter distributed Monday through Friday by the Bangor Daily News to inform dialogue about Maine politics and government. To read more of today’s Daily Brief, click here. To have the Daily Brief delivered daily to your inbox, click here.