The Irvington Maiden – more background

(More background info on the ballad in the above post.)

Madge Augustine Oberholtzer

In the spring of 1925 an unassuming teacher caught the eye of an older, distinguished-looking man during a dinner given by the governor of Indiana.  A second-generation German immigrant who taught disadvantaged youths to read during the day and returned to her parents’ home in Irvington at night, she was flattered by his attention and agreed to be his personal guest at a party in his home.  At the event she realized her host was the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.  Horrified, she severed the relationship immediately.

“The Old Man” as he like to be called, was used to getting what he wanted.  Without his support and Klan backing, getting elected in Indiana was practically impossible.  He controlled the governor, the mayor of Indianapolis, half the state assembly, and many judges.  Surely he could impress upon this young lady how fortunate she was to be the object of his affections.  A few nights later, he lured her to his mansion with vague references to her state-funded job.

What he did to her over the next twenty-four hours is gruesome.  On a train bound for Chicago in his private Pullman car, the Herkimer, he repeatedly raped and bit her so savagely, her flesh looked like it had been chewed by a wild animal.  The next morning the two of them and another man checked into a hotel in northern Indiana.  After her captor fell asleep, she convinced the man to take her to a drugstore for rouge.  While there, she secretly purchased a box of bichloride of mercury tablets.  After returning to the hotel, she took several hoping to die, but the poison only made her violently ill.  The group quickly returned to Irvington by car, and one of his men drove her home.

She never recovered.  When she knew she would not live long enough to testify against The Old Man in court, her parents arranged for Asa Smith, a local attorney, to officially record her deathbed declaration.  Her deposition was entered and allowed as evidence in the trial—supposedly the first time written testimony from a deceased victim was admitted in court.  The doctor who tended to the young woman testified that mercury poisoning would have been fatal within days, not weeks, of ingesting the tablets.  An infection from the bite wounds, he said, was the cause of death—caused by bacteria that would have been present on human teeth. Courtroom where the trial took place

The Old Man boasted: “I am the law in Indiana!”  He confidently expected to be acquitted.  The trial took place in Hamilton Circuit Court in Noblesville, a small-town county seat north of Indianapolis where his power over the court was minimal.  The jury found him guilty of murder; the judge sentenced him to life in prison.  When he realized he didn’t have any strings left to pull, he disclosed the contents of his boxes of documents that incriminated hundreds of politicians throughout the state, and The Invisible Empire began to topple.  Two years after the trial the Klan’s male membership plummeted from over a quarter million to 4,000.  One of the most influential men in the nation, a contender for the presidency, was now a common prisoner—forgotten and nameless.

Matilda (left) and George Olberholzer (second from right), parents of Madge, outside courthouse

No one asked Madge Augustine Oberholtzer if she would like to give her life in order to shatter the KKK and destroy the Indiana political machine.  She did not get to choose, but the character of her life enabled justice to triumph over corruption in the courtroom of a small Midwestern city.  Her ordinary life accomplished an extraordinary feat.

This song could have been about the evil, corruption, deceit, and bigotry of one man and his empire, but really, it is about an ordinary young woman who became a lynchpin upon whom the trajectory of a state pivoted.

We are indebted to you, Miss Madge.




~ by cathyhowie on June 20, 2012.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: