Ku Klux Klan Activities Foxboro 1924-1925
Founded in the nineteenth-century South, the Ku Klux Klan attracted new adherents in the early 1900s, as increasing numbers of immigrants brought their own ethnic and religious traditions to the nation's cities and towns. At Klan rallies, speakers warned that "real" Americans were losing control of the country. Newcomers were taking over local government, the police, and the schools. The Klan claimed that foreigners, especially Catholics and Jews, would soon outnumber white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Something, the Klan insisted, had to be done about it.
Many New Englanders were receptive to this message. Workers in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont resented the influx of French Canadians, who were not only Catholic but also willing to accept lower wages than native-born workers. In Massachusetts and Rhode Island, anti-Irish prejudice reappeared as Irish Americans gained political power. Anti-Italian sentiment was also prevalent throughout southern New England.
Beginning in 1923 's small towns in eastern and central Massachusetts witnessed Klan meetings and cross-burnings occurring with some regularity. Both secret and public Klan meetings were held in Worcester County towns, including Berlin, Clinton, Gardner, Holden, Shrewsbury, Marlborough, Upton, Paxton, Charlton, West Brookfield, and Spencer; Middlesex County towns including Framingham, Littleton, Medford, Natick; Sudbury; Bristol County towns of Taunton and Easton; Scituate in Plymouth County; and Norfolk County in the towns of Millis, Natick and Foxboro.
Senator John F. Kennedy aptly described the era in a speech at the National Conference of Christians & Jews, Inc., on February 16, 1956. Kennedy stated that the resurgence of interest in the Klan’s message was directly related to the "pre-convention campaign of the Democratic Party of 1924, when intolerance had again raised its ugly head - not because of the religious affiliation of any candidate but because of the whole problem of racial and religious hatred and the powerful groups who fostered it. The Ku Klux Klan was a potent force in American politics in 1924, numbering an estimated 5 million members in 45 states. Hate-mongering was their business; "America for the Americans" was their slogan; and post-war fear and distrust of our allies, our former enemies and the new Communist movement provided their atmosphere. Negroes were lynched - Catholics were flogged - Jews were tarred and feathered - immigrants were excluded - and it was all done in the name of the Lord."
One of the first documented crossing burnings in southeastern Massachusetts during this era took place in Foxboro. In an article titled "Flaming Cross brings Police to Robinson Hill late Sunday Night." the September 15, 1923 edition of the Foxboro Reporter reported, "An autoist passing through town last Sunday night reported that a flaming cross was in evidence on the top of Robinson Hill and he thought the Ku Klux Klan might be responsible for it. Officer Fred W. Pettee immediately went to the place with the first truck and found a cross six fee long and four feet wide had been made of seasoned fence rails, saturated in kerosine and then erected on th4e highest point of the hill and set on fire. No person was there and three young men from Mansfield were in the vicinity and they were gathered in and Chief White called. The police put the young men through the third degree but they would not admit their guilt and were allowed to go on their way."
The crossing burning was probably a direct result of the mass publicity campaign preceding a major recruiting drive of the Ku Klux Klan which was held at Mechanic’s Hall in Worcester on September 23, 1923. The event featured F. Eugene Farnsworth, Chief of the Loyal Coalition and King Kleagle of the realm of Maine. The Boston Globe reported that "...a crowd of 25,000 surged through the streets surrounding Mechanic’s Hall. The speakers inflamed the audience of 2,500 members or prospective members of 2,500 members with claims that Catholics were overtaking the city's government and police force and that the majority of public school teachers were Catholics. " One of the speakers was quoted, "When Worcester folks see 20,000 to 30,000 Klansmen in uniform parading the streets of Worcester, and this time isn't far off, then we will definitely be ready for action."
It was the summer months of 1924 that witnessed an increase in Klan activities in Foxboro. The local paper reported that the police in town were being kept busy removing KKK posters in the center of town. Several residents recalled stories that directly involved their parents. The late Frank Bagley told the story of when an angry crowd of Ku Klux Klan members dressed in regalia had gathered on the lawn of St. Mary’s Church. The newly appointed pastor, Fr. Michael A. Butler rushed from the rectory stood with a gathering of parishioners on the front steps of the church until the crowd dispersed. Speaking about this same event the late Vincent Igo added a comical vignette. The vitriolic leader of the local Klan, his identity hidden by hood and robe, was noticed to be wearing an expensive pair of white and brown wing-tip shoes. Later that week the leader’s identity became embarrassingly public knowledge when these same shoes were seen sticking out from beneath a haircut apron covering a town official and local businessman sitting the local barbershop chair.
The late Al Fitzpatrick, who lived most of his life in the house directly across the street from the old St. Mary’s Church, added to this story . He recalled that several weeks after the stare-down incident between Fr. Butler and the KKK, a burning cross was ignited on the lawn of the church. His father saw the flaming cross through the window soon after being lit. His father ran across the street, kicked the burning cross to the ground and stamped out the fire. Returning home, Fitzpatrick remembered his father saying "If I catch the person who did this I will ring his neck with my bare hands!"
As the November 1924 Presidential election neared local Klan activity increased. On October 3, 1924 the Mansfield News reported on a Ku Klux Klan rally that took place in Norton, "Several Mansfield people passing through Norton Sunday about 4:30PM stopped to inquire about a large gathering near St. Mary's Catholic Church on the Taunton Road and found an open air meeting of the Ku Klux Clan in full swing. In fact it is said that twenty initiates were signed up by a young man whose name is unknown. The alleged Klansmen came from Brockton, Rayhnam, Taunton, and Easton. The Majority were young men...no local residents on hand...Chief of Police Benjamin Scalon was on to resolve order, but had nothing to do in that line."
The late Clarence Dacy, former Mansfield resident and historian, witnessed a KKK Karavan driving through down town Mansfield during this era. Dacy recalled, "It was a Saturday night, a night commonly popular for shopping for local Mansfield residents. Approximately ten automobiles both Sedans and touring cars came down the old Route 106 from Easton. They drove through the center of town, many dressed in full KKK regalia, sheets and hoods, tooting their horns and cheering. Attached to the radiator of the lead touring car was a large cross illuminated by red, white and blue electric lights. They continued down Main Street on to Norton where they returned to Easton were the Klavern was based.."
The largest gathering of the Ku Klux Klan ever held in New England took place at the Agricultural Fairgrounds in Worcester on October 19, 1924. The "Klanvocation" of Klansmen in sheets and hoods, new Knights awaiting a mass induction ceremony, and supporters swelled the crowd to 15,000. The Klan had hired more than 400 "husky guards," but when the rally ended around midnight, a riot broke out. Klansmen's cars were stoned, burned, and windows smashed. KKK members were pulled from their cars and beaten. Klansmen called for police protection, but the situation raged out of control for most of the night. The violence after the meeting had the desired effect. Membership fell off, and no further public Klan meetings were held in Worcester.
Toward the end of the decade, corruption and sex scandals among the national leadership discredited the high and mighty message the Klan was trying to promote, and membership numbers sharply dropped. The violence that ensued after the Worcester Klanvocation became more and more a reoccurrence at future KKK rallies. By the end of 1925 Ku Klux Klan meetings and rallies had all but disappeared from Massachusetts. But the memories of these past events live on a lessons to be learned..