Sunday, January 17, 2016

A Young Attorney Defends D.C. Stephenson

George O. Cowan grew up in Decatur County, Indiana and graduated from Greensburg High School in 1915. In May of 1917, he became one of the first young men in that county to enlist in the U.S. army for service in World War I. He was likely wounded in the war as he joined the Disabled Veterans of America shortly after his return.

After Cowan mustered out of the military in 1919, he enrolled and graduated from Butler University and then the Indiana Law School in 1924. The timing of his admittance to the Marion County Bar landed at an ominous time in Indiana history. Just as he was starting his law career, David Curtis Stephenson, the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana and Ohio, was a rising force within Indiana politics. Stephenson had become a millionaire by selling Klan memberships, robes, and paraphernalia as thousands of Hoosiers joined the "pro-American" organization. Stephenson helped to get many politicians elected including Governor Ed Jackson and Indianapolis Mayor John Duvall. With his flush bank account, the Grand Dragon purchased the Graham home at 5432 University Avenue.

In a story now well-told and well-known, Stephenson kidnapped and brutally raped and attacked Madge Oberholtzer in the spring of 1925 on a train ride to Hammond, Indiana. Miss Oberholtzer, who dwelled nearby with her parents at 5802 University Avenue attempted suicide shortly after the attack by swallowing poison. The next morning Stephenson sobered up and brought the now dying Miss Oberholtzer back to Irvington. Unsure of what to do with her, his bodyguards eventually dropped her off at her home. She lived long enough to give a deathbed confession to authorities although she warned the police that Stephenson had bragged to her that he was "the law in Indiana."

Two local Irvington men served as attorneys for D.C. Stephenson including Robert I. Marsh of 28 Downey Avenue and George O. Cowan, who rented a duplex at 5020 Orion Avenue When detectives came to question Stephenson about Miss Oberholtzer at the Hotel Washington on April 2, 1925, it was Cowan who was alone with the Grand Dragon. When Stephenson needed $10,000 to post bail for him, it was Cowan who scraped together the money.

Neither lawyer was able to save Stephenson from his fate after Miss Oberholtzer's death. The sensational trial of the Klansman brought down the Governor of Indiana and numerous other politicians. It also ended the reign of power for the racist and anti-semitic organization. Ordinary Americans finally realized what they had been a part of and most no longer wanted anything to do with the Klan.  While his client headed to prison, George O. Cowan married Ella McClure on January 23, 1926.  He was 30 years old. For the first several years, they rented a small double at 5020 Orion Avenue in western Irvington. Perhaps he struggled to get back on his feet after being associated with one of the most infamous men in America. Did George Cowan subscribe to the ideology of the Klan? Did he attend the notorious Bacchanalias at the Stephenson home in the months before the Grand Dragon's arrest? He was obviously close to Stephenson, but how close?  His obituary in his hometown newspaper in 1955 spoke of none of this. The residents of Decatur County were clearly proud of their hometown boy as they spoke of him as being "prominent" and involved with lawsuits related to the trucking industry.

Cowan graduated from the Indiana Law School in 1924

Mr. Cowan lists 325 North Ritter Avenue in Fellow Citizens of Indianapolis, but there is no such address, nor is there a 325 South Ritter Avenue. City directories reveal that he rented a duplex at 5020 East Orion Avenue in 1926.  
5020-22 Orion Avenue on snowy January day in 2016

William Lutholtz. Grand Dragon: D.C. Stephenson and the Ku Klux Klan. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue Press. 1991, pp.190,191, 197,198.

Greensburg Daily News, February 9, 1955.

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