PITTSFIELD , Mass. — Over a thousand men, most of them hooded, gathered around a burning cross. Some 200 were new recruits, there to be inducted into the secrets of the Ku Klux Klan. The year was 1927.
The place was a farm 15 miles from Pittsfield.
The first arc of the Ku Klux Klan following the Civil War seems to have permeated very little into New England, in terms of formal organization. The requisite attitudes were certainly present in the Berkshires by then; the same month that Berkshire volunteers were mustering with the 27th Infantry to fight in that conflict, at least eight innocent men of color were arrested following the September 1861 slaying of Emily Jones and her children in Otis. Several narrowly escaped lynching by angry mobs, before James Callender confessed to the triple homicide.
There were plenty of heinous incidents and individual acts, but it wasn't until a couple decades later that systemic hatreds in the Berkshires began to cluster into vigilante groups — first as White Caps, and later as klansmen.
In the late 19th century, "white capping" was a new movement of white kl. White caps saw themselves as enforcers of moral and ethnic purity, spread out from Indiana to rural areas around the country beginning in 1887. Members wore white hats or masks and carried out ambushes on immigrants, racially mixed couples, "licentious" women, adulterers, alcoholics, or anyone else they deemed undesirable to their community's moral order. Their favored method of punishment was flogging with a whip. Their predominant targets were people of color and recent immigrants.
Gangs of white caps were already established in half a dozen Berkshire towns by the beginning of 1889, when a dozen of them were brought to trial for the attempted murder of two French men in Housatonic. After hearing about the fracas in South County, a few nights later a dozen young men covered their faces in white masks and prowled Pittsfield's West Side neighborhood, roughing up a 9-year-old walking home. Another band of white caps threatened (and were shot at by) Schuyler Hulse in Lenox, when they accosted him for visiting a widow there one evening in 1893. Hulse was cleared of any wrongdoing (for shooting one of them in the buttocks) by the courts. A gang of white caps was again reported roaming the West Side neighborhood of Pittsfield on Halloween in 1901, mentioned in such casual fashion as to suggest this had become common occurrence.
Sporadic incidents of violence continued over the next few years, and public opinion began to increasingly turn against them as their nocturnal activities began to threaten commerce and investment in many communities. Nationally, the movement had become associated with a growing number of lynching murders against Black men and men of color. By 1910, activities under the "white cap" brand had tapered off — but many white cappers would simply re-enlist a few years later, when the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan was re-formed in 1915.
The klan had a significant presence in the Berkshires by the early 1920s, at least. At first, locals traveled to meetings in nearby areas of Connecticut and New Jersey, but soon began holding meetings locally with hundreds of attendees, and large regular induction ceremonies. In 1923, about 200 people were receiving KKK mailings in North Adams and Williamstown. A year later, KKK organizers in Pittsfield reported they had about 600 new applicants for membership. Multiple local klan chapters were organized, by town. Pittsfield's was Berkshire Klan No. 9.
In October 1924, many traveled to the Worcester Agricultural Fairgrounds for what would become the largest klan rally in New England, with over 15,000 attending. Hooded hate was spreading rapidly.
Over the next few years, crosses burned at large outdoor ceremonies from Pittsfield to Pownal, Vt. In 1926, 250 local klansmen burned a 30-foot cross on a hill behind the Red Bat Cave speak-easy in New Ashford, in plain view of passersby on nearby Route 7. Three weeks later they gathered again in North County, at Whitcomb Summit, for another fiery initiation with 100 more new prospective members attending. In a rare attempt to photograph the proceedings, a North Adams Transcript photographer had his camera confiscated until the meeting concluded.
A faction in nearby Chatham, N.Y., fared more poorly in their cross-burning attempt, when a roaming bull (possibly set loose by a nearby farmer) reportedly charged into their midst in the dark, shattering the cross and nearly goring some members.
By 1927, KKK rallies with over a thousand attendees were being held on farms near Pittsfield and North Adams. Sporadic incidents of threats against community members, like Hinsdale dentist Dr. Boudreau, were largely dismissed with only mild reproach by local leaders. By that point, the local klan chapters had proven large enough to influence the course of town elections, as was seen in the race for town clerk in Hancock that year. In February of '27, The Berkshire Eagle reported the defeat of seven-year incumbent August McSorley came from local klansmen through their support to challenger Harry K. Hinds. The same day, a 10-foot tall cross was set ablaze at White Oaks (a predominantly Black neighborhood of Williamstown, at that time) moments after polls closed in that town election.
Local klansmen were growing emboldened, and more willing to be identified. In the Congressional Record from September 1927 can be found a letter from the Pittsfield branch of the KKK to Alabama Sen. J. Thomas Heflin, praising him for recent statements demonizing Catholics and the Knights of Columbus. "May your stirring remarks take their place with those of other patriots whose words have outlived them. May they be preserved for future generations to read," wrote Secretary J.C. Kilmer, on behalf of Berkshire Klan 9.
The endorsement did not go unreciprocated; Heflin would travel to address some of his northern KKK supporters at a rally in Pownal the following summer.
Another visiting speaker was Charles W. Lewis, editor of the Springfield Herald. Lewis made repeated trips to Pittsfield in the 1920s organizing for the KKK, until his newspaper folded in 1929 amidst criminal libel charges. In one vivid incident, Lewis set himself up distributing klan literature in front of the General Electric plant the same day that Boston Mayor James Curley was in town on his gubernatorial election tour scheduled to give a noontime speech condemning them.
"Hundreds of klan members have existed in the rural sections of the Berkshires ready to flock to the meeting place at the signal from the kleagle," the Eagle recounted in the spring 1928, while declaring the organization was now on the decline locally. "Huge fiery crosses have blazed forth at all hours of the night to proclaim to Berkshire and her visitors that the hooded order had extending into the back woods of the western Massachusetts hills."
Now, it said, two major leaders had left the area, and "unless some new guiding lights shine forth to steer the organization, it is doomed."
They were clearly still active locally six months later, though; at least 150 members gathered for a meeting that November in the Town Hall at Otis.
Growing pushback in communities drove KKK activity deeper underground by the very end of the decade, and overall the organization everywhere saw a steep decline in active numbers. Where formal, dues-paying members nationwide had been estimated close to 9 million people in 1925, by 1930 it was down to just over 300,000 (they grossed an estimated $90 million during that time).
Though klan activity saw a limited resurgence in the late '30s, in large-scale gatherings around Buckland and Shelburne Falls, that particular outlet had lost much of its popularity, and never again reached quite the fever peak of the '20s.
While local chapters of the Ku Klux Klan may have expired, however, sympathies toward the organization never vanished entirely. In 1982, for instance, there were men from Western Mass and Connecticut carpooling up to a large klan rally in nearby Wilmington, Vt. More recently — according to Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn, in a 2017 article in The Berkshire Eagle — back in 1998, a photo shop employee turned over photos of a klan rally in New York State. License plates were visible in some of the shots, and a good number of them proved local.
We've continued to applaud ourselves for our progress, especially here in the Berkshires, where burning crosses on local hillsides seem almost unthinkable ... and yet images of burning hay bales are freshly seared into memory. And it's probably true that ideologies have moved some with the passage of time. That, as Dr. Martin Luther King reminded us, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
It's also true that actual klan-style chapters have dwindled to only 25 recognized groups in 2020, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, numbering scarcely 3,000 members nationally.
But when it comes to hate ... they have apps for that, now. Few would risk employment-killing association with a branded entity like the KKK when white supremacist dialogue and social organization is available with just a few clicks. More than 10 million Americans flocked to Parler and other hate-speech-safe social networking apps in recent months. Known hate groups active in the U.S. declined from 940 to 838 in 2020, according to SPLC's data
, which also warned that activity grew by other metrics, such as "flyering" of racist or violent print content (tripled from 2019 to 2020).
There are six active white supremacy groups in Massachusetts currently being tracked by the SPLC, not including NSC-131, a new neo-Nazi faction led by a 22-year-old from Dorchester, who confirmed they attended November's Capitol riots
to ensure "white safety."
We still have a ton of work to do in building our future ... and in acknowledging our past.
Berkshire Evening Eagle April 30, 1904; May 22, 1922, July 12, 1924; Sept. 18, 1925; May 5, 1926; July 27, 1928; Nov. 16, 1928; Sep 24, 1931; Berkshire Eagle: Nov. 29, 2017; Boston Globe, Nov. 10, 1893; Pittsfield Sun: Sept. 18, 1862; Jan. 24, 1889; March 14, 1889; Nov. 16, 1893
North Adams Transcript: Aug. 27, 1923; Dec. 17, 1924; Dec. 20, 1926; May 5, 1926; May 25, 1926; May 27, 1926; July 27, 1926; Feb. 8, 1927; Feb. 27, 1927; March 19, 1927; April 1927; May 16, 1927; July 27, 1928; Aug. 26, 1935; Sep 24, 1937,US Congressional Record-Senate. Government Publishing Office, 1927