Alexander P. Nelson Was the Klanbuster

Ninety years ago, the KKK tried to take over Orange County—only to encounter the district attorney

Alexander P. Nelson Was the Klanbuster

The List is kept under lock and key in the Anaheim Heritage Center Disney Resort Reading Room, far from the public's gaze or curiosity. You need to know about it to see the List—a quick search online reveals nothing. Once inside the Heritage Center, Anaheim's genteel depository of its history housed inside the Muzeo, you have to ask for the List in a hushed tone, lest the regulars shoot you the kind of look society once reserved for men buying condoms.

You can view the List on microfilm, but it's best to ask for a copy in advance—it takes a lifetime to decipher, for its secrets are many. It's one of the most influential collection of names in local annals: the membership roster of the Orange County chapter of the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s, when the Invisible Empire had launched a violent campaign of cross burnings, death threats and angry rallies in its quest for civic domination and white supremacy. Names, addresses, occupations—most of the 1,000-plus entries are mundane, but many OC pioneers are on the List, men who served on city councils and school boards, men whom we continue to commemorate via the names of streets, parks, schools and auditoriums.

The Courier New-styled entries are filled with misspellings and slightly discolored, yet the List remains magical. It was the silver bullet that stopped the Klan cold twice: first, in 1922, just as the local KKK was forming, and then again in 1924, when anti-Klan activists in Anaheim published portions in the Anaheim Bulletin in their ultimately successful efforts to recall a Klan-majority council and shame the group into eternal county retreat. It's our Pentagon Papers, an artifact worthy of monuments, and historians do celebrate the publication of the List as the turning point in driving the Klan out of local power.

Alexander Nelson (left) with law enforcement holding a Klan robe captured during a raid on KKK headquarters in 1922
© Los Angeles Times. Reprinted with permission
Alexander Nelson (left) with law enforcement holding a Klan robe captured during a raid on KKK headquarters in 1922
William Starbuck, Fullerton pioneer, in a rare photo of him not wearing a Klan robe
Courtesy Fullerton Public Library
William Starbuck, Fullerton pioneer, in a rare photo of him not wearing a Klan robe

But that's only part of the story. The List was brought to the public, Prometheus-like, by one man: District Attorney Alexander Peter Nelson. It was Nelson who wrestled the Klan into obedience 90 years ago by threatening to reveal its contents to the press, who bravely faced off against the KKK two years later with tireless campaigning and maneuvering. Nelson battled multiple personal threats, legal skirmishes, public scourings, even a grand jury investigation to stare the Klan down and emerge triumphant—and then fade away.

Only one known photo of Nelson exists. No local archives—not the Orange County Archives, not any historical society, not even the records of the district attorney's office—have any information on him other than the basics: Nelson served as the county's DA from 1920 to 1926, and then decided against seeking re-election. But his full story is around, hidden in the rapidly decaying microfilm collections strewn across county libraries, their sour, vinegar-like smell of decay a metaphor for the Klan's time here and our amnesia about Nelson's heroics.

* * *

Little is known about Nelson's personal life. He was born in Vermont in 1866, the 11th of 12 children of a housewife and a vanity merchant. Nelson graduated from Dartmouth College in 1889, earned a law degree two years later, then moved between Boston and New Hampshire to practice his profession, with a three-year stint in Alaska starting in 1911 to strike it rich in one of the region's gold rushes. He returned back East after a couple of years of prospecting, then moved with his wife to Santa Ana in 1914.

Once here, he practiced private law and also served as Huntington Beach's city attorney for some years before becoming a deputy district attorney in 1918. Following the resignation of DA L.A. West two years later, Nelson became the county's top law enforcer. "Santa Ana surely has no adopted son more public-spirited and anxious for the future greatness of that thriving city than Alexander P. Nelson," reads his bio in Samuel Armor's 1921 History of Orange County, a collection of paid-for mini-bios on the county's gentry.

Nelson assumed the role at a turbulent time in Orange County's history. The county was still rural, and an influx of Mexican migrants was frightening city fathers and convincing them that segregation—housing, school, business—was the only way to live in the same region as their cheap labor. Prohibition had just taken effect, and bootleggers operated freely within county lines. Tipplers from Los Angeles speeded down Highway 101 toward Tijuana for a sip, and bootleggers traveled north from Mexico to supply a thirsty Southern California with tequila, whisky and other liquors.

Orange County had local chapters of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WTCU) and the Anti-Saloon League, the nation's leading organizers against alcohol. But from the pulpits of local churches, pastors railed against foreigners, claiming without any proof they made up 85 percent of bootleggers. Local newspapers breathlessly reported on the criminal activities of Mexicans, depicting them as drunken corruptors of youth. The WTCU and Anti-Saloon League simply wouldn't do to combat the dual, related evils of alcohol and immigrants; a stronger response was needed.

In January 1922, the first county residents signed up for OC's latest klavern (the cutesy term for a Klan chapter). The region wasn't ignorant of the Hooded Order: Many Confederates moved to Orange County after the Civil War, including Henry W. Head, who served directly under Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest, became a state assemblyman and proudly showed off his robes well into the 1910s (see "The KKK Took My County Away," April 18, 2008). But this new version was supposed to be different: nonviolent, respectable, upstanding. Members paid a $10 initiation fee and signed pledges to the Imperial Wizard to uphold "the maintenance of White Supremacy" and a "strict and loyal obedience" to the Klan.

Next Page »