Alexander P. Nelson Was the Klanbuster

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

He went on for a good hour, thrilling the crowd with his increasingly soaring speech, urging them to help him in "the stamping out of the Klan and its baneful existence from our midst. . . . When this is done, then business in [Anaheim] will resume its normal level, neighbor will be able to meet neighbor without fear, distrust or evasion, and in the place of the foul buzzard of hatred and distrust which now obscures the sun of your progress will come the fair dove of peace and prosperity."

That night, the Klan sent him an anonymous note warning, "Do not venture out in the evening for one month," to which Nelson replied to the Register, "I will treat it with the contempt it deserves." Such bravura inspired Anaheimers to launch a recall against the Klan council members, and Nelson and his deputies helped the cause by lecturing at rallies. But the Klan had one last plan to humiliate Nelson—it would stage its own bootlegger raid to prove the DA was soft on crime.

On Nov. 19, a group called the Citizens' Committee enlisted the help of federal agents, the Anti-Saloon League and an organization cryptically described in newspapers as a "well-known secret organization"—the Klan. The raid was organized at the ranch of William Starbuck, a Fullerton pioneer and one of the most prominent men in the city. For 10 weeks, Starbuck had armed guards at his compound and spies attempting to gather a list of county bootleggers. The raid resulted in the arrest of more than 50 people. The local papers deemed it "History's Greatest Raid"—and Nelson and the anti-Klan forces were caught by surprise.

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

At the time, only Nelson knew Starbuck or the other prominent Fullerton citizens—men such as Albert Stueke and Louis Plummer, head of the Fullerton schools and the man for whom the city's historic Plummer Auditorium is named—were Klan members. Everyone assumed they were just prominent community activists. But Starbuck, Stuelke and others held informative meetings throughout the county, boasting of their victory, painting Nelson as incompetent, and railing that 90 percent of the county's bootleggers were foreigners—even though of the 50 people they arrested, only 10 were Latinos.

But the Klan made a fatal mistake: They billed cities for the cost of removing bootleggers from their towns. Those cities with Klan members, who already knew of what was coming, quickly approved; those who didn't staged vigorous protests. In Fullerton, Charles Stanley Chapman, son of citrus magnate Charles C. Chapman (for whom Chapman University and Chapman avenues in Orange and Fullerton are named), filed a lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court prohibiting the Klan-majority City Council from paying the Citizen's Committee $2,800.

Such obstruction riled Klan leadership. On Dec. 18 in Huntington Beach, the Reverend Leon C. Myers, leader of the Orange County Klan, spoke at Huntington Beach High School and accused Nelson and his assistants of refusing to assist the raid and freeing the arrested bootleggers; he even accused Huntington Beach officials of being bootleggers themselves. Nelson's office didn't budge. Assistant DA C.N. Mozley called Myers a "dirty, contemptible liar," a "falsifier," a "ranting blatherskite," a "scalawag" and the "greatest menace to Orange County."

Myers asked for a grand jury to investigate his claims against Nelson, and the county DA quickly impaneled one, inviting Myers, Starbuck, Stuelke and others to tell their stories. The Klan tried to have the state attorney general also investigate Nelson, but he refused. Nelson boasted to the press that Klan members "left the grand jury room very meekly, and I predict that very little more will be heard from them with reference to accusing public officials."

After about two weeks of testimony, the grand jury returned with their findings: Nelson's office had done no wrong, and the Klan's accusations were not only baseless, but also harmful. "In sworn testimony, each witness stated that they knew of no act of any official in Orange County that constituted malfeasance of office," concluded the Jan. 14, 1925, special report. "Much injustice has been done by groundless accusation made at public meetings, and we hope that this report will carry to the citizens of Orange County the fact that we find these charges were not sustained."

The Klan's public reputation in Orange County was permanently damaged. Nelson provided poll guards for the Anaheim recall in February, during which all Klan council members were removed. The new council thanked Nelson's office "for their cooperation in the conduct of a peaceful and orderly election." Months later, he tried for perjury and libel a Klansman who claimed the anti-Klan faction knowingly hired a felon as police chief. Nelson chose to not seek re-election in 1926; his handpicked successor, Mozley, lost. The Klan continued to rule in La Habra and Brea for years after, but its scheme at countywide domination was finished.

* * *

Alexander Peter Nelson passed away of natural causes on Jan. 28, 1954, "about 90," according to the Register's brief obituary, which also noted that "during his tenure, Mr. Nelson . . . vigorously prosecuted men accused of participating in a Ku Klux Klan flareup here." He left behind no heirs (he never had any children) and was survived by no one. A burial announcement the following day stated Nelson would be buried at Fairhaven Cemetery in Santa Ana, home to the remains of dozens of Klan members—but the Fairhaven office has no record of Nelson's tomb within its vast grounds.

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