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.

By spring, this klavern was ready to announce itself. On April 12, it sent an anonymous letter to an Anaheim hotelier that he should leave Orange County immediately—or else. Days later, Klan members attempted to raid a distillery run by Latinos in Inglewood but got in a shootout; when the fracas was over, one person—a Los Angeles sheriff's deputy who was also a Klan member—was dead.

Southern California's district attorneys snapped into action. Los Angeles County DA Thomas Woolwine ordered a raid of the Klan's Southern California offices, in which the area's membership rolls were obtained, including more than 200 names in Orange County—the first version of the List. The following day, while Nelson was in Los Angeles to procure the membership rolls from Woolwine, two Klan members entered his house and warned Nelson's wife to tell him to "lay off this Ku Klux Klan investigation. If he doesn't, something is going to happen."

Nelson was unfazed. "I want to play fair," he told the press. "Some of these members perhaps joined the Klan without realizing what its activities would be. . . . We have had no untoward [KKK] acts committed in this county." He acknowledged that "the principles of the Klan as outlined by that organization [are] truly American," but nevertheless, he was "absolutely opposed" to the group because of its "methods" of taking the law into its own hands. The List wouldn't be made public, but Nelson would keep a copy and use it if necessary.

The ploy worked; within a week, dozens of Klan members went to Nelson's office to claim they had withdrawn from the organization. When that didn't work, Nelson wielded the List; on May 9, Nelson revealed that a private investigator who authored a report stating the KKK was a good organization was, in fact, a Klan member. "I know and feel certain that there are many members of the Klan [who] do not stand for nor would not sanction mob violence," Nelson opined in a statement published by the county's dailies, "but whatever their individual feelings or principals may be in this regard, they are associated with an organization that does sanction mob violence and does put out threatening letters."

Two days later, the Klan sent out death threats to four African-American pastors in Los Angeles, vowing to kill them and their congregations unless they left money at a secret location in Seal Beach. They also planned a lynching (euphemistically referred to in seized correspondence as a "party"), but leaders called it off at the last minute, feeling Nelson's heat. Within a week, Nelson outed Arthur E. Koepsel, chairman of the Orange County Republican Party Central Committee and a prominent Santa Ana attorney who planned to face off against Nelson in the 1922 elections, as a Klan member and went to the Orange County Board of Supervisors to disclose that dozens of county workers were Kluckers. The board acted swiftly, unanimously passing a resolution on May 17 that "membership in such an organization is not compatible with the duty to which county employees owe to the public as servants of the public."

Round One went to Nelson. Soon after, the national Klan leadership ostensibly dissolved all California chapters, and Nelson sailed to an easy electoral victory in the fall. But the Klan wasn't done: It went underground and planned a takeover of county offices via the ballot box. In April 1923, members lit crosses in Fullerton, Anaheim, Huntington Beach, Brea and Yorba Linda. They were watching—and waiting.

* * *

On March 1, 1924, the Reverend Horace Lackey spoke before an audience of hundreds in Santa Ana. The visiting minister extolled the Klan's virtues and issued a warning to law enforcement. "People have feared the Invisible Empire because of its obscurity—but the mask is a terror to lawlessness and corrupt officials," Lackey roared. "We are fighting fire with fire. We are after big game and will use ammunition that will bag that kind."

That same night, the Klan burned a cross in front of the convent of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Orange; soon, members would begin driving around the St. Joseph elementary school in their robes to frighten students and nuns. The Klan was riding again.

Spring elections were on their way, and the Klan was about to make a grasp for political power, publicly preaching it was on the side of white working men and families. Just weeks before Lackey's speech, a letter was sent to Brea oil officials threatening to burn derricks unless they stopped overworking workers. On March 27, just before the election, the Klan burned another cross in the hills of Fullerton where it would be visible around town.

No one knew who was Klan and who wasn't, and after votes were cast, the Klan found itself with majorities on the Brea, Fullerton and Anaheim city councils and with members on the Anaheim, Santa Ana, Fullerton and Brea school boards. Once in power, it moved to solidify dominance. In Anaheim, the Klan-majority council began forcing non-Klansmen to resign from city posts; in Santa Ana, the Klan school board members tried to do the same. When Fullerton councilman W.J. Carmichael publicly criticized the Klan's stranglehold over the city's police department, the group burned a cross on his lawn. KKK rallies were held in Anaheim, Santa Ana, Fullerton and Orange, each increasing in attendance, each lit by a fiery cross.

Meanwhile, DA Nelson waited for an opportunity to strike. He found it in a planned June 14 rally on the athletic field of Orange High School, one the Klan had been bold enough to advertise with announcements in the Orange Daily News. Nelson issued an injunction at the request of the school district that barred the Klan from using Orange High, declaring that school grounds couldn't be used by any "sectarian, denominational or partisan meeting or movement" per the Constitution.

The Klan fumed. It still held a rally, 1,000 strong, across the street from Orange High, the speaking platform a truck illuminated by an electric cross using red bulbs, its hellish tint illuminating the crowd. From this stand, lecturer J. Rush Bronson stated Nelson's political career was "through," that he was "headed up [the] creek, and he had better get a life preserver."

Klan leaders doubled down on public rallies, openly goading Nelson to stop them. At a June 28 rally at Amerige Park in Fullerton attended by more than 1,500 people, a guest speaker spewed anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic canards before Dan O'Hanlon disrupted the meeting by screaming, "Liar!" An angry crowd, according to the Fullerton News Tribune, planned to tar and feather him (and "some even went so far as to suggest killing him," reported the paper) before the Klan-friendly police arrested him for disturbing the peace. Nelson declined to file charges, but the Klan burned a cross on O'Hanlon's lawn anyway.

Two days later, the Klan held another large rally near La Habra's Mexican citrus camp. It was all a buildup to July 29, when the Klan organized an initiation ceremony attended by more than 30,000 at what's now Pearson Park in Anaheim—to this day, it remains one of the largest KKK rallies in American history. A 30-foot cross was lit, and biplanes flew above, lighted from underneath so that they appeared as crosses floating in the sky. The 1924 presidential elections were approaching, and the Klan was planning again to run candidates, both openly and in secret. The rally shocked county citizens into action—but already, Nelson was planning.

On Aug. 20, he reneged on his 1922 promise of discretion with the List and issued a statement to the Santa Ana Register that revealed the names of 20 OC Klan members who were running for political office. The Santa Ana faction of the Klan challenged Nelson the following day in an unsigned letter to the Register to "prove why [Klan members] are unworthy and unfit to offer themselves as candidates for public service" or "retract his statement."

The following day, Nelson sardonically replied that he usually didn't pay "attention to anonymous communications, of which, in my official capacity, I receive a great number," but that he'd make an exception for the Klan.

Two years earlier, Nelson had appeared sympathetic to the ostensible Klan mission of creating upstanding communities; now, he dropped all pleasantries. "In my opinion, the KU KLUX KLAN as an organization is absolutely un-American, and its slogan of 'One Hundred Per Cent American' is absolutely misleading, for the reason that the fundamental principles upon which the KLAN is founded are RACIAL HATRED AND RELIGIOUS BIGOTRY," Nelson wrote in the Register. He added that "there is no room under the American Flag for any organization which seeks to stir up racial prejudice or foster religious intolerance, and any organization founded upon such principles cannot long endure in any free country.

"The principles underlying the activities of the Klan are as old as religion itself," Nelson continued. "Such organizations were responsible for the religious persecutions and wars of the Middle Ages, and such organizations have always paved the way for bloodshed, riot and anarchy."

Nelson pushed further. Before the statewide primary election, he placed front-page blocks in daily newspapers asking, "Do You Wish This County Governed by Candidates Put Forward by the Ku Klux Klan?" and listed the names of candidates who belonged to the Invisible Empire. County voters responded; almost all the Klan-supported candidates lost, in races ranging from the Board of Supervisors to state assembly to Republican Central Committee seats.

But the DA wasn't finished. On Sept. 3, his office informed the Board of Supervisors and city councils that they could begin to erase signs proclaiming "KKK" or "KIGY" (shorthand for "Klan I Greet You") that had littered county highways and city streets for years. And on Sept. 28, he gave a lecture at the White Temple Methodist Church in Anaheim, home of the Reverend James Geissinger, who had long attacked the Klan despite threats on his life.

The List had magically appeared in Anaheim during August, galvanizing anti-Klan forces. The roll now numbered well more than the 1,000-member mark; a total takeover of Orange County politics seemed imminent. Before an audience of more than 1,600, Nelson flayed the Invisible Empire, painting it as little better than a Ponzi scheme dressed in a "clown's suit" and "based on principles which will result in its death."

"Barnum once said that there was a 'sucker born every minute,'" he cracked, "but when we look at the Klan, we are constrained to think that Barnum's estimate was extremely conservative."

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.

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.

That the district attorney's final resting place is seemingly lost forever is a sad, yet fitting tribute to Nelson's legacy. Over time, Nelson's brave battle against the hooded terrorists was forgotten. Time watered down the Klan's crimes so that most chroniclers of its rule in Orange County stressed its members weren't the night riders of the South, but rather misguided citizens who didn't do much more than burn a couple of crosses and organize a few rallies. "These were not violent men," wrote Warren C. Bowen in a 1991 remembrance for a Fullerton publication. "They sought little more than to preserve the life they thought should typify the USA and suburban Southern California; to have a peace and law abiding community."

Even those who fought the Klan didn't think much of Nelson.

"I never did feel that [he] was too solid and steady as to his approach to administration as a district attorney and a law-enforcement agent," said Albert Launer, city attorney for Fullerton during the Klan's reign, in a 1968 interview for Cal State Fullerton's Center for Oral and Public History. Launer and others had stood up against the Klan-majority council in both Fullerton and Brea and helped to get O'Hanlon out of jail without any charges. "I'm possibly talking a little bit too plain, but there wasn't too much depth to the fellow."

He proceeded to paint Nelson to his interviewer as a henpecked milquetoast, someone who needed others to show him how to run the office. But, ultimately, Launer acknowledged Nelson—as the most high-profile opponent of the Klan—had to face them largely alone.

Nelson did "meet the issue pretty squarely," he concluded. "It took him courage to take the stand that he did."

This article appeared in print as "Klanbuster: Ninety years ago, the KKK tried to take over Orange County—only to encounter DA Alexander P. Nelson."

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