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  • Randy Hopkins

Birthday of the Klan: The Tulsa Outrage of 1917

By Randy Hopkins

The front page of the Tulsa Daily World from Saturday, November 10, 1917, (The Gateway to Oklahoma History,


On November 10, 1917, a birth announcement for the “Modern Ku Klux Klan” appeared in a front-page headline of the Tulsa Daily World. The Klan’s birth pains were colorfully described by the newspaper’s managing editor, who had just witnessed the “Tulsa Outrage”—the kidnapping and torture of seventeen union organizers. The day would cast a long shadow, darker for the likelihood that the midwives of the birth included some of the then most powerful Oklahomans.

The imprimatur of atrocity began with Governor Robert Lee Williams. Few men’s talents have better matched their opportunities. Born and raised in Alabama, Williams migrated to Oklahoma in 1896. Beginning as a railroad lawyer, his interests soon ran to banks, mining, insurance, cottonseed oil, and land, which he operated as a post-Civil War plantation owner.[1] Brilliant and driven, Williams’s attention to detail was such that the Daily Oklahoman’s managing editor defied anyone to find one instance “wherein a single department head ever slipped anything through and over ‘Our Bob.’”[2] His skills came with a blistering tongue, bad temper, and an aggressive manner. He was intolerant of those who disagreed with him and little short of abusive with his family. These negative descriptions are given by his admiring biographers.[3]

A dominating presence at Oklahoma’s Constitutional Convention, Williams became the state’s first supreme court chief justice. From these positions, he campaigned to curtail black suffrage and promote the interests of his second love, the state’s Democratic Party.[4] When he finally captured the governorship, however, he was pained to be a “minority” winner in both primary and general elections. In the latter, the Socialist Party that Williams despised took 20 percent of the vote.[5] By the end of Williams’s term, the Oklahoma Socialist Party would cease to exist.[6]

Williams might have gone down as a rare parsimonious politician— his first two years were dubbed the “cruel economy”—had not the United States entered World War I in April 1917. The state legislature was out of session and could not meet unless Williams called them. Refus ing this because he wanted to “run the show” himself, the “violently patriotic” Williams became Oklahoma’s war governor and, effectively, its dictator.[7] The mechanism Williams molded for his dictatorship was the State Council of Defense, augmented with county councils. Renowned for the meticulous care he took in making appointments, Williams selected all the members.[8] The Oklahoma State Council of Defense’s official history later bragged that its rulings and “the dictates of the county councils of defense have been the supreme law of the land.” [9]

Williams’s supreme law was not law at all. The councils were extra-legal—they had no legal basis.[10] The state council’s history conceded it was “endowed with no mandatory or judicial powers under any statute of the commonwealth.[11] "A cover letter accompanying oaths of office told county appointees that “we wish to call your attention to the fact that your position has no legal status.”[12] The official history of the Tulsa County Council of Defense concurred:

Oklahoma was one of the States in which Councils of Defense, State, county, and district had neither government nor legal status in fact. The Legislature had adjourned before the declaration of war. With few exceptions, therefore, edicts were issued by these organizations without warrant of law.[13]

Robert L. Williams (6307, Oklahoma Historical Society Photograph Collection, OHS).


Extra-legality meant that criminal acts committed along the way, and there were many, were just that—crimes.[14] Many of the legal activities, also numerous, were underwritten by intimidation and violence, especially in the field of fundraising.[15]

Williams and his councils instead relied on public opinion to determine how far they could go.[16] Many Oklahomans, however, were deaf to the war trumpets. Recruiting was lagging everywhere; “lukewarm ism” was rampant.[17] Inflaming public opinion thus became the first task. Williams, therefore, targeted leading newspaper editors, along with bankers and attorneys, for his county councils.[18] The daily newspapers, the mass media of the day, would be part of Williams’s team and would report according to the team’s agenda.[19]

The county councils themselves were encouraged to “feel free to take up whatever emergencies may arise in the county.”[20] In practice, this meant that the councils focused attention on their local enemies.[21] Criminal methods soon followed. Williams’s biographers confess that at times he “almost condoned such acts of violence.”[22] In truth, he went much further. In response to a near lynching in Collinsville, one that implicated his Rogers County Council, Williams told the Daily Oklahoman:

"We should not be too quick to condemn the efforts of loyalists, who in some instances have had to resort to strong-arm methods. It is unfortunate that some men have had to be made to feel the will of the community. Where such action is necessary it should be undertaken by the county council of defense...the county councils should be allowed to act as courts of patriotism." [23] Only after the war ended did the state council order the county councils to confine themselves to “action which would be sustained by law.”[24]

The Tulsa County Council of Defense would be the state’s most aggressive and powerful county council, and Williams devoted close attention to it.[25] Tulsa’s representative on the Oklahoma State Council was S. R. “Buck” Lewis. Born and raised in Texas, Lewis migrated in1887. A prominent lawyer and self-described capitalist, Lewis was a lifelong Democratic Party operative, helping found the party in the Indian Territory. At the start of his term, Williams named Lewis to his staff as “lieutenant colonel.”[26] Lewis was also close to influential Tulsan and fellow Democratic Party stalwart W. Tate Brady.27 Brady too was a political ally of the governor.[28]

The original Tulsa Council of Defense members announced July 11, 1917, were:

1. J. Burr Gibbons. Born in Indiana, raised there and in Missouri, and migrating in 1907, Gibbons was the father of advertising in Tulsa, a profession that grew with the war.[29] Chair of the Tulsa Council, Gibbons would be relentlessly aggressive and castigate other county councils for devoting too little attention to “disloyalty, industrial disturbances, and sedition.” The persecution of such activities, he promised the councils, would enlist public support and “costs you nothing.”[30]

2. Robert McFarlin. An oilman and banker, McFarlin was born and raised in Texas, migrating in 1885. In 1916 he and his partners sold their oil company to a Standard Oil subsidiary for $39 million.[31] In 1917 he was president of the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce and vice-chair of the Committee of 100, a law and order league composed of prominent men.[32] McFarlin was a money man for the Tulsa Council’s activities, “advancing” the council $20,000, its Home Guard $9,000 to $17,000, and more funds for other “emergency measures.”[33] The Tulsa Council was far and away the best-funded of all the councils, even the states.[34]

3. Glenn Condon. Born in Iowa in 1891, Condon arrived in Oklahoma City at a young age. Extraordinarily well-liked, the one-time newsboy became the youngest member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives in 1916 and was named managing editor of the Tulsa Daily World in March 1917.[35] While he was a Republican, Williams appears to have been fond of him.[36] By war’s end, however, both his political and newspaper careers in Oklahoma would be at an end.

Governor Robert L. Williams, standing in the first row without a uniform, and his staff

including S. R. “Buck” Lewis, standing to Governor Williams’ left as indicated by the

arrow,1915 (6469, Oklahoma Historical Society Photograph Collection, OHS)


4. H. C. “Harry” Tyrrell. Born and raised in Iowa, Tyrrell was an oilman and president of the Tulsa Young Men’s Christian Association, then a politically influential organization. He became vice-chair of the Tulsa Council. He had been head of a law and order league that folded into McFarlin’s Committee of 100. Since late 1916 Tyrrell dominated Tulsa law enforcement through a younger associate named H. H. Townsend. Under Tyrrell’s influence, Townsend not only became assistant chief of police, to whom the real chief was subservient, but he also became the Tulsa County sheriff’s “right-hand deputy.”[37] In late March 1917, Townsend became the security chief of Carter Oil Company, the largest Standard Oil subsidiary in Oklahoma.[38]

5. Lilah Lindsey. Born and raised in the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Indian Territory, Lindsey was head of the Tulsa Women’s Christian Temperance Union and president of the state’s Homemakers Society. She became the council’s secretary-treasurer and was assigned to handle “women’s issues.”[39] At its first meeting on August 4, 1917, the Tulsa Council determined to select a “secret committeeman” in every populated center in the county. They were identified as “men of prominence and unquestioned loyalty,” but their duties were not explained. The identity of Tulsa’s secret committeeman would never be revealed. Condon was named director of publicity.[40] Immediately, the Tulsa Daily World began publishing a series of increasingly bloody-minded editorials against the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W. or Wobblies), a radical, but sometimes successful, union that was the bane of the owners of Oklahoma’s oil companies.[41] These recurrent incitements were distributed to the World’'s daily circulation of twenty thousand readers.[42]

Pictured left to right: Charles E. Parker, chief pilot; Andrew Payne; Glenn Condon; and M. R. Harrison of the Claremore Chamber of Commerce at Curtiss Field, Long Island, New York. (20669, Oklahoma Historical Society Photograph Collection, OHS)


Things appeared to be coming to a head in late September when Williams appointed a captain of the Tulsa Home Guard (L. W. Rook) at Condon’s “urgent personal request.”[44] Instead, the council’s preparations remained coiled for the next month, likely in deference to a then ongoing and massive Second Liberty Loan campaign.[45] The campaign ended successfully on Saturday, October 27. Following a last Sunday of normality, the coil suddenly sprang.

At 4 a.m. on Monday, October 29th, an explosion shattered the house of Mr. and Mrs. J. Edgar Pew at 1443 South Cheyenne Avenue.[46] Pew was vice president and general manager of Carter Oil Company, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Standard Oil of New Jersey. Carter was the largest operator in the nearby Mid-Continent Oil Field, with a million acres of oil leases and twenty million barrels of oil in storage.[47] Pew, a production expert, was Standard Oil’s highest-ranking official in Tulsa.[48] Scarcely had the sun risen over the blast site than Monday’s Tulsa Daily World hit the streets. It had gone to press several hours before the bombing.[49] Readers were told of a 2 p.m. meeting where the Tulsa Council would authorize a 150-man Home Guard to replace the state’s National Guard that had been federalized and shipped to war. Volunteers were invited to a meeting that night at the city-owned Convention Hall (later called Brady Theater, now the Tulsa Theater). The Tulsa Council’s official history credits the Pew explosion for giving “birth” to the Home Guard, which it called its “right arm of power.”[50]

Recruitment was aided by a front-page headline in the afternoon Tulsa Democrat warning that “Dynamiting of Pew Home May Only Be Start.” This was based on representations by Tulsa Police Chief E. L. “Ed” Lucas and Carter Oil’s security head H. H. Townsend that a “reign of terror” was about to descend. Pew, they said, had been selected because he was a “big pillar” of the oil industry. The allegedly German-controlled I.W.W. was reported to be behind it all.[51] The Pew bombing dominated October 30’s World, with photos of the fractured house captioned “First Destructive Stroke in I.W.W. Plan of Destruction in Tulsa.” The paper told its audience a terror campaign involving “[w]holesale destruction of property without regard to human life” was unfolding. It warned of a “deliberately planned conspiracy... to murder the heads of many big oil producers of Tulsa and to slay and destroy with all the fiendishness of the most deprived minds.” November 1st was even announced as the terror campaign’s intended kick-off date, had not the Pew bombing occurred “prematurely.” The World cited private detectives employed by the large oil companies, said to be “unimpeachable sources” who had “spied on I.W.W. meetings and dogged the steps of the workers for months.” The paper quoted, or rather invented a quotation, from an October I.W.W. newspaper that “plainly interpreted means that a plan to murder some of the most prominent oil men in Oklahoma have [sic] been hatched.” In response, unionists who were said to be willing to die for the cause had “flocked to the city in great numbers in the last two weeks.” The World claimed it too had been “marked for destruction,” citing the receipt of threatening ing letters for four weeks (all emphases added).[52]

E. L. Lucas (20288., Chickasaw Council House Museum Collection, OHS)


The centerpiece of the World’s front page was a notice—“To Loyal Tulsans”—titled “250 Men Wanted at Once to Compete [sic] Tulsa Home Guards.” It opened with a mystery—that “for reasons that can not publicly be stated [sic] it is essential that the Tulsa Home Guard be raised to its full strength immediately” (emphasis added). A new organizational meeting was scheduled that night at Tulsa’s Chamber of Commerce.[55]

The culprit(s) at the Pew house remains a mystery. If the I.W.W. did it, they chose a near-perfect moment for their enemies. The Pew home was being remodeled the prior week and thus was accessible to any number of outsiders. Pew said he was aware of no personal enemies, but the same could not be said for Standard Oil, which was casually hated by other oilmen.[56] Near contemporaneous rumors said it was an inside job committed for the purpose of inflaming the public mind or, intriguingly, that “the police operatives of the Carter Oil Co. committed the crime for the express purpose of continuing their employment under enlarged power.”[57] Townsend remained employed at Carter into 1919, longer than Pew.[58] Only one thing seems certain: if the Tulsa authorities believed that the I.W.W. men who later came into their control were responsible, they would have never turned them loose. Regardless of “who done it,” what unfolded was like one of the local drama productions covered by the World’s lavish theater section.[59] Fortunately, because the federal Bureau of Investigation, Justice Department and other records have been preserved, it is possible to contrast what was going on off-stage while a public performance was taking place.

The I.W.W. had indeed been heavily infiltrated, such that it was increasingly difficult to tell where the union left off and the spies began.[60] According to Deputy US Marshal John Moran, three detective agencies had men inside the Tulsa branch. One was a Pinkerton man hired by Carter Oil, one from the agency of Foster Burns, and a third from the agency of John Gustafson, who would be Tulsa’s police chief during the 1921 Race Massacre. The three spies were reporting to Moran, although without knowledge that the others were passing their tales to him.[61]

Far from proving criminality, the infiltration demonstrated the opposite. In a town awash with detectives, spies, and public relations men, the Pinkerton/Carter Oilman “Jack McCurry” was all three, having become publicity agent for the Tulsa I.W.W.chapter. If there was a spy well placed to confirm a vast plot, McCurry was it. Described as “unusually intelligent and straightforward” and “extremely well posted to report local plans and conditions” by Bureau of Investigation agent T. F. Weiss, McCurry reported that the Tulsa union men were “doing nothing or planning nothing directed against the Government.” There was “no talk of violence.” They were trying to get men employed in the oil fields in order to organize, efforts effectively blunted by oil company informers and the prompt firing of unionists. Moran, draw ing from the reports of all three spies, confirmed that he had learned of no particular plan to “interfere in any way with industries essential to the war effort.” Federal agent Weiss wistfully concluded that “these appear to be the real facts of the situation.”[62]

Meanwhile, on stage, the October 30 Home Guard organization meeting went off swimmingly, although it featured two sizable misrepresentations. Captain Rook, Williams’s appointee, told the assembled volunteers that home guards were authorized by act of Congress and that they were of the same status as the National Guard in time of peace. Both of these statements were false.[63] More truthful assertions included Condon’s promise that McFarlin would make sure the Home Guard had proper backing. The city-owned Convention Hall was promised as an armory.[64] Some of the most prominent men in Tulsa were in attendance and Home Guard enlistees included Burr Gibbons, Tate Brady, and Eugene Lorton, owner of the Tulsa Daily World. Buck Lewis later served as the council’s administrator of the Home Guard, managing the group as a lieutenant colonel on Governor Williams’s staff.[65] The Tulsa Daily World’s headquarters would itself function as a recruiting office.[66]

October 31st brought more published incitements to kill. The World’s “Oklahoma Notes” column, which sometimes appeared under Condon’s name, claimed that the only relief from the I.W.W. is “a wholesale application of concentration camps. Or, what is hemp worth now, the long foot?” An editorial favorably quoted one citizen’s proposal to treat Wobblies like horse thieves and lynch them. The editorial promised that the “price of folly” for the German-begotten I.W.W. will be “prison or death.”[67]

It appears the Tulsa Council finalized plans at its November 3rd meeting. Before this, both Moran and federal Justice Department agent John Whalen requested that the council leave the I.W.W. alone pending the federal investigation. Moran got unhonored assurances.[68] For all its avowed loyalty, the Tulsa Council instead sabotaged the investigation. As with Williams, self-interest was the shore upon which the tide of loyalty to the government ebbed.[69]

At approximately 9 p.m. on Monday, November 5th, Tulsa police raided the I.W.W. headquarters located in the New Fox Hotel at Brady and Main Streets. There was no warrant, no resistance, and no discovery of incriminating evidence.[70] Eleven mostly card-playing men were arrested as vagrants. Tulsa Mayor John Simmons was waiting at the jail when the prisoners made their midnight arrival. Federal agent Weiss reinvestigated and found that “there seems to be no evidence on which to convict any of the men on.”[71] The World itself made a hash of vagrancy, noting that at least two men had jobs. Later, the paper exulted that one of them lost his Pressmen’s union card, thereby risking becoming an actual vagrant.[72]

Eugene Lorton (20491.18, Oklahoma Historical Society Photograph Collection, OHS)


Outside the court, however, November 6th was far from quiet. From Oklahoma City, the Oklahoma State Council warned “traitors” that there are only two types of people—Americans or enemies—and that “a blank wall and firing squad may soon be the remedy for pro-Germanism in Oklahoma.” The state council also urged “enemies among us” only be kept behind bars “until that punishment all traitors deserve can be meted out to them.” The Tulsa Daily World adorned the declaration with the headline, “Day of Wrath Coming.”[74] That afternoon, Williams’s and Lewis’s associate Tate Brady confronted E. L. Fox, owner of the building housing the I.W.W. chapter. For an apparently spontaneous confrontation, the World’s report was strikingly first-person:

"Brady . . . has been trying for some time to have the I. W. W. ejected from the Fox building on Brady Street. He met Fox at Brady and Main [Tuesday] words ensued. Brady struck Fox with his fist. The latter rolled into the gutter. A large crowd collected. Brady walked on down the street. Afterward, he declared that Fox belittled the Home Guard and lauded the I. W. W."[75]

Wednesday, November 7th, brought a new actor to the stage, Tulsa City Attorney John Meserve, who secured a second trial continuance. Meserve had originally been appointed to office at the urging of McFar lin’s Committee of 100.[76] Behind the scenes, he had sent an inflammatory warning to US Attorney General Thomas W. Gregory about I.W.W. terrorism, though his claims were deemed without merit after the Justice Department investigated.[77] Meserve would join the Tulsa Council

by December 1917, serving as its “prosecuting attorney.”[78] Meanwhile, the World broadcast more murder talk. Its “Down the Agitators” editorial was the first of a series advising oil workers to trust their bosses. Said the World’s editorialist:

"There has not been in the twenty years of oil history in Oklahoma and Kansas a single disagreement between employee [sic] and the employers which have not been settled or which could not be settled by an individual conference in three minutes. The one remedy for the vicious agitator is to ride him on a rail. If he seriously objects to that he might be used for the decoration of a telephone pole that is slightly out of place in the original design."[79]

On the same day, Marshal Moran gave federal agent Weiss eye-opening news, namely:

The businessmen had a program agreed upon by them and the Police Dept. by which the men are to be given a hearing tomorrow evening, remanded to jail, and later some businessmen are to escort the men to the City limits and make them leave, with a warning not to return.[80]Moran tried to get them not to do it, but he would again be ignored.[81]

The trial finally opened on Thursday, November 8th, but to disappointing reviews. With Glenn Condon in constant attendance, the World complained of Richardson’s long-winded arguments on the niceties of vagrancy and confessed that “nothing of a sensational nature developed.”[82] The prosecutors ignored the actual charges, instead of seeking to learn the defendants’ attitudes toward the government and whether they supported the Liberty Loan drives. The prosecution rested its case on the fact that they were Wobblies.[83] The World claimed that all the witnesses spoke in “broken English,” joining an ongoing chorus that painted the unionists as aliens and outsiders. Moran, in contrast, reported that most of the defendants were “local men.”[84] Friday, November 9th, was far more sensational, starting with the arrival of the Bolshevik Revolution in Tulsa via the World’s bold, black headline. The paper’s now-infamous “Get Out the Hemp” editorial incited hysteria and murder in the starkest terms yet:

"Any man who attempts to stop the [oil] supply for one-hundredth part of a second is a traitor and ought to be shot!... If the I.W.W. or its twin brother, the Oil Workers union, gets busy in your neighborhood, kindly take occasion to decrease the supply of hemp. Knowledge of how to tie a knot that will stick might come in handy in a few days...kill’em just as you would kill any other kind of snake. Don’t scotch 'em; kill’em. And kill’em dead. It is no time to waste money on trials and continuances and things like that."[85]

Tulsa Daily World, November 7, 1917 (The Gateway to Oklahoma History, www.gateway.