Tuesday, March 24, 2009

John L. Duvall: black boxed in

Image from genealogyimagesofhistory.com

In losing his official position, mayor John L. Duvall of Indianapolis was one of many officials exposed by a convicted murderer and Ku Klux Klan leader.

Born in 1874 in Tazewell County, Indiana, Duvall studied law at Valparaiso University and the Chicago Law School. He worked as a deputy prosecutor for Hamilton County and moved to Indianapolis in 1902, practicing law there for seven years. After establishing Haughville Bank, the first suburban bank in the city, he organized several other banks; most were later purchased by the American Fletcher National Bank. Duvall also started the real estate firm Leslie Duvall Inc.

In either 1922 or 1923, Duvall joined the KKK. A Republican, he served as Marion Couty treasurer from 1924 to 1925. With backing from the Klan, he won the nomination for mayor of Indianapolis and then the general election in November of 1925. He came to office in January of 1926.

After the election, Duvall traveled to an undisclosed location in Illinois to meet with Klan leaders. In announcing appointments to city positions, several Klansmen were given jobs. George Elliot, the leader of the Indianapolis KKK, received a position in the park administration.

While Duvall's association with the Klan did not negatively affect his election, it came at the same time that the state and country were transfixed with a crime involving David Curtis Stephenson, the organization's Grand Dragon of Indiana. In March of 1925, Stephenson forced a young woman named Madge Oberholtzer, whom he had met at a gubernatorial rally, to accompany him on a train journey to Chicago. En route, she was raped and bitten all over her body. After taking several tablets of mercuric chloride, Oberholtzer was taken back to Indianapolis. Before dying of kidney failure, she revealed that D.C. Stephenson was her assailant.

Stephenson was charged with second-degree murder. The prosecution in the case argued that pneumonia infection from the bites to her body, as well as Stephenson's refusal to seek medical care, had contributed to Oberholtzer's death. Stephenson's attorney said that Oberholtzer had committed suicide. The jury found Stephenson guilty and he was sentenced to life in prison. The verdict was not delivered until after Duvall was safely in office; the sordid details of Stephenson's case helped contribute to a widespread decline in membership in the KKK.

Stephenson believed that he was a sure candidate for a pardon from Governor Ed Jackson, himself in office thanks to Klan support. Jackson wasn't forthcoming, likely because of the high profile of the case. After about a year in prison, Stephenson decided to help bring down the corrupt governments he had helped forge and told authorities he had incriminating evidence on several officeholders stashed away in "black boxes." One of the boxes contained a pledge signed by Duvall. In it, he agreed that "in the event that I am elected Mayor of Indianapolis, Indiana, I promise not to appoint any person as a member of the board of public works without they first have the endorsement of D.C. Stephenson."

Duvall agreed to resign on Oct. 27, 1927, but did so in a way that put the city in a state of confusion for the next two weeks. Appointing his wife as city comptroller, the next in line to succeed the mayor, Duvall submitted his resignation. His wife succeeded him and ruled for all of 15 minutes before appointing attorney Ira M. Holmes as comptroller and resigning herself. The city council followed up this shell game with the appointment of Claude E. Negley. Duvall ordered a police guard to enforce Holmes' claim as mayor, and the two briefly faced off in the mayor's office before Negley produced a court injunction backing him up. Also claiming the mayoral title for a time were Joseph Hogue, comptroller under Duvall's predecessor Lew Shank, and Walter Myers, Duvall's opponent in the 1925 election, on the basis that Duvall's claim as mayor was voided back to that contest.

Negley prevailed among this gathering when the court denied a motion by Holmes to dissolve a restraining order against him. The city council deadlocked over putting either Republican John A. George or Democrat Fred Hoke in office before deciding on Democrat L. Ert Slack, to replace Negley for the remainder of Duvall's term.

After one grand jury was dissolved when a juror said he had been offered a bribe to not indict Duvall, another grand jury indicted him on charges of violating the state's Corrupt Practices Act. Besides his complicity with the KKK appointments, he was also accused of accepting a $14,000 bribe from politician and saloon owner William H. Armitage in return for naming three city officials. Duvall was said to have revoked this promise to Armitage, a Catholic, when it contradicted those he had made to the Klan. Found guilty, Duvall was ordered to pay a $1,000 fine and spend 30 days in jail.

Duvall was one of hundreds of corrupt government officials brought down by Stephenson's black boxes. Not long after the debacle of filling the mayor's seat, four members of the city council, including Negley, were indicted for taking bribes in return for not voting to impeach Duvall. Six members of the council admitted to accepting bribes, paid a small fine, and resigned. Governor Jackson was indicted for failing to report contributions from the KKK, but was able to escape prosecution because the statute of limitations had run out.

Duvall returned to real estate work after his removal from office. He died in 1962.

Sources: "Indianapolis Picks Duvall" in the New York Times on Nov. 4 1925, "In Indiana" in Time on Aug. 8 1927, "Indiana Corruption" in Time on Oct. 3 1927, "Negley Now Rules Alone in Indianapolis" in the Atlanta Constitution on Nov. 1 1927, "Again, Indianapolis" in Time on Nov. 7 1927, "Slack at Helm in Indianapolis" in the Prescott Evening Courier on Nov. 9 1927, "Four Indianapolis Officials Indicted" in the Evening Independent on Nov. 19 1927, The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis by David J. Bodenhamer and Robert Graham Barrows and David Gordon Vanderstel, Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928 by Leonard J. Moore, The Fiery Cross: the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana by Wyn Craig Wade, Indiana History: A Book of Readings by Ralph D. Gray

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