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A Ku Klux Klan member stands near a burning cross in this photo taken in Denver during the 1920s. The decade marked the height of Klan activity and power across the state, with members holding prominent political offices.

The hooded horsemen appeared only at night, like ghosts. An editor at the time called them Colorado’s “invisible empire.”

They burned buildings, kidnapped public officials off the streets, and inspired fear among Blacks, Catholics, Jews and immigrants of all stripes. On July 4, 1923, they burned a 30-foot cross on the summit of Pikes Peak. On the night of Nov. 10, 1923, they lit 11 crosses afire throughout Denver, including one on the steps of the Capitol.

They were the Ku Klux Klan, and for a time, they ran Colorado.

It took a single intrepid district attorney and an upstart newspaper to bring them down.


Alan Prendergast

Author Alan Prendergast finally gives that crusading DA, Philip Van Cise, his due in a new book “Gangbuster” after a century of cold shoulders. Prendergast has the pluck and tenacity to look deeply into a dark chapter in our state’s past and tell the too-long-untold story of the heroes who helped end it. He's wound up with an exceedingly good story about an exceedingly bad time.

Shockingly, Prendergast informs us, the white-sheeted night riders at one point controlled the mayor’s office, the governor’s office, congressional seats and a whole host of judges, lawyers and police officers.

Mid-decade, more than 35,000 Colorado men were Klansmen. Except for Indiana, no state more fervently embraced the Klan.


Cover of “Gangbuster”

The Klansman governor in question, Clarence Morley, still has his portrait hanging in the Capitol. After reading Prendergast’s book, you’ll question why.

How could this happen in a place like Colorado, so far from the front lines of the Civil War and the Deep South?

“I mean, at first glance it does seem baffling that this would happen in Colorado. But then you look at the way they sort of changed their emphasis as they moved out west,” Prendergast said of the KKK. “There was a lot of soft-peddling of the White supremacy thing and more emphasis on … 'We’ve got to stand up for America and Americans.' I think all the immigrants, all the rapid change, there were a lot of people in the Midwest and West who were feeling very uneasy about that."

Many of the miners flooding into Colorado were from China, Mexico, Australia and southern Europe, and many of them were Catholic.

Coloradans who worried about this rush of immigration and the loss of White protestant primacy “took to the Klan as something they thought would help them. It was very opportunistic. I don’t think there were a lot of hard-core true believers,” Prendergast said.

Many of the people who have read Prendergast’s book have seen parallels with our current urban troubles and the resurgence of White supremacy embodied by groups like the Proud Boys, as well as the recent proliferation of conspiracy theories and extremist politics.

“I think that has something to with the fact that the past is closer than we think,” Prendergast told me. “Yes, everything changes and we think we’re so much more sophisticated, but the basic dynamics of politics aren’t that different. I mean, this is the way extremist movements operate, right? They create their own echo chambers. The Klan had its own newspapers and magazines; you could read all these conspiracy theories about how the Catholics are trying to take over the country or the Jewish conspiracy for global domination. So I mean this stuff keeps cropping up, right? It’s the same idea that you polarize people. You scapegoat whatever group is sort of convenient out there. Immigrants were such a target 100 years ago, and then look what’s happening now. It’s like wow, what have we learned?”

Prendergast pointed in particular to a scene in which Van Cise is trying to deliver a kind of PowerPoint presentation exposing the Klan, and the audience is packed with guys trying to subvert and disrupt what he’s doing. “That to me had overtones of the Jan. 6 thing. I mean, it was not obviously violent, but it’s the same idea, which is, if you don’t like what’s going on, you just disrupt.”

The way Van Cise finally began to bring down the Klan was by turning to the one institution that wasn’t compromised by all the Klan connections, an upstart newspaper called the Denver Express.

The major dailies in town showed no appetite for taking on the Klan. The Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Times, both owned by the same company, had Kluxers in management. “The Denver Post blew hot and cold,” Prendergast writes. At Klan meetings, the Klan’s Grand Dragon John Galen Locke bragged of having taken one of the paper’s owners, Harry Tammen, for a ride one night and “made him a Christian.”

“With the other newspapers so compromised, that left the runt of the litter, the Denver Express. Owned by the Scripps-Howard chain, the paper had a puny circulation and no showcase Sunday edition," Prendergast wrote. "It lured working-class readers with celebrity gossip, puzzles and contests." But led by Editor Sidney B. Whipple — "a short, skinny Dartmouth grad in his mid-30s" — the Express did more serious reporting on the Klan than anybody else.

On March 27, 1924, the Express dropped a bomb — the first installment of a weeklong series titled “Invisible Government.” The paper outed as Kluxers Mayor Benjamin Franklin Stapleton and the manager of safety, the city attorney, the police chief, Judge Morley, the secretary of state, seven police sergeants and 21 patrol officers.

By nightfall, the series was the talk of the town. The mayor tried to have the editor arrested, but Van Cise came to his rescue.

In the wake of the Express series, 11 of the newspaper’s largest advertisers were told to stop doing business with the paper or face a Klan boycott. Several complied, but the scrappy paper stayed afloat.

And Whipple refused to back down. Drawing heavily on information provided by his “well-informed anonymous source,” he kept on exposing the Klan’s misdeeds with screaming headlines like "KU KLUX KLAN BOASTS RULE OVER CITY HALL." Whipple and his puny paper ended up as finalists for the 1925 Pulitzer Prize.

And Van Cise finally was able to rouse support for his grand jury case against the Klan, which he pursued “like a hound from hell.” His undercover agents infiltrated Klan meetings and disillusioned Klansmen soon turned on the Grand Dragon. After impugning their patriotism in the press, Van Cise dismantled their power structure in court. The Klan’s inch-deep, mile-wide support evaporated as quickly as it had accumulated.

Near the end of the Klan’s reign, Van Cise was asked to give a speech in honor of military vets at Crown Hill Cemetery. It's a speech that is still pretty relevant in the present day.

"In Colorado, for the last two years — and now — we are facing a battle as serious, as terrific, as any we fought in the Civil War or the World War,” he said. "We are face to face with a gigantic battle of peace — the battle for Americanism,” he said. “Secret political organizations are un-American in every possible particular,” he reminded. “They strike at the foundation of our liberty. … I call on you who are here today to denounce this highhanded proceeding on the part of these ghostlike intruders, to rise up and fight the battles of your country against those who are too cowardly to come out in the open and declare what principles they possess and what candidates they have.”

Six days later, according to one version of events, the Klan burned a cross on Van Cise’s front lawn. Rather than reacting with fear, now, Van Cise’s young children watched through the living room window, “greeting the blazing, night-defying cross with shrieks of delight, as if the Fourth of July had arrived early.”

Vince Bzdek, executive editor of the Denver Gazette, Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado Politics, writes a weekly news column that appears on Sunday.