The charlatan who grew Maine’s KKK and how it flamed out

Good morning from Augusta. The weekend’s news was dominated by the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white nationalist sympathizing with demonstrators there killed a woman after he allegedly plowed into a crowd of counter-protesters with a car.

It began with a protest of Charlottesville’s pending move to take down a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The Southern Poverty Law Center called the gathering “the largest hate-gathering of its kind in decades” and it drew fringe neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

Some of those were members of the Ku Klux Klan, whose historical reputation as a terrorizing, racist movement across the South in different iterations belies its small membership now, estimated at between 5,000 and 8,000 members in loose factions across the country.

But they were millions strong in the 1920s and one stronghold was Maine, where the group mostly formed as a Protestant nativist group opposed to the rise of Catholicism, which came with a wave of immigration from Quebec, Ireland and Italy over the preceding 90 years or so.

Their leader was a charismatic man named F. Eugene Farnsworth, who proclaimed that he was head of the Maine KKK in a 1923 speech, according to a history of the group on Mount Desert Island. But there was much more to his story.

In 1901, he was doing a stage act in Rhode Island that required an assistant to balance a large rock on his stomach while an audience member tried to break it. But the rock slipped and killed his assistant, so he left there in disgrace.

After bouncing around and using a different name, he proclaimed himself head of Maine’s KKK in a 1923 speech in Portland. The group largely portrayed itself as a fraternal one and it avoided violence. According to a book on Maine’s villains, Farnsworth once said while he didn’t hate Catholics, the U.S. will always be “a Protestant nation.”

Klan chapters popped up all over Maine and they held parades, rallies and even a “Klam Bake” in Trenton after helping elect Republican Gov. Owen Brewster in 1924. Rallies persisted into 1925, but it was a quick fall for the group after that.

The national KKK didn’t like Farnsworth: He charged women $10 to join (more than the male rate of $5), signed up Canadian members (including his wife and daughter) and he was suspected of keeping $4 out of every $10 he collected. He resigned in 1926 and died just after.

In the 1970s, a contractor from Mount Desert Island told a local historian that young people joined the group thinking it was “kind of like a cross between the Masons and the Boy Scouts.” We’ll let him take it from here. — Michael Shepherd

“It wasn’t long before we were told we had to hate black people. We weren’t excited by that, but there weren’t many blacks around MDI then, so it didn’t make much of a practical difference. …

Next, we were told we had to hate Jews. Guys started to get uncomfortable, then. There weren’t many Jews around but there were people like Dan Rosenthal, a peddler who came in summer. Everybody liked Dan. He was a good man.

Then we were told we had to hate Catholics. Well, that did it. There were a lot of Catholics around. We knew damned well they were good people. A Catholic priest in Northeast—Father Kinney—was active in the fire company, for example. There was a Catholic church on Lookout Way in Northeast Harbor. The Catholic church had just bought one of the old local houses on Summit Road and was renovating it for a rectory. The Catholic church was enlarging that story-and-a-half little house into a larger three-story rectory.

Well, just about all the workmen in Northeast Harbor donated at least a day’s work on that rectory job and we all signed our work. That was our message to the Ku Klux Klan, from every damn one of us. You’ll find our signatures all over that house. That was the end of the KKK for Northeast Harbor.”

Quick hits

  • A longshot Democrat is making his fourth run for governor after running before as a Republican and independent. J. Martin Vachon of Mariaville filed on Thursday to become the eighth Democrat to run to replace Gov. Paul LePage. But don’t expect much from him: He ran in 2006 as a Republican and in 2010 and 2014 as an independent, but he has never made the ballot. As a write-in candidate in 2014, he got 42 votes — or 0.01 percent — according to the Bangor Daily News’ unofficial count. — Michael Shepherd
  • The Maine Department of Corrections is proposing eliminating one-hour in-person visits for county jail inmates. According to the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, the new proposed rules would eliminate brief hugs or handholding at the beginning or end of a visit and replace one-on-one visits every other week with “video only” encounters. Check out the proposed new rules, which cover a spectrum of issues, by clicking here. The coalition argues that personal visits improve institutional behavior and lower recidivism. There is a public hearing on the new rules scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday on the third floor of the Tyson Building at 25 Tyson Drive in Augusta. — Christopher Cousins

Reading list

Gordon Shumway touches down at pool party

The kids were splashing and shrieking in the pool, the grill was smoking and the picnic table was set for a nice dinner for my family and some dear, long-time friends. I headed inside to bring out a steaming tray of corn-on-the-cob.

“Can you bring out some paper plates, Chris,” said our friend Nedda. “The ones in the drawer here are kind of Melmacky.”

Sounded like a good idea to me — fewer dishes to wash, sorry trees — but something niggled in the back of my mind for the rest of the evening. What’s wrong with plates from Melmac? It occurred to me to ask 5 minutes after my friends left.

“What did we forget?” was how she answered the phone.

“Nothing. Did you make an ALF joke tonight?”

“A what?”

“An ALF joke?”

“No, what are you talking about?”

“You said my mother-in-law’s plates are Melmacky.”

She giggled.

“Yes, but what does that have to do with ALF?”

“ALF is from Melmac. It’s his home planet.” I said it as if it really is. Because it is.

“Yes, I know ALF is from Melmac,” she said, laughter roaring in her car. “But no, Melmac is a real thing.”

“OK,” I said. “I’ll have to look it up.”

“BWAAAAHHHAHAHA. Love you, Chris.”

Here’s my soundtrack. — Christopher Cousins

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Michael Shepherd

About Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after covering state, federal and local issues for the Kennebec Journal for three years. He's a Hallowell native who now lives in Gardiner. He graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and is a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service.