During its 1920s heyday the Ku Klux Klan was unremitting in its hostility towards Catholicism. As one Arkansas member put it, the loyalty of Catholics was “across the sea and the religion they profess is a foreign religion … the quicker we invite them to go back to the other side of the big pond the better it will be for us”. A typically rabid editorial in one of the Klan’s many periodicals – with the suitably sinister headline “To Your Guns!” – hammered the point home to its readership: “Drop not your fiery cross but carry it over vale and hill till pagan Roman Catholicism is expelled from our fair and free American life forever.”

The Klan pursued a goal of what it termed “100 per cent Americanism” and Caleb Riley explained why this made detestation of the Pope obligatory: “I am an Anglo-Saxon white man, and so constituted and trained that I cannot conscientiously take either my politics or my religion from some secluded ass on the other side of the world.” A Klan member from Mississippi was more succinct: he had no time for “that old dago by the Tiber”.

The fantastical allegations came thick and fast. Every time a Catholic father had a son he would add a rifle to the arsenal stored in the basement of his local church. It paid to be prepared for the great Catholic insurrection that was sure to come. After all, who could fail to notice that two antique cannon at Georgetown University in Washington were pointed directly at the Capitol Building? Worse yet, the Pope had already bought lands close to DC and was planning a “million-dollar mansion” from which he could mastermind the overthrow of the government.

At North Manchester, Indiana, a rumour once circulated that the pope was on board a train from Chicago so Klan members duly assembled at the station in the hope of giving the Pontiff what-for. In Florida, Governor Sidney J Catts, supported by the KKK, spent an inordinate amount of time travelling through his fiefdom warning of an imminent papal invasion of the state.

Ahead of the cataclysm, the Klan explained, Catholics would do their level best to ruin public morals and undermine American values. Klan audiences in the 1920s were routinely treated to speeches by women who claimed to be former nuns: they would often display leather bags in which, it was alleged, the newborn children of illicit liaisons between nuns and priests were carried to church furnaces to be cremated. Did people not realise, a Klan member in Sacramento asked, that “nearly all the bawdy houses, bootleg joints and other dives are owned or controlled by Romanists”?

Tragically, these were not simply the ravings of a fringe group. During the 1920s the Klan was extraordinarily successful. Its membership probably topped four million and it was spread across all 48 states: 700,000 in Indiana, in the region of 400,000 in Texas and Ohio. The Klan was part of the mainstream of American politics, perfectly capable of determining the outcome of elections great and small.

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