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1924: "Why did the Klan choose Lilly?"

Repost from August 29, 2017

... Another story from the Lilly KKK files

The Ku Klux Klan riot in Lilly in 1924 was a surprise to many people. Why would the KKK invade a small town with no blacks? Many different ideas emerged as to why the KKK chose Lilly, but the one that the media focused on after the riot was that it occurred because of the UMW edict that banned all KKK members from becoming miners.

However, this rural myth has been proven to be untrue by the extensive research of Professor John Craig of Slippery Rock University, whose book on the KKK in Western Pa. concluded that the Klan came to Lilly as a response to the belligerence of the Irish Catholics. No mention of unions was ever made in Craig's two chapters on the Lilly riot.

In addition, the documentary evidence, including the transcript of the subsequent trial, shows that the planning occurred before the UMW action was taken. That decision to go to Lilly was made months before the UMW edict was issued, perhaps as early as February.

In addition, the hatred of the KKK in the 1920s was not of unions but strictly of Catholics and immigrants. So, the whole union meme made no sense. That is what some local historians still think, but it is not correct based on the historical record both locally and nationally.

This article was written in 1994 but never published at that time since others had been previously. However, a lengthy essay that I wrote for Johnstown Magazine a few years ago outlined this in more detail.

This is the last of those articles that I prepared in the the 1990s.

Why did the Klan choose Lilly?

By Hugh Conrad

April, 1994

Speculation as to why the Ku Klux Klan chose the small, quiet Cambria County community of Lilly for a demonstration in 1924 has abounded for decades. Some people conjecture that it occurred because Lilly was a union town, a bastion of the United Mine Workers. The U.M.W. had just dismissed eight of its members from District 2 because they admitted that they held membership in the K.K.K.

However, when many oldtimers who were present on that night reflect on the reason for the town being selected, they point to an obvious conflict that was present in the community at the time: Religious intolerance. Both sides -- the Catholics and Protestants -- were willing to fight to defend their religious beliefs, and that produced a considerable amount of tension in the community.

The St. Patty Day's Dance

Some events coalesced in such as way to make Lilly the logical place for the Klan to make its statement. "On St. Patrick's Day in the same year in South Fork, there was a dance on Saturday night at the Eagles," 88-year-old Gerald Carney of Altoona, a former Lilly resident who later was one of 15 townspeople convicted on a charge of riot, said a few years ago. "They were going to burn a cross (up on the hill), but some guys from Lilly went up and tore down the cross."

A lifetime resident of Lilly agreed that the retaliation by the Catholic residents in Lilly was a primary factor in the K.K.K.'s decision to bring over 400 Klansmen to demonstrate and burn their cross in the Cambria County community. "The reason that they came in a gang was because (Lilly) was the only place that would tear down their crosses," Art Yingling, 90, said about the decision to confront the Catholics. "(The Klan) wanted to show that they were going to burn their cross, come hell or high water. When they (Klan sympathizers or members) put up crosses in Lilly, (Catholic townspeople) tore them down."

Other residents of Lilly point to animosity that had developed over time, culminating in the riot. "There were always guys starting trouble on the Protestant side, in the pool rooms and bars," 81-year-old Morris Shullman of Lilly said. "Then there were the hotheads on the Catholic side, who were just as bad."

Prior to the April 5 riot, some of that intolerance had escalated into violence. On at least three occasions, the parsonage at St. Luke's Lutheran Church had been the target of gunfire, with the March 21 barrage almost hitting the wife of the pastor, Rev. Elmer F. Brown.

Although charges were brought against people in those shootings, not enough evidence was produced to bind the action over to court. That resulted in charges and counter-charges, with the Catholics blaming the Protestants for the shootings, and the Protestants making similar charges against their adversaries.

District Attorney D. P. Weimer attempted to introduce evidence at the trial about a cross burning in Lilly on Nov. 19, 1923, but the trial Judge, Thomas D. Finletter, would not allow it. Finletter was brought in from Philadelphia because of the tensions in Cambria County after the fiasco in Lilly. The local judge asked to be excused from hearing the case.

KKK members flaunted their membership

Lilly was then, as it is today, predominately Roman Catholic, and the tension between Catholics and Protestants had been evident for a number of years prior to the confrontation in 1924. "People in town used to wear red crosses in their lapels to show that they belonged to the Klan," Brown said.

Shullman agreed with that assesment. "The Klan also had their own newspaper, called the 'Keystone American'," he said. "They were Ku Klux newspapers and Protestants from Lilly sold them in town."

That led to some animosity, but the problem of "hotheads" was probably more instrumental in the selection of Lilly. "These guys (both Catholics and Protestants) would argue in the bars, and things would go back and forth," Brown said, explaining that he used to hear such discussions about the altercations from men who would congregate at his father's business. "The Catholics were bragging that (the Klan) would never burn a cross in town -- and that's why the Klan came into Lilly."

Shullman, whose father owned a business at the corner of Railroad and Cleveland streets, contiguous to the land where much of the action occurred, pointed to another belief by the Klan that was not accepted by some of the Catholics. "A lot of the Protestants had grandfathers who fought in the Civil War," Shullman said. "They said when we were in school that they were the only ones who were 100 percent American -- everybody else was 'Hunky.' Lots of people were in the Civil War. Just look at the flags on the graves in the Catholic cemeteries on Memorial Day."

The UMW question

Another possible reason for the selection of Lilly was that the town was a U.M.W. stronghold. Carney believes that the action of District 2 in expelling members because of the K.K.K. membership was a factor. "Four fellows who worked at Piper's Mine (just east of Lilly) were hauled into the U.M.W. meeting," Carney said. "They admitted that they belonged to the Klan. When they admitted it, the U.M.W. told them that they were done. So (the U.M.W. officials) ordered Piper's to fire them."

Earlier in 1924, the International Brotherhood of the U.M.W. had passed a ban against members being associated with the Klan, precipitating the action by District 2 in Ebensburg.

While many people in contemporary society associate the Klan with hatred of Blacks, with their activities limited to the South, that is not the case. According to University of Pittsburgh English professor Patsy Sims, who researched the activities of the organization for her book, "The Klan," one that relates her experience in that research, "Membership in the Klan in the state of Pennsylvania was third in the country during the 1920's," Sims said.

However, Catholics believe that the riot spelled the beginning of the end for the Klan in Pennsylvania. "That pretty much did in the Klan," Brown said about the Lilly riot. "There was a riot a short time after that in Niles, Ohio, but you never heard much about them in Pennsylvania after (the riot in Lilly)." [That was a local myth, but it is not historically accurate. There were demonstrations by the Klan in Pennsylvania in 1925 and a huge demonstration in Carnegie, Pa, a year later.]


The tensions in Lilly continued for a number of years. "People from Lilly used to carve out little Ku Kluckers out of little pieces of wood, putting a string and a rock around them," Shullman said. "All the electrical and telephone lines in Lilly had the Ku Kluckers on them."

Testimony in the trial of both the Klansmen and the townspeople in the affair, which was held in June in Ebensburg, produced evidence that the Klan met regularly in the Moxham section of Johnstown. District Attorney Weimer also identified the leader of the Klan in the Johnstown district and forced him to testify.

In addition, many people in the mainline communities of South Fork, Portage, Cresson, and Gallitzin were either Klan members or sympathizers, along with those in Lilly.

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