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A Century Later, April 5, 1924: The night the KKK robbed Lilly, Pa. of its collective innocence

The Railroad Station, Lilly, Pa. where the KKK disembarked

April 5, 1924: The night that Lilly lost its innocence

By Hugh Conrad

Nestled in a valley in the Allegheny Mountains of west-central Pennsylvania, the community of Lilly was similar to many other small coal towns along the Pennsylvania Railroad. Many immigrants journeyed there from Europe seeking a new life, carrying with them the enticing quest to experience the American Dream. Whether they worked in the coal mines, in the steel mills, or on the railroad, residents of that area were generally very religious, hard-working, and family-oriented.

However, on the night of April 5, 1924, Lilly collectively lost its innocence, a victim of intolerance waged primarily by those who called themselves “100 percent Americans.” They were white-robed warriors who were bent upon confrontation. The action ultimately caused heartache and misery for many people, especially for the three mothers who were forced to bury their sons because of the hatred that spewed forth onto the streets that Saturday night.  At least twenty more people were injured, and many other families watched those close to them spend time in prison for a crime that many believed they did not commit.

This is the story of that fateful night.

Excitement turns to disaster

Phil Conrad was excited and optimistic on Saturday night. He was the scorekeeper for the Lilly High School basketball team that was hoping to win its 25th game that night, a tremendous accomplishment for a small school. The team was playing St. Joseph's High School of Renovo in the Opera House, a building in the southern part of town that was also used as a gymnasium.

In addition, Conrad was anticipating the celebration of his 25th birthday the following day, and his mother, an Irish immigrant who was known as Katie (Brady) Conrad, had baked a cake that afternoon. The cake sat on the kitchen table in the family domicile on George Street as he left home that night.

Phil Conrad would never taste that cake, nor would he ever celebrate that birthday with his family. His gifts would remain unopened. Instead, he became a victim of religious and ethnic intolerance that night, one who lost the game of life because of the Ku Klux Klan's insatiable thirst for conflict.

Background of the K.K.K.

Why would the K.K.K. target a sleepy hamlet of approximately 2,300 people in 1924? While the public conception of the K.K.K. in the aftermath of the Civil War was that the group hated African-Americans, the people from Lilly and adjacent Washington Township did not fit into that demographic. The residents immigrated from a variety of European countries and were primarily Irish, German, Italian, Polish, and Slovak. No African-Americans lived in Lilly, which was predominantly Roman Catholic.

In fact, the conflict in Lilly could be traced to a religious battle between Catholics and Protestants that occurred thousands of miles away from Pennsylvania in Northern Ireland. In addition, some of its animus occurred because of the exodus of immigrants from Eastern European countries like Poland, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.

The Klan was founded in Pulaski, Tenn. in 1866 as primarily a social organization. It quickly went through a metamorphosis under the direction of former Confederate Gen. Nathan B. Forrest. That K.K.K. became an organization that created fear for blacks and for northerners who were called carpetbaggers and scalawags. Because of their unique disguises, midnight raids, and strange organization and language, the Klan mesmerized many southerners who were also upset at the northerners for the reconstruction policies of the post-Civil War days. The Klan, however, did not last, and by the 1870's, it had basically disappeared until its reincarnation approximately 40 years later.

The rejuvenated Klan was formed in 1915 by William Simmons in Stone Mountain, Ga. Simmons was motivated to do this after watching D.W. Griffith's acclaimed silent film, “The Birth of a Nation.” The movie portrayed the Klan as a heroic organization that stood up to Blacks and scalawags who were attempting to destroy the southern culture. Griffith's film has been criticized as being racist, but it appealed to those who believed in what they called “traditional values.” These included beliefs in unwavering Protestant fundamentalism, white supremacy, born in America, the English language, a “clean” life and devout patriotism. For those people, the movie served as the impetus for a new Klan, one whose philosophy focused on hatred of Catholics first, and less so Jews and Blacks. One of the first victories for the new K.K.K. was the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment: Prohibition. This outlawed the manufacture, transport, and sale of alcohol and took effect in 1920. It gave the followers of the Klan hope that this group could become very powerful.

Historian Philip Jenkins, who is now an Emeritus Professor of the Humanities at Penn State, has written extensively about right-wing terrorist groups. He explained in a 1986 essay, “The Ku Klux Klan in Pennsylvania, 1920-1940,” that the post-Civil War Klan and that of 1924 were very different organizations ideologically. "The Klan was seen as the leading organization of militant Protestantism," Jenkins explained. He continued that “of the traditional targets of the Klan -- Blacks, Catholics, and Jews -- it was the Catholics who were perceived as the greatest enemy in the 1920's, and probably in the next decade, too.” In short, the KKK focused its efforts from 1915 to 1925 primarily on Catholics, while also following a nativist creed that started in the mid-1800s with the Know-Nothing Party. The Know-Nothings were virulently opposed to Irish-Catholics who were immigrating to America at that time, an animus that was also the focus of the later K.K.K.

The followers of the Klan were also opposed to labor unions and to foreigners, especially those who could not speak English. They considered Irish-Catholics to be foreigners because they were under the auspices of an Italian: the Pope. That criticism was similar to that faced by presidential candidate John F. Kennedy in 1960 when he was forced to explain to Houston clergymen that the Pope would not be involved in the policies or actions of his administration.

The animus in Lillly was not one-sided. Catholics were also guilty of attempting to precipitate violence in the weeks before April 5 as bullets were fired into the parsonage of St. Luke's Lutheran Church on three different occasions. One of them just missed the wife of the pastor, Rev. Elmer F. Brown. From that perspective, the trip to Lilly made sense since 80 percent of the town Roman Catholic, creating a volatile cauldron that ended in violence.

Events of April 5, 1924

The invasion of approximately 450 members of the Ku Klux Klan that night was not a surprise to many of the townspeople of Lilly. The old-timers who congregated at Brown's Store on Main Street knew what was coming that night, and basketball was not on their agenda. Walter (Bud) Brown, a son of the owner, Charlie Brown, was eleven-years-old in 1924, but he remembered the night well.  "This was well-planned," Brown said in a 1994 interview. "And the people in town knew that the Klansmen were coming. I heard some of the men outside my dad's store talking about it about 2 or 3 o'clock in the afternoon."

The K.K.K. arrived in Lilly primarily by rail that night, with two trains coming from the west and one from the east. The train that carried the vast majority of the Klansmen was one that was later dubbed the “K.K.K. Special.” It arrived in Lilly at a little after 7 p.m. This train was at least ten cars long, and it was leased by the Klan from the Pennsylvania Railroad through the Pittsburgh office, according to testimony at the subsequent trial in June. The special train stopped in many communities along the mainline, including Greensburg, New Florence, Seward, Johnstown, Conemaugh, and Portage. The Klansmen used non-verbal communication to inform the engineers of the train whether or not to stop at a station. "(Klan members) would have a plain brown package that they folded and carried under their arms," Art Yingling, a resident of Lilly, recalled in a 1994 interview. In the package was the ubiquitous white robe and hood. Once on board, the Klan members placed the robe over their clothing, effectively hiding their weapons. The other two trains that carried Klansmen to Lilly were the regular daily passenger ones that passed through the town each day, one from Altoona and the other from Johnstown. These made regular stops at the stations along the way.

The KKK members disembarked at the station and lined up four abreast and moved onto Cleveland Street to prepare for their journey to Piper's Field, which was approximately a half-mile away. As they started their march, a gunshot alerted people on the northern side of the community to cut the electricity, leaving the town in eerie darkness for most of the demonstration.  A Lilly man whose family store was close to the tracks explained what happened. “People up on (Smith's) Hill saw them cutting the electrical lines at the substation,” Morris Schulman recalled about the people in a 1993 interview. No one was ever convicted of taking that action.

Phil Conrad was one of those who was forced onto the streets after the lights in the Opera House were cut. Everyone at the game walked to the middle of town to see what had caused the darkness. Less than three hours later, he was declared dead in a local store, killed by a bullet from a Klansman as the train was frantically trying to leave Lilly. Two others were killed in the skirmish: Frank Miesko, a local Catholic, and Cloyd Paul, a Klan sympathizer who with his brother had cut the trees that were used for the Klan's crosses, according to testimony at the trial. At least 20 other people were wounded that night.

The entourage walked quietly north on Cleveland Street, listening to epithets hurled at them by the townspeople. They turned left onto what was known as Plane Number 4 of the former Allegheny-Portage Railroad. Piper's Field was the property of a Protestant family that owned coal mines in the Lilly and Washington Township area.  The Klan remained there for approximately two-and-a-half hours, burning two crosses and setting off two explosions of dynamite.

The night may have ended without violence if not for the actions by some townspeople who were offended by the action of the Klan. The townspeople prepared to retaliate.  "The fire hall was located (on Washington Street) and they kept their fire-harness over there,"  Brown recalled. "I remember some of (the townspeople) going over there and getting a hose loaded on a two-wheeled wagon. They then brought it around our corner (of Main and Washington streets) and to the center of town." The group first attempted to connect it at a hydrant at Main and Cleveland Streets, but then moved to the area of the railroad station where the cars of the train were located.

After completing their demonstration at approximately 9:45, the Klan again lined up to return to the station. When the K.K.K. entourage arrived there, the townspeople turned the hose on those at the rear of the procession. The pressure, however, was very low, similar to that of a garden hose, not that of a fire hose. At about that point, the electrical power to the town was restored, allowing people to see one another much more clearly.

Once the townspeople started dousing the members of the Klan, one of the men, later identified at the trial as Sam Evans of South Fork, walked over to the hose and attempted to wrestle it from the person at the lead, Frank Miesko. At this point, the stories about who first started the firefight diverged significantly at trial. The townspeople claimed that Evans killed Miesko as they were wrestling with the hose. Charges of murder were later filed against a local Catholic, William “Timbers” Monahan, for the murder of Cloyd Paul, a Klan sympathizer. Regardless of who fired the that first shot, a veritable firefight ensured, killing Conrad, Miesko, and Paul. Everyone called to testify against both Evans and Monahan at the June trial refused to testify on grounds of self-incrimination, their fifth amendment right, leading to dismissal of those charges.

Conrad died in a store on Cleveland Street. “They came to get Mother and (my sister) Ann and took them up to Johnny Platt's Jewelry Store. That's where they had taken Phil,” Helen Conrad said. “Mother and Ann were there, and this man came in and knelt down beside Mother and he said, 'I'm a Catholic priest.' But he was in civvies. Father (Jerome) McQuillen was afraid to go on the street because they (the Klansmen) knew him.”

Aftermath of the riot

After the shooting, which lasted between a minute to a minute-and-a-half according to those present that day, the KKK Special started chugging its way out of town as the gunfire subsided. Many of those on board threw their weapons out of the windows as it moved to Johnstown, which was a wise choice. The train was met at the Johnstown train station by police from the Johnstown city department and by members of the Cambria County sheriff's office. Both had been alerted by phone about the incident in Lilly. Those 29 who remained on the train and had guns in their possession were arrested and charged with carrying a concealed weapon, riot, and murder. A week later, fifteen men from Lilly and surrounding areas were also arrested by State Police and charged with murder, riot, affray, and unlawful assembly.

The trial in Cambria County Court in June was sensational, attracting media from across the state and nation and filling courtroom number 1. The case was so volatile that Cambria County judges recused themselves from the case. The court enlisted a Philadelphia appellate judge, Thomas Finletter, to handle the legal proceedings. Forty-four men were tried in the case; 29 were Klansmen, and 15 were Catholic townspeople. At the trial in June, the Klan was represented by flamboyant attorney Percy Allen Rose of Johnstown. He wore a yellow rose in his lapel each day of the trial, and the members of the Klan wore yellow carnations in their lapels, symbolizing their philosophical unity. Finletter was controversial in a number of ways. He declined to sever the case into two, one for the Klan members and the other for the Lilly townspeople, as requested by lawyers from both sides. In addition, Finletter said in his directions to the jury that anyone on the streets that night could be found guilty of riot, affray, and unlawful assembly. That outraged one of the defendants who spent a year in jail. He alleged that the Lilly men were being used as scapegoats. “We were railroaded," Gerald Carney, who was 88-years-old when he was interviewed in 1993, said in recalling the events. "The judge said, 'He was there. He was on the street that night, and there were three people killed here. Somebody is going to have to suffer for it.' " Carney spent a year in jail as did all of the defendants from Lilly who were convicted by the jury.

Many in Lilly harbored animus toward one another for decades, sometimes even for generations. One practical problem was that many Protestants in town were driven from town. "Many (Protestant) businessmen left Lilly, and Lilly lost some good plumbers," Schulman, whose father was a businessman in town, said. "Then Ed Rhone, who owned a pool room -- he was a Protestant and couldn't get any business. That made for hard feelings. Catholics wouldn't patronize the businesses owned by Protestants. That's a fact."

Historical analysis

Two myths were propagated by Lilly residents as they told stories of that night. The first was the the Klan targeted Lilly because the local United Mine Workers of America union had expelled four members prior to the riot. This theme was fueled by media accounts with headlines that linked the UMW decision to the Klan selection of Lilly as the target for the demonstration, but that contention has little historical data to support it. The second was that the riot in Lilly led to the end of the Klan in Pa. That is not supported by the evidence of history either. As historians have indicated, the hatred of Catholics was generally the predominant factor in selecting sites for protest meetings. The K.K.K. had Klaverns throughout Cambria County and the state, and those who met in Moxham were upset with unions, particularly with the 1919 steel strike called by union leaders that carried over into the Johnstown works. In addition, they were also upset at the foreign-speaking men whom they alleged were taking job from the “100 percent Americans.” However, the evidence indicates that the K.K.K. decision to demonstrate in Lilly was made months before the U.M.W. Action, precluding that as a motivation. All of the anecdotal evidence, along with the testimony at trial and the national focus, indicates that religion was the root cause of this event.

The story about the Lilly riot ending the Klan dominance does not hold historically either. Jenkins uses data that shows that this urban myth is not valid: “In Pennsylvania, recruiting successes were early and dramatic. There were 125,000 Klansmen in the state by the end of 1924, and possibly 250,000 within the next two years.” That basically refutes the second myth about the Lilly riot ending the Klan in Pa.


The Lilly riot of 1924 demonstrated that the Ku Klux Klan held many people in disrepute. Their beliefs, some of which still live on in the Twenty-first Century, were unfortunate since they believed that they were following their Christian religion. The fact that they were armed “to their teeth,” in the words of Helen Conrad, showed that they viewed violence as a legitimate tool of Christians. In this case, families suffered significant pain because of that decision, which was very sad.

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