On this day in history, an estimated 12,000 men participated in a Ku Klux Klan initiation rite that began in downtown Chicago and ended in the suburb of Lake Zurich.
Chicago was a fecund recruiting ground for the Klan, which had expanded its agenda of hatred to include immigrants, Catholics and Jews. The Klan’s national leader (called The Imperial Wizard), William Simmons, told the Chicago Tribune, “our membership is limited to native born American gentiles.”
At the ritual site in Lake Zurich, a huge bonfire was lit, and each member, holding a torch, took a position in the form of a blazing cross. The bonfire and meeting was held on the farm of Charles Weeghman, a millionaire who owned the Chicago Cubs from 1916 to 1918. Business leaders were attracted to the Klan, the Tribune opined, because of its hostility to the union movement.
The next year, the Klan in Chicago initiated another 4,650 new members, welcomed by more than 25,000 supporters. By 1923, national membership was estimated to be 2.5 million.
The decline of the Klan in the 1930’s has been attributed to internecine squabbles among the leadership.