One of the most horrific anti-Semitic events in United States history happened in Marietta, Georgia. On August 17, 1915, Leo Frank, former director of the local National Pencil Company factory who was falsely convicted of murdering a teenage female factory worker, was dragged out of a state prison cell, taken to Marietta, and lynched.
A decade later, while Congress was sharply restricting immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe and a revitalized Ku Klux Klan was attracting adherents nationwide, Ernest Louis, a Jewish pharmacist living and working in Freeport, NY, on Long Island, was falsely accused of molesting a local teenage girl and forced to flee the Long Island town with his family.
Louis’ story and other Klan activity in Freeport were documented by Herbert Jurist of the Freeport Historical Society in a 1970 report and are archived online at the Freeport Public Library website. Events in Freeport did not have the same tragic ending as those in Marietta, but they are disturbing reminders of the influence of anti-Semitism, nativism and racism in the United States and the willingness or ordinary Americans to embrace organizations like the Ku Klux Klan.
The Ku Klux Klan was openly active and influential in Freepor during the 1920s. According to a May 7, 1924 report in the Brooklyn Eagle, three people identified as Klan members, two men and a woman, were elected trustees of the Freeport School Board. Milford Van Riper, elected board chairman, and later a village trustee and comptroller and exalted ruler of the Freeport Elks, was also accused of Klan related activities.
Ernest Louis was the proprietor of a drug store at 358 Atlantic Avenue in Freeport. In July 1924, 13-year-old Dorothy Shedlock told police that Louis grabbed her by the arm while she was in the store shopping for perfume. Police investigated Shedlock’s claim but found no evidence to support charging the pharmacist. Louis and with his wife Florence, who was present in the store when the alleged incident took place, both denied that it happened.
On August 14, eight (or perhaps ten, reports differ) men in street clothes entered the drug store and threatened that if Louis did not leave town within ten days the local Klan would take action. The leader of the group, in some tellings Milford Van Riper, told Louis “Freeport is not big enough to hold the Klan and you.”
Louis reported the incident to the police and identified one of the eight invaders as a “local businessman.” His story was corroborated by his wife and a store employee. Louis also reported that his family was receiving threatening letters. According to local newspaper coverage, Louis told police that he would not be intimidated by the threats and would not consider closing the drug store and leaving town.
On the evening of Tuesday, August 26 (other dates were reported in different newspaper accounts), a group of five Klansmen, two young men and three middle-aged, returned to the drug store as it was closing and dragged Louis into a car while his wife and brother-in-law were present. Florence was knocked to the ground when she tried to assist her husband.
Louis was driven from Babylon to Westbury and Hicksville while his abductors repeated their threats. After being released, he secured a room at Nash’s Hotel in Mineola for the rest of the night. The next morning, Louis returned to his place of business, now with police protection, and again insisted he would not sell his store and leave. Louis’ account to Nassau District Attorney Charles Weeks who was investigating the incident was inconsistent. He initially claimed that he recognized the leader of the Klansmen as a member of the volunteer Fire Department and that the same man led the group that had earlier visited his store and threatened him. However, Louis also stated “I do not know whether I could identify any of the men if I saw them in the day time.” To protect their identities, “they dropped a handkerchief over the rear license plates when they let me out so I couldn’t get the number.”
One of the accused kidnappers, 24-year-old Travis Parker, was arrested in September, but charges were dropped when Louis either could not, or was unwilling to, identify him. Louis’ kidnapping drew the attention of the New York Times, which reported on the events in Freeport on August 28 (“Abducted Druggist is Found in Hotel”), August 31 (“Identified as Kidnapper)”, September 5 (“Menaced by Klan, Druggist to Move”), and September 25 (“Freed in Kidnapping Case”). It the August 31 article, the Times identified one of the officers investigating the kidnapping as Lieutenant Van Riper. (We have been unable to establish a relationship between Lieutenant Van Riper and Milford Van Riper.)
One result of the Klan campaign against Louis was his suspension from membership in the local volunteer fire department. Another was a new series of accusations by Dorothy Shedlock and her mother, who returned to the police department with Dorothy’s friend Hazel Rasmus. The two girls now claimed that Ernest Louis had sprayed them with perfume from an atomizer and attempted to kiss them.
These charges were initially dismissed but in the heated and biased climate of the time Louis was indicted by a grand jury for impairing the morals of a minor. He was tried twice, found guilty in the second trial, and sentenced to ninety days in jail. The accusations, the conviction, Klan activity in Freeport, and the willingness of the community to accept anti-Semitic stereotypes, destroyed Louis’ business. Without customers, he was forced to sell the drug store and move his family out of their Morris Avenue home in Freeport.
The campaign against Ernest Louis gave a big boost to the Klan in the area. In September, Paul Lindner of neighboring Malverne, the Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan in New York State, organized a mass Klan march and rally in Freeport. According to the New York Times, the local chief of police, John N. Hartman, led the parade followed by “mounted men and women carrying a large American flag.”
An estimated 2,000 people marched in Klan robes but without face coverings so they were easily identifiable by their neighbors. Approximately “30,000 spectators lined the streets of this village this afternoon to watch the parade of the Ku Klux Klan” and many cheered (“30,000 See Klan Parade,” September 21, 1924: 25). Following the parade, the Klan held a women’s rally attended by 8,000 local people that was addressed by Lindner and Mrs. J. O. Katton, the New York State Klan’s women’s Kleagle.
This article is part of a longer study on the Ku Klux Klan on Long Island. Rocco Distefano is an undergraduate history major at Hofstra University. Debra Willett is senior library assistant Hofstra’s Axinn Library Special Collections. Alan Singer is a social studies educator and historian in the Department of Teaching, Learning and Technology.
Photos, from above: First public appearance of women of the K.K.K. on Long Island, 1924 (LOC); Klan marches in Freeport (Newsday); 1926 KKK rally at the Mineola Fair Grounds (Newsday).