Editor’s note: This is the second story in a two-part series about the Roswell Ku Klux Klan.
Despite public opinion to the contrary, the Roswell officials from the Roswell chapter of the Ku Klux Klan issued a proclamation that stated emphatically that it had nothing whatsoever to do with the burning of crosses. It had information that would probably lead to the apprehension of those who were responsible for it. The imitation cross was burned to discredit the Klan by those “whose lives do not measure up to that standard required by the Klan for membership therein.”
Roswell authorities had already concluded that perpetrators other than the Klan were responsible for the burnings even before the Klan issued the denial.
The Roswell Klan was quite honored by the Imperial Wizard on May 21, 1930, when one of its own, Frank Talmage Jr., was appointed as Grand Dragon for the Realm of New Mexico. The Grand Dragon was the only man who represented the entire state in national klonklaves, and Roswell was delighted to have one of its own to be appointed to such a high position.
Frank Talmage Jr. ascends to Klan leader
Though quite different from Capt. Jason James, Frank Talmage Jr. was another patriarch of the Roswell Klan. He is not to be confused with his distinguished father of the same name, who had careers as both a minister and a physician before the family came to New Mexico. Even in his old age, he was active in the community and highly esteemed by the residents. He died in 1929.
Born in February 1880 in Milford, Indiana, Frank Talmage Jr. at an early age had a funeral business in Caldwell, Kansas. He sold out in 1901 and visited the Pecos Valley where he bought the Hedgecoxe Ranch in Greenfield. After a few moves and name changes, the “Talmadge Mortuary” relocated to 414 N. Pennsylvania Ave. around 1933, where it remained until sold at the end of World War II. The entire extended family resided in the same house with the mortuary.
Talmage Jr. was “naturalized” into the Roswell Klan on Dec. 16, 1924. He was the Exalted Cyclops for much of 1927, 1928 and 1929. Even when he was not the official or acting Exalted Cyclops, he served as the acting leader in his role as imperial representative — in which office he represented New Mexico to the Imperial Wizard in Atlanta in the absence of a Grand Dragon for the state. Talmage was to a great extent the backbone of the Roswell Klan, working hard to make the organization function. During his tenure, 379 men became members of the Roswell Klan.
In a resolution dated Aug. 13, 1931, he was referred to as “Past Grand Dragon,” but it seems the Roswell Klan lacked capable leaders. The Terrors appealed to Past Grand Dragon Talmage to serve as the Exalted Cyclops because the Klan enjoyed great growth a few years earlier.
Suspensions for nonpayment of dues, followed by reinstatements, were the main cause of the fluctuations in membership. Nothing exists in the records to explain the long-term decline in membership, but it is known that there were scandals associated with the national Klan and that some national leaders were discredited. By the end of 1932, the Roswell membership was down to 35. At the conclusion of the third quarter of 1933, only 15 men qualified. The number was up to 25 at the end of 1933.
Mention of Roswell cross burning
On Sept. 1, 1932, the minutes report: “Social evening including ladies (and was enjoyed by all). Splendid talk by Kls., meeting was closed, refreshments were served and a large cross was burned. Ladies present 11, men 25.”
This is the only mention in the surviving records that the Roswell Klan burned a cross. The Klan was notorious in the South for burning crosses as a terror technique. When a cross was burned in front of St. Peter Church in 1928, the Roswell Klan emphatically denied any connection with it.
In an article he wrote for the Roswell Daily Record in May 1991, the late local historian Clarence Adams mentioned seeing a burning cross as a boy growing up on the Berrendo near the Klan’s headquarters: “… We talked about the mystery connected with the Ku Klux Klan, which was located at the head of the North Berrendo Creek. No one seems to know much about the organization, but a number of people were there at least one night a week.”
On a certain night … a huge cross attached to a tall steel pole with red electric light bulbs shining brightly could be seen from a long distance. This suggests that some of the Roswell Klan’s “fiery crosses” were actually electric lights and not fire. The literature indicates a place for the “fiery cross” inside the Klavern for ceremonies, which implies that it could have been electric for safety’s sake.
The klonklave on Jan. 5, 1933, passed a motion to “… have a social meeting, with each Klansman to bring his wife if he so desires.”
This was not unusual for the Roswell Klan, who were no doubt doubly careful to observe the rules regarding mixing with women. The group had been in trouble with the Imperial Wizard in 1931 because he had heard that the Roswell Klan was meeting together with the women of the Ku Klux Klan, which was prohibited.
In a letter to Exalted Cyclops Talmage Jr. dated Oct. 14, 1931, Imperial Wizard H.C.S. Pratt wrote: “I am forced to complain to you of the activities of your Klan with reference to information that I have received. I have had justified complaints that the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the women of the Ku Klux Klan have been authorized to meet together. This is not so … Please convey to your Klansmen the thought that it is only to prevent a discontinuance of the splendid record at Roswell Klan that I write this letter of ruling.”
Was Roswell Klan violent like Southern Klans?
The Klan in other places was known to use floggings, tarring-and-feathering or other techniques to correct and punish the behavior of wife-beaters, drunkards, bootleggers and other miscreants. It is not known if the Roswell Klan used any of those methods, but a few notations in the minutes suggest that they did deal with some law-and-order issues. The minutes for Feb. 2, 1933, state: “The Law Enforcement Committee is working on a case out by the Compress. The Law Enforcement Committee asked for volunteers to help handle the case. A number volunteered their services.”
No further information is given concerning what this “case” concerned. Another notation about “law enforcement cases” is in the minutes for Dec. 7, 1933: “Law Enforcement Committee reported on two cases which had been handled.”
This brief declaration provides no clues as to what the cases were about, so the question of whether or not the Klan took lawbreakers to the woodshed remains moot.
Alligators on Klan property?
In his 1991 newspaper article, Adams wrote, “… I’ll never forget the alligators that were kept in the lake on the Klan’s property. They escaped from the place now and then, and I always watched for them when I went fishing on the creek.”
This seemed incredible until the following was found in the Klan minutes for July 6, 1933: “Discussion on fish and lake and alligator. Motion the Building & Grounds Committee be allowed to dispose of alligator if place can be found where he will be cared for. Carried.”
This appears to be the first mention of the lake, the fish and the alligator in the records.
The minutes for Aug. 17, 1933, reveal how the alligator question was resolved. “Building & Grounds Committee reported that the alligator had been given over to the City and was comfortable at the Park.”
Roswell’s zoo was located in the old “Haynes’ Dream” park, which became Cahoon Park in 1935, just west of the swimming pool.
However, there was an article in the Roswell Daily Record on March 4, 1930, that read: “Four healthy alligators are now making their home in the lake at the head of the Middle Berrendo, property owned by the local order of the Ku Klux Klan. These ‘gators came to Roswell by express from Houston, Texas, a gift from the Houston Klan to the Roswell organization.
“Two of the alligators, 6 years old, weigh 100 lbs. each, and are approximately six feet long. The others are two years old and are about 2 feet long.
“The alligators are said to be perfectly harmless and are making themselves at home in the lake.”
There is no mention of why the alligators were given or if they were to serve a purpose.
Klan announcements in Roswell Daily Record
There are weekly “reminder announcements” in the Roswell Daily Record from 1930 to Aug. 24, 1932, stated:
“Pioneer Klan No. 15
Meets every Thursday night, 8:00 o’clock sharp. All members are urged to be present. Visiting K’s are welcome.
By order E.C.
Another interesting article in the Roswell Daily Record, dated Sept. 3, 1930:
“Will Leave Tomorrow
Ensign and Mrs. Irby, of the Salvation Army, will leave tomorrow for Phoenix, taking with them Armin Irby, Fred Helsby and Verl Hart, from which point the latter three will go on to San Francisco where they will enter the Salvation Army training school for a complete course. Ensign Irby was presented with a check for $15 this morning, by the Klan, as an aid in defraying the expenses of the trip to Phoenix.”
Attendance at the klonklaves of the Roswell Klan declined in 1933 and 1934. No minutes exist for the period between May 3 and Nov. 1, 1934. The minutes for the latter date read, “Klonklave not opened in regular form account small attendance. Informal discussion on current events and klonlave dismissed by the E. C.” The Nov. 1 meeting turned out to be the last. Records dated Nov. 8, 1934, state that the last meeting of the Klan was held Nov. 1, and that the Klan was to be suspended as of Jan. 1, 1935 by the state Grand Dragon.
Roswell Klan reverts back to former name
Finally, after a long period of silence, several documents bearing the name of the Roswell Benevolent Association and dated November and December 1944 appear in the records (written on the preprinted forms of the Klan). Letters dated Nov. 7 went out to all members of the RBA, imploring them to attend a meeting at the Knights of Pythias hall on Nov. 16. At that meeting, members were informed that the Trustees “… have an offer for the purchase of the real estate owned by the Association … for the sum of $2,650.00…”
The land described had been purchased by the RBA in 1927. The association authorized the trustees to accept the offer. Another meeting was scheduled for December 1944, in which the trustees reported that they had carried out the wishes of the association.
Another resolution was passed at the Dec. 7 meeting: “WHEREAS, That this Association having been in a dormant or inactive life for some time past and the judgment of the members being that it would be well to dissolve the association, therefore, BE IT RESOLVED, That the Trustees be instructed to receive or collect any amounts that may be owing to the Association to pay any and all claims against the Association, and if there are not enough funds to pay all claims that an assessment be levied upon the members to defray same, or when all claims are paid, any amount remaining in the Treasury be divided equally between the members of the Association. When such matters are completed the Trustees are requested to dissolve the Association.”
Curtains for the Klan
A financial statement indicates that the RBA had $10.71 when it was suspended on Jan. 1, 1935. In 1939, and continuing every year through 1944, former Grand Dragon Talmage Jr. took it upon himself to pay the $10 annual fee for insurance and for other charges associated with the sale of the land.
In December 1944, he was reimbursed in the amount of $117 to clear the account. That left $2,533 in the Association’s account. Seventeen members in good standing received checks for $149 each.
The dispersal of the funds was the end of the Roswell Pioneer Klan No. 15 and the Roswell Benevolent Association.
Hope that history doesn’t repeat itself
This study represents an important part of Roswell’s history that up until now has pretty much been an unmentionable subject.
The philosopher George Santayana stated: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Studying history may give present generations some guidance on where they have been, where they are now, and where they want to go in the future.
This study reveals that the Klan in Roswell was not unique but part of a very broad state and national movement. The Roswell Klan was one of about two dozen local Klan chapters in New Mexico, and also had ties to the national organization headquartered in Atlanta.
This was a time when the Klan was active nationally in political movements.
This study perhaps shows how local communities can be affected by national movements, how people will follow charismatic leaders no matter how extreme or radical their views, and maybe it will show present day New Mexicans what they are capable of given the right circumstances.
Credits to Elvis E. Fleming’s article, “Pioneer Klan No. 15: The Ku Klux Klan in Roswell, 1924-1934,” and to the Roswell Daily Record.
Janice Dunnahoo is an archive volunteer at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.