The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.
It comes as a jolting surprise for most Canadians to discover that the Ku Klux Klan – an organization most popularly associated with opposition to the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s – was once active in Canada, and locally in Wellington County.
The Ku Klux Klan instantly evokes images of flaming crosses and groups of men gathered by light of torches.
There was some of that in Canada, but here the focus of the organization was against immigrants, Catholics and the French language.
The Klan has had a varied history, and its intrusion into Canada was merely a phase of one incarnation of the organization.
The original Klan, organized by former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest in 1865, fought the military occupation of the south following the civil war, and the corrupt governments run by opportunists that accompanied it. Forrest disbanded the original Klan in 1869, with the promise of a withdrawal of the U.S. army by President U.S. Grant.
Since then, there have been a rash of copycat organizations, all using the original name. Most important of these was the one formed by W.J. Simmons, a defrocked Methodist minister, in 1915. He had been inspired by a novel, The Clansmen, which glorified the original Klan.
The subsequent epic movie version of the book, Birth of a Nation, made recruitment easy for Simmons and his followers.
It was Simmons who introduced the use of the old Methodist symbol, the flaming cross, to Klan activities. Simmons built his Klan quickly, using professional organizers who were paid a portion of membership fees. The head office sold the required white robes to members at inflated prices.
Simmons’s organizers soon came to Canada – to Vancouver in 1921, Montreal in 1923 and Toronto in 1925. They found a welcome reception among staunch Orange order supporters, and others who feared that Canada was in grave danger from immigrants, from Catholics, and from anyone speaking French.
The Klan grew quickly here, peaking in Ontario between 1926 and 1930. Success in the west was even more notable, particularly in Saskatchewan, where it remained a political force until 1934. At Guelph, a man named Joseph Ballons acted as the organizer of the Klan, around February of 1926. After a protracted dispute with the provincial government, the organization had recently received a charter in Ontario.
Attorney General Nickle had resisted, based on the Klan’s nativist and racist ideas, but several prominent Toronto men managed to convince him that the Klan was just another benevolent, fraternal organization.
Ballons found many sympathizers in Guelph. By April he was renting the city hall for meetings, presumably with the concurrence of Mayor Bev Robson and Guelph city council. Such support in high places was common at the time. The Toronto Star published several editorials in support of the Klan.
The public pronouncements of its leaders reflected the opinions of many, perhaps a majority, of Canadians in the 1920s. In the United States, the Klan claimed a membership of more than 8,000,000 – all white male Protestants. President Harding had been a member, and his successor, Calvin Coolidge, attended Klan parades in 1925 and 1926.
Locally, the Klan quickly found an outspoken foe – William Templeton, editor of the Mercury in the 1920s. Templeton denounced the motives of the Klan. He began his campaign by questioning the appropriateness of renting city hall to an organization openly opposed to Jews, Catholics and blacks, all of whom were city taxpayers.
A short time later, Templeton claimed that four men on the Guelph police force were members, as were several of the aldermen. He stated in an editorial that all of them were unfit for public service of any kind. City council did nothing, a situation that emboldened the Guelph Klan members.
In September of 1926, Guelph’s Klansman terrorized a woman on New Street, near the corner of Woolwich Street and London Road, by setting a flaming cross on her front lawn.
Apparently, she had done something to raise their ire. Templeton upped the stakes by calling the men masked cowards, afraid to show their faces while frightening honest citizens and putting private property at risk.
Templeton’s reward was a visit from two carloads of robed and hooded vigilantes at his residence on Queen Street West. The editor was not home at the time, and the Klansmen had to be content with terrorizing his wife and family.
Templeton was not intimidated: he told the Klan in print to advise him of their next visit so he could prepare a proper welcome for them. They never returned.
The incident inspired Templeton to take another swing at the organization: “The Klan is a foreign organization and used for the exploiting of the credulous and weak-minded people of a community. They steal on the community in the quiet hours of the night, evidencing a cowardly nature and a fear of waiting for the consequences of their despicable deeds.
“They pretend to trade under the auspices of Christian idealism, but no organization in the world promulgating Christian sentiments, ever had to hide behind a mask as thieves and robbers have done for ages past.”
Matters reached a head in October 1926, following an incident at the First Baptist Church on Woolwich Street. Following a church service, Klan organizer Joe Ballons confronted Thomas Penfold, and threatened him with bodily harm over some alleged misdeed as dozens of pious and horrified parishioners looked on. Things had gone too far. Public sentiment demanded an arrest. The police picked up Ballons and held him in jail until he raised $2,000 in bail.
The magistrate released him on the strength of two sureties of $1,000 each. In one sense this was a slap on the wrist, but the conviction kept the Klan’s local organizer at home every evening.
Three of Ballons’s recruits had dug themselves into deeper trouble. They were William Skelly, William Butler and Clare Lee, and all were members of the Guelph branch of the Klan. Earlier in the year, on June 19, they had dynamited St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Barrie.
Provincial police spent the summer building their case. Butler was the last to be tried, on Oct. 14. The jury took little more than an hour to convict him.
Skelly, an explosives expert, received five years in the penitentiary; Butler four years, and Lee three. In addition, the judge ordered Skelly to be deported to his homeland in Ireland either during or at the conclusion of his sentence.
Clare Lee had not been directly involved in the incident, but he had sheltered Skelly and permitted him to escape.
During the trial, J.H. Proctor, an official of the Ontario Klan, repudiated the use of dynamite, violence and terrorism. The publicity of the Barrie bombing and the activities of the Guelph Klansmen, though, had undermined the reputation of the Klan.
Under the glare of publicity, Guelph council decided to refuse the Klan the use of city hall. Most of the Guelph members quietly dropped out of the organization. After less than a year, and a few months of vitality, the Guelph branch of the Ku Klux Klan started to dwindle away.
Elsewhere in Ontario, the Klan remained strong in Hamilton until 1930. On several occasions they lit huge flaming crosses on Hamilton Mountain, visible to the whole city. Their end came with a vigilante raid on a house in Oakville occupied by a mixed race couple. The Hamilton branch withered under the subsequent publicity and criminal charges.
The 1915 version of the Ku Klux Klan, organized by W.J. Simmons, reached its peak under his successor, Dr. Hiram Evans. It then began a slide in membership through the 1930s.
The end came in 1944, when President Roosevelt turned the Internal Revenue Service on the headquarters. Faced with an assessment of $250,000 for unpaid taxes, the organization folded.
By then, the Klan had virtually vanished in Canada. Subsequent revivals of the Ku Klux Klan, and there have been many since 1944, have failed to gain any sure foothold on Canadian soil.
Locally, the Guelph Klan has been expunged from memory. This short but embarrassing episode is never mentioned in histories of the city, and all the branch records and membership paraphernalia seem to have been lost. And in later years, no one involved in the Guelph branch of the Ku Klux Klan boasted of his membership.
This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on March 7, 2003.