FOUR REMARKABLE WOMEN—THREE HEROINES AND ONE FASCINATING VILLAIN
PART TWO: THE VILLAIN — ELIZABETH TYLER
Elizabeth Tyler, featured in my book Ten Dollars to Hate about the 1920s Ku Klux Klan, was a very different kind of female character from Mary Ovington and Elisabeth Freeman—a woman of enormous capabilities and talent who used her power to do great evil.
Teen Bride + Brothels
Tyler was raised on a farm near Atlanta and was forced into marriage at the age of fifteen, less than two months before her daughter was born. This marriage was quickly abandoned—whether by the bride or the groom–and Tyler seems to have moved to Atlanta to seek her fortune.
My strong suspicion is that, without money, education or connections, Tyler began her career in Atlanta as a working girl because, by the time she joined forces with the Second Ku Klux Klan in 1920, she had already acquired a certain notoriety as the madame of several brothels in the redlight district of Atlanta. She had also apparently speedily careened in and out of at least two additional marriages.
Tyler probably never planned to confine her achievements to whatever profits she could glean from the prostitution racket. She seems to have always wanted social acceptance and, of course, an opportunity to make much more money. Tyler formed a public relations firm, the Southern Publicity Association, with Edward Young Clarke, a business colleague and sometime lover. The new firm represented some prominent clients before Tyler and Clarke were hired to promote the Second Ku Klux Klan in 1920.
Second Ku Klux Klan Grows
It was Tyler who conceived of the brilliant idea of expanding the appeal of the Klan throughout the country by training KKK field organizers or “kleagles” to offer potential members a full array of possible bigotries beyond racism, including anti-Catholicism, antisemitism, and anti-immigrant and anti-Asian sentiments. A Klansman could pick his favorite form of ethnic, religious or racial hatred and pursue it through the Klan. With so many options on offer, the Ku Klux Klan became an overnight success, attracting between three and five million, dues-paying members across the US.
Tyler was described by people who knew her as someone who had come from nothing but had worked hard at improving her manner of speech and way of dressing. By 1920, she had become a commanding presence, a tall woman weighing over 200 pounds, who dressed in black lace and draped herself in vintage Southern cameos and medallions. Above all, commented one observer, “…she [Tyler] knew men. Her experience in catering to their appetites and vices had given her an insight into their frailties. She knew how to handle them all.”
But for all Tyler’s ruthless determination and ability to get men to do whatever she wanted, she apparently had a weak spot for Clarke. It was her on and off affair with him that led to her undoing. Clarke, who was a low-level con man and womanizer, had deserted his wife and son and was not supporting them, but his wife, May Cartledge Clarke, got her revenge.
In September 1919, May instigated a raid on one of Tyler’s “notorious underworld resorts” where the police caught Tyler and Clarke “in their sleeping garments,“ according to the newspapers. This sordid story was uncovered and broadcast across the country when the New York World published a syndicated series of exposés on the Klan in 1921. The Klan ultimately decided that both Tyler and Clarke had to go.
In August 1924, Tyler proceeded to marry for the fourth time–that we know of. Her new husband, Steven Grow, was ten years younger than herself. Tyler, her husband and her daughter Minnie moved to California. Only two years later, Tyler died of “apoplexy” (probably a stroke) and arteriosclerosis, at the age of 43, leaving a fortune of over $500,000, the equivalent of about $7 million today. A year later, Minnie married Grow.
The documents associated with this abrupt marriage reveal that Minnie was apparently as much of an inveterate liar as her mother. Minnie indicated that she had never been married before, though she had, and listed her age as 23 when she was in fact 28. In the end, however, when Minnie herself died in 1967, she chose to be buried, not near any of her husbands, but next to her mother in Inglewood Park Cemetery in California. For these two women, it seems, the only relationship that ever really counted in their lives was their closeness to each other.
Since Tyler died at a comparatively young age. Her primary henchmen in leading the Klan during its startling growth across the country, Edward Clarke and Second Klan founder William J. Simmons, lived long lives. Thus, the two men were able to continue promoting themselves as the masterminds who built the Second Klan when, in fact, Tyler was the true power behind the throne. Her male companions were lifelong losers and petty crooks who never again did anything of note.
Greed + Power
It is tempting to contemplate what a woman of such intelligence and personal forcefulness could have accomplished in an age in which women had more opportunities open to them. As it was, driven by greed and a desire for power, Elizabeth Tyler devoted her considerable abilities to promulgating what historians have called the most successful extremist rightwing organization in the history of the United States.
Somehow, I was not surprised to discover that, of the triumvirate of Simmons, Clarke and Tyler, it was the woman Tyler, not either of the men, whose demonic brilliance made the Second Ku Klux Klan the terrifying and destructive powerhouse that it became.