On August 23, 1923 the Ku Klux Klan chose to have a march and rally in Carnegie Pennsylvania, a town that borders the Western side of the City of Pittsburgh. The new imperial wizard of the KKK, Hiram Wesley Evans had come from Texas for the rally and march. The Klan members gathered on a hill in Scott Township that overlooked Carnegie Borough, they initiated 1,000 new members and burned a very large cross.
Why Carnegie? Why Western Pennsylvania?
The steel industry and other industries needed workers, immigrants were settling throughout the region, as were African-Americans who fled from the South and a large number of Catholics were also among the immigrants. The Klan sought out “ordinary white Protestants and felt that the rise of immigrants, African- Americans and Catholics was a threat to them. Allegheny County, where Carnegie is located had a huge rise in Klan “Klaverns” a growth that continued to 1925 when there were thirty-three Klan Klaverns in Allegheny County alone, most of the surrounding counties in Western Pennsylvania had ten or less. (1) Carnegie itself had a very large immigrant population that were Catholic for the most part.
The Klan preferred to have marches and rallies at night, when it was easier to disguise their identity, hide any weapons they may be carrying and be more of a spectacle, disturbing the peace of the night. The rallies would contain fiery speeches and bands playing military style songs.
When the Klansmen reached the border of Carnegie Borough, a borough burgess John F. Conley, himself and Irish Catholic, met them and told the marchers that they had no permission to enter the town. Evans told the gathered Klansmen they were not welcome, but the marchers chose to continue the march. Carnegie Borough lacked a formal permit process for a parade, so the town had no legal standing to stop the Klan from marching.
In the planning for the march, the Klan worked with the Carnegie Police Chief, Christ Kiesling who was a Klan member to assure their ability to march. The police chief met with members of the local Klan at the Klan office in Pittsburgh. The plan was that Chief Kiesling would stop the marchers when they entered Carnegie, giving the parade marshal a chance to grandstand and state, “This is a free town, and we are going to march here anyway.” The Klan in their preparations for the march advised their members to bring weapons with them.
Before the march had even started, local constable Ira Irving arrested ten Klan guards who were carrying loaded weapons while they were directing parking for other Klan members. The Police chief was ordered by Burgess Conley to notify the Allegheny County Sheriff and County detectives know about the march and the possibility of violence, Police Chief Kiesling did follow through on Conley’s order and sheriff’s deputies were sent to the area. (1)
The Klansmen had planned to march into Carnegie over a railroad trestle that crossed Chartiers Creek, but found the trestle to be blocked. When the marchers reached the Glendale Bridge they found that a truck was blocking the bridge. The marchers pushed the truck out of the way and continued marching. When the truck was moved out of the way, the marchers remained at a stand still. They faced a crowd that was there to resist letting the Klan continue their march, for nearly a half hour the groups pushed, shouted and threw items at each other.
John Dillon, the Chief Deputy Sheriff of Allegheny County was in Carnegie after receiving the call for assistance. Dillon had received word that two of his motorcycle deputies were injured in the stand off between the groups. Dillon responded along with other deputies. Dillon climbed on top of a car and told the Klan members to disperse in order to preserve the peace, while of the marchers did honor the Sheriff’s wishes, many more chose to continue, refusing to disperse. The deputies, some police officers and citizens helped to get the opposing crowds separated. When a Klan official tried to address the Klan members from the vehicle leading the march, he was assaulted with items thrown at him, the car was vandalized and the glowing KKK letters were ripped from the vehicle. The Klansmen chose to continue marching into the borough.
The Klansmen, singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” pushed through the crowd blocking them with a great deal of force. Chief Deputy Dillon was nearly pushed off of the bridge and others were trampled as the marchers continued. Bricks and stones began to fly at the the Klansmen, Townspeople began to arrive with clubs. A large battle began to rage on West Main Street, reports say that gunshots were heard several times. Constable Ira Irving arrived to try to help the Sheriff’s deputies, he rode to the front of the crowd trying to clear the streets to avoid any further violence. As the Klan marchers reached the center of town, shots could be heard from every direction, both sides were firing guns at this point.
Just after midnight on August 26, shots could be heard near Main Street, some of the Townspeople who assumed they were being shot at by the Klan members returned fire. One Klansman, Thomas Rankin Abbott of Atlasburg, Pennsylvania laid dead at the intersection of Third and Main Street. Some of the other Klansmen carried Abbot to a nearby doctor’s office, but there was no chance of revival. The crowds began to dissipate Most of the Klansmen retreated across the Glendale Bridge where they were met by cars to take them back to the farm where they rallied. Sheriff’s deputies and Police Reserve officers from the City of Pittsburgh arrived to help restore order. Many Klansmen and citizens of Carnegie were injured in the conflict. One local man and another Klansman had received gun shot wounds, they both survived. County detectives were only able to get statements from the severely injured that had been transported to hospitals.
Due to a code of silence among the Klan members, no Klan members were arrested, however many local citizens were arrested for inciting a riot. Following a lead from the a Carnegie citizen Harry Albright, an arrest was made in the murder of Abbott. Albright told detectives that he saw a popular local undertaker named Paddy McDermott fire the shots that killed. McDermott was charged with murder. Albright had been marching with the Klansmen and several of the other witnesses that appeared identified McDermott, many of these witnesses were also Klan members. Several other witnesses appeared stating that multiple Klan members had also fired weapons in the street in Carnegie. A Coroner’s inquest jury could not find reason to continue formal homicide charges against McDermott. After McDermott’s release, Klan members arranged a $2,500 reward for evidence connecting McDermott to Abbott’s murder.
The Klan used Abbott as a Martyr for their cause and as a recruiting tool. They portrayed themselves as victims of “The Mob of Carnegie.” The reports in the Klan’s newsletters blamed the crimes and violence on Irish hooligans and the town councilman Conley and Chief Deputy Dillon were partly responsible because they were Catholics. No Klansmen were ever charged with a crime from the Carnegie incident, the Carnegie citizens that were charged were found guilty.
Craig, John M. “”THERE IS HELL GOING ON UP THERE”: THE CARNEGIE KLAN RIOT OF 1923.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 72, no. 3 (2005): 322-46. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27778683.