Saturday, Aug. 25, 1923

Around 4 in the afternoon, young men dressed as soldiers and armed with revolvers appeared on the streets of Carnegie, five miles southwest of Pittsburgh. Only they weren’t soldiers. They stepped into the borough’s streets acting as self-appointed police officers and began directing traffic. Soon, hundreds of automobiles bearing white crosses painted on their radiators streamed into town. The “soldiers” directed them toward Forsythe Farm, on a hill overlooking town.

Police arrested the men masquerading in military duds and took them to the Carnegie lockup. Mayor John Conley deemed them “men of low intelligence.” He knew their presence meant trouble.

As the afternoon deepened, men packing white gowns and hoods began arriving in town by streetcar, train and taxicab, as well as by automobile. All made an uphill pilgrimage to Forsythe Farm. There, they encountered guards. A password and 50 cents permitted the men entry into a field where crews had earlier constructed a stage. Reporters and curious residents were turned away.

By 9 o’clock, thousands of automobiles packed the farm fields and darkness descended on a sea of men wearing white gowns and hoods. Dozens of electric lights attached to a wooden framework blazed out the letters “KKK.” A 50-foot-high wood cross wrapped in oil-soaked cloth loomed over the crowd, which swelled to more than 25,000. Members paraded around the field in snake-like fashion while uniformed bands provided music.

The Ku Klux Klan, established after the Civil War but dormant for decades, reemerged in 1915 and quickly experienced an explosion in growth in the American Midwest. By the early 1920s, the Klan was edging its way into Western Pennsylvania, which the organization’s leadership saw as fertile territory.

Waves of immigrants seeking work had for years poured into industrial cities such as Pittsburgh and nearby towns such as Carnegie. For many white Protestants, it was too much: all these new people from Poland, Italy and Ireland — all  predominantly Catholic — in addition to the Jewish merchants and Southern Black people migrating North to work in mills and factories. Things were changing, and this unnerved  people who considered themselves “true 100 percent Americans.”  They heard the Klan’s message of white supremacy and said, “That’s for me.”

On this night, on a hill above Carnegie, the Klan displayed its influence by installing 1,000 new members and setting aflame the giant cross wrapped in oil rags. It was just the beginning. 

A Klan ceremony in Marion, Indiana, in 1922, when the organization was experiencing an explosion in growth. (Ball State University Archives)

The Klansmen were determined to show their muscle by marching through Carnegie’s streets, in defiance of Mayor Conley’s objections. Conley was 28 when elected in 1920, making him the youngest mayor in the town’s history, but he knew his hometown. Carnegie’s large population of Irish Catholics would not stand by idly as hostile men wearing gowns and pointy hats paraded through their neighborhoods. Klan leaders, too, realized the potential for violence and embraced the idea. They urged members to pack weapons.

There was little Conley could do. The borough lacked an ordinance requiring a parade permit. As parade marshal and Klansman Roy Barclay said, “This is a free town, and we’re going to march anyway.” 

So after the installation ceremony and cross burning, Klansmen grasped lighted torches and flags and marched toward Carnegie, a mile away. Grace Martin watched as they paraded a few blocks from her home. She counted  between 3,500 and 3,700 Klansmen. Leading the parade was an automobile draped in American flags and bearing a lighted cross and “KKK” emblem.

The marchers turned right at Caruthers Avenue and headed toward the Glendale Bridge, which crossed Chartiers Creek and led into the heart of Carnegie. 

Word of the march quickly spread among residents already angered by news of the Klan’s presence. They rushed to the Glendale Bridge approach at Third Street. From there, they could see the glaring light of torches as the marchers made their way down Caruthers, coming closer by the second. The residents, numbering a few thousand, stood quietly. A young man driving a Ford roadster carrying four or five male passengers pulled onto the small bridge and stopped, forming a blockade. Two motorcycle police officers rumbled onto the scene.

The Klansmen and their vehicle drove onto the bridge’s opposite end and moved ahead, toward the now angry and jeering crowd, then stopped at the blockade. Residents and Klansmen jostled, hurled insults. The police officers had their hands full and needed assistance.

A chief deputy sheriff named John Dillon rushed to the scene. As he made his way through the crowd and to the bridge, a boy passed by. The child carried a bundle of wood clubs wrapped in newspaper. Things were about to get ugly, Dillon thought.

Once on the bridge, Dillon tried to calm the situation by pleading with the residents and then with the Klansmen, but it was no use. So he stepped up onto the running board of the Klan vehicle and took a firmer approach, demanding the marchers desist. A few listened and began walking away. Dillon continued to plead with the Klansmen.

His efforts worked for 30 minutes or so; he was able to keep the two sides separated by 3 or 4 feet. Residents taunted the Klansmen, calling them “yellow sons of bitches” and “100 percent bastards” — a mocking of the Klan phrase “100 percent American.”

At one point, a Klan leader climbed on the car’s bumper and attempted to address his followers. The anti-Klan crowd immediately pelted him with objects. Someone called out, “Let’s go.” The line of Klan marchers surged forward.

About this time Grace Martin arrived at the scene. After counting the Klansmen, she followed the parade. Now she saw chaos. Men had climbed up the bridge girders and were throwing objects down on the Klansmen, forced by the crowd to stop after advancing only a few feet.

Enraged, townspeople attacked the Klan vehicle, ripping off the KKK emblem, smashing the headlights and windshield. A hail of bricks, stones and clubs rained down on the Klansmen, who hurled items back at the crowd. After a few moments, one Klansman gave an order, and a group of white-robed men roared ahead, three abreast, slamming into the crowd “in football fashion,” one witness said. They broke through, beating and trampling those in their way and nearly knocking Dillon into Chartiers Creek. Singing “Onward Christian Soldiers,” about 300 Klansmen bulldozed their way off the bridge.

Once on Third Street, the Klansmen formed in lines eight abreast and, swinging clubs, slowly battered their way toward Main Street, three blocks ahead. The streets were now packed with furious residents, curious onlookers and Klansmen, some still bearing torches. Men, women and children fled down alleys to escape the mayhem. Residents fought back with whatever weapons they could find — paving bricks, stones, chunks of coal. Some tore apart a fence and used the wood pickets as clubs and missiles. 

Martin Joyce, 23, had just completed his shift at a nearby rail yard and was waiting for a sandwich he’d ordered at a nearby restaurant when the conflict erupted. He heard shouting outside and saw people rushing past a window. He decided to check it out and soon got caught up in the riot. Among all the pushing and pelting, he bumped into his 61-year-old father.

“What the hell are you doing here?” his father asked.

“I’m looking on, just like the rest,” Joyce replied.

“Well, you get the hell out of here!” the father demanded.

Carnegie Constable Ira Irving managed to maneuver his vehicle in front of the melee and quickly motored ahead to Main Street, where he shouted at spectators to get off the street and “take the women away. Get away from here because there’s a riot coming down the street.”

Irving got out of his car. A pastor approached and asked him what was going on. “There is hell going on up there,” Irving replied. “They are killing people up there.”

Just after midnight, the Klansmen approached the Main Street intersection. There, they paused. Charles McKenna, a railroad employee, saw the Klansmen reveal handguns and fire into the crowd. One bullet whizzed by McKenna’s ear. “They were so excited they did not know where they were shooting,” he said. “Half of them were just hauling out guns and firing. I saw them fire 15 or 16 shots, point blank, right into the crowd.”

At least one person in the crowd returned fire. Klansman B.F. Helings Jr. of Wilkinsburg saw the muzzle flash while marching on Third Street, about 12 feet from the sidewalk. The Klansman next to him, Thomas Abbott, collapsed near a trolley track. Helings stooped down to help him up, then saw a second flash, and a third.

• • •

A block away, several men, some wearing white robes, burst into Dr. B.F. Jones’ office and carried Abbott’s limp figure to an examining table. Abbott was comatose. A 32-caliber bullet had crashed through his right temple and passed through the left side of his head. Jones could do nothing for him. Abbott, a 26-year-old machinist from Atlasburg in Washington County, died within five minutes.

Jones’ office quickly filled with Klansmen, law enforcement officers and wounded people seeking treatment. Klansmen Helings, who helped carry Abbott, saw two other men who’d been shot, and one man whose face had been “busted open.” Others suffered lacerations. Several who entered the office “seemed to be in quite an acute nervous condition,” Jones said. 

The violent march ended quickly. Klansmen retreated across the Glendale Bridge, then to  Forsythe Farm. They hid their hoods and gowns under car seats or tossed them from their vehicles as they motored out of town. Pittsburgh restaurant workers on duty in the early morning hours soon found themselves serving food to bruised customers wearing torn clothing and dabbing bloody, unattended wounds. 

At the Allegheny County morgue, employees discovered on Abbott’s clothing a ticket with the inscription “Karnegie day, August 25, 1923.” He was part of the new class of Klansmen initiated the night before. The autopsy report noted Abbott’s tattoos. Inked images on his body included roses, a pig, a rooster, a cross and a wreath, and a Japanese girl suspended in a spider web. Tattoos of the popular Mutt and Jeff cartoon characters adorned his thighs.

• • •

The sun rose Sunday morning on Carnegie streets strewn with debris from a night of violence. Cleaning crews made their way along Third street, filling carts with bricks, coal, sticks, stones and other weapons. Law enforcement officers and bystanders picked up hundreds of discarded revolvers — they ranged from cheap 22-caliber weapons to high-quality military firearms. Souvenir hunters snatched up white hoods and gowns littering the area. A group of men gathered around the spot where Abbott fell and stared down at dried blood on paving stones.

The Klan wasted no time in making use of Abbott’s death. Klan “imperial wizard” H.W. Evans, who attended the membership ceremony, declared Abbott a martyr and predicted his death would inspire 25,000 men to join the organization. Donations poured into a trust fund for Abbott’s two young children, but the family would receive only about $5,000 of the $16,000 collected.

Police arrested a popular Carnegie undertaker named Patrick “Paddy” McDermott and charged him with Abbott’s murder, but after a Sept. 28 coroner’s inquest produced conflicting testimony the jury was unable to name McDermott as the killer.

McDermott’s ordeal, however, wasn’t over. At the urging of Abbott’s widow, a Klan-friendly justice of the peace in Collier pressed murder charges against McDermott. The undertaker stood trial in November 1925. After 47 minutes of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of acquittal. Spectators rose to their feet and applauded.

The Klan by then was on its heels. Two days before the beginning of McDermott’s trial, a jury in Noblesville, Indiana, found Klan leader D.C. Stephenson guilty of second degree murder in the case of Madge Oberholtzer.

Oberholtzer took poison in an attempt to end her misery during an episode in which a drunken Stephenson kidnapped and raped her. Stephenson had proclaimed himself as a defender of “Protestant womanhood,” and his trial and conviction exposed a pattern of hypocrisy, greed and dishonesty that would bring down the Klan. Membership dropped precipitously after 1925; by 1930, the number of men who proclaimed themselves as members of the Invisible Order had fallen from a peak of between 3 million to 8 million to 30,000. Former members quietly disposed of their hoods and gowns, or hid them away, and resumed their lives.

Not all Klansmen disappeared quietly.

In January 1934, a crowd of 1,000 people packed the Sewickley High School auditorium to watch Sewickley’s new mayor, Paul Ingram, argue with borough council over the fate of police Chief Roy Barclay, who had served as grand marshal at the 1923 Klan parade.

In his first official act, Ingram had fired Barclay, citing the chief’s Klan background. Council reinstated the chief, so Ingram fired him again. Again, the council reinstated the chief. This happened at least three times, about every other week.

Barclay squatted in the chief’s office. Police officers ignored him. “He’s just sitting down there doing nothing,” Ingram said. “If the council wants to pay him for doing that, it’s OK with me.”

In February, Ingram ordered Barclay to walk a beat. Barclay resigned. Borough council called a special meeting and rehired him as chief. The back-and-forth ended in December 1936 when Barclay resigned for good.

 • • •

Sources: Pittsburgh Daily Post, The Pittsburgh Gazette Times, The Pittsburgh Press, accessed through; information about the Klan’s growth and expansion into Western Pennsylvania, and about Klan leader D.C. Stephenson, came from Timothy Egan’s 2023 book, “A Fever in the Heartland”; John M. Craig provides a blow-by-blow account of the day in “There Is Hell Going on Up There: The Carnegie Klan Riot of 1923,” published in Pennsylvania History, Summer 2005; transcripts of the corner’s inquest and other coroner’s records regarding the riot and Thomas Abbott’s death were discovered in a publication titled “The Martyred Klansman,” published in 1923 by Patriotic American Publishing Co. in Pittsburgh; some biographical information was found in

RELATED COVERAGE: Preserving history: Reflections on a century-old riot in Carnegie

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at

Steve Mellon

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at