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Mocking the Klan

Did cartoonist Billy Ireland really drive out the Columbus, Ohio KKK?

Shortly after the Capitol riot of January 6, I heard a story that got me thinking about America’s long history of far-right rebellion, and especially about the power of satire and ridicule as a weapon against racist mobs. The story came up on a Shabbat Zoom call with my grandmother. It concerned a chapter in the history of Columbus, Ohio—where both of us grew up and where my family lives still. She recounted hearing as a child about a popular cartoonist at the Columbus Dispatch named Billy Ireland who in the 1920s had caricatured the Ku Klux Klan so mercilessly that the group, humiliated by his work, shuttered its local chapter.

The story seemed implausible—or at least hyperbolic. Newspaper comics entertain and occasionally provoke. Newspaper comics, even the most widely read ones published before the decline of print media, could not singlehandedly collapse a violent hate group in a mid-sized city. Could they?

Beyond my granny’s own recollection of the local lore—she heard the story at school and from her father, she says—traces do appear in the historical record. A 1993 academic article on labor history in Columbus references Ireland’s work in a list of successful anti-Klan actions, claiming the cartoonist “regularly pilloried the Ku Klux Klan in his drawings.” The story undoubtedly gained currency after a glowing James Thurber memoriam to the cartoonist in a 1952 New Yorker piece. Thurber, who knew Ireland from their time together at the Dispatch, wrote that Billy’s

ridicule of the Ku Klux Klan, in the early twenties, was a significant force in the disintegration of the Klan’s local Klavern. Klansmen used to stand, in full bedsheet regalia, on street corners, with lighted cigars protruding from the mouth holes in their hoods, and Billy’s caricatures literally kidded them to death.

Still, The New Yorker was not known for rigorous fact-checking back in Thurber’s day and I wondered if there might be more—or less—to the story. With images of the weirdly costumed Capitol rioters fresh in my mind—the guy with face paint and horns, the “Camp Auschwitz” T-Shirts, the militia LARPers—I set out to understand more about the KKK in Ohio in the 1920s and about whether Billy Ireland had somehow deflated them with derision.

Newspaper comics, even the most widely read ones published before the decline of print media, could not singlehandedly collapse a violent hate group in a mid-sized city. Could they?

On a recent trip back to my hometown, I arranged with my grandmother to take a tour of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, located on the Ohio State University’s campus, which hosts a magnificent collection of cartoon art from around the world. Its foyer, inside a cavernous, bright building in downtown Columbus, features samples of Ireland’s full-page Sunday cartoon feature called The Passing Show.

The museum allows online access to all Ireland’s Passing Show strips, and the images are impressive enough in pixelated form. But I found them especially remarkable in person. Ireland’s draftsmanship and techniques were stunning. The drawings are witty and appealingly local. And the newspaper pages were staggeringly big—much larger than I expected. I was surprised the Dispatch ever printed on spreads so vast.

I read cartoons on Sunday mornings as a child; on occasion, I still glance through a physical newspaper. But I haven’t ever handled a paper that looked the way the ones at the cartoon library do. I imagined how it might have felt to flip through the Columbus Dispatch to find The Passing Show on a Sunday morning a century ago. You open the paper, and it fills the breakfast table; it is a spread of exquisite detail, with perfect lettering and tiny, busy people saying funny things. When you have finished taking in the pictures, you have to put down the cornflakes and stretch your arms wide, employing both hands and the entirety of your attention to fold up the page. You go about your day, encountering relatively few additional images, thinking all the while about the clever, geographically specific jokes inked in thick color on the back of the newspaper, counting down the days until next week’s feature. It would be impossible under such circumstances, I think, for Ireland’s work not to make an impression.

In the first of Billy Ireland’s drawings that appeared in print in October of 1921, fourteen hooded cartoon figures with distended stomachs and tiny arms stand shoulder to shoulder. The tops of their hoods crinkle sideways, like wilted plants. A few of the figures’ chins tip imploringly inward, connoting something resembling puerile guilt, gazing up out of wide guppylike eyeholes like children who have been caught coloring on the walls. Next to the hooded figures sits a fifteenth robed man atop a squat horse. His horse, too, wears its own equine version of the robe. The man on the horse appears to be reading off a sheet of paper, perhaps delivering a proclamation, but his sagging belly, stumpy legs, diminutive steed, and self-conscious attachment of fist to hip undercut any semblance of authority. Each of the fourteen men displays a letter on his front, spelling out “THE PASSING SHOW.”

It is a funny cartoon. The figures’ wide eyes, little arms, and shlocky attire connote an almost-adorable meekness. The costumed horse is an especially amusing touch. In fact, the affecting pleasantness of the image is so contradictory to the violent reality of the Klan’s actions and rhetoric that you might not know the cartoon depicted the KKK if you weren’t looking for it, or unless the group was already on your mind, which, for Ireland’s readership in the late 1910s and early 1920s, it likely was.

Born in Chillicothe, Ohio, in 1880, the young Billy Ireland taught himself to draw so well that by the time of his high school graduation, he had received job offers from a slew of news outlets. According to Thurber, Ireland chose to work at the Dispatch “because Columbus was not as big as the other cities and because it was not very far from Chillicothe.” He quickly became a fixture at the paper and in the community. In addition to drawing four-to-seven editorial cartoons per week, Ireland contributed a full-page Passing Show spread each Sunday. He drew every component by hand, from the images to the lettering, and in thirty-seven years he never once repeated a title strip. He drew for the Dispatch until his death in 1935.

The September 2, 1923 edition of The Passing Show. | Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum

This attachment to place remained an important facet of Ireland’s personality, extending into a fierce Columbus- and Ohio-centered pride. Though his cartoons were regularly reprinted around the country, he refused offers of syndication from most of the major American publishers. He didn’t want to draw about national subjects or move to a bigger city. He wanted to live in and make cartoons about Ohio. In response to badgering about a potential career move, Ireland reportedly once said to Hugh Fullerton, the famous sportswriter: “Did it ever occur to you that my object isn’t to get to New York but to get back to Chillicothe?”

Though his regional focus arguably may have curtailed a more distinguished legacy, Ireland’s local investment earned dividends in local acclaim. Strangers regularly stopped him on the street to suggest ideas to be featured in The Passing Show. Upon his death, the Dispatch dedicated most of its front page to his eulogy. His biographer, Lucy Shelton Caswell, told me that “Repeatedly when I was working on the first edition of the book, I was told by people that the first thing they did when opening the Sunday paper was ‘to see what Billy said.’”

Such admiration channeled easily into influence. Most of The Passing Show’s subject matter comprised apolitical regional commentary and humor. On occasion, though, Ireland used the feature to advocate for causes that moved him, like restoring Ulysses S. Grant’s log cabin birthplace and working to protect quail. When a 1913 flood devastated the Scioto River shoreline, Ireland campaigned for waterfront cleanup. And when the Klan came to Columbus, Billy tried to illustrate them away.

It’s important to understand the extent of Ireland’s local sway, because it allowed him a degree of cultural cachet that newspaper cartoonists seem to have lost in the digital age. Ireland drew in the tradition of Thomas Nast, who famously derided Boss Tweed and his Tammany Hall ring in the New York Times in the 1870s. Those drawings dealt a significant blow to Tweed’s political reign, infuriating Tweed (“Let’s stop them damned pictures,” he reportedly once exclaimed) and drawing national attention to the cartoonist and his tactics. A half-century later, when Ireland drew his Klan cartoons, American newspapers were in the midst of a surge in readership, peaking in cultural potency just before radio and other forms of media began to siphon off some of print’s attention. That Ireland’s drawings might have had influence over political attitudes in Columbus makes sense given the combination of local celebrity, institutional power of the newspaper and the newspaper cartoonist, and Ireland’s own particular artistic gift.

The modern Klan traces its origins to the 1915 action film The Birth of a Nation. Inspired by the film’s swaggering depiction of the then-defunct first iteration of the Klan, William Joseph Simmons, a Southern preacher, crafted a new version of the group in the movie’s image. Simmons’s Klan took advantage of rising hyperpatriotism surrounding the First World War, xenophobia impelled by immigration, and racism in the wake of the Great Migration in order to induce unprecedented interest.

In a savvy rebranding effort, the group played up newly forming anxieties about nationality and race; a growing sense that, in the words of Thomas Pegram, a professor at Loyola University Maryland who studies the intersection of popular movements and politics, “there are such things as real Americans, and then others who are not.” The modern Klan added to its foundational anti-Black racism a broader dislike of immigrants, Catholics, and Jews, separating the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants they perceived as innately, archetypically American from everyone else. The Klan, according to Russ Coil, a professor of political and economic history at the Ohio State University, “became the shock-troops of that attempt to reimpose a mythical America” on the nation. Thus emerged a fictitious American backstory “with clear rules, one with a clear hierarchy, one which put white native-born Protestants at the top and everybody else scraping amongst themselves for the tidbits.”

The incorporation of patriotism and Birth of a Nation’s savior image into the Klan’s presentation meant that members could spin simple bigotry into a belief that their actions were noble, that they worked in defense of America’s virtue. The Klansman-as-hero idea worked its way into the fabric of the group—literally—by way of new outfits. Those infamous white robes offered more than the utility of a uniform; they sought to connote a personal importance on the wearer in tying him into the group’s invented legacy, seemingly steeped in tradition when in fact they were invented by Birth’s wardrobe department and then copied by Simmons and his cronies. “The Klan tapped into male fraternalism,” Pegram says. There was “not just acceptance, but almost reverence for that kind of attire.”

The reinvigorated Klan spread quickly north of the Mason-Dixon line. In Ohio, Klan membership would peak in 1927 at 300,000, reportedly the highest of any state. In the early 1920s, according to Pegram, the Klan “was still viewed by many as mainstream, or as an extreme expression of mainstream views.” By the time Billy’s first Klan drawings appeared in the Dispatch in October of 1921—that wide-eyed lineup of Klansmen spelling out The Passing Show’s title strip—the KKK’s revival was in full swing.

According to Raymond Irwin, an OSU professor who studies political and ideological history in Ohio, romanticized ideas about the Klan entered “the pop culture blood pretty early” in Columbus. A touring production of The Clansman, the play that would inspire Birth, visited Columbus in 1905–1906, and was so popular it returned again in 1909. Birth of a Nation subsequently played in cinemas in 1917. By the early Twenties, positive depictions of the new Klan had pervaded the city. When crime rose in central Ohio, what followed, according to Irwin, was that “you have some people who are concerned about physical safety, and so, ‘why can’t we have a vigilante organization like that Klan? We’ve seen the movie.’”

On more than one occasion, the disparaged Klan appears on the same Passing Show strip as categorically racist depictions of Black people played for laughs.

Columbus was second only to Springfield, Ohio, in the number of large rallies it hosted, according to Irwin. Public recruiting events began as early as 1921, and the Klan’s northern headquarters held an office in Columbus. There are records of cross burnings and even a locally funded Klan film. Still, Columbus’s Klan never reached the level of influence it achieved in other parts of the state. One explanation for this might lie in the fact that in Ohio, many of the cities with the highest Klan presence centered around industry—coal, steel, manufacturing. By contrast, Columbus was then (and remains now) a center of government and education, institutions that explicitly opposed the Klan: Ohio’s governor condemned the group from his seat at the statehouse and, like the other local newspapers, the Dispatch took an anti-Klan editorial stance. At the same time, compared to other more cosmopolitan, northern cities, Columbus attracted fewer immigrants and migrants, meaning, in the words of Coil, “no challenge to the existing norms . . . no challenge to the existing power structure.”

Given Billy Ireland’s personal investment in the state of Ohio and the city of Columbus, he likely monitored the rising influence of the Klan on neighboring cities with unease. “I think he genuinely was offended by the Klan and angry at what they stood for,” says Caswell. “It wasn’t his values, and they were doing bad things to the places that he cared about and loved.” She also told me she had no evidence Ireland was raised as a Catholic—which would be one explanation for his anti-Klan attitude—but that she learned he attended an Episcopal church in Columbus as an adult.

Some of the cartoons he produced during this time fixate on the affected alliteration of the group’s name. In one from May 6, 1923, a poker player smokes a cigar and inspects his cards. “Call me?” he says. “I’ve got a Ku Klux Klan—three ‘K’s!” In another drawing from the October 9, 1921 Passing Show, a cartoon chicken clucks—“ku-cluck-cluck! Ku-cluck-cluck!” —accompanied by the caption: “Is this where the name originated?”

Ireland drew a series of mugshot-like cartoons of hooded figures for a cartoon published on October 19, 1924. As with the first cartoon Klan drawing, the figures’ hoods are askew; they look out through the same overlarge eye sockets. All, in this iteration, cross their arms over their chests. There is something pouty and juvenile about the posture. A visored man sitting at a desk marked “city editor” points to a man holding an easel and instructs, “go out and make some sketches at the Ku Klux Klan Konvention.” The caption on the cartoon reads: “there’s one thing you’ll have to say for the Klan—it makes things mighty simple for us newspaper artists—”. The message of the drawing is clear: the figures exhibit none of the superiority the KKK peddled to its members in the image it presented of the heroic patriot draped in white. In Ireland’s figuration, the KKK men acquire a bland, ubiquitous insecurity.

There are other more opaque references to the Klan in Ireland’s cartoons from the Twenties, such as to “four white robed figures” meddling with a local minister’s sermon and to the “Grand Gleaners of Korn on the Kob Klan.” After 1924, though, the Klan’s appearances in The Passing Show mostly taper off. In 1928, there is a brief reference to trying to “git the Klan vote.”

And yet none of the cartoons substantively criticize the Klan’s ideology or violence. In fact, on more than one occasion, the disparaged Klan appears on the same Passing Show strip as categorically racist depictions of Black people played for laughs. You have to look around the inherent cuteness of the drawings to even perceive that they contain the potential to offend.

The most explicitly biting criticism appeared on September 2, 1923. What appears to be an anthropomorphic pen formed into a Klansman hovers next to an overlarge ink bottle, holding a letter addressed to “anonymous.” The description reads: “Will the Ku Klux Klanner who sent us an anonymous letter note that we weren’t the least surprised to see that he wore a hood over his pen, too?” The obvious commentary, in relegating the Klan member to half-man-half-pen status, is that the character is small and wimpish, hiding behind the cloak of anonymity.

Ireland’s drawings didn’t ultimately defeat the Klan in Columbus. The group never really disappeared, and besides, the most effective anti-Klan action resulted from organized Black, Jewish, and Catholic resistance efforts. But his drawings likely shaped public opinion in Columbus, perhaps dealing the group a considerable blow by puncturing, at least to an extent, their claims to white supremacy. 

Ironically, though, some of those same institutions that kept the Klan at bay in Columbus helped incorporate its agenda into mainstream norms and even written law. These right-wing successes included Prohibition, harsh xenophobic immigration laws, sweeping anti-union efforts, and continued racial oppression. Coil argues that in Columbus, local leaders “didn’t need to rely on the Klan, and its thuggery, its viciousness, its parochialism, wasn’t necessary to maintain control over the city.” William Oxley Thompson, then-president of the Ohio State University, worked to limit immigrant enrollment at school. (My great-grandmother, who enrolled at OSU with dreams of becoming a teacher, was told that she had better pick a different career path, because no one would hire a Jew to teach their children.) And Thompson personally dissuaded Black students from attending the University at all. “Respectable people began to oppose the Klan,” says Coil. “But to what extent did they oppose a system of white supremacy built not on thuggery, con artistry, and conspiracy, but on the daily acts of respectable community leaders like Thompson?”

It’s as if today’s crusaders for nationalism and racism are proud to show themselves.

In any case, I don’t think the urge to combine hatred with self-importance has gone anywhere. This seems obvious to me in watching the overgrown men-children who feed contemporary white supremacy swagger around, expectorating incoherent conspiracies about people they wanted to hate before someone fed them a reason to. With a simple goading of the ego, simmering hatred rises to the surface. It goes something like this: wear the same costumes as the rest of the group, partake in something special, because you yourself are special, because you lay claim to a birthright that others do not and can never have, no matter how high they rise, no matter how low you sink. Ireland didn’t critique the Klan’s racism; he may not have cared to. He merely identified the fragility of members’ self-esteem and in doing so demonstrated how clownish the whole charade was.

One cannot help but wonder about how the particular aesthetic of white-robed chauvinism has changed so many years later to the one on display at the Capitol riot, in which face coverings were perceived as effeminate or weak or cowardly or un-American, so odious to these very manly patriots that they would rather risk easy identification by prosecutors than protect their faces from a deadly virus. It’s as if today’s crusaders for nationalism and racism are proud to show themselves. It wouldn’t matter a whit to them if a newspaper columnist or cartoonist derided them: they have a former president of the United States declaring—in what can only be described at this point as a cartoonish self-stereotype—“these were peaceful people, these were great people.”