Rarely do I gasp at something I see in a cemetery.
But that’s exactly what I found myself doing on a recent visit to Fairview Cemetery, just south of Muir, Pennsylvania. I happened to glance at this tombstone, just off to the left side of a small lane that passed through the beautiful graveyard with stunning views of the upper end of Williams Valley.
The inscription grabbed my attention and my horror.
Why is KKK etched onto this young man’s grave?
As I searched around for clues, I stumbled across a few old stories and memories.
But first, who was Harvey Bowers?
Harvey Allen Bowers was born on October 30, 1896 in Porter Township, Schuylkill County. His father, Herman Bowers, was ironically (or maybe not) a German immigrant. The younger Bowers joined the U.S. Army and served with the 28th Division in France during the First World War. He saw combat with the 108th Machine Gun Battalion in the Second Battle of the Marne and in the Argonne Forest in 1918.
He returned home and found intermittent work in the struggling anthracite coal mines of extreme western Schuylkill County, above his hometown of Tower City. Bowers died in a horrific car accident on September 23, 1924. He was ejected from a speeding vehicle and died from a massive head wound. Several other passengers were severely injured in the collision as well.
“Deep sorrow is expressed on all sides at the fate of Bowers and for his widowed mother family,” wrote the West Schuylkill Herald three days after the accident. “He was a young man of quiet manners, universally liked.” He was buried after a military funeral in Fairview Cemetery on September 28, 1924. Bowers was an active member in his community – a member of the United Mine Workers of America, Junior Mechanic,* a member of the Knights of Pythian – and apparently affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan as well.
How did that come to be?
In the months before the death of Harvey Bowers, the KKK had stormed into central Pennsylvania. Newspapers from the spring and summer of 1924 capture its progression toward the coal mining towns of northern Dauphin and western Schuylkill counties. Across the country, the Klan made massive inroads as a fraternal and political organization. After its rebirth atop Stone Mountain in Georgia in 1915, the cloaked order swept across rural America in the 1920s on a wave of publicity provided by the D.W. Griffith film “Birth of a Nation” and on a tide of anti-black, anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic sentiments.
On May 14th, the “invisible empire” made its first appearance in Williamstown.
“Great excitement prevailed at this place [on] Saturday evening between 10 and 11 o’clock when the K.K.K. organization set a flaming cross on the culm bank, west of the colliery,” recorded the Lykens Standard. “Residents were in great excitement for a while and haste was made by many to reach the scene. There was no demonstration and none of the organization were seen. This evidently meant the founding of the Klan at this place.”
Throughout the summer, references to the KKK were abundant. Not just in the local section, but in the political news from across the country. Photographs of Klan rallies, marches, and funeral processions ran on the pages of local newspapers. And the tide swept in young men from the coal mining towns of Williams Valley as well. The Klan’s descent on the region came amid economic turmoil as the local coal mines began to stutter in the age of petroleum. This economic disruption – slowdowns, strikes, and stoppages – inspired a boom in anti-immigrant sentiment across the Coal Region. Recent arrivals from central and eastern Europe faced discrimination, harassment, and occasional violence. The Klan channeled the anti-immigrant energy in order to intimidate those communities and Klan opposition in the towns of Williams Valley.
On September 12, 1924, a brief note appeared in the Tower City newspaper detailing how a local woman fell and broke her leg the previous Saturday evening. The circumstances surrounding her fall, however, were anything but typical.
Breaks Leg at Klan Demonstration
While standing in a field south of Muir on Saturday night, watching an open air demonstration by the Ku Klux Klan, Mrs. Hillary Zimmerman stepped in a post hole and in falling fractured one of her legs. She was removed to her home where teh fracture was reduced by Dr. David J. Hawk.
The Klan meeting drew hundreds of witnesses from all parts of the valley and other nearby towns.
No other notice of the demonstration appear anywhere in that edition or any other regional newspapers that week. Ironically, the demonstration would have taken place not far from the Fairview Cemetery, where just a few weeks later, Harvey Bowers would be buried with pomp and circumstance below a grave marked KKK. This discovery of a Klan rally being held on this particular ground, known locally as the “S-turns” for the shape of the road through a series of farmed fields, actually triggered a memory from my own childhood. Growing up not far from this spot, I had been told by other kids growing up that the Ku Klux Klan had performed rituals in these fields. Turns out, this rumor passed among school kids turned out to be true.
In the autumn of 1924, the Klan’s presence in the region exploded and suddenly entered into full public view. Massive public demonstrations at the local fairgrounds in Gratz and Lebanon saw hundreds of local men participate and become part of the organization.
Public parades in Lykens, Williamstown, and other local communities became frequent occurrences. Funerals for Klan members were immense affairs, often featuring hundred of robed members. The Gratz Civil War blog has previously featured a story about one from the spring of 1925 in Tower City, and the Lykens Standard published images of another in that Dauphin County mining community.
By 1930, however, virtually all references to the Klan in Williams Valley had disappeared. A series of national scandals led to the collapse of the organization that in 1924 claimed more than 6 million Americans as members.
For Harvey Bowers, who died as the Klan came to the fore in the region, his death in September 1924 and the etching of “KKK” on his tombstone has marked his final resting place as a shocking reminder of a sad era in American history.
Featured Image: the grave of Harvey Bowers in Fairview Cemetery, Muir, PA
*A previous version of this article referred to Bowers as a Free Mason. That was a mistake. We regret the error.
Want to read more about this topic?
Check out Dr. Philip Jenkins’ book, Hoods and Shirts: The Extreme Right in Pennsylvania, 1925-1950