The King Kleagle of Maine’s Ku Klux Klan was an opportunist

The Evolving Mr. Farnsworth
The Evolving Mr. Farnsworth

Governor Percival Baxter dismissed the validity of the Ku Klux Klan in 1922.  “I do not believe that any level-headed citizens of Maine will allow themselves to be influenced by such an organization,” he told a reporter.  Two years later Baxter’s gubernatorial successor, Ralph O. Brewster, was swept into office by an army of White Knights.  Most of them had been seduced by the flimflammery of F. Eugene Farnsworth.

The first Klansmen organized in the southern states after the Civil War.  Their bigotry was aimed at newly freed African Americans.  When the federal government started prosecuting Klan crime in the 1870s, the organization was suppressed.  The “Second Klan” was formed after World War I in response to growing immigration to the United States.  In addition to feeling threatened by African Americans, the new Klan objected to equal rights for Catholics, Jews and immigrants of all nationalities.

French Canadian Catholics were gaining influence in local Maine politics and were lobbying for state funds to support their parochial schools.  F. Eugene Farnsworth, who claimed to be a native of Columbia Falls, appealed to Protestant ministers all around the state as Maine’s King Kleagle.  He promised to eradicate parochial schools and to fight for the right of “100% Americans” to teach the Bible in public schools.  In exchange, he asked that the clergy declare their support for the Klan from the pulpit.  Many of them did.  Their support and Farnsworth’s mesmerizing oratory gifts led to the initiation of thousands of Klansmen in a matter of months.

There was broad social acceptance of the “Invisible Empire” and their claims of patriotism in Maine. One newspaper advertised an impressive list of activities available to vacationers at the Merriland Camp for girls in Wells; “Tennis, croquet, golf, bathing, volleyball, dancing, canoeing, masquerades, Ku Klux initiations, pool, and music.”

Maine’s King Kleagle F. Eugene Farnsworth addressed appreciative crowds in Kittery, Saco, Hollis, Sanford, and elsewhere. The Klan purchased a very visible headquarters on Forest Avenue in Portland with new membership proceeds. At the August 1923 opening ceremony, followers were initiated by the light of a fifty-foot burning cross while ten thousand spectators looked on.

A month after the flamboyant spectacle in Portland, a story broke in the Fitchburg Sentinel that changed everything.  Maine’s King Kleagle was well known in Fitchburg as Salvation Army recruiter and local barber turned traveling hypnotist, Frank Farnsworth.  He had left town in shame in 1901 after his mesmerized assistant, Tom Bolton, was killed onstage.

Bolton’s job was to pretend to be hypnotized.  He was laid out between two chairs and a huge boulder was placed on his stomach.  A volunteer from the audience, who was actually employed by Farnsworth, then tried to break the rock with a sledgehammer.  During his final performance, the chair under Bolton’s head slipped and his skull was crushed by the rock.  To avoid a manslaughter conviction, Frank Farnsworth was forced to admit that his hypnotism act was a sham and that his assistant had participated in the trick with his full faculties.

After leaving Fitchburg, Frank traveled to South America on an expedition to photograph headhunters.  He then returned to the U.S. and as F. Eugene Farnsworth, performed an illustrated magic lantern show about exotic travel destinations.  His dramatic delivery earned rave reviews in Washington D.C.  It was not a lucrative occupation but it satisfied his lust for an audience.  Farnsworth also had a short career as a movie producer in Connecticut.

National Klan officials took a closer look at Maine’s King Kleagle. Farnsworth’s daylight parades in full Klan regalia and his show biz approach started getting him in trouble with the usually clandestine organization.  Then the Klan discovered he had formed an independent women’s Klan in Maine that allowed Canadian Protestants to join.   American citizenship was not exactly a flexible requirement for the Ku Klux Klan.

Farnsworth’s wife and daughter were stripped of their Klan membership for belonging to the rival group.  As it turned out, they had never been eligible for membership in the first place since both had been born in St Stephen, New Brunswick.  F. Eugene Farnsworth quit the Klan for “health reasons” when it was reported that $4 of every $10 Klan membership fee had found its way into his pocket. He tried unsuccessfully to organize his own copycat Invisible Empire but was eventually run out of Maine.

The Klan-supported candidate had enough momentum to carry the 1924 gubernatorial election but the hooded honeymoon was almost over.  Without charismatic leadership, the Klan all but disappeared in Maine by 1930.

Family records held by the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick indicate that Farnsworth’s parents had moved from Columbia Falls to New Brunswick long before his 1868 birth. Like his wife and daughter, Maine’s King Kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan was probably Canadian.

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