vol. 2.2: Introducing the Knights of the Flaming Circle
During the 1920s, a nation-wide, secret organization called The Knights of the Flaming Circle took on the Ku Klux Klan in the streets. Little – far too little – is known about the organization. But we do know that there was a chapter in Williamson County.
This essay collects what little we do know about the “Red Knights,” and helps us to recognize that today’s antifascism is a part of a long, largely forgotten, tradition of giving no public forum to fascists.
In late September 1923, a dynamite blast went off in the hills outside Steubenville, OH. Residents streamed out of their houses to see “white robed figures moving about in a strange ceremonial,” lit only by a gigantic, flaming circle.
Were these members of the Ku Klux Klan that had simply switched their flaming cross for a circle? Soon word spread through the town that, in fact, this was an anti-Klan group that was inaugurating its formation: The Knights of the Flaming Circle.
A month before, in Kane, Pennsylvania, a similar circle had burned, and the local paper, the Kane Republican, received an anonymous letter announcing the founding of the “Knights of the Burning Ring.” The letter stated: “Kane is selected as the starting point of a movement that will ring the earth with blazing justice to all. We are enemies of all clans or klans. We believe in liberty for every human being, black, white or yellow, regardless of race, religion or creed.” For reasons unknown, the “Burning Ring” name seems to have been subsequently dropped.
A short time after, a Klan parade in Steubenville, OH, a few hours away, led to a riot, during which “six or seven Klan cars were overturned by the Steubenville people. Flags were torn off the machines and their occupants were attacked with bricks and bottles and clubs and other flying objects.” The hillside dynamite blast and ceremony in Stuebenville followed the riot by about a month, announcing to western Ohio that there was more than just a raucous disruption of Klan demonstrations going on, but rather an organized effort.
A local dentist, Dr. W. F. McGuigan, claimed to be the founder of the Steubenville chapter of the Knights of the Flaming Circle and the Grand Supreme Monarch of the organization’s “central division,” stretching from Massachusetts to Illinois. A few days after the initial ceremony, McGuigan told reporters that “The Knights of the Flaming Circle is a non-sectarian society and its object is to combat religious, racial and political intolerance.” They wore no masks or hoods, but did wear white robes, embroidered with their official insignia: a red circle with the figure of the State of Liberty at the center.
But the very notion that there was an “organization” at all is disputed by one of the few oral histories that mentions the Flaming Circle. In an interview conducted in 1984 with Nicola Criscioni, of Youngstown, OH, Criscioni claims “there was no organization, it was the papers that dubbed them that, but it was no organization, just a thrown-together outfit…. What we did was we got a bunch of tires and put them around a circle and burned them, or bailed the hay and put them around a big circle and burned them. They burned the cross and we burned the circle. It was a hit-and-run outfit. There were no heads of anything… then when we heard that there was going to be a parade, by then we maybe put together a certain bunch and would try to disrupt it.”
This ambiguity – an organization with Klan-esque titles like Grand Supreme Monarch, or a rag-tag hit and run outfit with no meetings or dues – hints that this was a decentralized organization, one for which any group that wanted to take up the cause could do so on their own terms.
According to the 1923 A Dictionary of Secret and Other Societies, the Knights of the Flaming Circle “welcomes Catholics, Jews, and Negroes, but excludes Protestants. The members wear robes at the initiation ceremony, and each knight has a flaming circle over his heart, symbolic of the truth.” White protestants made up the base of the Klan, and were presumably excluded on that ground. According to the Klan, the Knights of the Flaming Circle were “a mob that proffered anarchism and sought to ruin the Republic.”
We have evidence that there were chapters of Knights of the Flaming Circle in Vermont, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, and New Mexico. In the coming years, in various parts of the country, they used a diversity of rebellious tactics to confront the Klan. Many of those tactics are also practiced today by antifascists: pressure on meeting-halls to refuse to allow the Klan to meet there; publishing lists of Klan members, destroying the anonymity of the organization; organizing counter demonstrations to show mass opposition to the Klan and what it stood for; physically interrupting their parades and rallies; assaulting Klan members and damaging their property. In Youngstown, Criscioni recalls lining the road with roofing tacks before a Klan parade, popping their tires and getting some laughs at their expense.
They even, one could say, “trolled” the Klan. In addition to wearing illustrious garb of their own, sometimes white, sometimes red, they fought back with fire: in response to the Klan’s practice of burning crosses in front of the homes of immigrants and minorities, the Circlers’ would set tires alight on the yards of known Klansmen. It seems likely that McGuigan’s claim to be “Grand Supreme Monarch” was just another jab at the Invisible Empire’s ridiculous hierarchy.
But if indeed McGuigan was in some role of leadership in the midwest, he was certainly hard at work organizing. Numerous articles from the time repeat the Flaming Circle’s claims that they had organizers in every city in Ohio, and throughout Pennsylvania and West Virginia. And somehow, within a year, a chapter was formed in Williamson County, Illinois.
Williamson County, known at the time as “Bloody Williamson,” had just been the site of one of the bloodiest labor battles in American history. The Herrin Massacre was the final major explosion of decades-long battles between coal-miners and mine-owners, and it had brought international infamy to the county. During the massacre, 19 scabs were killed by coal-miners. No one was convicted by a Williamson County jury.
A group of wealthy businessmen, interested in restoring the county’s reputation and affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan, hired a former Bureau of Investigations officer, S. Glenn Young, to lead their campaign. But the campaign wasn’t against the miner’s union. The Klan made the move characteristic of all fascist movements: it attempted to divide the working-class union movement along racial and national lines, targeting Italian-American immigrants.
Moreover, in a move that prefigured the War on Drugs, they targeted them not for political activity, but for violations of Prohibition. A “clean-up Williamson County” movement was underway, led by the Klan, which blamed the violence of a thirty year long class struggle between miners and mine-owners on immigrant communities in Herrin. S. Glenn Young’s raids targeted immigrants and anyone who opposed the Klan, ignoring the drinking of Protestants and flamboyantly ignoring the very laws he claimed to be enforcing. Eventually, Young even opened a “soft-drink parlour” of his own.
Prohibition, a constitutional amendment passed in 1919, didn’t go into effect until 1920 because it was well-known to be unenforceable by the American state-apparatus at the time. The Ku Klux Klan served as a para-military force, disproportionately targeting minority groups in the name of enforcing “law and order.” They defended their targeting of immigrants because of their unfamiliar culture and their supposed “predisposition to radicalism and anarchism”
And this might have gone well for them in Williamson County, IL, if they hadn’t encountered an unexpected adversary in the Knights of the Flaming Circle.
We don’t know how the Knights of the Flaming Circle made it to Williamson County. Perhaps word of the group travelled along lines of conspiratorial communication that the miner’s union had already established. If not, anyone reading The New York Times would probably have encountered mention of the group in 1923. Perhaps Ora Thomas and E.E. Bowan, the rumored founders of the group in Herrin, decided they could take up the name without asking any permission from some Grand Supreme Monarch. That would have suited them.
The Flaming Circle in Williamson county was an alliance of miners, immigrants, bootleggers, and even law-enforcement who were none-too-happy to lock up their communities just because some new Prohibition law had been passed. The city of Herrin was almost completely integrated with the miner’s union, and what little wealth and safety miners knew at the time could be attributed only to the solidarity that union embodied. The union rightly saw the Klan as a threat, a ruling-class funded attempt to divide the strength of the working-class union along racial and ethnic lines, obscuring the actual conflict between the poor and the wealthy. For that reason, the UMWA issued a statement barring all Klan members from the union, and noting that the Klan’s efforts were aimed primarily at disrupting and dividing the power that working people had gained through Union organizing. It was later learned that S. Glenn Young, who was notoriously fast and loose with the facts about his own history, had worked as a scab-herder during the 1922 Railway Shopmen’s Strike – a feature of his past that he tried to conceal.
The Klan, under the leadership of S. Glenn Young, was so powerful in those years that it would have been very dangerous to make membership in the Circle known. Still, newspaper articles from the time attest that when the Klan would hold a parade, the next day you could be sure the Flaming Circle would, “neutralizing the effect of the Klan’s.”
But events did not remain at the level of competing parades for long. The first shooting occurred at an anti-Klan meeting, by pro-Klan police. While the first victim was recovering in the hospital, a constable, and member of the Klan, named Ceasar Cagle was shot and killed in retaliation. In response, the Klan laid siege to Herrin hospital, where Flaming Circle members were gathering with their wounded. The Klan fired into the hospital, and the Circlers’ that found themselves held up in there refusing to leave. The National Guard was called in. This was just the first round of what would be an all out war that would engulf Williamson and surrounding counties for the next year and a half.
The war came to an end when Ora Thomas entered a cigar shop at the Embassy Hotel in January of 1925, overhearing the familiar voice of S. Glenn Young threatening a young miner for spreading the story that Young had been a scab-herder prior to his becoming a Prohibition agent. Young had two men with him, and all three of them died in that cigar shop. As did Ora Thomas, the founder of Herrin’s Red Knights.
In the years after the Klan was defeated, many of these bootleggers would go on to engage in bloody battle with one another. Even the notorious Shelton and Birger gangs, who wreaked havoc throughout southern Illinois for the next decade, were momentarily allied in opposition to the Klan.
The Knights of the Flaming Circle, whatever they were and whatever their shortcomings, are a sign that there has always been a counter-history to “America” on this continent, one full of people who, regardless of race, religion, or creed, have been quietly conspiring and jubilantly acting toward freedom for all. Today’s anti-fascists fall into a long tradition of those willing to risk everything to confront the racist forces who aim to re-create the “Founding Father’s” dream of a white ethno-state. That old American dream is recreated with new racist, nationalist lies in every generation that the wealthy feel their power threatened.
May we instead remember as our ancestors the brave people who fought to the death against the racist dreams of the wealthy, and against the stupid who accepted their lies.