JOHNSON CITY (August 30, 2013) – “Printer’s Ink and Blood: The Strange Story of David Stephenson” will be the topic of a free public lecture by Wayne Winkler on Thursday, Sept. 5, from 6:30-7:30 p.m. in the Johnson City Public Library.
The lecture is the second in an ongoing series brought about by a partnership between Now & Then: The Appalachian Magazine and the Johnson City Public Library. Now & Then is published by the Center for Appalachian Studies and Services at East Tennessee State University, and Winkler is station director at WETS-FM, ETSU’s public radio station.
Who was David Stephenson? It depends upon whom one asks.
In the early 1960s, to most of the citizens of Jonesborough (then spelled “Jonesboro”), he was the recent husband of Martha Murray Sutton, a much-beloved retired schoolteacher from an old, respected Jonesborough family. He was thought of by most of the town’s citizens to be a courtly gentleman who wrote occasionally for the local paper, the Herald and Tribune.
In the summer of 1966, on a hot June afternoon, the 74-year-old Stephenson stepped from his car carrying a basket of fruit for his wife. Before he reached the front door, he fell to the ground clutching his chest. His wife, Martha, rushed out of the house and held him in her arms as he died. He was laid to rest at the National Cemetery on the grounds of Mountain Home Veterans Administration Center in neighboring Johnson City.
Martha Stephenson and the citizens of Jonesborough learned about the “other” David Stephenson sometime after his death. A reporter for the Louisville Courier-Journal was writing about Stephenson’s reign over the Indiana Ku Klux Klan and tracked him to Jonesborough. According to Jim Rhein, former Jonesborough alderman and long-time resident of the town, “We were shocked and surprised.” Mrs. Stephenson knew nothing about her husband’s scandalous past, including the fact that he was still legally married to his third wife, the former Martha Dickinson (Jonesborough’s Martha Murray Sutton was wife number four).
As if Stephenson’s bigamy and Klan connection was not bad enough (as “Grand Dragon,” he once controlled the Klan in 22 states), charges of kidnapping, assault and murder led to a highly publicized Indiana trial. He was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. His notorious life in Indiana would have been enough to shock any law-abiding citizen, but later charges in Minnesota and Missouri, after his Indiana parole in 1950, completed the infamous back story of a man the citizens of Jonesborough never knew.
Winkler is the author of Walking Toward the Sunset: The Melungeons of Appalachia, published in 2005. While his interest in Melungeon history and culture is well-known, he also displays a wide-ranging interest in regional history as evidenced by his talk, “Printer’s Ink and Blood: The Strange Story of David Stephenson.” In addition to his role at WETS-FM, he also serves as the music editor for Now & Then magazine.
Those attending the Sept. 5 lecture will receive a free copy of the latest issue of Now & Then: The Appalachian Magazine, in which Winkler’s article about David Stephenson appears, if they subscribe to the magazine that evening. Published in June and December, each issue carries a particular theme. Upcoming themes include “Music in Appalachia” this December and “Civil Wars in Appalachia” next June. A magazine subscription is $15 per year, and personal checks, MasterCard, VISA and cash are accepted.
According to Bob Swanay, director of the Johnson City Public Library, “We are very pleased to co-host another free lecture event with Now & Then: The Appalachian Magazine. These co-sponsored events are an obvious way for the library to extend our mission of providing learning and educational opportunities, as well as serving as a community center.”
For more information, call the Johnson City Public Library at (423) 434-4454.