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Deadly Deception: Former Klan leader, convicted killer led secret life in Jonesborough

In a town known for its stories, one tale, the macabre but true story behind the life of David Curtiss Stephenson, is one that Jonesborough could just as well have done without.
In the early 1960s, Stephenson was living the good life. Recently married to a much-loved retired schoolteacher, Mary Murray Sutton, he became part of her circle of well-respected friends in state’s oldest town.
He filled his spare time writing for the Herald & Tribune. No one suspected a thing.
Then one summer day in 1966, he was bringing a basket of fruit home to his wife when he collapsed. At the age of 74. he died in Mary’s arms and the community shared in her grief.
However, it wasn’t long before sorrow turned to horror when Mary and the residents of Jonesborough were shocked to learn that Stephenson had spent a total of 31 years in an Indiana prison on charges of rape, kidnapping, conspiracy and second-degree murder.
Stephenson’s dark past was unveiled when a reporter for the Louisville Courier-Journal tracked him to Jonesborough. The writer revealed Stephenson’s history of violence, as well as the fact that he was still legally married to his third wife, the former Martha Dickenson.
His widow and town residents also learned that Stephenson had served as a “Grand Dragon” of the Ku Klux Klan – once controlling the Klan in 22 states.
Stephenson’s eerie story resurfaced last week as Wayne Winkler, a local author and the station director for WETS-FM public radio at East Tennessee State University, presented a lecture entitled “Printer’s Ink and Blood: The Strange Story of David Stephenson” on Thursday, Sept. 5 at the Johnson City Library.
As a college student in Indiana, Winkler had heard of Stephenson years ago but didn’t learn of his connection to Jonesborough until a few months ago.
“I was in Indiana last August (2012) doing a lecture on the state’s Ku Klux Klan, which was very powerful in the 1920s,” Winkler said. When I came back, I was looking up some more things about that and you know how one thing takes you to another. I went through lots of material and at the end of it, I learned Stephenson had died in Jonesborough and was buried in Johnson City.”
“I got very interested at that point,” Winkler added.
After digging deeper, he pulled together enough information on Stephenson and his connection to the state’s oldest town to write an article for the latest issue of Now & Then: The Appalachian Magazine, as well as develop a lecture and power point presentation.
“I found him to be a fascinating character,” Winkler said.
It took a lot of research to bring all the facts together, he said. There aren’t many photographs of Stephenson nor is there much information about his time in Jonesborough.
“He kept a low profile while he lived here,” Winkler noted.
Stephenson’s quiet life even fooled his wife, according to articles Winkler has uncovered.
“I read in one news story that the Associated Press did in 1978 that his widow said she had no idea at all about his past,” Winkler said.
“She said that all she knew was that she loved him very much and thought he was a very good man, that she was certain he was in Heaven and her heart was broken when he died.”
Mrs. Stephenson apparently saw a very different side of the man who was convicted on November 14, 1925 for the kidnapping, rape and second-degree murder of Madge Oberholtzer.
Although Oberholtzer’s death was officially ruled a suicide by mercury poisoning, it was proven that she took her life after being brutally raped and beaten by her abductor — Stephenson.
His past, no doubt, must have also come as a shock to many prominent citizens in Jonesborough — several of whom served as his pallbearers.
He is buried at the National Cemetery on the ground of Mountain Home Veterans Administration in Johnson City.
“Stephenson hadn’t lived in Jonesborough long enough to have made that much of an impression on people,” Winkler said, “but even a former mayor, Lyle Haws, was among the pallbearers. That was a tribute to his widow, who was very well liked.”
Other pallbearers included Robert May, Fred Hilbert, Wade Fleenor, Guy Weems, Richard Shipley, Alec Williams and former Jonesborough alderman Jimmy Rhein.
Rhein, who was good friends with Mrs. Stephenson, a favorite former teacher, said he had “no idea he was that well known or had that reputation.”
“My mother and Martha Stephenson were good friends and so, of course, I had met him,” Rhein said.
“They even invited us to their home. He was a perfect gentleman, a nice guy, very courtly and friendly.”
Then the truth came out, and Rhein said it was quite a surprise to everyone who knew Stephenson.
“You just couldn’t have believed it if you had ever met him,” he said.