Born impoverished and the oldest of six children in rural Georgia in 1881, the undereducated Mary Elizabeth “Bessie” Tyler had very little going for her. Two months short of her sixteenth birthday she married a man named Andrew Manning. Eight days before that birthday she gave birth to a daughter. Soon thereafter she was a widowed single mother, destined to a difficult life lived in obscurity.
But Bessie was no ordinary woman. She was shrewd, tough, and street smart. A contemporary once said of her, “She has a positive genius for executive direction. Her courage is a thing to admire.” Another remarked, “Her experience in catering to men’s appetites and vices had given her an insight into their frailties. She knew how to handle them all.”
This poor southern white girl became one of the richest and most powerful women in America in her day. She and her partner brilliantly sold the KKK to America and would amass huge personal fortunes doing so. They were evil geniuses who wrested control of the Klan away from its founder. Many believed Bessie actually ran the male-only organization.
Bessie married four times and had a long-term affair with her business partner, Clarke. She died at the age of 43 in 1924 in Southern California.
“It was never his purpose to offer the people anything in a simple, direct, honest way.” Edward Young Clarke was a con man who was very good at inducing people to part with their money.
E.Y. Clarke’s life began very differently from that of his partner, Bessie Tyler. He was born in 1877, the son of a former Confederate colonel who would eventually own the Atlanta Constitution newspaper. As a part of Atlanta’s social elite he was afforded a quality education and a world of prospects. He dabbled in such careers as Presbyterian minister and sales manager for a fraternal organization before eventually becoming the religion editor for his father’s newspaper. However, he tired of earning an honest dollar. Much like Meredith Wilson’s Music Man, E.Y. began traveling town to town in search of unsuspecting targets in his quest for easy money.
When Edward met Bessie Tyler, the Southern Publicity Association was born. Their marketing was inspired, their greed voracious, and their deviousness expanded with every prospect. The divorced Tyler and the married Clarke also became frequent bed partners. When the two discovered a dying Klan, they saw an opportunity of a lifetime. Post World War I America simmered with fears and prejudices, and in Klan founder William Simmons, they found a client easily manipulated. Edward eventually became the head of the Ku Klux Klan.
Ultimately, Edward was ousted from the Klan by Simmons’s successor, but his life of deception and crime continued. We don’t know when or where E.Y. Clarke died. In 1949, at the age of 73, Clarke escaped from his parole officer in a Philadelphia train station while being transferred to a federal prison in Atlanta. Edward Young Clarke was never heard from again.
Simmons “kept his accounts carelessly, wasted money in various ways, and from a businessman’s point of view was hopelessly incompetent.” William Joseph Simmons was a true believer and he felt predestined for greatness on top of that. But he was also weak and that flaw would be his undoing.
Born in 1880 in Harpersville, Alabama, to a country doctor and his wife, William Simmons tried and failed at a number of careers. He wanted to follow his father’s footsteps in medicine, but his claim of classes taken at Johns Hopkins cannot be supported. A desire for a military career ended as a private when his Alabama Volunteer unit failed to reach Cuba before the Spanish American War ended. He did discover a talent as a spellbinding public speaker, which led to ministry with the Methodist Episcopal Church. It was during this time he claimed to have experienced an epiphany in which God directed him to resurrect the post–Civil War Ku Klux Klan. He was dismissed in 1912 by the Alabama Methodist Conference for overspending allowances and running his churches into debt.
The undisciplined Simmons next found training and structure as a fraternal organization organizer. These often secret societies reached their zenith in America during the early twentieth century. By 1915 Simmons was ready to launch the new Klan with a ceremony atop Georgia’s Stone Mountain. Four years later, in 1919, however, Simmons was deeply in debt and could only claim 2–3,000 members. The Klan was withering away fast, possibly for good.
In 1920 Simmons signed a contract with Edward Clarke and Bessie Tyler to increase membership. The Klan grew dramatically, but it was the beginning of the end for William Simmons. An undisciplined and lazy man, the Imperial Wizard was duped and manipulated by the powerful marketers. They were able to seize control of the organization from Simmons and reap spectacular personal fortunes.
By 1924 Simmons was overthrown as leader in a palace coup by his successor, Hiram Evans. He attempted to found various similar organizations, but failed. William Joseph Simmons died penniless in his native Alabama in 1945.