Wayne Winkler, Station Director at WETS-FM, will present a free lecture entitled “Printer’s Ink and Blood: The Strange Story of David Stephenson” on Thursday, September 5, 2013, 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.
Who was David Stephenson? It depends on who you ask. 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. He was laid to rest in 1966 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 Jonesborough resident, “We were shocked and surprised.” Mrs. Stephenson knew nothing about her new 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 twenty-two 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, after his Indiana parole in 1950, in Minnesota and Missouri complete the infamous back story of a man the citizens of Jonesborough never knew.
Wayne 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 “Printer’s Ink and Blood: The Strange Story of David Stephenson.” In addition to his role as Station Director at WETS-FM, a public radio station operated as a partnership between East Tennessee State University and the station’s listeners, he also serves as the Music Editor for Now & Then magazine.
For more information call the Johnson City Public Library at (423) 434-4454.