LIMA — On a spring night in the mid-1930s, a Waynesfield farmer stood amid a group of 200 hooded men in a barn between Wapakoneta and Uniopolis on the verge of swearing allegiance to the Black Legion, a group of pistol-wielding night-riders with an abiding hatred of blacks, Jews and Catholics, when he had a change of heart.
When the group’s leader began to perform the initiation ceremony, which involved the initiate kneeling and reciting an oath while a loaded pistol was held to his head, “I said, ‘You don’t need to mind about me. I don’t want anything to do with this,” the 56-year-old farmer would recall in a May 1936 article in The Lima News.
His change of heart led to a change of attitude among the hooded mob. “They punched me in the side with revolvers and said, ‘If you ever tell what took place here tonight, or ever leak a word of anything that’s happened, you’ll die within 24 hours,’” the farmer said he was told, before being locked in a corn crib at the farm.
The farmer, who told his story in “a clear fearless fashion,” according to the News, was not the only one talking about the Black Legion in May 1936 after an investigation into a murder in Michigan by Legion members led authorities to Lima and Virgil Herbert Effinger, who they claimed was the group’s national leader.
Effinger, known as “Bert” and described in the newspapers as a “portly, cigar-chewing electrical contractor,” was born in Newark, served in the Spanish-American War, settled in Lima, opened an electrical shop, raised four children, twice unsuccessfully sought the office of Allen County Sheriff, and was an active member of the Ku Klux Klan. During a July Fourth Parade in Lima’s Public Square in 1925, he was injured when a car ran through a group of marching Klansmen, the News reported July 5, 1925.
Michigan investigators looking into the May 19, 1936, kidnap-slaying of Charles A. Poole said Effinger was also the leader of a terrorist group with a frightening number of members in Ohio, Michigan and several other states. It was later estimated the Black Legion, at its height in the mid-1930s, had as many as 4 million members nationwide and perhaps 4,000 in Allen County, although other estimates put the numbers higher. A mass night initiation of some 30 new members in a clearing on a Perry Township farm in 1935 was witnessed by about 1,000 hooded members, according to reports.
The Black Legion grew out of an eastern Ohio group known as the Black Guard, which provided security at KKK meetings. As the Klan’s power waned in the Midwest in the mid- to late-1920s, many former Klansmen, including Effinger, gravitated to the Black Legion, which thrived in the uncertain times of the Great Depression.
Although the reputed leader of a terrorist organization, Effinger did a good job of avoiding publicity until the killing of Poole in Detroit, which had been the epicenter of Black Legion instigated violence since the early 1930s. Poole’s chief transgression seems to have been that he was a Catholic married to a Protestant woman.
For his part, Effinger, of 1114 Harrison Ave., submitted a statement to the News on May 26, 1936, a week after Poole’s murder brought unwanted publicity his way. “The Black Legion is a strictly American organization. It is a secret society dedicated to the most lofty principles and stands for the highest form of American progress. I know nothing whatever about the killing of anybody in Detroit or elsewhere by the Black Legion. The organization deplores anything of this nature. It stands wholly for law and order based on justice,” it read in part.
Michigan authorities weren’t buying any of it and charged Effinger with criminal syndicalism and unlawful possession of explosives, and requested he be brought to Michigan to face charges.
On Aug. 23, 1936, Michigan officials announced they would be coming to Lima to demand Effinger’s arrest, the News reported. “This was announced Saturday in Detroit following refusal of local police to place Effinger under arrest on a warrant sent here after Judge James E. Chenot, of (the Michigan) circuit court, returned the indictment against Effinger and 21 other persons.” Lima’s police chief, Ward Taylor, the News noted, said Effinger could not be arrested until an Ohio warrant was handed to him or “other legal steps taken.”
Other legal steps were taken. The case was brought before Ohio Gov. Martin Davey for a gubernatorial extradition hearing. Davey eventually approved the extradition, but by the time he did Effinger had been on the lam for several days, having simply walked out during a recess in the hearing on Aug. 24, 1936. He would not reappear for another 15 months as rumors of his whereabouts were regularly published in the newspapers and Michigan officials steamed.
Former Lima Public Works Director George T. Scheid Jr.’s father was an early member of the Legion but left when Effinger told him to bomb a Lima theater, which was showing a film Effinger regarded as “Catholic propaganda.” On April 9, 2000, shortly before the History Channel aired a documentary on the Black Legion, Scheid spoke to News columnist Mike Lackey. “Police said he was in hiding and couldn’t be found, Scheid Jr. — who says local government and law enforcement were shot through with Legionnaires — says Effinger could have been arrested at his home by any officer who cared to go there,” Lackey wrote.
In early December 1937, Effinger surrendered in Lima and was released under $1,000 bail pending an extradition hearing. Michigan officials were — rightfully, as it turned out — leery.
“Suspecting a new ‘ran-around,’ authorities today guardedly began making plans to fight for the return to Michigan of Virgil H. (Bert) Effinger, suspected national commander of the hooded Black Legion, who surrendered to police in Lima, O., Friday after he had been the object of a manhunt for more than a year,” a wire service reported Dec. 4, 1937.
On Dec. 11, 1937, the day after Allen County Common Pleas Court Judge E.E. Everett ordered Effinger to be sent to Michigan, he was granted a stay while appealing the ruling to the Third District Court of Appeals. Effinger would lose that appeal and then appeal to the state Supreme Court, where he also lost.
Finally, on Dec. 31, 1938, more than a year after his surrender in Lima, the News reported that “Virgil. H. ‘Bert’ Effinger, reputed Black Legion leader, was in Detroit Saturday to face charges of criminal syndicalism and possession of explosives, counts brought against him for alleged activities with the night riding cult. Spirited out of town at 3:30 a.m. Saturday, Effinger’s removal climaxed a fight of more than two years to escape extradition — a fight of flight and legal maneuvering since Aug. 25, 1938.”
Effinger never stood trial. On March 16, 1939, the News reported that a Detroit judge dismissed the bomb possession charges against Effinger after the chief witness against him, an Indiana prison farm inmate, went on the lam himself and was unavailable to testify. The man, a former Legion member, had claimed he saw Effinger in possession of a suitcase full of what looked like bombs at the home of a Michigan Legion member in 1935. Two months later, the criminal syndicalism charges against Effinger, as well as 20 other defendants, were dropped because the prosecution was unable to “obtain the testimony of essential witnesses,” according to an Associated Press story from May 18, 1939.
By then, the Black Legion had withered. Effinger tried to start a successor movement called the Patriotic Legion of America in 1938 but it came under FBI scrutiny and soon failed. The 82-year-old Effinger died in October 1955 in a Toledo psychiatric hospital.
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.