Told  /  Origin Story

American Charivari

The history and context of the made-up aesthetics of the early Ku Klux Klan.

Brought to North America by the French, charivaris were recorded from Upper Canada to Louisiana in the mid-seventeenth century. A famous charivari campaign involved the mobbing of Madame Don Andrés Almonester’s home in New Orleans in March 1804. Thousands of people in costumes gathered to punish a rich older woman and her new Cajun husband. The mob was appeased by a $3,000 donation to the city’s orphans.

Decades later, as Black community leaders began to assert their political rights during Reconstruction, racists adopted charivari in the project of reconfirming white supremacy’s grip on power and resources. Ku Klux costuming and amusement helped conceal the group’s true intentions from those in power, while creating plausible deniability amongst their allies. The tactical ambiguity delayed response or retribution while authorities attempted to determine whether the rebels were playing or in earnest. The answer was both.

The Klan went unremarked upon by the Freedmen’s Bureau and remained confined to the Pulaski area until 1868, when the New York World printed a report of Klan violence elsewhere in Tennessee with this bit of commentary: “Outsiders have generally looked upon it as an outlandish but harmless order, whose chief aim was sport and frolic.” They were often called “Kuklux” or a “gang of Ku-Klux” in the papers because, Parsons argues, there is a linguistic distinction between how the first and second waves were described. Ku Klux suggests a disembodied power manifesting, more like ghost visitations or wizard happenings than the actions of an organized political group like the organized, uniformed, 1920s Ku Klux Klan.

The first wave’s costumes and lore became focal points for reportage, which scandalized and intrigued audiences in both the North and the South. Newspapers spread the implied threat of violence, but they also instructed Southern men in how to appropriate the costume and turn into a Ku Kluxer. During 1872 congressional hearing testimony, later published in the KKK Report, one victim described “white gowns…some had flax linen, and red calico, and some red caps, and white horns stuffed with cotton. And some had flannel around coon-skin caps, and faces on…only a little hole at the eyes, not bigger than a man’s fingernail.”

Sensational character backstories were important to the violence. Ku Kluxers would furnish narratives for their costumes so that victims could better report their encounter—and so that the Klan could atomize blame. According to the Klan’s framing, their violence was waged by agents of another realm.

Ku Kluxers frequently claimed to be the walking Confederate dead returning from hell, as historian Stanley Horn explained in his 1939 book Invisible Empire. This lie involved a parlor trick: “The leader of the Klansmen would tell the Negro visited, in a hollow voice, that he was thirsty and wanted a drink,” Horn wrote. After the victim provided a water bucket and drinking gourd, the Ku Kluxer would cast aside the gourd and drink the whole bucket using “a funnel inside his mask connected by a rubber tube to an oilcloth bag under the flowing robe. ‘That’s good,’ he would say, smacking his lips. ‘That’s the first drink I’ve had since I was killed at the Battle of Shiloh; and you get mighty thirsty down in Hell.’” According to Horn, this was a standard routine, “almost the hallmark of a Ku Klux raid—none genuine without it.”