Fifty names grace the list of Buffalo’s fallen police officers, from Officer Patricia A. Parete who died in 2013 to Policeman George Dill, who was killed in 1865.
Maybe there should be a 51st name on the list: Edward C. Obertean.
These facts are not in dispute:
Obertean was gunned down in a shootout on Buffalo’s East Side on Aug. 31, 1924. His killer was a Ku Klux Klan official brought to Buffalo to investigate a break-in at Klan headquarters. At the time, Obertean was a former police officer, but working as “special operative” for the Buffalo police as an undercover infiltrator into the local Klan.
“Technically, you couldn’t say he was a police officer,” said Shawn Lay, who has written a book on the Klan’s activities along the Niagara Frontier. “He was a special operative providing undercover reports about the Klan to the mayor. ... He was willing to put himself at tremendous risk in the effort by local government to bring down the Klan.”
Obertean was shot once in the chest and three times in the back during the shootout. As he fell to the ground, dying, he fired two shots into the heart of the Klan official, killing him instantly, according to Lay’s book, “Hooded Knights on the Niagara: The Ku Klux Klan in Buffalo, N.Y.”
The 28-year-old Obertean died in a local hospital less than an hour later.
“My brother Edward was a martyr to his religion and church,” his sister announced publicly, according to the book.
Others, though, consider Obertean a hero for risking – and losing – his life in the battle against the Klan’s various forms of prejudice and hate.
“I consider him a martyr in the fight against bigotry in general,” said Cynthia Van Ness, director of library and archives for the Buffalo History Museum. “He gave his life opposing the Klan in Buffalo. I think that’s heroic.”
Fast-forward to 2016. At a time when attacks on police officers and anti-immigration rhetoric have become huge issues across the nation, few Buffalonians know about the climate of fear and retribution that led to Obertean’s killing 92 years ago.
A ‘different’ Klan
When the Ku Klux Klan reasserted its strength in the 1920s after decades of dormancy, its Buffalo leaders tweaked their usual recruitment message.
“Their calling card everywhere else was anti-immigrant and anti-African-American,” Van Ness said. “But in Buffalo, they exploited religious resentment instead.”
Based on her own knowledge, Buffalo History Museum archives and her reading of Lay’s book, Van Ness cited one key factor that helped spur Klan growth in Buffalo during the early 1920s: the election of Francis X. Schwab as mayor in 1921. He was the city’s first Catholic mayor and also a leading beer brewer who opposed Prohibition as it was being laxly enforced in Buffalo.
“So you had Protestants anxious about having a Roman Catholic mayor and Protestants who overwhelmingly supported Prohibition,” Van Ness said.
Lay, the author and former University at Buffalo professor, cited another factor that heightened Catholic-Protestant tensions here and throughout New York State: Gov. Al Smith’s unsuccessful bid to become the Democratic nominee for president in 1924, a feat he accomplished four years later.
“That tension motivated many people to join the Klan, which was overtly anti-Catholic,” Lay said. “This was one of the most intense episodes in Protestant vs. Catholic animosity.”
The KKK held its first public ceremony in a vacant Harlem Road field in October 1922. That event, according to the book, featured the initiation of 800 new recruits along with the group’s signature symbol – a burning cross.
In a phone interview from South Carolina, where he is a history professor at Coker College, Lay estimated that the Klan had roughly 4,000 members along the Niagara Frontier at the time of Obertean’s death.
Lay emphasized that the Klan’s following here and elsewhere didn’t fit the stereotype many people may have of Klan members, as “losers” firmly entrenched in the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.
“The most current research strongly indicates, therefore, that the Klan of the 1920s was, in its essence and in the broadest sense of the term, a middle-class social movement,” he wrote.
From cop to informant
Obertean served as a Buffalo Vice Squad officer in 1919 and 1920 before being dismissed from the force, apparently after a scandal involving that squad. In his book, Lay called the firing “a well-publicized episode that many believed was politically motivated.”
But the former officer must have been highly regarded by the new Schwab administration, because the author found evidence that Obertean became a “special officer” under the direction of Lt. Austin Roche, described as a gung-ho officer trying to infiltrate the Klan under the mayor’s direction.
Obertean became a great choice to join the Klan, as an undercover informant.
“Most Klansmen probably assumed that he harbored resentment against the police department and other city officials,” Lay wrote.
They also assumed Obertean was Protestant, because he claimed he was a Baptist on his membership application. In fact, he was Catholic.
The Buffalo News contacted one of Obertean’s possible distant relatives, but that individual knew nothing about the 1924 killing.
The third-floor office in downtown Buffalo’s Calumet Building was home to the Kay-Bee Adsign Co. At least that’s what the sign said.
It really was a front for the local KKK headquarters, according to Lay’s research.
On the night of July 3, someone broke into that office, stealing Klan records.
Over that summer, Schwab, other local officials and the media tangled over the public airing of Klan membership lists, according to Lay’s narrative. And Schwab revealed that he had received anonymous tips and letters with similar information about the Klan, as he apparently tried to distance himself from the burglary.
Lay found no conclusive evidence that Obertean was involved in the break-in.
“We know Obertean was a special operative providing undercover reports, but the mayor had been getting undercover reports, meeting by meeting, for several months before Obertean joined the Klan,” Lay said.
In Lay’s view, the public airing of those names was the death knell for the Klan.
“That’s what killed the Klan more than anything,” Lay said of the hooded members. “Secrecy was the cornerstone of the Klan’s power. But then this list comes out. Once they’re exposed, it’s kind of like air being let out of a balloon.”
The deadly shootout
The Klan started to suspect that Obertean, one of its members, was a plant and possibly involved in the burglary, Lay wrote.
So it summoned a special investigator, Thomas H. Austin, from national headquarters. Armed with a revolver, he checked into the Graystone Hotel under an assumed name, according to the book. Klansmen followed Obertean around, and then confronted and threatened him at a KKK meeting in late August.
The fatal encounter came Aug. 31, when a car carrying Austin and two others went to Obertean’s Kensington Avenue home. They spotted Obertean in a car driven by a non-Klansman and chased that vehicle, which pulled over on Durham Avenue, just east of the current Erie County Medical Center.
Here’s how Lay described that confrontation:
“Just a minute, Ed, I want to talk with you,” the driver of the Klan vehicle told Obertean.
“We might as well settle this right here and now,” Obertean supposedly replied, before firing two shots from a revolver concealed in his coat pocket.
Those shots wounded two occupants in the Klan vehicle. That’s when Austin stepped out of the car and shot Obertean from only 5 feet away, once in the chest, and then as the wounded Obertean spun around, three times in the back.
“Obertean fell to the ground, managed to lift his weapon a final time and fired two steel-jacketed bullets directly into Austin’s heart, killing him instantly,” Lay wrote.
The officer-turned-informant survived for less than an hour.
The public soon learned the deeper meaning behind the double homicide.
“Klan Victim Proves Police Spy,” read the eight-column headline stretching across the top of the Buffalo Express front page. The local History Museum has that page, along with a digitized Klan membership list from the 1920s.
How should history view Obertean?
Even Lay, the expert, isn’t sure.
“We don’t really know his motivation,” the author said. “Was he just picking up some spare money? How zealous was he (against the Klan)? We know he was zealous enough to risk his life. But what his political and religious motivation may have been, nobody knows.
“He certainly was on the right side of history.”