Yesterday’s Crimes: The Disappearance of the African-American Klansman

An African American man who was Idaho's grand titan of the KKK for a day took a brief, unexplained trip to San Francisco in 1965.

Screenshot, Shock Corridor, 1963

In early 1965, Paul Bellesen, the owner of a cleaning service in Nampa, Idaho, sent $15 to the National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Stone Mountain, Ga., vowing to establish a new Clavern in his town. A short time later, Bellesen received his signed Klan membership card in the mail — along with the surprising news that grand wizard James. R. Venable had named him Idaho’s new “grand titan” of the KKK.

When Bellesen first wrote the Klan asking to join, he told them he was with the Nampa Elks Club. He didn’t mention that he just worked as the club’s janitor — or, that he was African American.

But the news got out. The wire services alerted the media to the fact that an African American had been named grand titan of the Idaho Klan, and it became a national story, complete with a picture of a grinning Bellesen holding up his Klan membership card.

The Daily Independent of San Rafael even topped its version of the story with the headline: “Klan Grabs Back its Bedsheet.”

“It was a great challenge to me,” Bellesen explained, “To see just how secret the Klan is, and if I could get in. I did.”

Venable quickly revoked Bellesen’s membership and refunded his $15. In the end, his reign as Idaho’s grand titan lasted just one day.

“When people live at a distance, you just have to take their word,” Venable said.

Calvin Craig, a “grand dragon” of the competing United Klans of America, was overjoyed to hear that his rival had signed up a Black Klansman.

“This is not surprising to me about a n—-r belonging to Jim Venable’s Klan because he’s already admitted to taking Catholics,” Craig told the Associated Press.

After two months of receiving tons of mail over his prank — let’s be honest, probably most of it hateful — Bellesen disappeared on April 20, 1965. Bellesen’s wife, Emmaline Bellesen, feared her husband was killed or kidnapped by cross-burning white supremacists. His 1960 Thunderbird was found in Boise a day later, and reports of Bellesen sightings poured into the Idaho Free Press.

But two days later, Bellesen turned up in a cafeteria in downtown San Francisco. When he asked a pair of cops to take him to a doctor, they dropped him off at Mission Emergency Hospital at 7:45 p.m. where he was examined by Dr. Alan Skol, a psychiatric resident from San Francisco General who was on rotation at the Mission.

Bellesen told Skol about his business and marital struggles and said that he feared someone might be after him. Aside from overall paranoia, Skol found nothing wrong with him.

“(Bellesen) just wanted to talk to someone,” Skol said.

Bellesen left the hospital and returned to his home exhausted early Sunday morning on April 25, 1965. He never explained publicly why he fled to San Francisco, but later told the Idaho Free Press that he doubted that punking the Klan did anything to help the Civil Rights Movement.

“I doubt if I did anything more than cause the Klan a moment of extreme embarrassment,” he reflected.

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