The Man in the Box, Revealed

by Steve Gerkin


Editor’s note: For years, this photo of a KKK funeral has circulated among several photography collections in Tulsa, but the identity of the person in the casket has remained a mystery. In this article, writer Steve Gerkin uncovers the identity of the man in the box.

Call it a death parade.

A white-draped car floated quietly down the warm streets of Copan, Oklahoma. Inside the vehicle, a man held a fiery cross. Behind the car marched fifteen white-robed members of the Ku Klux Klan, their presence sending a clear message—a message that appeared on signs declaring “America for Americans.” Upon reaching the Copan Undertaking Parlor, the column of Kluxers silently entered the front door of the establishment.

A flowery aroma filled the parlor where the dead man lay, his casket surrounded with arrangements from his Masonic affiliations, the Copan High School and many others. The eye-grabbing centerpiece was a large floral pillow sent by his brethren of the Invisible Empire, the KKK; they boasted 20,000 members in Oklahoma at the time.

The Klan had a habit of interrupting ordinary affairs; intrusion was their modus operandi. Although the funeral service for Sheets was already underway, the hooded mourners “filed by the coffin, silently dropping a red rose on the heap of floral offerings,” according to a newspaper account. Joseph C. Sheets belonged to the De Molay, the Scottish Rite and the Masonic Temple, and he had the flowers to prove it. In small towns, however, being a Mason often implied a connection to the Klan. If Sheets was ever a secret member of the Klan, his cover was blown by the large floral bouquet placed before his casket.

The 5 Sept., 1922, edition of the Tulsa Daily World noted that the Masonic Rose Croix service for Joe C. Sheets was “probably the most impressive funeral ceremony ever held in Copan.” Over 1,500 Masons and friends gathered at Sheets’ stately home. The story left out the bit about the parade.

Sheets got his first job in oil and gas at the age of 16. During his career, he established himself as one of the shrewdest oil operators in the state. He was involved in management positions with the Swastika Oil and Gas Company, the Alamo Oil Company, the Collis and Jackson Oil companies and Georgia Oil and Gas Company.

In 1902, at age 26, Sheets moved from his native West Virginia to Independence, Kansas, then onto Bartlesville. He, along with his brother Earl, formed Sheets Brothers Oil and Gas. By 1905, Sheets was successful enough to move his family into a newly-constructed Copan home. The prodigious structure stood out above the tent city along the railroad tracks.

Riding on the find of the Copan Oil Field discovery of 1907, the Sheets family had 300 oil and gas wells in production within a decade. A year earlier, Sheets had donated ten acres for the establishment of the Copan School District. A standalone arch structure was located at the entrance. It was called the Copan Unkwa Arch in homage to the Cherokee word for “red man.”

The booming town of Copan featured four hotels to house oil laborers, a pool hall, a lumberyard and a grocery store where fights tended to break out. As a longtime member of the Copan School District Board and devoted husband to Millicent and father to daughter Alice, Sheets served his community and family but shied away from political office, though he did serve on the Washington County Council of Defense. The Kleagles, the Klan’s recruiting unit, aggressively pursued the leaders of Oklahoma wartime councils.

In addition to black gold, he had interests in farm and timber tracts, and owned an insurance agency for The Northern Assurance Company Limited of London, specializing in coverage for fire, tornado, automobiles and sprinkler leakage. His local influence grew with his holdings.

The Bank of Copan opened its doors in 1910, and, by 1915, Sheets was its president and principal stockholder. But all work and no play makes a dull good ol’ boy, so for fun Sheets joined the Copan Red Cross baseball team and participated in Copan wild-game suppers where the men would hunt for anything moving, large or small, even crows. The animals were cooked together in large iron kettles set up on Main Street as cheering spectators watched wrestling matches conducted in the mud hole in the center of the street.

Given the secrecy of the Klan, Sheets’ exact position was not known. There was no evidence of him participating in the Klan whipping teams that flogged residents who, in the Klan’s opinion, were immoral. Some whippings were exercised on prisoners turned over by local law enforcement.

Ninety-year-old Perlie Moreland knew the Sheets family well. Her parents arrived via covered wagon in Copan in 1905. Ultimately moving next door to the Sheets, she became fast friends with Millicent and Alice after Joe passed.

“Mr. Sheets was involved with the Klan – always heard about that,” she comments.

She eased out of the over-stuffed chair in her family room to retrieve a three-ring notebook brimming with clips and photos from the now-defunct Copan Leader newspaper. Plastic sleeves protect the dogged and yellowed pages with their bold-faced headlines and grainy images. Perlie has turned the screen of an old television set into a pasteboard for Scotch-taped photos of her grand- and great-grandchildren. Atop the old TV, a new flat-screen model balances.

Returning to her favorite chair, struggling with hip pain, Perlie settles in and opens the binder, the cover of which displays a photo of the former Bank of Copan, now a knitting supply store. Putting on her plastic framed glasses she needs only for reading, she begins turning the proud pages. A self-described “old, white-haired gal, getting shorter all the time,” Perlie spins stories of Copan and Joe Sheets, who kept a Klan robe in a remote closet. Yet the Copan that Joe knew had changed.

Perlie catalogues old buildings with her camera to save at least their memories for posterity. The structures—neglected and disfigured, like an old town dog—succumb with regularity: Perlie’s portraits reflect a Copan out of time. Two joints—Jessie’s Café and the Truck Stop, Perlie’s personal favorite—were not part of the eatery scene during the town’s heyday. The vanishing memories and the new arrivals add up to a kind of empty.

Perlie acknowledges that the Klan was active in the Copan area during her youth. She’d always heard that Joe Sheets was involved in the organization, in some way. She spent hours with his widow, who knitted incessantly and loved to reminisce. According to Perlie, “Millicent had a hard time talking about it.” She let all of her husband rest in peace.


Pictured: Sheets’ casket surrounded by arrangements from his Masonic affiliations, Copan High School and the Ku Klux Klan, among others. Photos courtesy of Tulsa Historical Society.