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The White Cap Book

The so-called "White Cap book" of Sevier County has a lineage longer and more complex even than the phenomenon it chronicles. Published in 1899 under the name of former sheriff and White Cap scourge Thomas H. Davis, the book's authorship has been in question nonetheless, attributed variously to Davis, publisher E.W. Crozier, and a host of anonymous sources, some of whom may have been White Caps themselves.

In any case, Davis was clearly a force behind the volume's publishing, apparently in response to a backlash in political and public sentiment against the Democratic sheriff and former deputy's ever-more pervasive influence on local affairs.

The book later reappeared in several guises, including a 1930s edition ham-fistedly rewritten by former Knoxville grocer Cas Walker. Walker's edition, The White Caps of Sevier County, gives perhaps too much play to the conflict between the White Caps and the rival Blue Bills, to which belonged Walker's father Tom. And though the original book can scarcely be called impartial, the revision bears the indelible imprint of Walker's own storied prejudices.

The accounts and quotes that comprise this article were cobbled from the latest edition of the White Cap book, re-edited and published in the 1960s by Marion Mangrum, the Walker tome and Cummings' thesis, personal interviews, trial transcripts, and newspaper stories from the period.


  Blue vs. White

At the turn of the century, two armies of vigilantes battled for control of Sevier County. Some say the wounds still haven't healed.

by Mike Gibson

It was close to 6 p.m., a chill Monday evening in late December, 1896, when Pleas Wynn met Catlett Tipton at the Sevierville home of Ben Bailey, a local blacksmith. Night locked the frigid sky in darkening increments; a light snow rested cautiously on unyielding ground.

The two men walked, stopping briefly at Bailey's nearby shop, where Tipton retrieved his double-barreled shotgun from the workman's forge. Then they set out along the slush-ridden banks of the Little Pigeon River, crossed at the lower end of town, and marched inland across a broad hollow.

They spoke little as they trod the pristine whiteness, black bootprints betraying the worn footpath beneath. The way cut through frigid farmland and wound finally to an old cottage, in which now dwelt William and Laura Whaley, poor tenant farmers, young parents of a newborn baby girl. And targets—of this night's awful mission.

As they walked, the would-be assassins sipped from a small bottle of pungent white liquor, tucked away in a fold of Wynn's long blue overcoat. Wynn carried a handgun, a .44 Smith and Wesson revolver also liberated from the old frame house that dispensed the illicit whiskey. As the two drew upon the cabin, a rough-hewn silhouette in the gathering darkness, they stole furtively into a corn crib scant yards hence, and waited.

Wynn's last act before breaching the home was to pull a cowl over his head, a simple white cotton mask with two eyeholes, a symbol of the grim association that now positioned the two men on the brink of a killing.

The Whaley double murder marked the beginning of the end of one of the darkest and strangest chapters in East Tennessee history, the tragic, violent odyssey of the Sevier County White Caps. For five turbulent years in the 1890s, that small county in the shadow of Appalachia was beset by a tidal surge of unrestrained vigilantism.

For the duration of the period, bands of masked avengers rode the night-drenched dales and hollows of Sevier, enforcing the mandates of their own myopically drawn code of righteousness. The results were predictably calamitous, as the movement mutated from an irreparably flawed instrument of homespun justice to an outright sanctuary of criminal self-interest.

The phenomenon wasn't new; it harkened to the long-held tradition of "charivari" or "rough music," which dates to early European civilization. Rural enclaves, disconnected from the auspices of distant municipalities, often took extra-legal measures to enforce community standards. In 19th Century North America, vigilante groups in Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, even Canada, rode, usually in disguise and under cover of darkness, by such monikers as the "Night Riders" or "Bald Knobbers" or "White Caps."

The local White Caps, begun as a remote association of self-appointed moral arbiters, would eventually reach a chaotic magnitude of influence, granting de facto legal sanction to all variants of criminal activity, dividing a once placid region according to divergent loyalties.

Even today, the County historian Beulah Linn affirms, with some understatement, that "it's still a very touchy topic. I never mention it in my writings." A local history student, upon researching the topic, was told that he "did not want to ask questions about that."

And Knoxville lawyer Donald Paine, a White Cap scholar, likewise remembers lecturing at a convening of the Sevier County Bar Association. "They were lined up out the door," Paine chortles. "They all wanted to know how badly ol' Don Paine was going to trash their ancestors."

Such sensitivities are the last vestige of the White Cap legacy of secrecy and shame.

The first recorded instance of Sevier County White-capping occurred in the Emert's Cove community, in what is now Pittman Center. According to The White Caps: A History of the Organization in Sevier County, the area had "become infested with lewd characters whose conduct was very obnoxious to the good citizens..."

A descendant of the White Cap book's alleged author (see sidebar) and former University of Tennessee history student, Joe Cummings posits in his 1988 Master's thesis on White-capping that trouble arose when a group of Knoxville prostitutes moved into the neighborhood, and that the first White Cap activists were local women, incensed when their husbands strayed from the path of fidelity.

Whatever the case, the "lewd characters" in question awoke one morning to find notes posted on their front doors, letters admonishing them to leave the community or suffer "a severe whipping (to be) laid upon their backs with hickory withes." The notes were accompanied by bundles of switches, and were signed by the "White Caps."

Emboldened, many local residents elevated the campaign, the result being a subsequent wave of whippings and savage nighttime raids on private homes. Within months of the inaugural White Cap incidents, the Knoxville Tribune newspaper warned, with remarkable clairvoyance, that "wholesale killing is looked for at any time."

The movement gained rapid, headlong momentum; discreet pockets of activism evolved structure, collusion, hierarchy. The White Caps adopted a dress code of sorts, characterized most conspicuously by white cloaks with attached cowls. The cowls concealed the entire face, ventilated only by mesh eyeholes. Often sewn from bedsheets or other common household fabrics, the disguises had more the aspect of a child's Halloween costume than the angular menace of a Klansman's robe, the most obvious point of reference.

The organization did assume, however, the Klan-like trappings of a mystic order. New members took an oath, generally administered at solemn midnight ceremonies, the initiates surrounded by hooded men who pointed cocked pistols at their chests. In taking the vow, they agreed to suffer the pain of one hundred lashes and banishment from the county should they reveal any secrets of the order, with further penalty to include "(the) throat to be cut, (the) heart to be shot out and (the) body to be burned." ow approaching 70, Sevierville lawyer John Waters Jr. remembers meeting a former White Cap as a child in the 1940s. Seated at a leisurely front-porch gathering of locals, the man related to young Waters how he inadvertently intercepted and recognized a band of White Caps in the aftermath of a run. The following evening, a contingent of the band entered the unfortunate's home, jerked him from bed, and demanded that he join.

"He said 'no,' so they cocked a pistol at his chest and asked him again," Waters says. "He told me, 'I joined right then. I never did much else, but I guess I was a White Cap.'" Such tactics helped augment an already sizable roster of recruits.

But above the foot soldiers, or "raiders" who did the nightly work of whipping and raiding, was a layer of "supporters," men of standing in the county who assumed the crucial function of providing bail money and legal defense for members who ran afoul of the law. This happened with relative infrequency, as most legal complaints were adjudicated by local justices of the peace, many of whom were White Caps themselves.

White Cap raids were wanton, brutal affairs. With perhaps as many as 1,500 men having affiliated themselves with the organization at its zenith (in a county of fewer than 30,000), the White Caps reportedly could stage as many as a dozen attacks in a night.

One of the more infamous floggings took place in May of '93, when a band of masked men roused from slumber Mary Breeden, an old widow who lived with her grown children—a son, Jesse, and daughters Bell and Martha. The girls, pretty, in the full blossom of young womanhood, were thought to be "living adulterously," and were dragged into the yard and whipped until their nightgowns were matted to the bloody welts on their backs.

Mrs. Breeden was understandably strident in her protestations, and for her trouble she received a whipping worse than that inflicted on either of her daughters, with withes of black gum nearly an inch in diameter on the larger end. Bed-ridden for nearly two months afterward, Mary Breeden died that summer.

Breeden's was not the only death resulting from the White Caps' escapades. In one of several other fatal instances, Tom Gibson, a poor share-cropper with a cabin just outside of Sevierville, was killed in his home by a shotgun blast through the chest. Possessing no firearms, Gibson attempted to strike a White Cap leader with a chair when a raiding party came to whip his daughter, Callie.

Raids had begun to assume the function of whatever served members' needs: robbery, personal vendetta, political terrorism.

The White Caps had many sympathizers; their deeds went largely unpunished for the early portion of their existence, as supporters proved expert in filling certain public offices with stooges and even peppering grand juries with White Caps. In the latter instances, the "White Cap sign" was an invaluable tool; passing the right hand over the right cheek identified the signaler as a White Cap, while a similar gesture with the left hand meant the respondent shared the affiliation.

But if early instances of White-capping seemed relatively harmless, even laudable to most citizens, the brazenly unrestrained nature of the phenomenon quickly roused many to action. Dr. J.A. Henderson, a prominent Sevierville physician who ministered to Mary Breeden in the last days of her life, is said to have been so moved by the sufferings of the old lady that he founded a rival faction, a band of counter-terrorists known as the Blue Bills.

The Blue Bills had no formal organization, no dress code, no oath or official hierarchy, but they did enjoy the nominal support of local law enforcement. A sheriff's deputy often accompanied their late-night runs, most of which were devised to intercept White Cap whipping parties.

Although it was widely acknowledged that many of the Blue Bills were scofflaws, men of questionable character who perhaps feared the putative moral authority of the White Caps, their efforts are generally described as courageous, valiant, even cunning. In his 1937 rewrite/revision of the Davis White Cap book (The White Caps of Sevier County), the late Knoxville grocer and politician Cas Walker speaks of his father, Tom Walker, as a fearless Blue Bill warrior. In the front yard of his home near Nunn's Cove, the elder Walker allegedly planted a load of dynamite "which (a) battery could set off anytime the White Caps might enter the yard to give him the planned whipping they had promised him on many occasions."

But despite this and other claims of valorous Blue Bill derring-do, there is only one known instance of lethal exchange between the two groups throughout the Bills' more than two-year existence. (Cummings notes the Caps repeatedly side-stepped the Bills counter-attacks "in ways almost comical to the outside observer.") The clash occurred in November 1894 in what would subsequently be known as the "Battle of Henderson's Springs."

Acting on a tip from former White Cap whipping victim "Uncle Ben" Farr, a gang of Bills supporters conspired to intercept a raid on the home of James Massey, whose wife had already been beaten by a band of Caps.

The intelligence notwithstanding, the meeting between the opposing forces took place at a point short of the intended ambush zone. Both parties were caught unaware, and in the resulting torrent of gunfire, two White Caps and one posse member were killed.

Shortly after the Henderson's Springs encounter, J.A. Henderson was shot through his own living room window by a jealous husband, a man whose wife had supposedly spent the weekend with Henderson in a Knoxville hotel. Though the assassination had no apparent connection to Bills/Caps affair, the Blue Bill faction died with its leader.

Another, more effective means of quelling the White Cap menace came with the mid-'90s election of sheriff Millard Fillmore Maples, who ran for office on a staunchly anti-Cap platform. His chief deputy, former schoolteacher Thomas Houston Davis, would later succeed Maples, and remains the only Democrat to hold the office of High Sheriff in Sevier County since the Civil War.

The county's new officers were possessed of a singular tenacity. There are several accounts, of Davis in particular, that detail the tracking of criminals to far-flung locales. Davis is said to have hunted two White Cap murderers, Newt Green and West Hendricks, throughout the mountainous nether-regions of East Tennessee and western North Carolina before catching up to them in a West Texas cotton gin.

Perhaps even more significantly, Davis traveled frequently to Nashville in lobbying efforts, prompting the state congressional bodies to pass two keys pieces of legislation. The first, the so-called White Cap Bill, not only forbade outlaw conspiracies such as the White Caps, but also gave prosecutors great latitude in keeping suspected members of those organizations from sitting on juries. Paine notes that henceforth, prospective jurors often took the Fifth when questioned about their associations, an act which eliminated them promptly from consideration.

The second measure took the form of a resolution removing Sevier County from the jurisdiction of the local circuit court judge, W.R. Hicks, who had ties to prominent White Cap families, and placing it under the authority of the Knoxville Criminal Court. Local Republican leader D.W. Payne wrote in support of the measure, "We want to Git a judge who has backbone enough to enforce the law and the Present one has failed to do so."

But the one event most responsible for toppling the White Caps' remaining buttress of public sentiment was an act perpetrated by the Caps themselves: the murder of William and Laura Whaley.

The Whaleys were a poor young farming couple who contracted to rent a cabin and farmland from Bob Catlett, a White Cap supporter and one of the county's largest taxpayers. The cabin, six miles west of Sevierville, was then occupied by a derelict tenant, Walter Maples, who refused to leave. One evening, a drunk Catlett showed up at the Whaley's temporary home with his brother-in-law Bob Wade. At gunpoint, he forced Laura Whaley to write a White Cap letter threatening Maples. William was forced to nail the letter to the cabin door, at which point Wade and Catlett, wearing two of Laura's blouses as hoods, fired rounds of buckshot at the home. Terrified, Maples departed that same week.

But Laura Whaley made a fatal error in confiding the ordeal to a friend. The story leaked, and Laura was subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury. Wade and Catlett were indicted for "rocking and shooting" the Maples home. Catlett vowed to have the couple killed.

Pleas Wynn and James Catlett Tipton were Sevierville natives, friends since boyhood. Avid hunters and fishermen, they were both good athletes, and years earlier had been members of a local baseball team, a squad captained by Tom Davis. Tipton was the more successful of the two, as he had worked for 15 years as a carpenter, and served as a chief officer of the White Caps. Wynn, on the other hand, was given to idleness, having worked few jobs in his lifetime.

It was Tipton that Bob Catlett approached in conspiring to have the Whaleys killed, and though he first offered the not-inconsiderable sum of $200 for the job, Tipton initially refused. He would later testify that Catlett badgered him incessantly; one of their conversations took place as the two men labored side-by-side in a turnip patch. After repeated propositions, Tipton agreed to kill the Whaleys for the sum of $50 and the promise of legal protection. Wynn was to be his accomplice.

On the night the killing was to take place, Bob Catlett left town for North Carolina and a pre-arranged business deal, four horses in tow. Tipton and Wynn went through the motions of planning a fishing expedition, giving details to friends who agreed to corroborate their story. After the murder, the duo did indeed fish the Little Pigeon River with a handful of dynamite, returning to their respective homes after divvying five bass and a blue sucker.

It was 7 p.m. on Nov. 28 when John Whaley left his brother William's cabin and returned to their mother's home less than a quarter mile away. William was still ailing, having taken to his bed some weeks ago with a dogged flu, and John left the fire in the tiny hearth stoked, tattered orange ribbons of light dancing across the cottage walls. Laura Whaley retired early with her husband, having scarcely recovered from her recent pregnancy. In one corner of the room slept the couple's new daughter, six-week-old Mollie; in another lay Laura's elder sister, a divorcee named Lizzie Chandler.

With no warning, the cabin door flew open violently, and two men burst into the room. The first was short, thick-set in a long blue coat and a white mask, brandishing a gun. The second, maskless, handsome, mustachioed, wore a black coat with a cape. Despite their infirmities, the Whaley couple leapt to their feet and faced the intruders in nightclothes.

"Lord, Lord, Lord, Lord!" cried Laura, swept by a wave of maternal resignation. "If you will kill us, let me give the baby to Sister!"

The men watched, weapons cocked, as Laura Whaley moved cribside and took the child to her breast, kissed its tiny cheek and thrust the warm bundle into her sister's waiting arms. Chandler would later testify that though her sister then pulled bedsheets over her head, she was able first to glimpse the face beneath the mask, the thick, bewhiskered countenance of Pleas Wynn.

From beneath the bedclothes, Chandler heard two shots, then hasty footsteps. She cast off her blankets only to see her sister lying dead on the floor, the force of a blast having ripped through the top of her skull. William Whaley was likewise murdered, shot through the mouth.

Davis captured all four conspirators forthwith, assisted by Chandler, who identified Pleas Wynn from the vantage of a Sevierville hotel room. The murders stirred no small outrage among the citizenry at large, as well as those involved. Through political machinations, the four suspects were loosed prematurely, although efforts by Maples and Davis quickly set justice back on its track. Lizzie Chandler was almost kidnapped by her ex-husband, an associate of the White Caps; two local ministers offered to lead lynching party assaults on the jail; Davis' father suffered a near-fatal beating at the hands of one of Wynn's brothers. onetheless, the March '97 session of circuit court saw Wynn and Tipton indicted for the murders of William and Laura Whaley. Wade and Catlett were indicted as accessories before the fact.

The two henchmen were tried simultaneously for Laura Whaley's murder in November of the same year, as five days and a pool of some 1,200 men were required just to select a jury. The trial itself lasted six days, with Lizzie Chandler serving as the prosecution's star witness.

In his book, Davis claimed that district attorney E.F. Mynatt stayed at the Snapp House in Sevierville in a room adjoining that of little Mollie and Laura Whaley's surviving relatives. By this account, Mynatt was greatly moved by the family's nightly prayers, so much so that his closing argument on the last day of trial "bore the impress of inspiration...the jury were in tears, and sobs were heard in every part of the court room."

The next day, the jury returned a verdict of guilty for Pleas Wynn, acquitting Catlett Tipton. That particular inequity was righted four months later, however, when a second jury found both parties guilty in the murder of William Whaley, at the end of a seven-day trial that unraveled in much the same fashion as the first. Wynn and Tipton were both sentenced to die on the gallows.

The trials of Wade and Catlett were more problematic affairs; after many years and many a bizarre convolution of events, both cases fell by the wayside. Their evasions notwithstanding, the White Cap organization was effectively disintegrated by the conspiracy. With the pendulum of public sentiment swinging ever further from approbation of any White Cap activity, supporters withdrew their resources, and raids stopped.

On July 5, 1899, Pleas Wynn and Catlett Tipton were both hanged on the courthouse lawn in the heart of downtown Sevierville. County historian Beulah Linn, now in her 80s, relates that her grandfather witnessed the hangings, reporting a healthy contingent of onlookers who were "sympathetic to the people who were hung. They were, after all, hired by Bob Catlett."

The venerable historian relates that Wynn, prior to his come-uppance, was led down to the river and baptized. Both men were then given a final hour with their wives. When the gallows door was sprung at 1:02 p.m., Tipton's neck was snapped instantly, and he was pronounced dead 18 minutes later. Wynn died of strangulation within 12 minutes.

Regardless of sentiment, for most of the county, including hundreds who gathered on the courthouse lawn to witness the hanging, their deaths marked an official termination of the White Cap reign.

It sits hushed and unassuming at the edge of a busy little graveyard in the rear of Kodak United Methodist Church, a hard stone's throw from the intersection of Highway 66 and Douglas Dam Road. The polished white headstone is easily overlooked in the tiny sea of mostly bigger, brighter stones, against the backdrop of rolling hills and the clutch of weeds and sage and pollen plants that drape the outer rim of a boggy murk nearby.

The marker bears the name of William and Laura McMahan Whaley, and is noticeably fresher than its 1896 dating would seem to allow. After resting for nearly a century in an unmarked grave, the Whaleys were commemorated by a real headstone only in the last 10 years.

Few living citizens of Sevier County can lay claim to even the faintest memories of White Cap lore; for the most part, second- and third-hand fables of White Cap escapades are the sole possession of the elderly few, fading recollections that exist only in the minds of people who have put all but the smallest part of their lives behind them. The last living member of the order died in 1968, at the age of 104.

But a mist of shame and sore remembrance still drifts over Sevier County, a malingering insinuation of a dreadful affair long past. It exists in the stony silence among many locals that often greets the mere mention of the Sevier County White Caps; it exists in an offhand scattering of memoriams, such as a road sign denoting Battle Hill near the site of the Henderson's Springs encounter outside Pigeon Forge, and its intersector White Cap Lane; at times, it even takes the form of more palpable innuendo. One local remembers that within the last decade, his quarrel with a neighbor drew a cryptic proposition from another acquaintance, a furtive offer of White Cap intercession.

"I'm satisfied there's no more of 'em around," Paine assures. "You never know; maybe a few back in the woodwork who think it's still going on."

But the legacy is most tangibly manifest at the Kodak burial ground, where lies the last and most vivid reminder of what that blighted crusade wrought. Perhaps the marker stands as an assurance that the people here have learned from a grave mistake, the stone's planting a tardy but necessary recognition of that error. As one observer notes on visiting the graveyard, "The White Caps lie buried here."

June 29, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 26
© 2000 Metro Pulse