Part 1 of 2 —
The White Caps of Sevier County, TN, were a vigilante group formed in approximately 1892 by citizens who wished to rid Sevier County of individuals (mostly women) whom they deemed lewd or adulterous.
Their modus operandi was to leave the offending party a note signed “White Caps,” occasionally accompanied by hickory switches, warning them to leave town. If this tactic proved ineffective, the group escalated to whippings.
The White Caps were extremely popular between 1892 and 1896 and thus hard to control legally. Local law enforcement turned a blind eye to their doings and even when arrested White Caps would frequently tamper with juries to ensure their acquittal. In this atmosphere of tolerance, the beatings gradually increased in severity.
But then in December of 1896 the White Caps brutally murdered Laura and William Whaley in front of their infant child. The Whaleys were generally considered poor but honest citizens of Sevier County, and their savage deaths turned public opinion against the White Caps. J.C. “Catlett” Tipton and Pleasant “Pleas” Wynn were convicted of the Whaley murders, and hung on July 5, 1899, at Sevierville. Here is Tipton’s confession from his trial transcript:
“I was born and raised in Sevier county; am about 38 years old. In December 1896 I was living about two miles from Sevierville, but was at that time staying with Ben Bailey, my brother in law, and working in the blacksmith shop with him.
“I know the defendant Bob Catlett and have known him pretty much all my life. On the Saturday evening that the November term of the circuit court adjourned, Bob Catlett came to me and said he wanted to have a talk with me. We went into Fred Emert’s store and upstairs into a back room. He there told me that William Whaley and wife had gone before the grand jury at that term of court and had indicted him and Bob Wade, his brother in law, for shooting into Walter Maples house.
“He said he wanted them put out of the way and would give one hundred dollars to kill them; that he wanted to make an example of them to teach people that they could not swear against him. I told him I did not want to do it and would not do it. This was about all that occurred there, and we went out of the store. Bob Wade was present during this conversation.
“There was a meeting of an Odd Fellows lodge that Saturday night at Pigeon Forge, about eight miles above Sevierville. Wm Wynn, Jesse Atchley and I went to it; leaving Sevierville that evening I went in a buggy with Wm Wynn, I think.
“Some time after the lodge had been in session Bob Catlett and Bob Wade came in. That is the first time I ever knew Catlett or Wade in that lodge and have never seen them there since. It was about fourteen miles from there to where Catlett lived. As we were returning from the lodge that night, I stopped on the road near Henderson’s Island at a turnip patch and got some turnips and distributed them among the crowd. There were several along including Bob Catlett, Bob Wade, Arthur Seaton, Schuyler Atchley, Jesse Atchley and Wm Wynn.
“Wade and Catlett were riding horse back and when ready to leave the turnip patch Bob Catlett suggested to Wade that he take my seat in the buggy, and for me to get on Wade’s horse, as he wanted to talk with me.
“This change was accordingly made and I rode from there to Rambo’s Lane, about three miles, with Bob Catlett. On this trip he again brought up the subject of the Whaleys and renewed his proposition to me to put them out of the way for him. I told him I did not want to do it, but before leaving me near the Rambo Lane, he handed me an envelope and said for me to take it and that it was mine when the Whaleys were put out of the way. I took the package and went on home alone from that point.
“I examined the contents of the envelope and found it consisted of four twenty dollar bills and one twenty dollar gold piece. I kept the money until the next Wednesday evening and then I took it to Yett’s store in Sevierville, and gave it to JR Yett, and told him to put it in his safe for me a short time.
“I let it stay there until Friday following when I got it and gave it back to Bob Catlett, saying to him at the time that I had decided not to do the job and returned his money. Catlett replied that he was glad of it for he could get it done for one half of that amount. It was not long however until Catlett returned to me again and began to beg me to comply with his wishes by putting the Whaleys out of the way.
End of Part 1
Sources: The White-Caps: A History of the Organization in Sevier County, by Ethelred W. Crozier, publ by Bean, Warters & Gaut, Knoxville, 1899
Cummings, William Joseph, “Community, Violence, and the Nature of Change: Whitecapping in Sevier County, Tennessee, During the 1890’s.” Master’s Thesis, University of Tennessee, 1988. http://trace.tennessee.edu/utk_gradthes/8