Is there any organization you would be so eager to join that you would allow its members to aim loaded and cocked guns at you while you recite the paragraph that follows?
“‘I do solemnly swear before God and man that if I reveal anything concerning our organization or anything we may do, the penalty shall be to receive one hundred lashes and leave the county within 10 days or be put to death. Now, I take this oath freely and voluntarily, and am willing to abide by the obligation in every respect. I further agree and swear before God that if I reveal anything concerning our organization, I will suffer my throat to be cut, my heart to be shot out of my body, and to be burned; that I will forfeit my life, my property, and all that I may have in this world and the world to come: so help me God.”
Uninviting as that initiation vow sounds, as many as 1,500 East Tennessee men took it as the 1800s were nearing their end. Those who made the vow did so to become part of a secret underground band that made history, mostly of the sort many soon wished to forget.
Greene County was not part of the organization’s territory, but in relative terms they were not far away. The terrain upon which they operated is a frequent get-away spot not only for Greene County folks, but for vacationers from across the United States.
The group was called the White Caps. The domain of the White Caps was mostly Sevier County, spilling over some into surrounding counties. White Cap activity brought about one of Sevier County’s and Sevierville’s most controversial and seldom-discussed eras.
F. Carroll McMahan, a Sevierville historian, has said the White Cap story remained a “hush-hush topic” well into the 20th century due to the continued presence of former White Caps and their descendants in the region.
In an interview available on YouTube, McMahan recalled the death of an elderly man in his community, and the whispered comments of older locals who said, “That was the last of the White Caps.”
Though the White Caps were ostensibly a secret society, their existence was well-known, and accounts of White Cap activities were published at least as far away as New York. According to McMahan, one Sevier County historian a few years later refused even to acknowledge the organization had existed.
The White Caps not did exist, but held such initial appeal due to their declared devotion to defending public morality, that more than 1,000 men joined their ranks during their years of existence. In their peak period of influence, White Caps worked their way into almost every layer of society, including law enforcement, the courts and government offices.
It has been reported that the White Caps even developed various gestures and hand movements that let them silently signal their White Cap status to those in the know, such as other White Caps serving on a jury.
Just how and why did the White Caps come into being? Their members organized initially with the declared purpose of driving away or punishing those guilty of violating community moral standards, particularly in regard to such issues as marital infidelity, cohabitation, prostitution and the like. And punish they did, with increasing harshness and impunity as their organization gained numbers and strength.
Some researchers of the White Caps have concluded that the first White Capping acts may have been done by women, wives of men who had visited prostitutes in the Emert’s Cove area. Some of these alleged prostitutes began finding notes on their doors warning them to leave the region or endure whippings with hickory withes (switches). To drive home the point, bundles of such switches were left on the doorsteps. The soiled doves paid attention and flew off to Knoxville.
Because White Caps presented themselves as targeting only morally dubious characters, their movement gained community support that swelled their ranks and saw their influence grow swiftly and pervasively.
Troubling signs soon were noticed, though. The White Caps largely worked in anonymity, or tried to, wearing white masks (often simple white hoods or sacks with eye holes), and acting at night, when they could inflict the most terror.
As is typical with vigilanteism, there were no fixed rules of evidence, no appeals, no real defenses available to those who drew the White Caps’ ire. The accused essentially were presumed guilty and treated accordingly.
With White Caps exercising judicial power and broad influence, it was rare for a White Cap to successfully be indicted or prosecuted.
Lacking much fear of punishment, White Caps became more and more daring and violent. Nocturnal raids began that often resulted in private citizens being pulled from their homes for beatings and whippings. In time it grew worse than that.
Former Knoxville Metro Pulse writer Mike Gibson put it thusly in that weekly newspaper: “ … the movement mutated from an irreparably flawed instrument of homespun justice to an outright sanctuary of criminal self-interest.” In short, as had happened three decades earlier during the Civil War, grassroots violence lost its original context and became a pretext for carrying out personal vendettas or revenge attacks.
When a Mrs. Mary Breeden was whipped with extreme brutality because she had sought to intervene to protect her two daughters from abuse by White Caps, a fateful line was crossed. Mrs. Breeden survived her fierce whipping, but only temporarily. Dr. J.A. Henderson tended to her and tried, but failed, to save her.
Henderson was so infuriated by what the White Caps had done that in 1893 he created an opposing organization, the Blue Bills, shortly after Mary Breeden’s death.
The Blue Bills had far fewer numbers than the White Caps, but they were bold, seemingly fearless, and smarter strategists than the vigilantes. They also wore no masks (not even blue caps) and did not hide their identities.
They managed to save several citizens from White Cap abuse, and increasingly drew public favor. Dr. Henderson was sufficiently bold as to walk alone and undisguised into the midst of White Cap encampments, offering money to those who would betray White Cap plans to him, then leave, unharmed.
It worked. The supposed guardians of public morality were for sale. Henderson became hated by the White Caps who hadn’t sold out, though, and trouble between the two groups mounted. Even the New York Times carried an account of a confrontation between the Blue Bills and the White Caps.
Henderson and his band swiftly eroded any veneer of righteousness the White Caps had retained. It wore off almost fully after White Caps committed a double murder of a young married couple, Laura and William Whaley, in their own home.
Three days after Christmas, 1896, two White Caps entered the sleeping couple’s small residence, confronted them, and shot both through the head in a murder-for-hire. The Whaley’s new baby was in the same room, held in the arms of a houseguest of the couple. William Whaley was sick and remained in bed; his wife got out of bed and was standing when they shot her.
The infant was far too young, thankfully, to comprehend what was happening. The houseguest, though, knew who the killers were and later identified them in court.
The Whaley murders reportedly were done at the behest of an influential and wealthy landowner against whom Laura Whaley had given grand jury testimony. That individual never was prosecuted successfully.
Tennessee Sen. Frank Nicely, Strawberry Plains, (a man whose way of dealing with others embodies his last name) has a family connection to events happening in the aftermath of the Whaley murder, and tells the tale authoritatively in his on-line blog.
Writes Nicely: “Pleas Wynn and Catlett Tipton were publicly executed for the murders of Laura and William Whaley at the (Sevier County) Courthouse on July 5, 1899. Theirs was the last hanging in Sevier County … Wynn and Tipton were White Caps, members of a secretive vigilante band of raiders ... That July day Wynn and Catlett paid full measure for their crimes, passing on to their immortal judgment ... ”
Nicely’s grandfather, High Nicely, was a Sevier County deputy involved in the execution. It was he who was assigned to cut the ropes holding the hanging corpses of the two men, one of whom, Wynn, had accepted an offered opportunity to be baptized only a day or two before the hanging. That river baptism became a public spectacle in itself.
Sen. Nicely continues in his blog: “I doubt ... lofty reflections crossed the mind of my grandfather as he cut the ropes, allowing the two lifeless vessels to fall. More likely, Hugh Niceley was intently focused from the corners of his eyes on the gathered witnesses, as wagering had been heavy whether he would live or die for his role in delivering justice.”
Fortunately for the deputy, the crowd remained nonviolent, “with many proceeding afterwards to the local druggist to settle their bets,” Sen. Nicely’s account states.
A followup anecdote from the senator provides evidence of the nearly total shift of public opinion against the White Caps.
“After the hangings, it was as if everyone wanted to put the episode behind them,” Sen. Nicely writes. “Hugh Niceley, now married, moved to the farm where my brother still lives today. Less than a year later, in 1900, my father was born. Initially, my grandfather named his son Tom Davis Niceley.”
That naming is significant, Tom Davis being the name of one of the lawmen who helped destroy the White Caps.
When little Tom Davis Nicely turned 2, though, his mother insisted that his name be changed to Jake.
Why the change? Sen. Nicely believes his grandmother simply wanted no ongoing reminder of the Whitecap years. And the name “Tom Davis,” even though it came from a man who helped bring down that group, was a reminder.
So Jake the child’s name was, from then on.
The White Caps were relegated to history when an anti-White Capping bill was passed in 1898 by the state legislature.