Jerry Summers: White Caps And Bluebills Feud - Sevier County

Sunday, November 29, 2020 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

The Hatfield – McCoy feud in West Virginia – Kentucky, the Tollett – Swafford shootings in Bledsoe County, Tennessee, and the Harris – Parker moonshine killings in Hamilton County, Tennessee are some of the most recognizable arguments and events that got out of control and led to many killings in Appalachia in the 1890s – 1960s,

Also to be included in this history of violence is the illegal and deadly relationship between two groups known as the White Caps and Bluebills in Sevier County, Tennessee in the mountainous region of upper east Tennessee.

“White Caps” was a self-appointed law enforcement group in Sevier County who in that period attempted to enforce public order and morality by intimidating or punishing alleged offenders.

Sworn to secrecy and active at night they were called White Caps because of their white hoods.

The group was comprised of a few good citizens of Sevier County who were desirous of ridding the county of a certain lawless element by taking the law into their own hands and applying summary punishment.

Unfortunately, the group attracted another lawless element which soon controlled the membership.

After two years of white-capism a competing group called the Blue Bills was formed following the particularly brutal beating of a woman and her daughters by the Whitecaps.  Eventually the woman died and her physician, Dr.

J. A. Henderson formed a rival group the “Blue Bills” as a citizen posse to combat the White Caps.

The Blue Bills had no formal organization, no dress code, no oath of secrecy like the White Caps but did enjoy the nominal support of local law enforcement in the community to intercept White Cap whipping parties.

There only exists one known instance of gunfire between the two groups throughout the Blue Bills two year existence.  There would be numerous gun battles resulting in deaths between individual members of the two groups.

That clash occurred in November 1894 and would subsequently be known as the “Battle of Henderson Springs”.

In the exchange of gun fire two White Caps and one Blue Bill were killed.

Eruption into a full scale war was prevented when the Blue Bill leader J. A. Henderson was shot and killed through his living room window by a jealous husband whose wife had supposedly spent the weekend with her doctor in a Knoxville hotel.  Although said adulterous act had nothing to do with the Blue Bills the death of its founder led to the end of the group.

The events that led to the demise of the White Caps was the murder of William and Laura Whaley planned by Bob Catlett, a White Cap supporter and one of the county’s largest taxpayers.

Catlett had been identified by Laura Whaley, along with his brother-in-law, Bob Wade, as being the individual that had forced her at gun point to write a White Caps threatening letter to a farmer which caused him to leave town after Catlett and Wade pinned the letter to his door and fired rounds of buckshot into the home.

When Laura Whaley confided to a friend about her identifying the two men as the shooters into the house, Carlett and Wade were indicted for “rocking and shooting.”

Carlette vowed to have the two Whaleys killed and employed Pleas Wynn and James Callett Tipton to commit the murder.

In late December, 1896 the two men killed both Whaleys but unfortunately did not kill Laura’s older sister, a divorcee, Lizzie Chandler, who was sleeping in a room with the Whaley’s six week old daughter, Mollie.

After pleading with the intended killers that she be allowed to give her baby to her sister they consented and during the transfer of the infant, Lizzie saw the thick, bewhiskered face of Pleas Wynn under his White Caps mask before the Whaley’s were murdered.

Lizzie would be the star witness in a pair of sensational murder trials against Wynn and Tipton and a conspiracy charge against Catlett and Wade.

The latter two were acquitted but the killers were convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to hang.

Pleas Wynn and Catlett Tipton were publically executed for the murders of Laura and William Whaley at the Sevier County Courthouse on July 5, 1896.  It was the last public hanging in Sevier County.

Several events led to the effective means of quelling the White Caps menace.

A former schoolteacher Thomas Houston Davis would be elected Sheriff as a Democrat as the only member of the party to hold the office of High Sheriff in Sevier County since the Civil War.

Davis also had the tenacity to track criminals to far-flung locales even outside his jurisdiction.

He also convinced the Tennessee General Assembly to pass two key pieces of legislation.

The first, called the White Caps Bill, not only forbade outlaw conspiracies’ but also gave prosecutors great latitude in keeping suspected members of such organizations from sitting on juries.

Prospective jurors often took the Fifth Amendment and refused to answer any questions about their membership in such organizations, which effectively removed them from jury service.

 A second measure took the form of a resolution removing Sevier County from the local circuit judge who had strong ties to prominent White Cap families and placing the cases under the authority of the Knoxville Criminal Court.

Although the oldest survivors of this era in Sevier County have long passed their descendants are still reluctant to discuss the bloody and deadly events of the 1890s.

A 116 page Master Theses paper “Community, Violence and the Nature of Change:  Whitecapping in Sevier County, Tennessee during the 1890s” by University of Tennessee at Knoxville graduate student, William Joseph Cummings in June 1988 is a comprehensive analysis of the events surrounding the topic of this article.

It can be downloaded gratuitously under the named topic.

* * *

Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com)  


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