The White Caps were a violent vigilante group formed in approximately 1892 by citizens of Sevier County, who were concerned about certain elements of their society that they deemed immoral. This organization was an outgrowth of a larger whitecapping movement which spread through rural United States in the mid to late nineteenth century with the goal of enforcing traditional morals and behavior.
The White Caps were a secret society in which members wore a white sheet and hood to disguise their identities. In Sevier County, members wanted to rid the communities of people that they felt were undesirable or unworthy. They held themselves above the law, and indeed, they were often treated as such due to their influence in the county legal system.
Members would leave a note of warning for their targets, commanding them to leave the area as soon as possible. These notes often had a time limit attached to them, and if people failed to comply, the White Caps would threaten them with violence. Those that refused to leave were often whipped with hickory sticks. These beatings grew increasingly brutal until William and Laura Whaley were murdered before their infant child in December 1896. This incident, at last, turned public sentiment against the White Caps.
The Blue Bills were formed in 1893 as a response to the White Caps brutality. Dr. J. A. Henderson attended the deathbed of Mrs. Mary Breeden who’d been beaten for protecting her daughters from White Cap members. He recruited other people disgusted by the White Caps and they formed the Blue Bills, whose sole intention was to bring down the White Caps. The Blue Bills were not a secret organization; they did not hide behind masks. They also made sure that official legal authorities were on hand to perform arrests.
In the next few years, there were several battles between the two groups. Dr. Henderson became the public enemy for the White Caps and in 1895, he was assassinated. Dr. Henderson’s death became a rallying point for those opposed to the White Caps.
The situation came to an end, finally, with the murder of the Whaleys. Laura Whaley had been threatened into writing a letter of warning to another farmer to leave town. She later identified Bob Catlett and Bob Wade as the men who had threatened her. The two men were indicted and Catlett vowed to have the Whaleys killed in response. He hired Pleas Wynn and James Callett Tipton to murder William and Laura Whaley.
The two men killed the Whaleys in late December 1896, leaving Laura’s older sister, divorcée Lizzie Chandler as a witness. Chandler had been sleeping in the same room as the Whaleys’ infant daughter Mollie. Before her death, Laura had pled for the life of her baby, asking to be allowed to give Mollie to Lizzie for safekeeping. When Laura handed the baby over to her sister, Lizzie was able to see the faces of Laura’s murderers. She would go on to be a star witness in the murder trials against Pleas Wynn and Catlett Tipton. The court transcripts of Pleas Wynn and Catlett Tipton’s testimonies and cross-examinations may be found below.
E. W. Crozier’s The White Caps is still the definitive account of the White Caps – Blue Bills feud. It was published in 1899 just a few years after the Whaley murders and the public executions of Pleas Wynn and Catlett Tipton on July 5, 1896. Their hangings were the last public hangings in Sevier County. Crozier’s work is now in the public domain and may be downloaded below.