White Caps and Blue Bills of the Smoky Mountains and East Tennessee

Sevier County, Tennessee is known to be a peaceful, beautiful area where you can enjoy your days and relax.  However, it was not always that way.  In 1892, it could be a place of fear for those who didn’t quite fit the expected mold. If you weren’t virtuous, if you didn’t live a law abiding life, and if you weren’t part of the ‘secret organization’, then it could be a truly terrifying place to live.

In Tennessee in 1892, fidelity was encouraged, and even required by law.  This, of course, did not stop people from engaging in what was then considered lewd and inappropriate behavior.  Several men, who believed their intentions to be good and wholesome, decided they would become vigilantes of a sort, taking the law into their own hands.

These men knew that they were too were violating the law with their organization, and still decided to form what was known as the White Cap.

Their main resolve came in ridding communities of Sevier County of the people they believed were indecent. These actions were often hypocritical as many of the men committed the same crimes they were punishing others for.  However, the White Caps considered themselves above the law. They were so well connected in the community that their influence extended to nearly everything, including the court system.

The White Caps wore masks both to protect their identities and to intimidate the people they went after.  They would start by nailing notices to the doors of people they had a problem with.  The notice gave the person a strict warning to leave the community as soon as possible.  They often had time limits included in these notices.  If the people failed to comply, the White Caps would threaten them with violence. Their main form of punishment was to whip the backs of people who didn’t follow the instructions to get out of town.  They used hickory sticks to make the whipping more painful and long lasting.  Often, as a warning, when they put up notices on the doors of the people, they would leave a bundle of hickory sticks as a threat to show their seriousness.

Part of joining the White Cap required each member to take an oath in order to become an official part of the organization. They would choose a White Cap home, usually that of what was referred to as the ‘Chief Mogul’ or the ‘High-Cockalorum’.  First, they would test the toughness of the man in question, to make sure that he was properly fit for the duties which would be required. If he passed these rigorous tests, he would move onto the next stage of the induction.

The other men belonging to White Caps would draw, cock, and aim their guns at the chest of the man reciting the vows that would make him an official member.  The vow he gave went as followed: ‘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 ten 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.’

What could possibly be the first of the White Caps targets was a group of women who lived in Emert’s Cove.  They had chosen to ignore the White Caps warnings.  In the middle of the night, the first White Cap raid was made.  Six women were taken from their homes and viciously whipped by the masked men. They were given instructions to leave the community or they would face even harsher punishments.  The women obliged this order, leaving Emert’s Cove.  Most of the citizens felt no ill will towards these women’s abandonment of their homes.

Eventually it seemed like almost every man in Sevier County wished to belong to the infamous White Caps.  Everyone had different reasons for wanting to join.  Some of them were businessmen who wanted to take advantage of the influence the White Caps had in trade.  Others wanted to partake in the political presence the organization was known for.  Even more joined for protection.  The White Caps protected their own, even if they were harboring known criminals.

In 1894, the White Caps reached their peak.  Almost every night, men and women were being whipped without remorse from the members. The White Caps didn’t stop at harassing the people of Sevier County, however.  Soon they began traveling county to county, reinforcing what they believed to be moral, decent lives. Their organization soon spread to the adjacent counties.

Eventually, however, the support and popularity of the White Caps began to wither. The men who’d spent time, support, and money into helping this organization soon began to realize the error of their ways. Unfortunately, they realized this too late.  Instead of banding together and trying to stop the White Caps, they continued to help it grow until they had control over almost everything and everyone.  This happened in many surrounding counties.  Soon, they began to regret this decision.

The White Caps were taken over by what many people referred to as the ‘toughs’.  These men were criminals who lived terrible lives full of sin and injustices.  They began leading midnight raids where they would viciously beat and even kill men and women.  Often times, these people who were beaten and killed had committed less grave sins than the men who administered the punishments. Sometimes, people were beaten for merely expressing negative feelings about the White Caps.  The new leaders of the White Caps were cowards who never showed their faces, and never showed mercy.

Every infamous group eventually meet their match, and the White Caps were no different.  Their unlawful, and evil practices brought them head to head with the Blue Bills.

The Blue Bills was founded in 1893 by a man named Doctor J.A. Henderson. He started this organization after trying to save the life of Mrs. Mary Breeden.  She had been whipped terribly by the White Caps when she attempted to protect her daughters from the punishments that the organization had decided they deserved. This time, there had been no notice. The White Caps showed up at their home, and administered the cruel beatings.

Unfortunately for Mrs. Breeden, she didn’t die immediately.  She lived for two months in agony before finally passing away on August fourth, 1893.  Doctor Henderson was the physician called in to tend to her.  She told him the story of how the White Caps had beat her, and how they were the ones sending her to her grave. Doctor Henderson had to watch this innocent old woman die a painful death, rather than peacefully passing on like so many hope to do.  He had to listen to her recount the atrocities done to both her and her daughters.  So it came as no surprise when he decided to form his own organization with the sole purpose of bringing about the end of White Cap.

Many people compared the Blue Bills to the braveness and strength of Julius Caesar.  They were known to accept death before surrendering or accepting the punishments from the White Caps.  At the same time, it was well known that the White Caps would rather step on the tail of a rattler than find out that the Henderson and his men were after them.  The White Caps soon realized that they had a real foe on their hands.  They knew if they didn’t stop them that they would soon be eliminated.

While the Blue Bills were technically a group similar to the White Caps, they had many noticeable differences.  The Blue Bills had no bylaws. They had no constitution. They had no officers.  They had no oaths or obligations.  They also didn’t hide behind masks.

These were not the only differences, of course.  Whenever the Blue Bills and the White Caps began to fight, the Blue Bills were more interested in arresting and detaining the White Caps, rather than outright killing them.  They never intentionally shot to kill someone, and they always made sure the proper authorities were with them to arrest the White Caps when one was captured.

The Blue Bills did not consider themselves above the law; they didn’t consider themselves vigilantes, or heroes.  They simply wanted to bring a stop to the terror that the White Caps had brought about in Sevier County and the surrounding cities and towns.  They knew it was not their place to make final judgements about life or death.  Unlike the White Caps, they were not murderers.  They only killed someone if all other options had been exhausted and their lives were in danger.

There were several battles between the Blue Bills and White Caps.  Doctor Henderson was greatly detested by the White Caps, who often said they hated him worse than Satan. Henderson was a brave man who would simply walk into a White Cap camp and convince or bribe members to betray their leaders.  This allowed many of the White Cap men to alert the Blue Bills whenever a raid was being planned.  Henderson and his men would hurry to the home of those who were going to be punished, and stand in the way of allowing the beatings to happen. They foiled the White Caps plan almost every time.

For two long years, the White Caps and the Blue Bills were after one another.  The White Caps could not defeat Blue Bills, simply because they were less intelligent, had fewer weapons, and were simply worse warriors than the Blue Bills.  Even though they outnumbered the Blue Bills by a lot (somewhere between 600 and 1500 compared to the 200 led by Henderson), the Blue Bills were still better at tactics, and had many more victories than the White Caps, proving to many that intelligence and the determination to do good will often win out over evil.

In 1895, Henderson was assassinated in his own home, though many say it was unrelated to the war between the two organizations.  To this day, he is remembered for his important part in starting the Blue Bills and for his dedication to stopping the White Caps.

In 1897, two years after Henderson’s death, White Capping finally came to a stop. Communities pulled together in remembrance of Henderson and others like him, and finally decided to fight back.  It was a long, difficult, and frightening time for them, but none one of them regretted their decision to take their lives back into their own hands.

There are more people who deserve a special thanks for the part they played in bringing down the White Caps:

Tom H. Davis, the appointed deputy sheriff was known as the White Cap detective.  He worked relentlessly towards putting an end to the White Cap, even using his own income to support the cause.  He also helped secure the anti-White Cap bill, which was made into law on March twenty-fourth, 1898.

There is also John C. Houk, a senator from the senatorial district who became a champion in the senate. Representative Parton also gave his support in the House to end White Capping.

Judge Nelson should also be thanked for his bravery.  He never once gave into intimidation, influence, and outright threats when sentencing the men of the White Cap.  Like Nelson, General E. F Mynatt, the attorney general of Knox County criminal distract did a fantastic job of prosecuting these murderers. 

Our gratitude is also owed to Sheriff Maples and his deputies, Davis, Keener, McGill, and many more.  If it wasn’t for their tireless service in helping rid Tennessee of the White Caps, the terror could have lasted quite a bit longer than it did.

Because of these people, and the many others unmentioned, Sevier County along with many others, can finally know peace. Without these men in the modern world, people can live comfortably and safely once again.  So thank you.  Thank you to all the brave people who stood up to defend a county, a family, and every single person ever terrorized by the White Caps.  Because of them, our world has one less terror.

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