Thundering hooves and midnight shootouts. Hangings on the courthouse lawn. Riverboat chases. Bush-whackings and assassinations. Bribes and conspiracies. Spies and intrigue. Riots and brawls. Illicit love affairs and outright prostitution. Cold-blooded murder. Theft of property and goods under cover of law and vigilante justice. Outrageous oratory. Dark oaths at midnight. White hoods and whips. Martial law. Moral crusades. Unbelievable courtroom drama and selfless acts of heroism.
Just over a century ago, such acts and events plagued and enlivened East Tennessee life. Throughout Sevier County and parts of Knox, Cocke, Jefferson and Blount, some of the most sordid and heroic dramas in Tennessee history played themselves out to a morbid conclusion, but not before the drama had extended to Nashville, several neighboring states and as far away as West Texas.
In short, outlaw gangs took over much of the state and became more powerful than local government. I'm talking about the White Caps and Blue Bills, mostly of Sevier County. Taken together, these outlaw bands numbered in the hundreds, though some estimates range as high as 2,000 or more.
As a kid growing up in Seymour I heard rumors of White Caps and Blue Bills and their fierce conflicts. However, such things were not much talked about. There are lots of folks living in the area whose ancestors played prominent roles on both sides of the struggle and for many years to even discuss it amounted to a breach of etiquette.
I became better acquainted with the conflict in 1998, when I was approached by a small production company intent on making a movie based on those long ago events. I don't know the status of that production or how much of my research and language ended up in the final screenplay and I'll be more than a little curious to see if anything comes of it.
Meanwhile, I've become more knowledgeable than most about White Caps and Blue Bills, which is to say, I read Cas Walker's self-published book, "The Whitecaps of Sevier County," mostly a repackaging of "The Sevier County White Caps," written by Deputy Tom Davis a century ago. And I read newspaper accounts, which go into some detail. And I did some hiking around on over-grown and over-developed landscapes where shootouts and ambushes and whippings took place. I also took a gander at some academic research on the subject.
A teacher who got wind of my poking around, recently invited me to discuss this largely repressed subject and I obliged.
It's easy to fill an hour or more talking about those times. Look at most any month of the year and some anniversary of a significant event that played out more than a century ago is bound to cycle through.
For instance, it was 110 years ago this week--mid-May 1893--that Doc. J.A. Henderson witnessed the death of Mary Breeden a woman accused of being a "lewd woman." She was whipped to death by White Caps, apparently in an effort to raise the moral tone of the county.
The murder was seminal in the rise of the Blue Bills. Doc Henderson is a delicious character. He enjoyed strong drink, night life and entertainment. His crusade against the White Caps came to a conclusion upon his murder at the hands of a jealous husband. If the killer had other motives, they never came out.
It's even more exciting to discuss Deputy Tom Davis, who chased White Cap outlaws all over the Southern Appalachians and as far away as West Texas, where he traveled disguised as a Salvation Army volunteer.
It was Davis who collected the only witness to the double-murder of William and Laura Whaley in 1898 and brought her incognito to the courthouse square so that she could point to the killers who were among the restive mob in Sevierville that day. It was Davis who fought off ambushers as he rode trains and riverboats to Nashville and lobbied the state legislature to take over the corrupt justice system of Sevier County.
As I say, depravity countered by heroism, decorates and dominates the saga of White Caps and Blue Bills. It's exciting and intriguing, easy to dramatize.
What is more difficult is getting at the psychology and motivation underlying the drama.
As far as I can tell, the saga began when some of the county's upstanding women complained to their husbands about the prevalence of prostitutes and drunks in the county. When the courts proved unable to reign in the objectionable behavior, some prominent businessmen organized old-fashioned vigilante justice. Power corrupted, event led to event and the moral high ground eventually changed hands.
In some ways, it's a story old as time. In other ways, it's a mystery to solve.
More on this sometime down the road.