Pleas Wynn and Catlett Tipton were publicly executed for the murders of Laura and William Whaley at the Courthouse on July 5, 1899. Theirs was the last hanging in Sevier County. The circumstances of their crimes, as well as the chain of events bringing them to their final justice, is a darkly fascinating and defining saga, as East Tennessee crossed the threshold into the 20th Century.
Wynn and Tipton were White Caps, members of a secretive vigilante band of raiders begun to uphold virtuous community standards, but during the 1890’s seized the county in its grip, pitting neighbors against each other in a violent struggle between the rule of law and mob whim. That July day Wynn and Catlett paid full measure for their crimes, passing on to their immortal judgment, perhaps not just for themselves, but for their community as a whole.
I doubt those lofty reflections crossed the mind of my Grandfather, Deputy Hugh Niceley, 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. The crowd remained peaceful, with many proceeding afterwards to the local druggist to settle their bets.
White Capping in Sevier County started simply and popularly as a means to uphold communities’ standards of conduct. When a prostitute moved her business and three ladies from Knoxville to Emert’s Cove in 1892, late night visitors dropped bundles of switches at each woman’s door, warning them to move on or face a whipping on a later visit.
Initially, these visits were viewed favorably, as the first notes signed “White Caps” were from the wives and good ladies of the community. It didn’t take long for the frequency and severity of White Cap actions to raise alarm.
By the mid 1890s the White Caps had escalated their violent night raids and expanded their secretive group to include prominent businessmen, as well as local magistrates who excused their offenses. Public opinion began to turn as early as 1993, however, with the particularly brutal whipping of Mrs. Breeden and her daughters. Mrs. Breeden’s eventual death prompted her physician, Dr. J.A. Henderson, to take charge of a rival group, the “Blue Bills,” as a citizen posse to combat the White Caps.
In the August election of 1894 Republican M.F. Maples was elected sheriff by 147 votes running on the pledge to end the White Caps vigilantism and restore order. He brought the opposite party into his coalition, promising to appoint a Democrat deputy. He chose farmer and former school teacher, Thomas H. Davis. Davis was educated, methodical and led the way to restore law and order for the citizens of Sevier County.
Hugh Niceley was raised in Dandridge, but upon reaching young adulthood left Tennessee, joining relatives in Oklahoma to work the Chisholm Trail for cattlemen. While there he contracted and luckily recovered from Typhoid fever. Soon after, he decided to return home to the hills he loved. Hugh Niceley was cutting a boundary of timber for Deputy Sheriff Tom H. Davis who approached him for help in putting down vigilante violence in Sevier County. My Grandfather agreed, leaving logging to join the force of Sheriff M.F. Maples and bring the White Caps to justice.
The 1896 murders of the Whaley’s galvanized Sevier County in opposition to the White Caps, as their deaths exacted cold blooded revenge for testimony to the grand jury against the conspiracy. The situation had grown so volatile that Maples and Davis brought in detective assistance from Knoxville, despite the resentment for bringing in “outsiders” fostered in the county.
Bringing Wynn and Tipton to justice took many twists and turns. State legislation was passed providing a neutral judge to the district, as well as new criminal laws on conspiracy. By the end of the trial Tom Davis was acting Sheriff, as M.F. Maples was being held under investigation for killing Pleas Wynn’s brother William in a confrontation outside the courtroom.
Even so, the conviction and execution of the Whaley murderers didn’t bring complete closure. Wealthy landowner Bob Catlett, the man many thought ordered the murders, was never satisfactorily brought to justice. While Maples and Davis brought down the White Caps, and Davis became the first Democrat sheriff of Sevier County in 1888, by 1900 it was all over. Unable to bring in Catlett after a bungled state prosecution, Tom Davis didn’t stand for re-election in 1900 and moved on. M.F. Maples moved to Knoxville, becoming an agent for the IRS, but killed in an ambush five years later.
After the hangings, it was as if everyone wanted to put the episode behind them. 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. But perhaps like most, my grandmother insisted on locking it all away as well, renaming my father Jake Niceley by the time he was two years old.
Additional Resources on the Web:
- New York Times Article on battle between the White Caps and Blue Bills
- Appalachian History Blog
- Cummings, William Joseph, “Community, Violence, and the Nature of Change: Whitecapping in Sevier County, Tennessee, During
the 1890’s. ” Master’s Thesis, University of Tennessee, 1988
- Mike Maple’s Family Recollections
- Hendersons and the Blue Bills
- Smith & Wesson Model 3 Revolver
- Piddlin Blog on White Caps Story
- Metropulse Article on the White Caps
- State Library Resources