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'White Caps' took law in own hands


Celebrating Statehood



Bicentennial
(click for larger version)
August 07, 2013 | 10:51 AM

Did you know that Harrison County was dubbed "The White Cap County" by a reporter from The New York Times in 1888?

Who were the White Caps? The White Caps were a secret society composed of community members who felt compelled to clean up their neighborhoods by punishing "moral" offenders. Punishable offenses included such subjective pronouncements not generally punishable in a court of law. Charges included not providing for one's family, not keeping a neat enough house, lewdness, stirring up strife in the community, petty theft, drunkenness and "not earning his living by the sweat of his brow."

Punishment was not administered along racial, religious or other prejudicial lines, but was based upon community standards.

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This drawing depicts brothers Sam and Bill Conrad, who were acquitted of their father's death, preparing to ambush the White Caps while hiding out with their shotguns. (click for larger version)
What did the White Caps do exactly? After the White Cap council had passed judgment upon a selected "guilty" party, they went into action. First, they gave the intended victim a warning to reform or leave the county in the form of a cautionary note and a bundle of hickory switches left on the victim's porch. The preferred outcome was that the recipient would simply move on and become some other community's problem. If the recipient chose not to heed the warning, then the night riders were activated. Disguising themselves and their horses, too, they rode to the chosen victim's home under cover of darkness. They took the offender, male or female, outside, tied them to a tree and administered a series of brutal lashes with a whip.

When did the White Caps exist in Harrison County? Local historians have pinpointed the White Cap Period in Harrison County as encompassing approximately 20 years. The movement, which began as an outgrowth from the Horse Thief Association Patrols, began in 1874 with the whipping of James Keen in Scott Township.

The White Cap movement in Harrison County came to an abrupt halt with the death, and identification, of five members of the White Caps 130 years ago on Aug. 5, 1893, during a shoot-out in Conrad's Hollow on Mosquito Creek near Laconia. Sam and Bill Conrad, who had been acquitted in their father's death, ambushed the White Caps by hiding out with their shotguns in the cornfield. After this event, no one wanted to acknowledge that they had been a member of the White Caps or even knew anything about the secret society.

Where did the White Caps originate? Uniquely enough, the use of the term "White Caps" as a label for the vigilante movement originated in Harrison County when a reporter from The New York Times visited the area. He assigned them the descriptive nickname because of the white muslin hoods they wore to disguise their identity. Harrison County was actually given the distinction of being dubbed the "White Cap County." Every one of Harrison County's 13 townships was reputed to have organized White Cap units, which followed a military-style protocol. In some cases, these units switched townships to conceal their identities or joined together to make a powerful statement to the community. One example of uniting to accomplish a purpose then disbanding included the hanging of James Deavin and Charles Tennyson from the West Bridge in Corydon in 1889. Another such tale is the white capping of the Harrison County Commissioners for mismanagement of county funds in May 1885.

Why did the White Caps do this? Members of the secret society justified their participation in white-capping activities by rationalizing that is was their moral obligation to expunge moral laxity from their communities.

Karen Schwartz, president of the Historical Society of Harrison County, serves on the legacy group of the Harrison County Committee for the Indiana Bicentennial. In preparation of Indiana's bicentennial in 2016, she is providing a monthly column — focusing on a person, place or event from Harrison County's history — that gives insight to our history. She said the columns should serve as an introduction and/or summary of a topic but are not intended to include all known facts and information. To suggest a topic, contact Schwartz at 736-2373 or 738-2828, by e-mail at karengleitz@hotmail.com or by regular mail at 5850 Devil's Elbow Road NW, Corydon, IN 47112.

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