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Mob Rule: New York State White Caps

“Hear us, thou delver in unrighteousness.” This was part of a warning notice posted on a home’s front door in Neversink, Sullivan County, as published in the New York Herald on April 22, 1889.

It was from the village’s band of moral crusaders called White Caps who operated outside of the law to reform/punish “unrighteous” people in their communities. In this case, the White Caps were women, and they demanded that a family man stop his frequent visits to a tavern, and going home “as drunk as a lord.” If he disobeyed this admonition, the notice declared that “tortures will grapple you,” and this is exactly what happened.

According to the Herald, the women seized the man soon after he left the bar, and beat him so badly that “he was nearer dead than alive when he got home.” In addition, the victim was “soused,” or dunked,” in a nearby mill pond. This was one of only a few instances, though, when white capping was done by women.

This event aptly illustrates the heyday of White Capism in New York from the 1880s as membership in the vigilante gangs spiked through the early 1900s when it slowly faded. For example, a telegraph article in early 1889 reported that bands of these morals adjusters “have appeared” in Little Falls, Herkimer, Johnstown, Amsterdam, and Fultonville. Generally, Cappers preferred small towns as their settings, one reason being that the intersession of law enforcement was often scarce or absent. When these community saviors perceived a resident as a “delver in unrighteous-ness,” the White Caps — who wore white hoods but not robes — often performed their version of reformative social intervention. During the same year in Northville in Fulton County, a married couple, and another man and woman, lived in the same house. The local White Caps ended this arrangement by seizing the married man, and then inflicting two summary lessons. First, he was tarred and feathered, and then ridden on a rail. The latter was used occasionally over the years but the former was a White Capping mainstay.

Two unusual instances of tar and feathering occurred in 1906 as White Capism approached its denouement. In early August in East Syracuse, a brakeman was seized by the local white caps for his alleged attention to a married woman, and his inattention to his mother. On the 8th , the Syracuse Journal vividly described the violence. “The spectacle of a man in nature’s garb… blindfolded and hand-bound and surrounded by an angry and howling crowd, formed part…a drama last night….” When the tar would not stick, their answer was to smear him with green paint to which the feathers adhered. The man and married woman were ordered to leave town which they did.

The scene of a second instance was in Milton in Ulster County in December when approximately fifty residents White Capped a local foreman of a knitting mill. According to New York’s The Sun on December 30, he spoke his mind about the young men in the hamlet, and “his readiness to call a youth a dude caused the young men to conclude that he was a nuisance.” The man was hung “until he was half dead,” and then was painted with molasses after he was stripped in preparation for feathers. The perpetrators then “left him to get home as best he could.” However, White Caps utilized other tactics to forcefully induce behavioral modification. This other tactical mainstay required them to terrorize the alleged offender by attacking the residence.

In 1896 in Southold, Long Island, for example, The East Hampton Star described a violent attack against a new-in- town couple who were thought to operate a secret, hard “cider ranch.” They were warned of dire consequences if they did not leave town. On November 13, the paper reported that 50 White Caps marched to the ranch. “At a given signal guns were fired, windows were broken and doors were smashed. Bricks were hurled…. Those inside were terrified. They ran frantic” until the arrival of the Sheriff. There were no arrests, and although the couple vowed to leave South-hold, it cannot be determined that they did. A similar White Capping venture occurred five years later near the Thousand Islands, only with a different outcome. In Fine View in Jefferson County for unstated reasons, forty to fifty White Caps attacked the home of a resident with firearms, sticks, and stones. In this case, however, the homeowner and his brother fired back. Monticello’s Republican Watchman carried the telegraph report which stated that “a vigorous defense was made… and many shots were fired. That no one was killed seems to be a miracle.”

Lastly, there was the occasional “ride on a rail.” Such was the case in Northville in 1889 when, according to The Utica Daily Observer on October 29, the White Cups countenanced an unmarried couple living in “shameless intimacy,” and they raided the home of the “depraved people” but only after careful preparation. Not only did they bring tar and feathers but also “a sharp three-cornered rail.” After removing the man’s garments, he was “plastered with tar and feathers, and then treated to a half mile ride on the sharp edged rail.”

In Chautauqua County’s Falconer in 1910, White Caps tried to reform a man whom they believed was in the habit of beating his entire family. After being soused in the Chautauqua River but before being horse-whipped, they carried him on a rail through the village streets. The victim sued for $3000 upon learning the names of the six perpetrators, but was awarded $100. On October 22, The Buffalo Courier reported that “a large part of the people of Falconer were subpoenaed as witnesses” in the Supreme Court trial held in Mayville. This result was one of only a few successful litigations against White Cappers in the State.

This article was originally published on 7/25/17 on NewYorkAlmanack.com.

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