Around 1837, white males in Indiana began forming secret societies to mete out frontier justice.
The vigilantes often painted their faces black or wore white hoods to conceal their identity.
These groups also sometimes wore white paper caps and became known as White Caps, regulators or vigilance committees. The vigilantes typically targeted citizens who violated the local community’s values, such as men who neglected their families or women who had children out of wedlock.
Jackson County was no stranger to vigilante justice. In the mid-19th century, groups of regulators from Lawrence, Monroe, Brown and Jackson counties dealt backwater justice — lynching, destruction of property, lashings and brutal beatings — to thieves, counterfeiters, adulterers and other criminals.
Seymour gained international notoriety in 1868 when some 200 members of the Seymour Vigilance Committee stopped a train carrying three members of the Reno Gang while in the custody of law enforcement officials en route to the Brownstown jail. The mob easily wrested the prisoners from the officials and lynched them at the site that came to be known as Hangman’s Crossing.
A few days later, the same vigilance committee intercepted a wagon carrying three more captured members of the gang and lynched them at the same spot. According to the train’s conductor, between 2,500 and 3,000 citizens turned out to watch the spectacle.
A few months later, the media credited the same committee with storming the New Albany jail and lynching four remaining Reno Gang members. Chicago, Nashville and New York newspapers compared the extra-judicial executions to that of the Ku Klux Klan in the south.
In 1887, a Jackson County audience heckled the African American performers inside the Seymour Opera House and threw old eggs at the artists outside the theater. The columnist advised the troupe to “steer clear of ‘White Caps’ and ‘Regulators.’”
In November, Seymour police arrested African American barber Chris Peters for allegedly “robbing his employer and attempting to defraud several creditors.” Eight White Cappers broke into the Seymour jail and lashed his bare back. Peters had taken 50 cents.
The local judicial system may have been in league with the “lynch law,” as it was often called. The Banner read, “Chris Peters was acquitted because he had been whipped by the White Caps for the same offense and was sufficiently punished.”
Sympathy for White Caps at the time was widespread. In May 1888, the Banner editor wrote that the White Caps were not “outlaws, cutthroats and villains” but rather “men of good moral character, who love law and order” and wished nothing more than to punish criminals when the legal system failed.
By 1889, the White Caps of Salt Creek Township included both men and women. They not only established “justice” outside the courts, but they performed charitable acts, like chopping wood and making quilts for those in need.
Vigilantism also took the form of intimidation to force farmers into compliance with local norms. Community members circulated threats of White Cap visits if Wells Matlock, brother of George Matlock, did not erect a fence around his cornfield.
White Cap victims often identified their assailants as prominent citizens. Crothersville’s own Charles Simpson and Warren Langdon may have tampered with witnesses in an attempt to derail a lawsuit in January 1890. A dozen or more vigilantes blackened their faces or wore masks, paper caps and their coats turned inside out when they dragged Andy Slate from his bed one Sunday morning at 1 a.m.
When Slate grabbed a corn cutter to defend himself, the vigilantes shot him in the left arm and the back. The mob then marched to John C. Warner’s house and “hauled” him out of bed. Four vigilantes restrained Warner while a “fifth one held a cocked revolver at Mrs. Warner’s head, threatening to shoot her if she offered any resistance” or screamed. The White Caps tied John to a tree and severely whipped him.
According to the Banner, this particular assault was not the result of infractions committed by male victims at all but was designed to intimidate their wives. Alice A. Warner had filed a slander lawsuit against Mary Simpson, wife of Charles Simpson, while Mrs. Slate was principal witness for the prosecution.
The White Capping case went to trial in early February, and Judge Collins cleared the defendants of all charges because they were “men of good character” and “good standing,” the Banner boasted. On the same day, the judge dismissed Alice Warner’s slander case against Mary Simpson.
In 1897, John Poor and his wife fell victim to White Capping in Shields. Three men with blackened faces and white paper caps beat John with brass knuckles while knocking his wife to the ground and kicking her. They dragged John outside, where two more assailants awaited to join the attack. Mrs. Poor struck one of the vigilantes with an ax handle, allowing her husband to escape into the woods.
On Saturday morning, Nov. 2, 1901, just after midnight, several White Caps visited William R. Combs near Maumee. Accused of selling “bitters” that contained a “super-abundance of bad whiskey,” the vigilantes shot up the house’s windows and doors with buckshot and threatened to torch the house if Combs didn’t come outside.
When William emerged, the mob severely beat him and threatened “worse treatment” if he failed to move away. Combs recognized three of his attackers in Kurtz a few days later.
From this environment of extra-judicial violence carried out in the shadows of backwater Jackson County at the close of the 19th century emerged the White Capping of George and Drusilla Matlock, the most complex and convoluted vigilante attack in Owen Township history.
Craig Davis, who was born in Seymour and graduated from Brownstown Central High School, currently lives in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and works for a U.S. government contractor on school-based violence prevention. He is the author of “The Middle East for Dummies” and is conducting research for a genealogy and social history book in Kurtz and Freetown. You can visit the Living with Cancer weekly blog at marvingray.org and write him at [email protected].