Enforcing Temperance – The Hard Way
White Cappers practiced vigilante justice
Westfield has become a very hip community over the last several years, particularly with regard to alcohol. Brew pubs and tap rooms have opened and there is now the “Rock the Junction” craft beer and music festival. This would be a shock to original settlers of the town, who were strongly in favor of temperance. Today, the temperance movement has a humorous stereotype of hymn-singing women with occasional saloon-smashing, hatchet-wielders like Carrie Nation. In reality, violence was surprisingly common. In fact, there was a secret society to enforce morality – by any means possible. In the late 19th century, Hamilton County had to deal with the night-riding vigilante group known as the “White Caps”.
The roots of organization are in 1830’s Indiana when they were created for extra-legal frontier justice. Their primary goals were temperance and protecting women, and they were named for wearing white hoods to disguise themselves. One of their trademark actions was to ride up to a house with an abusive husband, take him outside, and flog him.
Temperance and reform took off in the 1870’s and 1880’s, both legally and illegally. It was reported in 1875 that a court charged six Hamilton County Quakers $200 apiece for burning down a house of prostitution. In 1878, White Cappers were named as being responsible for an attack on a saloon in Clarksville. People felt that the 1881 “Battle of Mudsock” [HCBM Dec/Jan 2017] illustrated the need for reform. It possibly also reflected a response to the increasing restrictions. I’ve covered the 1882 story about Westfield women destroying a saloon in this magazine before [HCBM Apr/May 2012].
The movement was partially spurred by growth in the area. The Midland Railroad made its way through the county in the 1870’s and 1880’s [HCBM Jun/Jul 2011] and The Monon Railroad was finished in 1882. Houses of prostitution grew up along the “wrong side of the tracks” which ignited a Noblesville newspaper war in 1883. It ended with one of the brothels being burnt to the ground. The growth, and attendant vice, increased with the discovery of natural gas in 1887.
In February of 1889, the Noblesville mayor denied that there were White Cappers in the area. As if in answer, in March a man was attacked in Sheridan for improper relations with a woman. There were two attributed attacks in 1891 in Noblesville, a beating with hoses filled with sawdust and a dunking in the river. A Fishers man claimed that he had been beaten by White Caps in 1892, but it turned out that his wife had done it to punish him for drinking. The drinking crowd began fighting back that year. Albert Trittipo, a Fishers merchant and a temperance leader, was nearly killed by explosive devices in 1892 and 1895.
Despite all of this, a couple of Broad Ripple men unwisely attempted to open a saloon in Westfield in 1893. No White Caps showed up, but the church bells were rung to call everyone into town. At first, there was a confrontation at the town council. When neither side backed down, the men from Broad Ripple were then arrested and fined for carrying concealed weapons. The judge offered them choice of jail until they could pay the fine or remittance if they signed a document saying they would not open a saloon. One signed the document, the other went to jail. The Westfield citizens then released a statement: “We respectfully warn all whom it may concern to desist from any such attempt; for, if persisted in, the will of the people will be enforced. Come what may, the people will not tolerate a saloon in this place.”
The story of the White Caps in Hamilton County took a particularly frightening turn in 1909 with the harassment of a Mexican family in Fall Creek Township. There was no visible connection to alcohol or abuse. We know now that the failure of the natural gas boom led to rise of Ku Klux Klan in Indiana. The KKK, under the charismatic leadership of D. C. Stephenson, rebranded themselves as a new form of White Cappers during Prohibition and the perceived decadence of the Roaring 20’s. They claimed that they were keeping America strong and healthy, and protecting American womanhood. This created a strange alliance of descendants of abolitionists and the KKK. Jason S. Lanzter covers this in his monograph, “Dark Beverage of Hell”. One of the reasons that the Klan collapsed when their leader D.C. Stephenson was put on trial for murder is that he was exposed as a drunk and a rapist, negating their rebranding.
The state government had been trying to clamp down on the White Caps and, after the collapse of the Klan, the issue started to fade away. There were incidents of vigilantism and lynching in other Indiana counties, but Hamilton County settled down. The attitude towards temperance took a long time to change - Westfield did not allow alcohol to be sold until the 1970’s. It’s very evident now that the community has changed drastically.