hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News November 2022


Vigilante groups sprang up locally — and spurred a backlash

Maury Thompson


A former Saratoga Springs tally-ho driver who had fallen into reckless living experienced a forced conversion on his way home from a night of carousing.

“He was suddenly confronted by several men wearing white caps, who gave him some sound and telling advice, and warned him that unless he kept better hours and discontinued drinking, they would be compelled to chastise him,” The Mechanicville Mercury reported on Feb. 1, 1889. “As a result, he promised with great alacrity and continued homeward with much fear and trembling.”

The White Caps, a vigilante movement that purported to root out immorality and laziness in communities, cropped up around the region in 1889.

“Fort Edward, in order to keep with its neighbors, announces that it has a band of White Caps,” The Granville Sentinel reported on Feb. 8, 1889. “Several young men of that place have lately received letters, warning them not to remain out of doors late at night, and advising them to select their contemporaries more carefully.”

The whitecapping movement in the United States began in Indiana as a mechanism for farmers to enforce community values in rural areas. Vigilantes organized into secret societies that threatened adulterers and fathers who did not support their families.

The movement had its origins in the early 19th century in Ireland.
“There lived in County Kerry a large and influential family named Whitecap, who, whenever any of their neighbors became too obstreperous or immoral, waited on them in the night, took them from their houses and gave them a sound thrashing with a cat-o-nine-tails as a warning to desist from their wrong doing and evil practices,” the Ann Arbor Argus of Michigan reported on Jan. 20, 1893.

Other Irish clans copied the concept. By the time it surfaced in Indiana, the name had been spilt into two words – White Caps – and the movement’s followers began wearing white caps as a sign of solidarity.

Whitecapping, which continued into the early 20th century, took on a racial aspect as it spread into the South during the post-Civil War era of Reconstruction. The movement became associated with intimidation and sometimes whipping and lynching of victims.

Whipping was practiced locally as well, including by a band of White Caps in Columbia County.
“It is stated that seven White Caps on horseback drove to the residences of John Kittle and John Colby at Niverville, took them to a stone quarry, horse whipped them and made them pray for mercy,” The Columbia Republican reported on Feb. 7, 1889. “They were afterwards taken home and made to ask their wives to forgive them. They were told if they did not support their families, the White Caps would appear on Feb. 4 and tar and feather them.”

In at least one instance, whitecapping dovetailed with the labor movement’s support of striking workers in the Berkshires.

“Two of the men who took the places of the 40 striking weavers at the Monument Mills in Housatonic were attacked on their way home by fifteen masked men who said they were White Caps and who beat them until insensible and left them in the road,” The Granville Sentinel reported on January 18, 1889. “The two victims finally reached home, and, though seriously injured, will recover.

Because the White Caps operated in secret, it could be difficult to identify the instigators. But some newspaper editors of the era had their hunches.

“White Caps are making a sensation at West Rutland, Danby and Wallingford, Vt., by posting warning notices on the doors of well-known citizens,” The Granville Sentinel reported on Feb. 8, 1889. “Efforts are made to find the authors. The ‘Long Sue’ gang of West Rutland is thought to be at the bottom of the operations.”

It is not clear if the White Caps movement infiltrated the region from elsewhere or if independent local groups sprang up because of extensive newspaper reporting about White Caps activity in other states.

Some editors suspected members of the local groups were, in large part, simply ruffians who weren’t motivated by any specific philosophy or cause.

“The people of Cohoes complain of a number of boys and young men who have established a rendezvous on Van Schaich’s Island and who are imitating the notorious ‘White Caps’ on their heads and committing depredations,” The Morning Star of Glens Falls reported on Jan. 18, 1889. “Recently they posted a notice on the door of a residence where an objectionable woman lives to leave the place upon threats of persecution.”

White Caps activity also was reported at Glens Falls, Lake George, Lake Luzerne and Warrensburg in Warren County, Whitehall in Washington County, Cropseyville in Rensselaer County, Germantown in Columbia County, and Tivoli in Dutchess County.

Some newspaper editors called for an investigation of the White Caps movement and drastic action to stop it.

“It is now time for all citizens to arm themselves and give these night marauders a lesson,” The Columbia Republican wrote in an editorial on Feb. 7, 1889. “Such doings should not be tolerated in a civilized country, and the quicker the ‘White Caps’ get the message, the better.”

The Morning Star of Glens Falls expressed a similar sentiment in an editorial published May 16, 1889: “A dose of cold lead might have a salutary effect upon the bands of alleged ‘White Caps’ who operate in some of the northern towns and presume to take the law into their own hands.”


Maury Thompson was a reporter for The Post-Star of Glens Falls for 21 years before retiring in 2017. He now is a freelance writer focusing on the history of politics, labor and media in the region.