You know a story has achieved legendary status when the episode “Women-Chased-By-Panthers” becomes a part of it. In the 2000 film “Songcatcher”, Dr. Lily Penleric attacks a panther by throwing away clothes to give the beast a break. A panther also makes a cameo in the account of Will, Dick, and Tom Whitson, the outlaws of Mitchell County’s post-civil war.
The Statesville Landmark reported March 23, 1883 that “Mrs. Mitchell’s Carson recently visited a neighbor and only reached her after dark. “
Carson’s close reputation wasn’t the only great adventure taking place in the native woods at the time. The Whitson brothers, whose whereabouts were unknown, fled into the thicket after greeting their suspected adulterous brother-in-law Kit Byrd with bullets. They were three of several murderers at large who led Confederate Brigadier General Robert B. Vance to visit Bakersville and start a letter campaign to North Carolina Governor Thomas J. Jarvis.
“I find that there are a total of eleven murderers from two districts,” wrote Vance Jarvis on June 26, 1883 Quality, such as bolt-action rifles and naval pistols. “
Vance’s employees also had to get permission from Tennessee and Virginia to expand searches across state lines.
The Whitson boys had been children when the Civil War broke out and teenagers when desperados and criminals, under the guise of Union and Confederate uniforms, unleashed a chain of atrocities and reprisals.
The term “a perfect storm” is common today. It provides a good explanation of what happened in certain parts of western North Carolina in the 1880s. A corn-based economy had impoverished good land and fueled dismal industries that contributed to police action, distrust of outsiders, and violence.
Drought deepened the suffering and invited disease. Men formed gangs; Women overworked themselves and sometimes died young; Children grew up parentless and angry.
In response to gang violence, the Hon. Joseph S. Adams, Attorney for the Eighth District Court, with financial assistance from Governor Jarvis, hired private detective JA Perry and his men to bring the Whitsons back dead or alive.
“What we do is top secret,” Mitchell County Sheriff Bill Hickey advised Jarvis when the trial began.
KB and SR Whitson, descendants of Will Whitson and authors of Red Hill: The Untold Story of the Whitson Brothers and the Murder of Kit Byrd, delve into law and order in the 1880s.
“A detective who works for the Pinion Detective Agency, which was founded 15 years ago in Asheville,” the Whitsons write, “claimed that a sheriff or deputy didn’t care (more to do) than the law fully required him to do . ‘”The detective also confirmed that” prior to setting up his agency,’ violations of the law such as murder and all kinds of less crimes have been committed with impunity ‘”.
In a place where capital was invested, law and order were necessary. In the late 1870s, Mitchell County became a mica Mecca. Thomas Clingman, a geologist and U.S. Senator, had visited Bakersville before the Civil War and noticed windowpanes cut from mica. When inventors like Thomas Edison began using mica as an insulator in electric motors, companies began drilling wells across the spruce pine region.
“A letter from Bakersville in 1877”, the authors of “Red Hill” report, “read:” It has always been a miracle that mines are built in steep hills or that fat men visit them. “
The Mitchell County murders continued, now over mining claims. The Whitson brothers returned to the southern mountains after a break in the west and fled the drought to try their luck in the coal country. Through an instinct of haunt, they took root in a place more lawless and murderous than their contested homeland – Counties of Wise and Letcher, Virginia.
When Dick Whitson refused to sell coal mining rights to a company that coveted his land, a hit man killed him. A year later, in 1891, lawyers learned that the bounty on Tom and Will still existed, captured them, and took them to court in Asheville.
Once again a legend marked the passage of the Whitsons. A train rushing from Statesville to Morganton jumped the tracks and fell into a ravine, killing many, including President James Polk’s niece. The Whitson Trial hit the headlines after the disaster.
It was a year and a half before the Whitson brothers faced their verdict. First there was a misconduct, then a conviction, then an appeal, and finally a hanging death sentence. Bakersville was preparing for the public event when, on March 14, 1893, just 10 days before the execution, Governor Elias Carr converted the men’s sentences to 30 years. In the end, both were pardoned.
Rob Neufeld wrote the weekly local story “Visiting Our Past” for the Citizen Times until his death in 2019. This column was originally published on October 15, 2008.