The St. Louis Republic, November 03, 1901
William Coffey Is Again In Jail
This Time a Young Woman Prefers a Charge of Assault, Which He Denies
Before Courts Ten Years
First Gained Notoriety for His Prosecution of Whitecaps*, Who Beat Himself and Wife Unmercifully
from St. Louis Republic article
Evansville, Ind., Nov. 2, -- William Coffey of whitecap fame is again in jail at Jasper, having been arrested a few days ago at a small station on the Southern road near Huntingburg, on a charge of attempted assault, preferred by Miss Ella Smith of Ireland.
It is said that to try all the cases in which Coffey has been plaintiff or defendant would take a continuous session of court for a solid year.
Coffey first came into prominence when he as whipped by whitecaps in December, 1890. He was living with his wife, Mary, in a little log hut near Ellsworth, sixteen miles east of here, near the Crawford County line.
Just what the whitecaps had against him will never be known, as no one would own up to being one of the crowd.
About midnight on December 4, 1890, while he was at home asleep with his wife and 4-years-old girl, a noise of running men was heard, and his door was broken in by a cross-tie. A dozen masked men rushed into the room and, without allowing him to dress, dragged him out into the cold night. He was taken about 200 feet from the house and tied to a tree, after being blindfolded. His shirt was stripped off his back, and the leader, whom Coffey always maintained was John H. Brown, a prominent and well-to-do farmer of the neighborhood, gave the order for “No. 1” to proceed.
Beaten by Whitecaps.
“No. 1” stepped forward, picked up a strong hickory with, and gave Coffey five vigorous blows on the back. Coffey claimed that “No. 1: was Thomas Higfill. “No. 1,: at the command of the leader, was followed by “No. 2.” “No. 3,” “No. 4” and “No. 5,” who each gave him five hard lashes as “No. 1” had done. Not a word was spoken by anyone except the leader. No names were spoken, each member being designated by number. About twenty-five were present, all disguised and masked. Coffey did not pretend to know all the crowd, but insisted that “No. 2: was Henry Sutton and “No 3” William Highfill. Among others he
claimed to recognize were James Ellis, Levi Ellis, Levi Jacobs and John and Wesley Kellams. All these were prominent and well-respected men.
At the January term of court Judge Oscar M. Welborn gave pointed instructions to the Grand Jury and directed them to return bills against all the whitecappers if any evidence could be secured against them. Both Coffey and his wife appeared before the Grand Jury and identified each of the suspected men and several others, but the Grand Jury refused to return any bills.
During the following spring and summer there were numerous whitecap outrages along the Dubois and
line, about twenty
people being whipped. Excitement was at fever heat. Coffey publicly announced that he would give
the gang $10 if they would come back and try to whip him again. In August, 1891, both he and his wife were
taken out of bed, stripped, tired to trees and given a fearful beating. The whitecaps told Coffey that they wanted
the $10 that he had promised, and that if he did not keep his mouth shut this
was only half what he would get next time.
They then mounted their horses and left a top speed, going toward
Coffey and his wife made their way to his mother’s house, a quarter of a mile distant, where Coffey fell fainting in her door from loss of blood. His life was despaired of for more than three weeks. He finally recovered and he and his wife appeared before the September Grand Jury and testified that the same men whipped him who had whipped him the year before. Though Judge Welborn gave charge after charge and time and again sent them back to their rooms, the jurors refused to return any whitecap indictments. John H. Brown, whom Coffey identified as leader, was foreman of the Grand Jury. They did, however, return two or three bills against Coffey for provoke [sic] and assault and battery.
Alleged Whitecaps Tried.
During all this time the newspapers all over the country were urging the prosecution of the whitecappers and were wanting to know why it was not done. As soon as court was over Coffey was sent for by Deputy Prosecutor Richard M. Milburn and affidavits were made against all the parties whom Coffey claimed to recognize.
All were arrested and demanded a change from Judge Welborn. This was granted and Thomas Duncan of Princeton was appointed special Judge to try the cases. The first case to be tried was that of John H. Brown. The trial lasted a week. More than fifty witnesses testified that Coffey’s reputation for truth was bad.
After being out twenty-four hours the jury brought in a verdict of guilty, fixing Brown’s punishment at two years in the penitentiary. Brown escaped and has never been seen in the county since. He is said to be in Texas.
The next cases to be tried were those of Thomas Highfil [sic] and his son, William. Each occupied a week. Thomas was found not guilty and William was given two years in State Prison. He served his time and is now living in the eastern part of this county. Henry Sutton pleaded illness and his case was continued.
It is now seen that the back of the defense was broken and that unless something desperate was done that all of the defendants would go to the Penitentiary, as there were three cases against each defendant, two for whipping Coffey and one for whipping his wife.
Charged with Perjury.
A change of venue was granted and the cases sent to Pike County. At this state of the game, it is said one of the accused men offered Coffey $7,000 is he would make an affidavit that he had nothing to do with the whipping and was not present. Coffey agreed to this. The money was to be placed in a hollow oak tree and as soon as he had signed the affidavits he was to go and get the money. However, when he signed the papers and went to look for the money he found nothing bu some strips of brown paper.
Shortly afterwards, Sutton’s case was called and these affidavits introduced in evidence. Sutton was acquitted and the prosecution in disgust quashed the remaining cases.
Coffey was indicted for perjury, but escaped. He wandered around and was arrested at Vincennes for stealing a turkey and sent to the penitentiary for a year. Upon the expiration of his sentence he was arrested on an old charge of perjury at Petersburg. The jury, after hearing the evidence for a week, were out for three days and failed to agree. After this the case was continued a time or two and, after Coffey had been in jail for nearly a year, he was released by the Judge on his own bond. The officers hoped he would leave and never come back for trial, but on the first day of the next court he was on hand. After an attempt to get the witnesses, the case was nolled. [sic]
Trouble With His Wife.
Coffee [sic] had three cases for damages against each of the parties charged with taking part in whitecapping him, but never recovered anything. He and his wife separated, and he was arrested on the charge of sending a letter containing obscene matter through the mails to her. He was taken to
Evansville and lodged in jail, and after an
examination by Commissioner Wartmen was bound over to the United States
District Court at Indianapolis and sent to the
jail to await trial. After laying in
jail for about three months he was found not guilty. Returning to Dubois County, he had his wife
arrested on the change of kidnapping and sued her for divorce. She beat him in both cases. A second application for divorce was more successful,
but he was prohibited from marrying again for two years. Notwithstanding this order he married again
inside of ten days. He was arrested for
contempt of court, but beat the case on a technicality. Marion County
Since then he has figured in two or three cases of some sort at every term of court. He is about 35 years old, is a hard worker and can do as much manual labor in a day as any man in the county. A few nights ago Miss Ella Smith of Ireland claims he broke into her room where she was sleeping with some younger brothers and sisters and attempted to assault her. An outcry from the children, however, frightened him and he fled. Her father and mother were both away and this was about midnight. She swore out a warrant against him. He is now in jail awaiting trial on this charge and denies that he is guilty.
*Whitecaps were also known as Night Riders
Please write if you know who William's parents were!