Western Kentucky's Night Riders: Activists, or Terrorists?

Murray, KY – In the early 20th century, in a poor and largely overlooked region of western Kentucky and west Tennessee, a band of vigilantes carried out its own brand of law and order. From 1905 to 1909, the Night Riders engaged in a sustained and violent uprising that has branded them, by some, as terrorists. A decade after the deadly Pullman Strike in New York that inspired Labor Day, a decade before a massacre in Everett, Washington escalated the west coast labor movement, the Night Riders emerged from a prevailing trend of the day: everyman versus the corporation. Jacque Day explores the rise and fall of the Tobacco War with a Kentucky Supreme Court justice and a lifelong student of local folklore.

It began with a group of farmers standing up to Big Tobacco. It escalated into a reign of terror bearing haunting similarities to the French Revolution.

"To really understand, you have to understand that tobacco was the only real cash crop we had in western Kentucky in western middle Tennessee."

This is Dr. Tom Hiter, a retired Army officer and educator. He holds a master's degree in history education. He relays what he says is a common tale of the day, as the tobacco trusts paid less and less for crops.

"A man working... he and his whole family... working all year on about an acre of tobacco, loading it onto a wagon, hauling it to Murray or Mayfield or Paducah to an auction floor, and then having to sell his wagon to pay the auction fees. Literally getting nothing for a long, hard year's work."

Bill Cunningham is a Kentucky Supreme Court justice and author of a book chronicling the Night Rider Tobacco War titled On Bended Knee.

"The American Tobacco Company, headed up by the Duke family, monopolized the tobacco business and drove the tobacco prices down to about $0.03 a pound.

Dr. Hiter continues:

"It was just this unrelenting spiral of poverty, and when it got so bad, people showed up saying, We have an organization. Join the Planters Protective Association. Do what we tell you, and we'll get the price up."

The first Planters Protective Association meetings took place in 1904 in Guthrie, Kentucky.

"This was a legitimate, lawful organization whose idea was basically a boycott. They went together and said, We won't sell our tobacco to the American Tobacco Company. And we'll keep it all. We'll form our own association."

However, Justice Cunningham says, independent farmers continued to sell to the trusts.

"And that's where they began this clandestine group that would go out and use coercive measures, scraping plant beds and burning tobacco barns and then it became basically an outlaw group."

The group went by many names: The Silent Brigade, The Inner Circle. But its purpose was clear: if the farmers wouldn't cooperate voluntarily, they'd be made to. And at its heart stood a country doctor who lived in a farmhouse in remote Cobb, Kentucky. In his book, Justice Cunningham calls Dr. David Amoss a "man of medicine, mercy and violence."

"He was known to be a very merciful person and a very compassionate doctor. But at the same time, as leader of the Night Riders, he condoned and even led the infliction of beatings upon individuals, infliction of pain and suffering."

He illustrates the contradiction with an incident involving Mary Lou Hollowell, an outspoken woman who publicly opposed the Night Riders

"She and her husband were beaten by the Night Riders. And there were reports, never confirmed, that he may have even treated her the morning after she received a beating from the Night Riders."

But opposers weren't their only targets. In the book Black Maverick, a chronicle of the influential Murray-born African-American surgeon TRM Howard, author/scholars David and Linda Royster Beito write: "the Night Riders lynched a black farmer in Trigg County on the pretext that he packed tobacco for a big company."

"Sometimes, they would target Blacks for attack, sort of as scapegoats."

Dr. Hiter and Justice Cunningham:

Hiter: "Many people today think of the Night Riders of west Kentucky and the Ku Klux Klan as being the same organization. They were entirely different. Although they used many of the same tools."

Cunningham: "It was a clandestine operation. It went out at night under firebrand, under mask and disguise. Dr. Amoss the leader adopted some of the Klan passwords and their method of operation."

Hiter: "Certainly there are people who think the Night Riders were nothing but racial terrorists. There are others who think the Night Riders were nothing but tobacco farmers. Somewhere in between lies truth that ought to be gotten at."

It was a raid on Hopkinsville that claimed national headlines, says Justice Cunningham. It served as the high water mark, the beginning of the end for the Night Riders. Dr. Amoss was brought to trial, and in his testimony he denied involvement in Hopkinsville and many other incidents. He was acquitted. "I think probably David Amoss and most of these Night Riders who testified and lied in that trial, probably didn't have many pains of conscience in doing so."

The Night Riders story is one long cloaked in secrecy. The justice says he wrote the book to open a discussion. People, he says, should draw their own conclusions. His book ends with a simple twist. When the titans of the American Tobacco Company founded Duke University, the medical school's first professor was Dr. Harold Amoss, son of the Night Rider leader.

Planters Protective Association birthplace Guthrie, Kentucky was also the hometown of Robert Penn Warren. The acclaimed author was born in the midst of the Tobacco War. He later cast the story to fiction in his book Night Rider.