- [S76] Atchley Funeral Home Records, Volume III, 1974-1986, Larry D. Fox, (Smoky Mountain Historical Society), 9 Mar 1985.
Benton McMillian Catlett obituary
- [S117] The White-Caps - A History of the Organization in Sevier County, E. W. Crozier, Publisher, (Copyright 1899), Chapter XXV.
William Robert Catlett, the subject of this sketch, was born on a farm near Sevierville, and is now about 45 years of age.
He is commonly known as Bob Catlett, and is the oldest son of James P. Catlett, who died at his home near Sevierville about six years ago. His mother died many years ago, when Bob was a small boy, leaving him and one brother, James M. Catlett, to survive her. His mother was a McMahan, coming as she did from one of the oldest and most respectable families in Sevier county. The McMahan’s were pioneers in that section, and now a very numerous branch of the population of that county. After the death of his first wife James P. Catlett married Nancy E. Mullendore, a sister of Captain W. W. Mullendore, a distinguished member of the bar at Sevierville. She still survives, and lives on the old Catlett homestead, near Sevierville, with her two daughters, her only living children. Both the mother and step-mother of Bob Catlett were noted for intelligence, piety and Christian character. This is as much as to say that Bob’s early home training was not neglected. His education is limited. He only attended the common schools of the county. His father was in good circumstances financially, and could have given his son a complete education, but the latter was not much inclined to books, and the father did not press the matter beyond an ordinary business course.
Bob was fond of stock from his early childhood. He thought much more of a good horse than a book. The father, seeing the bent of his boy’s mind, at an early age gave him superior advantages in that direction. He gave Bob money and allowed him to buy and sell and swap as he chose, and in this way he soon became a first-class stock trader as well as a farmer.
Few men are better judges of a good horse than Bob Catlett, and perhaps none of his age have had as many law suits over their buying and selling and swapping as he. It seemed that when he sold or swapped off a horse, that something always got the matter with it the next day or in a short time. Then the fellow came back on him, and a law suit followed. He always considered himself unlucky in this particular. He has been a successful farmer as well as trader, and is the owner of one of the best farms in Sevier county, containing something like six hundred acres. His farm is well stocked and everything around his home has the appearance of prosperity.
But from his boyhood Bob was inclined to be wild and sometimes reckless. He took delight in perpetrating a joke or playing a trick on his associates, and this often went beyond the limit of innocent fun. In this way he got the name among many people of being mean.
Unfortunately he acquired the habit of strong drink in his boyhood. At times he drank to excess, and when intoxicated he was disagreeable, overbearing, and even reckless. In recent years he has not drank so much as formerly, and especially for the last two or three years.
On the 22nd day of March, 1876, he was married to Miss Mary A. Wade, the daughter of Hon. J. J. Wade, a substantial farmer and one of the best men of Sevier county. Miss Wade was in every way worthy of the man she married, and has made him a devoted wife. They have a large family of children, consisting of two boys and nine girls.
His oldest daughter is intelligent and refined and has a good education. She is one of the foremost teachers in the county, having taught one year in Murphy College.
This family is a very interesting one, and there is only one thing, apparently, that prevents them from being a happy family - and that is the cloud that hangs over them on account of the husband and father being implicated in the murder of the Whaleys. Of course they are in no sense responsible, even if it should turn out that he is guilty, but they are innocent sufferers, all the same.
Catlett has, no doubt, made mistakes in his life: but the biggest one was when he joined the notorious White-cap gang, an institution that has brought sorrow and ruin to many a happy home in Sevier county.
He did not become an early disciple of the new order, but he was actively connected with it for only about two years prior to the Whaley murder. During this time Sevierville and vicinity were the places of active operations, and especially were all their meetings held there by those high in the organization. These meetings were sometimes held in rooms and houses in Sevierville, and sometimes at the houses of White-caps who lived near. Many of them were held at Tipton’s own house, about three miles from the town.
After his connection with the order Bob Catlett was much seen about Sevierville, both day and night time, although he lived about seven miles from the town. It is not guess work that he was a White-cap, but this is known beyond the peradventure of a doubt.
Catlett Tipton himself, the chief of the White-caps, has said so, time and again, and has even implicated him in the Whaley murder by offering him (Tipton) a hundred dollars to put Whaley and his wife out of the way. While this comes from the chief of the White-caps, and from a man condemned to die for this awful crime, yet it is reasonable and comports with all the other facts and circumstances going to show Bob Catlett’s guilt. It was on this theory that the State rested its prosecution against Wynn and Tipton, and two courts and two juries have said that they believed it was correct beyond a reasonable doubt.
During the summer and fall prior to the killing of the Whaleys, the latter then living on Catlett’s land, had some trouble with him over some rent corn and over some talk that Catlett had heard Whaley’s wife had about him (Catlett) being a White-cap, &c. The Whaley family left the Catlett farm and moved to Captain Wynn’s farm, some two miles below Sevierville. About this time Whaley and wife were taken before the grand jury and on their testimony an indictment was found against Bob Catlett and Bob Wade, charging them with rocking and shooting into Walter Maples= house. This incensed Catlett all the more, and furnished the alleged motive for inciting and procuring the killing of both Whaley and wife.
Catlett has never had his trial, but recently secured a change of venue from Sevier to Hamblen county, where he will be tried for his alleged complicity in this crime. He is now in jail at Morristown, having been, at the last term of the Circuit Court at Sevierville, denied bail by Judge Nelson by reason of the fact that the cases against Wynn and Tipton had been recently affirmed by the Supreme Court, and other evidence accumulating against him that pointed unerringly to his guilt.
There is no concealing the fact that public sentiment in Sevier county is overwhelmingly against Catlett, and whether or not he is ever convicted of this charge, the almost unanimous sentiment of the people of that county will still be that he and he alone inspired the bloody deed.
This is the first crime of any magnitude that Catlett has ever been indicted for, as far as we know, but he has been much censured by the public because of his contributory, if not criminal, negligence leading up to the death of two or three worthy young men in Sevier county.
About ten years ago a young man named Maples, who lived on Catlett’s farm, became intoxicated and provoked a quarrel with James Clemison, another tenant of Catlett’s. This was on Sunday, and Catlett being with them, it is said that he rather encouraged a fight than intercede for peace. Night came on without any personal altercation between the parties, but some time after dark Maples and Catlett went to
the house of Clemison and Maples demanded entrance while Catlett stood by encouraging him. On being refused entrance, Maples broke the door down and started to enter the house, whereupon Clemison picked up an axe with which he had provided himself and struck Maples a terrific blow, literally splitting his head, turning his brains out on the floor and killing him instantly.
This occurred on Catlett’s farm, near his dwelling house and in his very presence where he could and should have prevented it. Clemison was not prosecuted, being held justifiable in defending his home against an intruder under such circumstances.
Maples was a quiet young man, when sober, and would never have committed the rash act that brought about his untimely end had it not been for the fact that he was drinking and urged by one who, if not altogether responsible for the murder, was nevertheless much to be censured for standing by and seeing it done when he could easily have prevented it.
At another time, Catlett had been to a protracted meeting back in the knob country a few miles from his home, and was returning in company with a young man named Ballard. When only a short distance from the church, Catlett proposed a horse race with Ballard, which challenge was accepted and the race entered into, but they had not proceeded far when Ballard’s horse fell with him and broke his (Ballard’s) neck, killing him instantly.
Ballard was a mere boy while Catlett was a man of mature years, and should have prevented rather than contributed to the death of the unfortunate young man.
These are two deaths that the people have always blamed Catlett with, although he did not directly commit them.
While drunk on one occasion, several years ago, Catlett provoked a quarrel with John Burns, a harmless and inoffensive citizen, then drew his pistol and shot Burns in the shoulder, inflicting a very serious but not fatal wound.
In this case Catlett’s father and other friends interposed, and for a money consideration (Burns being a very poor man), adjusted the matter and Catlett was not prosecuted.
These are a few of the ear marks in Catlett’s history which clearly indicate his character.
Few men in Sevier county have had superior opportunities than Bob Catlett to make money and become prosperous and useful citizens. As before stated, his father gave him good opportunities, and his uncle, William Catlett, who died a few years ago, leaving an estate worth about $75,000, gave Bob considerable sums of money during his life, and in his will left him a good portion of the estate.
Bob’s full name is William Robert, having been named for his uncle, who always thought a great deal of his nephew and gave him much good counsel, but which, to a large extent, was unheeded.
For a man who has been well raised, always in good circumstances and surrounded by good people, to be languishing in jail for a crime the parallel of which has never been known in Sevier county, is so unusual that it almost challenges belief. Yet, it is too true, and what the ultimate outcome will be is awaited with more than ordinary interest.
Will Catlett’s money save him? is a question often asked, prompted no doubt by the prevalent opinion that money plays an important part in the trials of men charged with crime.
However true this may be, it is to be hoped that justice will in the end prevail, and that money, potent as it is, will not be permitted to stand in the way of the conviction and punishment of the parties who so brutally murdered poor William and Laura Whaley on that fatal night in December, 1896. If Bob Catlett either committed or inspired others to commit this crime, he should be hung, though he were worth a million. But if he is innocent, then not a hair of his head should be touched. He should in this event be returned to the bosom of his family to comfort them and live the quiet, peaceful citizen that the law requires of every man.
- [S94] Sevier County, Tennessee Census, 382a, 9 Jun 1870.
- [S77] Rawlings Funeral Home Records 1911-1995, Larry D. Fox, (Smoky Mountain Historical Society), 25 Nov 1940.
Catlett, W R (Bob) 84 Nov 25, 1940 Boyds Creek buried Shiloh Cem
- [S34] In the Shadow of the Smokies, Smoky Mountain Historical Society, (1993), 344.