During the first decade of the twentieth century, violence erupted in the tobacco belt of western Kentucky and northern Middle Tennessee as farmers tried to ease their economic distress. Collectively, these acts of violence became known as the Black Patch War. The term black patch referred to the region of the two states noted for the growth of dark-fired tobacco. The Black Patch War constituted one of the most serious domestic threats to civil government in twentieth-century America. The armed and hooded vigilantes who participated in these violent acts became known as the tobacco night riders.
Violence was only one method employed by the growers to raise the price of tobacco. The area had suffered a prolonged depression since the late 1890s caused by falling tobacco prices. On September 24, 1904, tobacco growers formed the Dark Tobacco District Planters' Protective Association of Kentucky and Tennessee (PPA) to cooperatively market the staple. The PPA intended to withhold tobacco from the market until purchasing companies agreed to pay higher prices. Growers who refused to pool and the monopoly of buyers led by the American Tobacco Company and the Italian Regie presented threats to the PPA plan. PPA members called the non-poolers “hillbillies” and the buyers' monopoly “the Trust.”
In 1905, when the PPA efforts failed to raise tobacco prices in the Black Patch, some growers turned to vigilantism in frustration. Area residents had a long history of using group violence to redress real and perceived grievances. Indian warfare, several regulator and vigilante movements, guerrilla warfare during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and lynching had characterized the Black Patch history long before the onset of the tobacco war. In October 1905 thirty-two members of the Robertson County Branch of the PPA met at the Stainback schoolhouse in the northern part of the county and adopted the “Resolutions of the committee of the Possum Hunters Organization.” The possum hunters outlined their grievances against the Trust and the hillbillies and stated their intention to visit Trust tobacco buyers and hillbillies in groups of no less than five and no more than two thousand and use “peaceful” methods to convince buyers and non-poolers to adhere to the PPA. The example of the Robertson County possum hunters spread throughout the region, and most Black Patch counties adopted similar resolutions. The peaceful visits soon turned violent, however, and gave rise to the night riders.
The night riders were organized into a secret fraternal society known as the “Silent Brigade” or the “Inner Circle” and structured along military lines. Dr. Frank Amoss, a physician from Caldwell County, Kentucky, reportedly led the order. Over the next few years, the night riders engaged in attacks on both property and people. They scraped or salted tobacco plant beds, destroyed tobacco in the fields, killed livestock, burned barns and warehouses filled with tobacco, dynamited farm machinery, and assaulted hillbillies and tobacco buyers. At the height of their power, the night riders staged spectacular night raids and captured entire towns. The Kentucky towns of Princeton, Hopkinsville, and Russellville suffered this fate. Most of the night riding activity took place in western Kentucky and in Montgomery and Robertson Counties in Tennessee. The violence peaked in 1907-9 and diminished over the next few years.
The PPA denied any relationship with the night riders. Even so, the violence helped the cooperative raise tobacco prices and kept them at profitable levels from 1905 to 1914. There can be little doubt that most night riders were also PPA members and that many of the organization's members and leaders rode with the silent brigade in spirit, if not in body.
Several factors converged to end night riding. Kentucky Governor A. E. Wilson (1907-11) dispatched troops to trouble spots, and several victims successfully brought civil suits against individual night riders. But most importantly, the base of popular support and community consensus that protected the night riders eroded as tobacco prices rose and as a growing number of people objected to the mass violence. The PPA ceased to operate in 1914, when World War I closed most European markets for dark-fired tobacco. The remaining vestiges of night riding died with the PPA.
Tracey Campbell, The Politics of Despair: Power and Resistance in the Tobacco Wars (1993); Suzanne Marshall, Violence in the Black Patch of Kentucky and Tennessee (1994); James O. Nall, The Tobacco Night Riders of Kentucky and Tennessee, 1905-1909 (1939); Christopher Waldrep, Night Riders: Defending Community in the Black Patch, 1890-1915 (1993)