Probably no event in the region’s history, with the exception of the Civil War, polarized the population of Obion County as did the Night Rider episodes of 1908. Nearly a century later, public opinion still varies greatly in regard to the character and motivation of the men and women involved in the Reelfoot violence. For seven months in 1908, masked horsemen rode roughshod over a portion of Obion County and imposed their brand of justice with whip, arson, and shotgun. But if the riders are judged guilty of excesses, their adversary, the West Tennessee Land Company, with its example of callous greed, must share in that guilt. Unfortunately, when the State of Tennessee intervened in the matter, it too showed scarcely more restraint than the other participants in the events.
Simply stated, the Night Rider episode was a dispute over title to Reelfoot Lake and the surrounding land. Created by the cataclysmic forces of the 1811-12 earthquake, the lake and its wildlife supplemented the diets and incomes of subsistence farmers in the area. Although claims on the land existed prior to the earthquake, the local population regarded the lake as public domain. When the West Tennessee Land Company quietly purchased old claims and made plans to drain at least part of the lake and convert it to cotton production, the region’s residents reacted violently.
On the night of October 19, 1908, after several weeks of increasingly violent activities, events moved swiftly to a tragic stage. Masked riders kidnapped Tennessee Land Company officers R. Z. Taylor and Quinton Rankin from Ward’s Hotel in Walnut Log. Rankin was murdered, but Taylor escaped into the swamp and was presumed dead. He survived by hiding under a cypress log and was found more than twenty-four hours later, wandering and disoriented.
Governor Malcolm Patterson personally took charge of matters and arrived in the lake region with the Tennessee National Guard. By the end of October, nearly one hundred suspects were incarcerated in a makeshift camp set up by the Guard. The suspects received very harsh treatment while in the custody of the state, and two died while awaiting trial. Eventually, six were found guilty in the murder of Quinton Rankin and sentenced to death. The Tennessee Supreme Court overturned their convictions in 1909.
Public opinion favored the plight of the Reelfoot Lake people. As a consequence, the state acquired title to the lake in 1914, ending the threat of private ownership.
Paul J. Vanderwood, Night Riders of Reelt Lake (1969)