The bloody episode in the early 1890s that came to be called the Mitcham War was prompted by complex class and economic interests and issues. More specifically, the violence occurred between rural farmers from a remote section of Clarke County named Mitcham Beat and members of the town-based merchant class in nearby Coffeeville and other surrounding towns. The conflict was heightened because of the 1892 gubernatorial election and tensions between rural farmers allied with the third-party populist Farmers Alliance and the power-holding Bourbon Democrats, represented by incumbent governor Thomas Goode Jones.
The origins of the conflict lie in the crop-lien system that arose following the Civil War. Small landholders typically had little cash on hand when planting season arrived, having lived off their meager profits from the previous year’s cotton crop. Thus, they usually had to borrow money in spring to purchase cotton seed and other necessities for the onset of planting season. Because few rural areas had banks, merchants, some of who were also in debt, served as both suppliers and lenders, with the expectation that the loans were to be paid off when the cotton was ginned and sold. Often, the estimated price for the cotton established at planting time would drop as the harvest came in, and thus the borrowers would not have the income they had anticipated. Tensions often ran high when income fell short of expectations and needs because farmers stood to lose much-needed property or livestock as payment.
These tensions came to a head during Alabama’s 1892 gubernatorial race, in which the powerful merchants and planters of the controlling Democratic Party (represented by Thomas Goode Jones) faced the populist, or Farmer’s Alliance, party (represented by Reuben Kolb), which had the support of most farmers and workers.
Around 1890, a group of discontented young men formed a secret society called Hell-at-the-Breech to confront the political clique that dominated the economy. (“Breech” or, as it was pronounced, “britch” refers literally to the place where ammunition is placed in a rifle or shotgun.) In late 1890 and early 1891, they killed two neighbors, the first a white man who opposed their violence and the second a black miller who was killed for his money. On Christmas Day 1892, the gang ventured to Coffeeville, murdering a prominent merchant-lender who the gang claimed, perhaps falsely, had foreclosed on a property despite the lien on it having been paid. The members of Hell-at-the-Breech represented only a small number of the residents of Mitcham Beat, but their actions brought attention to the whole community.
Soon after the killings, a vigilante mob, reportedly numbering as many as 500 riders and including some of the most prominent residents of the county, rode into the community, seeking the assassins. Some of the group gunned down two men identified as the murderers and also killed three more men. Before the conflict was finished, ten deaths were attributed to the vigilantes, the Hell-at-the-Breech gang, and residents who had at first welcomed the vigilantes found themselves terrorized and came to fear the outsiders more than the local gang. Citizens who opposed the tactics of Hell-at-the-Breech were tortured and their barns and pantries looted; the gang members even threatened children. An appeal to the governor for relief went unanswered. The so-called war ended in the fall of 1893, after leaders realized it had gotten out of control and ordered the group to disband.
The final killing was of a mysterious “detective” named Pinkerton (unrelated to the famous detective agency founder, Allan Pinkerton). He had helped the vigilantes to identify suspects and had participated in the killing, torture, and looting. After he moved into the community and bullied the still-shocked residents, Mitcham Beat citizens who opposed both the gang and the county vigilantes arranged for his assassination. He was shot in his field on November. 27, 1894, and died two days later. The three men charged with his killing were not convicted.
The Mitcham War brought fear and shame to all the parties involved, and it was not discussed openly for generations. In 1988, however, three historians produced a well-researched account that identified the major incidents and issues and opened the way for public discussion of the conflict. Both for its particular history and its reflection of the last remnants of frontier culture, the Mitcham War continues to attract attention from scholars and popular authors.
Brown, Jerry Elijah. Alabama’s Mitcham Wars: Essaying Mortal Wounds. Atlanta: Looking Glass Books, 2011.
Franklin, Tom. Hell-at-the-Breech: A Novel. New York: William Morrow, 2003.
Jackson, Hardy, Joyce White Burrage, and James A. Cox. The Mitcham War of Clarke County, Alabama. Grove Hill, Ala.: Clarke County Democrat, 1988.
Jackson, Hardy. “The Middle-Class Democracy Victorious: The Mitcham War of Clarke County, Alabama, 1893.” Journal of Southern History 57 (August 1991): 453-78.