One of the worst episodes of deadly incompetence in southwest Virginia was enacted by a group of men who called themselves “Regulators.” They wore bandanna masks and carried Winchesters, but it would be a deadly game of dress-up before the night ended. Era newspapers often called them “White Caps,” and implied they were associated with the Ku Klux Klan, but they did not wear white robes or hoods. It’s uncertain if they were actual klan members, or just thoughtless hooligans who wanted to imitate Wyatt Earp or Billie the Kid.
Eleven men gathered one night in 1894. They felt an abrupt urge to ambush a house of ill fame in Gate City. Unfortunately, the ladies of the evening were forewarned, and fled long before the posse’s arrival. Their flight led to an even worse tragedy.
The group decided, since the brothel was empty, they should check near-by buildings. It’s unclear why they didn’t first consider someone in their ranks warned the women, or perhaps even aided in their escape. It’s also unclear why they assumed a group of prostitutes would be cowering in the bushes, or how such a colorful group could’ve done so without drawing attention.
The bumbling gang claimed they believed the women had fled into the nearby outbuildings. They fruitlessly searched several homes before they arrived at Samuel Wood’s house. Wood was a popular and well-liked African-American resident. What he lacked in money he made up for with integrity and honor. The group pounded on his front door in the middle of the night and Wood answered. They demanded to search the premises. He refused. His wife and children were sleeping and he didn’t want a group of masked strangers frightening them for such ridiculous purposes. Rather than leave and take their quest elsewhere, the group opened fire.
Newspapers reported that Wood was shot 30 times by Winchester rifles. Days later, several suspects were arrested. Within a few weeks most of the group was incarcerated. The public was utterly outraged, and a number of locals demanded the group suffer the same fate.
Papers reported the defense at the time of the trial. The men claimed they anticipated an ambush when they fired at Wood. They claimed they believed the lewd women were hiding in the bushes ready to kill them, but their defense was as poorly constructed as their purpose. They claimed they fled the scene after Wood’s murder because they didn’t know how many others waited to fire on them. It was never established how firing into a house would in any way affect those hiding outside in the underbrush. It was also never established why there weren’t any bullets fired at them.
The defense claimed they only had one Winchester and it was a .38 caliber, not a .44 caliber like the one that killed Wood. Winchester rifles didn’t typically use .38 ammunition. The only Nineteenth Century model to do so was made in 1873. The maximum capacity for rounds for this weapon was 10. The “regulators” never established how 30 bullets entered Woods’s body, when their alleged single weapon only held 10.
The public’s cries for justice fell upon deaf ears. The “Regulators” were formally acquitted, but they carried the shame of their misdeed for the rest of their lives.