A notable and tragic case of the struggle between legal and social justice.
Reelfoot Lake has been a hunting and fishing paradise from the time of its creation in 1812, when the New Madrid earthquake caused the Mississippi River to flow backward into low-lying lands. Situated in the northwestern corner of the state of Tennessee, it attracted westward-moving pioneers, enticing some to settle permanently on its shores.
Threatened in 1908 with the loss of their homes and livelihoods to aggressive, outsider capitalists, rural folk whose families had lived for generations on the bountiful lake donned hoods and gowns and engaged in “night riding,” spreading mayhem and death throughout the region as they sought vigilante justice. They had come to regard the lake as their own, by “squatters' rights,” but now a group of entrepreneurs from St. Louis had bought the titles to the land beneath the shallow lake and were laying legal claim to Reelfoot in its entirety. People were hanged, beaten, and threatened and property destroyed before the state militia finally quelled the uprising. A compromise that made the lake public property did not entirely heal the wounds which continue to this day.
Paul Vanderwood reconstructs these harrowing events from newspapers and other accounts of the time. He also obtained personal interviews with participants and family members who earlier had remained mum, still fearing prosecution. The Journal of American History declares his book “the complete and authentic treatment” of the horrific dispute and its troubled aftermath.