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Hiram C. Whitley. The State of Kansas is filled with interesting men, many of them known to the world at large. The city of Emporia had several. One is a prominent business man, who for upwards of forty years had given his time and energies to the upbuilding of that locality.
This is Hiram C. Whitley who was at one time chief of the secret service division of the United States Treasury. The story of his life, particularly the early years, reads like a book, and in fact his experiences have been described in a book which was published about twenty years ago and which throws an interesting light on life and times in the far South during the Civil war period and also that era known as the reconstruction period for ten years following the great Civil war. Mr. Whitley wrote this book under the title “In It” and it is somewhat in the nature of an autobiography, told simply and modestly, but illuminating that historic epoch in our nation’s history with which it deals. The author says: “The incidents related in this book are founded principally on facts, as they came to me during an experience of twelve years in the Secret Service of the United States Government.”
Hiram C. Whitley is a native of the Pine Tree State, but his experiences have covered a larger part of the United States and he is now past the age of four score. He was born in Waldo County, Maine, August 6, 1832. His father, William Whitley, was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1796, and was brought by his parents to this country, the family locating at Bangor, Maine. He was of Scotch-Irish descent. Though quite young at the time he saw service in the War of 1812, and about 1840 moved his family to Lake County, Ohio, where his death occurred in 1876. He was a physician and surgeon. Doctor Whitley married Hannah D. McCoombs, who was born in Maine in 1812 and died at Emporia, Kansas, in 1896.
Major Whitley from the age of eight grew up in Northeastern Ohio, attended the common schools of Lake County, and for a time was a student in the Western Reserve Teachers’ Seminary, a Presbyterian school. He left school at the age of fifteen, and from that time forward until he located at Emporia, about forty years ago, was continually on the move, coming into close touch with adventure and excitement in various parts of the United States. His first work was as a drover, and he took many herds of cattle from the Middle West over the Alleghenies through Pittsburg to Philadelphia. He was strong and vigorous, and performed some feats which seem almost marvelous. For six and a half times he made the round trip over the mountains, crossing them thirteen times, and on one occasion he walked home from Philadelphia, a distance of over 500 miles in seven days. This is almost a record for pedestrianism, but he was filled with the energy of youth and had a constitution of iron, and he was on the way, walking or running, night and day, and accomplished a journey which would have brought admiration from the ancient Greek runners.
Somewhat later he spent about two years at Boston, where he had some relatives. He was in the oyster business there, and also followed the sea for a time.
Then came the call to the West, announced by the slogan “Pike’s Peak or bust,” and he prospected in those regions, though without finding gold. It was while on his way to Pike’s Peak in 1859 that he first crossed the Territory of Kansas.
He was next in Louisiana, and from the beginning of the war was in New Orleans for the greater part of several years. Though a stanch Union man, he showed a superficial sympathy with the cause of the South, and while drilling with some of the rebel companies he managed to keep out of active service, partly by following the occupation of steamboating. Some of his most interesting experiences occurred in New Orleans, and in his book he tells a number of incidents which reflect new light on Confederate history in the South. After New Orleans was captured he was employed by General Butler on special services, and did much toward cleaning up the city and ridding it of obnoxious rebels and outlaws, and he personally engaged in several serious fights. At one time he was attacked by a band of outlaws seven miles below Baton Rouge on a plantation. He shot five of his assailants and two of them were killed outright.
In a sketch of moderate length it would be impossible to describe in detail all his varied experiences. The following is an abbreviated quotation which will suggest the exciting story of this period of his life. At the outbreak of the war in 1861 he and his wife were living in New Orleans. The inceptious and noxious atmosphere of sectional hatred was rampant in the city at that time. No person in New Orleans, no matter how much he loved the Union, dare utter his sentiments of loyalty or even dare hint that the rebellion was wrong. Men’s tongues were silenced and their liberties abridged. Invitations were extended frequently to Mr. Whitley to join some one of the rebel regiments being formed in the city. Fortunately he was engaged in steamboating on Red River. This afforded a good excuse. When the City of New Orleans was captured and occupied by General Butler in the spring of 1862, Whitley was aboard the steamer Starlight at Jefferson City, Texas. Arriving at Shreveport on the return trip the news had just reached that place of the capture of New Orleans. A Confederate committee came aboard and took possession of the Starlight for the purpose of blockading the river a few miles below. About thirty negro laborers bearing axes, shovels, picks and crowbars came aboard. The steamer tied up for the night at Loggy Bayou about thirty miles below Shreveport. It was raining heavily. The night was dark. Whitley cast off the steamboat yawl and left the drunken Confederate committee, starting to row the boat down Red River to its mouth, thence to New Orleans, a distance of about 700 miles, which he accomplished in about seven days. On reaching that city he reported to General Butler for special service, and served until Butler was relieved and afterwards served with General Banks, who succeeded Butler in command of the Department of the Gulf up to July, 1863. Mr. Whitley was finally made major in a regiment raised largely in New Orleans for the defense of that city, and though he had no knowledge of military tactics he introduced some measures of discipline which brought efficiency to the organization, at least for the purpose of performing much needed labor, though he always doubted the fighting capacity of his soldiers. A number of times in the course of duty he was exposed to the dangers from the thugs who had so long terrorized New Orleans and he was an important factor in that military rule which brought order to the city and put the wheels of commerce in motion, much to the satisfaction of the better element of the citizenship. Many of the thugs lost their lives and foreigners who sympathized with the rebellion were compelled to take the prescribed oath of loyalty to the United States Government. Three times while on special service he was outside the Federal lines, and his performance gained much commendation from superior officers. After his three months’ service as major of the Seventh Louisiana Regiment, he was again in the special service of the Government, and remained in New Orleans until the close of the war. In 1865 he went to Brownsville, Texas, and auctioned off a large amount of government property which had been stored there. While at New Orleans Major Whitley shot and killed Pedro Capdiville, one of the several notorious desperadoes who had kept the city on the verge of terrorism for several years. It is to be noted that Mr. Whitley was not an abolitionist, and his experiences in the South led him to cast grave doubts upon the advisability of entrusting the franchise to the liberated negroes. However he was a stanch defender of the Union, and both then and afterwards proved the value of his service to the Federal Government. Before the close of the war he was commissioned a lieutenant colonel but was never mustered in that rank.
After going North he spent a short time in Boston but then went to Washington, bearing letters of recommendation from General Butler and others prominent in the army, and succeeded in getting an appointment to the revenue service by Commissioner Rawlins. In his book he describes the interesting way in which he effected an interview with the commissioner, and the first place he was directed to duty was at Atchison, Kansas, where he had considerable experience among the whiskey thieves. In 1869, after having worked assiduously on the larger cases of whiskey frauds in the North, he was sent to the District of Virginia to look after the moonshiners. While in Virginia he raided thirty-six stills and had many exciting encounters with the illicit whiskey makers in the mountainous district.
After giving in his report at Washington, he was persuaded to remain in the service and was given appointment as chief of the Secret Service Division for the United States Treasury. In that capacity he was one of the men most responsible for breaking up the operations of the Ku-Klux-Klan and he remained as chief of that division during Grant’s two terms, and altogether spent about fourteen years in the Federal service. Much of his work was in breaking up the organized gangs of counterfeiters in the North. He said: “During my six years as chief of the service, more than three thousand persons were arrested for various offences, and at least one-half of them convicted and sent to prison. In giving the number of arrests, I do not include the operations of the Secret Service Division against the members of the Ku-Klux-Klan in the South. Against this infamous organization alone we secured over two thousand indictments.”
In 1877 Major Whitley, having retired from the secret service, moved to Emporia, Kansas, and bought a farm of about 400 acres, to the cultivation of which he devoted the next three years. Since then his home had been in Emporia, and he had been one of that city’s most prominent business men. The record of his work there can only be briefly stated. He was instrumental in securing the building of the first five bridges erected in the town. In 1880 he built the Hotel Whitley, of which he is still proprietor, and which is one of the two leading hotels in the city. Through a syndicate he built the first street railway in 1883. In 1881 he put up the Opera House, which subsequently was burned, and was replaced by a fine business block at the corner of Merchant and Sixth Avenue. It is said that he is one of the largest tax payers on real estate in Emporia.
His political affiliation had naturally been with the republican party. He is an active member of Post No. 55, Grand Army of the Republic, and had been called upon to write the biography of every member of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion who had died in the last ten or twenty years. Fraternally he is affiliated with Emporia Lodge, No. 12, Ancient Free and Accepted Masons; Emporia Chapter, No. 12, Royal Arch Masons; Emporia Commander, No. 8, Knights Templar; of the Ancient Order of United Workmen, and was a charter member of Emporia Lodge, No. 633, Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, but had since given up his membership.
Besides the work already mentioned, he had written extensively, including a book about the Ku-Klux-Klan which was largely circulated by the republican leaders in pamphlet form. He had also written many stories, principally concerning the detection of criminals, and these have appeared in magazines and newspapers.
Frank A. Flower, who wrote a history of the republican party, states his obligations to Mr. Whitley for his assistance in that work. It should be recalled that while in the secret service Mr. Whitley appointed the man who took the transcript of the records which convicted Boss Tweed in New York.
Of his personal habits, it should be mentioned that Major Whitley, within the period of his recollection, had never drunk a glass of plain water. He drinks mild coffee and mild tea, is a temperance advocate, but anti-prohibitionist, being as he states, “a true democrat.”
In 1856 at East Cambridge, Massachusetts, Major Whitley married Miss Catherine Webster Bates, daughter of Thomas Bates, who was a carpenter and builder.