Volume VI, No. 4, Summer 1979
TURMOIL AND UNREST IN THE MISSOURI HILLS
by Gerry Darnell
Night was just falling as the group of night riders were gathering stealthily at the top of the hill. Though their campfire could be seen from miles away to signal the meeting, no one dared go near unless he was a member of this clique. For these men, woodcutters from Christian County, evening was a time of pursuit and revenge!
Almost all the men were there, having given the password to the sentry as they entered the naturally barren top of a mound-like hill called a bald knob. The chairman called the meeting to order and presided over the group of motley backwoodsmen, dressed in bearskin jackets for warmth on this chilly night and for keeping their identity a secret. On their heads were strange looking masks made of black pillowcases with two horns on the sides and eye and nose holes rimmed in orange. The roaring fire cast an eerie effect upon the masked men. There was not a sound except the crackling of the flames and the occasional nicker of horses and mules, the woodcutters' only method of transportation.
The leader began talking to the group about a man who was stealing hogs. "He must be stopped! Just think what'll happen to our neighborhood if we let this sort of thing go on. Now are you all with me? Shall we show him we won't allow that here? Shall we show him that the Bald Knobbers mean business?"
After a hearty agreement from all present, they checked and loaded their shotguns, and then mounted their odd array of animals ranging from rough plow mules to fine horses. They followed single file behind the leader as they left the open area of the bald, down the worn narrow trail cut through the oak to the rough road below. There were a few occasional words but a harrowing glance from the leader quickly brought silence.
The few miles of road were short ones for the men who were out this chilly evening, for the anger and excitement they felt dulled all other senses. As they got nearer their destination, they talked even less, so that bv the time they reached the cabin, they were completely quiet.
As the men surrounded the cabin, a rugged voice yelled out, "Git up! Git up! Hiram Bates, git out here!"
A light from an old kerosene lamp flickered on inside as an elderly man stepped out onto the porch. He carried a loaded shotgun with him. "Who is it?" the old man asked warily. "Is that you, Henry? What you want?"
"It ain't Henry, old man," the voice said again, more muffled this time. "We're the Bald Knobbers, upholders of law and order in these hills."
"What do you'uns want with me?" the old man challenged as he raised the shotgun to his shoulder.
"We're going to teach you not to steal hogs!" the same voice called out, and, as if those words were a signal to the other men, everyone ran toward the cabin.
Seeing the sudden onrush of men, the old man hurried to get back in the house to bolt the door, but in his frenzy dropped his shotgun on the porch. As he bent to pick it up, the group of men reached him. They beat him with oak and hickory switches ripping his undershirt and pants to pieces until long bloody welts were raised across his back and legs.
"Let that be a lesson to you, Hiram Bates, the next time you take to stealing hogs!" Now fully satisfied that they had corrected the problem, the men again mounted and rode off, shouting and looking for more excitement.
This account is an example of the unnerving nights and the fears that the residents of the southwestern Missouri counties of Taney, Stone, Greene and especially Christian experienced circa 1884-1888.
During this short reign of terror over the Missouri hills, the Bald Knobbers weren't always this rough. When the organization was first formed in 1884, in the back room of the Forsyth, Missouri, general store, they met under the pretenses of stopping the vast lawlessness which was rampant in the southwestern and south central areas of Missouri in the aftermath of the Civil War.
The Civil War, in all the border states, found neighbors and members of the same family fighting on opposite sides, but divided sympathies were especially prevalent in Missouri. Both armies fought over the state to determine its loyalty. In the wake of the armies, bushwhackers and guerrilla bands rampaged throughout the state, sometimes part of one army or the other, but more often they were outlaw bands taking advantage of the unsettled situation. The activity was especially vicious along the Kansas border and the border counties along the Missouri-Arkansas line.
Missouri during the Civil War had a strange position politically. Elmo Ingenthron, author of Land of Taney, described the situation. "Missouri was a unique state. It can hardly be said that it was Union or Confederate, because it had congressmen and senators in both the Union Congress and the Confederate. It had two sets of state officers. One set, elected by the people, were run out of the state because of their Southern sympathies, and the other group, who weren't elected, were set up as a provisional government. It was quite a mixed up affair."
The problem didn't stop on the state level, however. County politics along the Missouri-Arkansas border were greatly affected. "Taney County was a solid Democrat county before the Civil War," Mr. Ingenthron continued, "After the Civil War, many Democrats were defranchised and couldn't vote. Nobody connected with the Confederacy could. So at the end of the war, we didn't have any government at all in Taney County because there weren't fifty people living there. There were probably no more than eight or ten homes left standing in the county--probably no more than eight or ten Democrats, either." Many Democrats with southern sympathies left the county during the Civil War and never returned. Many other people were burned out or fled from the armies and the Bushwhackers. During the war it was not safe for men to be home or they would be recruited into whichever army was nearest, or be ambushed by Bushwhackers.
After the war was over many people came back and in spite of the conditions for a few years, the Democrats still remained in control through the 1870's. The Civil War had left the county with no government at all, a burned-out courthouse and a huge debt which eventually took seventy years to pay off. Following the Bushwhacker methods, many outlaws and ruffians found the county a haven, moving in to hide from the law in the many hills and caverns. In one ninety day period, there were four different sheriffs. The Democrats in office were seemingly unable to cope with the problems.
As the 1880's moved in, political and social events and changes caused a shift to Republican
support. Besides the outlaw element coming into the county, there was an influx of honest settlers
from northern and eastern states. Many of the newcomers came there to take advantage of the
Homestead Act of 1862 because of the thousands of acres of unsettled land in the area. In
addition to the local people's dissatisfaction with the Democrats' inability to maintain order, the
vote of these hard-working newcomers also helped swing the tide to the Republican party. Once
in office the Republicans worked hard to refinance the war debt. They provided a government for
the county, but most importantly of all, they attempted to control the lawlessness.
These county politics played an important part in the Bald Knobber scenario, as Mr. Ingenthron related. "The Bald Knobbers and the Republicans were one group and the Anti-Bald Knobbers and the Democrats were largely the same. There were a few Democrats that were Bald Knobbers, contrary to the general thinking, and a few of the Anti-Bald Knobbers were Republicans. But basically they followed the political lines carried over from the Civil War--the Union, Republican Bald Knobbers and the Confederate, Democrat Anti-Bald Knobbers."
In the 1884 Taney County election, Republican Bald Knobbers were elected to all the public offices that were open, and in 1886 they got the rest of the offices. Mr. Ingenthron continued, "So Republican became the dominant political power in the county and has been ever since, for almost a century. We have a couple Democrats now. I don't believe there's ever a time when we had more than two Democrats serve at one time in the county."
The bringing of Bald Knobbers to power in the Taney County offices was the first step to rebuilding the county government.
Of course, amidst all this good there was bad also--the night riding, the stealing and finally the murders. "Nine out of ten Bald Knobbers were good citizens,'' Mr. Ingenthron explained. "But both sides had this little hard core of extremists. This same situation happens now. With almost every organization that you get into, there'll be that hard core of extremists or radicals that sometimes brings disgrace to the rest of them. This was the case with the Bald Knobbers and the Anti-Bald Knobbers--both sides."
Along with the criminal element coming into the border counties after the Civil War, there were also a great many squatters, persons who lived on someone else's land. Louis Waldemar, a longtime resident of Christian County explained, "This country here used to be squatter country. People moved to a place and built a shack. They'd take, or steal, all the timber they could. Since most of the Bald Knobbers also cut timber for a living, it was the squatters against the Bald Knobbers in competition for the timber. They'd take the timber to Chadwick to sell. Chadwick used to be a railroad town--the end of the line for the Frisco Railroad. In those days if you'd come down there on a Saturday, you'd find as many as a thousand railroad ties piled up and piles of cordwood twenty feet high and a hundred feet long ready to be loaded on the trains. Cutting and selling timber products was the way many men made their living. Since there was no government and the people who owned the land were mostly outsiders--absentee landowners--the cutters didn't have to pay to cut the timber. It was all free. They just had to get in there and cut it off. They'd haul in a cord of wood and get four dollars. A cord of wood is eight foot long and four foot wide and four foot high. For the average team, that's a wagon load. Four dollars back in that day used to buy a pile of groceries, but much of the time the groceries, didn't get home to the families.
Mr. Waldmar gave this example to show the living conditions of these people which helped contribute to the Bald Knobber era. "There was a path that lead down to a cave back behind the Pentecostal Church. The Bald Knobbers had a hitching rack there, and you'd see wagons pulled in this way and that way. That meant the men were back down in the cave and holler playing poker. That's where the four dollars went. One guy got all the groceries and the other guys went home hungry. And then they'd each start beating up the wife because she couldn't find anything to cook. She had to go out and pick wild greens and berries and learn to put something up. Cornbread, no milk--some of them had a cow and some didn't. They'd make cornbread with water and soda. That's what they lived on--that and cornmeal gravy."
Lawlessness, poverty and need to blame someone else for their own weaknesses and inability to support the families, all contributed to the general unrest.
Of times the squatter would steal timber from a Bald Knobber who rightfully owned the land on which he was cutting. Stealing like this was one of the major reasons the Bald Knobbers organized in the beginning.
The citizens of Forsyth thought that the lawless newcomers--composed of squatters, gypsies, vagabonds, outlaws and Confederates from the recently defeated South--should obey the laws of the town just as the law-abiding ones did. The restless element didn't feel the same, however, and showed their distaste for the law openly. Thus conflicts arose, resulting in the formation of a citizens' committee.
The first meeting of the group, which came to be known as the Bald Knobbers, was conducted in an orderly manner with all occupations present, school teachers, carpenters, rail tie makers and local merchants. There were no campfires, no masks and no throngs of angry members. What there was at the meeting, however, was a determination that something had to be done and a willingness to do whatever necessary to work against the lawlessness.
One of the outstanding citizens of this first assemblage was Nat N. Kinney, who later became the best-liked member within the Bald Knobber entourage and the best known and most disliked member by Anti-Bald Knobbers. It seems strange that he himself a newcomer to the county should lead the local people who traditionally distrusted outsiders--the target of many of their subsequent raids. But his natural leadership abilities and magnetic personality made him the instant choice for their leader. Actually he had very little choice in the matter.
Often called the "Captain of the Bald Knobbers," Kinney was six feet seven inches tall and weighed 275 pounds when he first moved to Taney County in 1883 at forty-eight years of age. Though he was a very handsome man, admired by most of the ladies, he was devoted to his beautiful, strong-willed wife.
Before the "Captain" settled in Taney County, he had served seven years in the West Virginia Militia. According to Mr. Ingenthron, who obtained the official Civil War records, he was a private. After the war, he became a frontier agent for the Post Office Department. Legend has it that while Cap' Kinney was employed by the post office, he killed several men for resisting arrest on charges of holding up a stage.
Finally, after realizing no future in the frontier agent business, Kinney wandered around until he settled down in the small, but fast-growing Ozark community of Springfield, where he started a very successful drinking establishment.
After several very fruitful years as a saloonkeeper, Kinney decided to retire to the hills of Taney County. He soon located a large acreage of land on the banks of the White River where he had a magnificent house built upon a high crest, overlooking the roaring White River on one side and his farmlands on the other. Through his farm he introduced many fine breeds of animals to the White River area. Such animals included Merino Sheep, Red Durham cattle and many fine breeds of dogs.
Kinney was a God-fearing man with high morals. He was quoted as saying, "So far as I could learn, the history of Taney County has been one with a record of lawlessness and disregard of social properties. When I came here some four years ago  it was common for men to live with women to whom they have never been married. Why, one old Mormon-like member kept six women! Then the county was $42,000 in debt, and not even a plank to show for it. The money had simply been stolen. That wasn't all. Over thirty men had been shot to death in the county since the Civil War, and not one of the murderers had been punished by the local authorities."
So Kinney decided to do something about these conditions through the Bald Knobbers. He organized the county into districts with a captain over each. That way the group could be called together quickly.
The organization did succeed in its purpose of curbing crime. Bands of riders would converge upon the law breakers to give warning, frighten them, run them out or otherwise convince them that the community wouldn't tolerate their activities and behavior. An effective warning was the use of the bundle of switches left on the door step.
"Many a man who had become too attentive to a neighbor's wife," wrote Neville Collier in Ozark and Vicinity in the 19th Century, "or killed a hog having the wrong ear markings, would suddenly be transferred into a model of good behavior upon the finding of a neat bundle of stout hickory switches on his front door some morning. That was the sign of the clan. It wasn't much but was plenty. In the occasional instances where the man failed to heed the Warning, the switches were brought again. At this time they were not left at the man's door but used on the offender. All of this was unlawful, of course, but a mute bundle of sticks preached a more powerful sermon than a meeting house full of deacons and was more effective than a book full of laws."
"Even when I was a boy, long after Bald Knobber era was over," Mr. Ingenthron said, "switches was still a method of inviting someone to leave the neighborhood. The old saying is 'run them out' if they're undesirable neighbors. We haven't run anybody out in many years but when I was a boy it was a pretty common way to do. It was a good neighborhood, but if some undesirable person moved in and started stealing hogs and doing such things as that, the neighbors usually ran him out without any evidence of going to court, by, if nothing more, rigging up devices to scare him. So you see Bald Knobbers went about switching people that they thought ought to work harder, or ought to support their families better. In other words, they become judge, jury, sheriff, and everything, and they sometimes did good. But what happens, you get people involved, and they get old grudges. If some fellow had homesteaded a piece of land, and his neighbor wanted it, and his neighbor was a Bald Knobber, he could get the group to run him out. Maybe he could take over his improvements, and that was sometimes done."
After awhile, the organization which was originally started "to right all wrongs," began doing wrong themselves to achieve what they thought was right. With leading citizens taking the law into their own hands, it became easy for anyone to put on a disguise and leave a bundle of switches, beat up people, burn them out or even commit murder and blame it on the Bald Knobbers.
In 1885, a few other organizations sprang up in neighboring Douglas, Christian and Greene counties that also went under the name of Bald Knobbers. The most notorious group amongst these three was the christian County group.
There is no proven connection between the Christian County and Taney County groups. The Christian County Bald Knobbers were organized in September 1885 by Captain Kinney's lieutenants, but there is no record that Kinney was responsible. Most authorities think he was not.
This group began as did the Taney County group to eradicate vice. The wild railroad town of Chadwick was partly responsible for the problem in this county because of its saloons, gambling joints and other inducements to the hillmen to squander or cheat them out of their money. The first move of the Christian County group was in Chadwick where 300 masked men poured out over a hundred gallons of whiskey and beer. They searched out other wrongdoers, dealing out harsher and harsher punishment until they were greatly feared. Some members abused their power by terrorizing and ravaging the country. They were not out to help everybody. They were out to help only the Bald Knobbers.
The Christian County Bald Knobbers were certainly the more vicious. They were the ones that developed the system of wearing masks and turning their garments inside-out to conceal their identity. Kinney's Taney County group didn't try to hide their faces because they felt they weren't doing anything wrong.
The Christian County group, faces covered so no one would know them, would ride out at night on horse or muleback to terrorize the countryside. Mr. Waldemar said, "It was rough. You couldn't go anywhere, you couldn't do anything. You had to walk a straight line. If you didn't, some guy that didn't like you would slip in some night and beat you up. They started getting vicious. If a man began getting onery with his wife, she'd let the Bald Knobbers know and they'd slip down and beat him up."
As the Bald Knobbers started getting rough, the local papers began reporting their activities and giving much publicity to them first in Taney County and now, since the great amount of crimes were being committed in Christian County, the newspapers focused their attentions in that direction. Big city newspapers saw the articles, and then many of them themselves, including the New York Herald and New York Sun began a series of articles on the "country bumpkins who were playing havoc with the Missouri state government." The Bald Knobbers resented this publicity greatly. They felt that outside of their counties it was nobody else's business what they did.
These articles were seen by Missouri governor, John S. Marmaduke. He then requested his adjutant general, J. C. Jamison to go down and "talk to the people, reason with them and get them to disband."
Under authority of the Governor, the Adjutant General then sent a memorandum to Forsyth, Missouri, Chamber of Commerce, announcing the visit and its purpose. All Bald Knobbers were requested to attend the meeting.
On the day of the meeting in April 1886 Adjutant General Jamison conferred with Captain Kinney, the leader of the Taney County group, and got his complete agreement that the Bald Knobbers, for benefit of all concerned, should be disbanded. Since the rest of the Bald Knobbers in Taney County felt the same way as Kinney did, they all went their separate ways.
The agreement with the Taney County Bald Knobbers had nothing to do, however, with the Christian County group, which continued on with its antics with as much fervor as ever.
It was during this period that the Christian County Bald Knobbers developed the use of the cave where many of the woodcutters used to play poker. The cave, known by residents today as Bald Knobber Cave, was where they centered their activities and made whiskey.
In the meantime, back in Taney County, the Anti-Bald Knobbers (the group who named the original citizen's committee "Bald Knobbers" in the first place and which had always been opposed to the Bald Knobbers) were planning a conspiracy to kill Captain Kinney, leader of the now disbanded Taney County group. The Anti-Bald Knobbers thought of many methods to kill Kinney and made just as many unsuccessful attempts on his life. Several other men were accidentally shot in the process of getting the correct Kinney. But finally Kinney was successfully shot and killed on August, 1888, in a store which he operated.
Lucille Morris Upton, author of Bald Knobbers, who has done extensive research on the subject, said, "Captain Kinney had charge of a bankrupt store there in Forsyth. The Taylor boys, two guys he had caught horse stealing, were laying for him, went in there when he was alone and shot him."
The death of Captain Kinney left a mass of mourners behind him, not only family and personal friends, but loyal Bald Knobbers who served under him during rougher times. His funeral procession was estimated to have included over half the town of Forsyth and its surroundings.
It was a year after the disbandment of Kinney's Taney County group and before his death that the biggest uproar ever created by the Christian County Bald Knobbers occurred. In March 1887 the leader of that group, "Bull Creek" Dave Walker called a meeting to destroy the liquor of a bootlegger who was selling whiskey in the county. When the report on whether the operator truly was making liquor did not come. Dave ordered the meeting adjourned. A few of the men were disheartened, however, due to the lack of excitement, and as the group was trekking toward their homes, they happened upon the cabin of William Edens. Edens, it seems, had been speaking out against the Bald Knobbers, and they felt a good thrashing would bring him to his senses.
They approached the cabin and called out, but he wasn't home. "Where could he be?" wondered the Bald Knobbers, now thirsty for any kind of trouble. "He must be at his father's house," they reasoned and rode to James Edens' cabin.
James Edens lived in a one room cabin with a fireplace on one wall and bunk beds on the opposite side. Old Edens and his wife were housing guests that night, young Edens and his wife Emma, and Charley Green (son-in-law) and his wife Melvina, who was sick. In fact the reason the relatives were all staying with old Edens was that they were staying up nights with Melvina.
The Bald Knobbers jumped the fence surrounding the yard and immediately fell upon the house. Dave Walker warned the men to get back on the road before trouble began, but no one heard him as the men were already splintering the oaken front door with a railroad tie found in the yard.
The family was awakened by the sound of the men at their door. Old Mrs. Edens picked up a revolver ready to fire. As the door came down under the weight force of the tie, old Edens reached for the pistol. Seeing this the Bald Knobbers instantaneously fired upon the old man, hitting him in the head. He fell limp in his daughter-in-law's lap. She also had been shot and barely escaped death.
Charles Green was shot instantly upon the entrance of the Bald Knobbers and his wife was taken from the bed and her clothes set on fire. A man shot at her, nipping her little finger. In her struggle with him, she ripped off his mask, getting a distinct look at his shaven young face.
Williams Edens was also killed the moment the Bald Knobbers entered the house, for he had been standing in the middle of the room in direct line of the assailants.
When Dave Walker again yelled at his men to get back on the road, this time they came willingly for the shooting was more than they intended.
The distinct look that Melvina Green got at the Bald Knobber proved fatal for the group. She identified the man as William Walker, Bull Creek Dave's son, and a known member of the night riding organization.
The local sheriff, though fearful of the organization, arrested the entire group one by one and held them in the jail at Ozark, Missouri. Except four, who were charged with the murders of Green and Edens, the other Bald Knobbers were arrested on the single charge of unlawful assembly. The captive Bald Knobbers were held in the new jail at Ozark which was more elaborately guarded than most others for that day.
The trials at Ozark in the summer of 1889 involving the Bald Knobbers, were surely some of the most colorful any United States courtroom has ever seen. The presence of "big city" newspaper men caused a nervousness in the air. The many relatives of the Bald Knobbers on trial crowded the small courtroom and caused unbearable heat to add to everyone's distaste. Sides were so strong on the Bald Knobbers position that demonstrations, sometimes violent, were held daily on the courthouse lawn amongst the tents of the unfortunate family members who couldn't find room in a hotel.
The trials turned out to be a disappointment to many, however. Most Bald Knobbers were given only $50 fines for unlawful assembly. A few were given penitentiary sentences. Four men were sentenced to be hanged, Dave Walker and his son William and John Matthew and his nephew Wiley Matthew.
Mr. Ingenthron said, "I don't guess the ones acquitted were truly bad after all. They were some of the best citizens of the community, you know."
Several weeks passed before the execution, and during that time the Matthews walked out of the jail when a trustee left the door open on purpose. The Walkers however, refused to leave. John Matthews was recaptured, but young Wiley was never found again. "Legend has it that the man escaped in a straw tick," L.W. Rozell, another long-time resident and owner of Bald Knobber Cave, said. "Back in my time, there wasn't no mattresses. It was either a straw tick or feather bed. Feather bed was best, but straw tick was next. See, you'll buy a bale of straw and fill that tick with straw, and you'll have a pretty nice bed. They used real tight ticking to load it. My wife's dad told me about it. The man's dad dug seneca--a medicine root. He put on a dress and bonnet and dug around down there for awhile. Then he said this man's dad sewed him up in that straw tick. He had a fast team of mules and an old double-barreled shotgun laying right up in front of him, and he had his son behind him sewn up in that tick, and took him into Oklahoma. He said the man later died there."
That was the way one Bald Knobber got away. The other three weren't quite as fortunate. On May 10, 1889, they were hanged just as they were sentenced. Mr. Rozell continued, "What they tell me, and I'm sure this is right, my wife's dad told me. He went down there where they was a-hanging them. He said one would go through, and they'd say, 'Ah, it's good enough for him!' And the people would come through just a-crying and a-sobbing. And he said, 'It's too sad, sir.' That's the way it was. The bad ones, I guess got what they needed.
"I remember the law hung this old man [Dave Walker] and his twenty-two year old son [William]. They had to hang the son twice. They made the rope a little too long, and it didn't catch him. It just broke his legs and butchered him up. So they took him back up there and hung him again. My wife's dad seen that. He said the man was bleeding right around the eyes and nose and mouth."
These hangings at Ozark were the end of the organized Bald Knobber activity in the Ozarks. The movement was both a peaceful citizens' committee trying to make their homes a safer place to live and a ruthless band of outlaws. In the end the Bald Knobbers were victims of their own cause. Started to prevent sin and lawlessness, their methods caused their own downfall. They perpetrated the crime they wanted to curb by appealing to the bad element in society.
"They started out for a good cause," Mr. Rozell said. "They didn't think the law was good enough. If a guy wasn't doing what he ought to, and the law wasn't doing what it ought to, they'd just go out and give him a whipping! It got bigger and bigger, the bad working in and the good working out." The bad element turned to crime and murder, but during those few years the good had built strong enough forces to defeat the last of the Bald Knobbers in a court of law.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.