Volume 32, Number 3, Spring 1993
In the late evening of September 12, 1885, on a dimly lit South Alley (modern McDaniel Street) just off the town square in Springfield, Mo., Nathaniel N. Kinney fell through a sidewalk and injured his left leg. For almost the next four years until July, 1889, litigation concerning damages and blame continued between Nat Kinney and his estate as plaintiff and the City of Springfield as defendant. The case has historical interest as during the same years Kinneys name emerged in the growing sensational press concerning the Taney County vigilantes known as the Bald Knobbers. This case, distinctive in its turn of circumstantial events, was heard by the Greene County Circuit Court and appealed to the St. Louis Court of Appeals.
The actual case began in November, 1885, when Nat Kinney petitioned the Greene County Circuit Court in a suit against the City of Springfield for $5,000 in damages. The Circuit Court placed the case on the docket. It appeared on the May, 1886, docket, received a continuance at defendants cost in December, 1886, and was finally tried in November, 1887. The circuit court awarded $1,500 to Kinney and the City of Springfield then appealed the case to the St. Louis Court of Appeals who rendered an opinion in favor of Kinney in March, 1889. The City of Springfield claimed to not have any property to satisfy the execution and payment, including interest, of $1,650 and $269.30 in court costs, whereupon the Greene County Circuit Court ordered a special assessment and collection of taxes to satisfy the Kinney estate. The details of this unusual case merit our consideration.
Kinney, in his November, 1886, deposition stated that he and several Taney County men, including Pat Fickle, Jake Groves, Mark Hensley, Carl Hughes, Cal Parrish, [?] Patterson, Clate Stokely, and others, were in Springfield. Kinney had met an incoming train at the depot, ate his supper, visited Prices wagon yard, and played three games often pins with local blacks and whites in a lot along South Alley. Then the men headed for a feed store. Kinney said he and Carl Hughes were walking in conversation, "I do not know whether I had him by the arm or he had me by the arm," said Nat. "The next thing I knew I was laying on a sidewalk or part of me, at least, was on the walk and part of me down in the hole."
Kinney fell forward into a hole for a coal chute next to Dr. L. T. Watsons brick building. He sustained a "bruise on his right side and belly, his left instep was injured, sprained his left leg above the knee, sprained his hip, that is through my left hip and kidneys, hurt my left testicle, and [sustained] a gash in the back of my head." Companions helped Kinney to the front of Watsons building where Mayor Ralph Walker gave him a chair and asked Kinney to tell what happened. Afterwards, Kinney said that Walker responded, "I have ordered them to fix that hole three or four times before somebody gets killed in it." Kinney then drank a glass of brandy as he settled himself.
Folks hailed Dr. C. C. Clements buggy and took Kinney to the American House so the physician could conduct an examination. Following Dr. Clements examination of his side, belly, instep, knee, and leg, the doctor concluded that no bones were broken, applied some lineament, and Kinney stayed the night at the American House.
Neighbor Clate Stokely took Kinney home and Nat did not see another doctor although he bought lineaments from Ben Price in Forsyth. Instead, with the help of his family, he "treated himself" and claimed at the time of his deposition in November, 1886, that his ankle "is disabled yet." Furthermore, it continued to swell if he rode or walked too much and that his knee "hurts more or less all the time." He said that "my kidneys are gone" and "at times my leg gets numb or stiff." All this was a hindrance to Kinney who was engaged in farming and stock raising, but now had to hire more help as on many occasions he was "unable to get out of the yard or house." Yet, Kinney did all the buying and selling of stock making only one-fourth of his normal annual earnings of $800 to $1,000.
At the time Kinney first petitioned the Greene County Circuit Court, he was known around Springfield, but had not yet acquired regional notoriety. He arrived in Springfield on March 16, 1882, and left for Taney County in January, 1883. During those months, Kinney worked as a saloon keeper near the town square, joined the local Springfield militia, and was on duty at the saloon during a killing in December, 1882. He purchased a stock ranch along the
Springfield and Harrison Road north of Kirbyville and was occasionally in Springfield on business and recreation.
But by November, 1886, Kinney had gained notoriety as a vigilante leader in Taney County. He had killed Andy Coggburn, been involved in several violent conflicts, rhetoric had erupted concerning the regulator movement, the governor of Missouri, through the adjutant general, had ordered abandonment of the group in a public ceremony held in Forsyth, but the violence continued. And, by fall 1886, Kinney had lost his second bid for state representative while chairman of the Democratic party in Taney County. If this wasnt enough, night riding violence had erupted in Douglas and Christian counties where the vigilantes were also known as Bald Knobbers.
Political and social rhetoric teemed in Taney County closely observed by the Springfield press. T. J. Delaney, serving as attorney for the City of Springfield, petitioned for and received a continuance while new depositions were taken in the Kinney case during December, 1886. The defense argued that material witnesses in Taney County had new evidence to give. Thomas Layton, recent County Clerk and secretary of the Taney County Democratic party, John Moseley, former Taney County sheriff, [A. C.?] Hensley and others had come forward to testify. In other words, men who had been known locally as Bald Knobber and Anti-Bald Knobber now had something to say about Nat Kinney.
These new witnesses in the Kinney case testified that within two months following Kinneys alleged injuries (November, 1885) they and Kinney traveled from Taney County to Springfield and camped overnight on Finley River.
The unfolding story told how Kinney "for sport engaged in tests and trials of strength" and "lifted and held up and threw about some of the men with ease" and excelled everyone "in feats of strength, tests and trials of strength and lifting heavy weights." Moreover, and in direct contradiction of Kinneys deposition, these witnesses claimed that Kinney had performed "his ordinary and usual amount of work" on his farm since his injuries. Additionally, everyone had seen Kinney during the late political campaign "constantly about in the county at all hours of the day and night electioneering and did not manifest nor show any disability of body whatever.
While the City of Springfield planned its legal strategy, it would be another full year before the Kinney case came to trial and new evidence offered. When it did, the date was November, 1887, and feuding over the vigilantes continued in Taney County while Bald Knobber violence and bloodshed occurred in Christian and Douglas counties.
In November, 1887, a young W. H. Johnson had assumed the role of Springfield city attorney. Johnson would later become widely known for his regional real estate development and as developer of Hollister, Mo. The trial lasted three days, ending in a judgement for Kinney.
Soon after the trial, Johnson introduced new affidavits not only from Thomas Layton, but James R. VanZandt, Samuel Crouch, John Crouch and John Ashmore as witnesses contradicting Kinneys statements; these men, too, represented known Bald Knobbers and Anti-Bald Knobbers.
The City of Springfield wanted a new trial. VanZandt had considerable credibility in Taney County as a minister, Mexican War veteran, political aspirant, and Kirbyville village elder. He had also been a Taney Bald Knobber. These men would swear that ever since Kinney pretended injury, he "had attended to his usual duties and avocations." They did concede, however, that Kinney had rheumatism, but when at home he "does not use a cane or stick, nor does he limp except when suffering from rheumatism." Voices from both sides of the recent and ongoing vigilante conflict judged Kinneys deposition a lie.
Dr. K. L. Burdette of Forsyth testified that during Kinneys campaign for state representative in 1884 he began to have problems with rheumatism, using a cane while standing at the Democratic barbeque. Burdette made the point that Kinneys lameness commenced prior to the night of his injuries on September 12, 1885. Leroy Thomas confirmed Burdettes observations about Kinneys actions at the Democratic barbeque saying, "sometimes he uses his cane and sometimes does not." Moreover, testimony from the defense in the case also accused Kinney of being "under the influence of liquor." Kinneys rebuttal claimed he was "not to any extent intoxicated."
More affidavits, this time from Springfieldians, joined in the dispute with Kinney. E. J. Wadlow was a juryman in the November, 1887, trial. He "noticed Kinney limping about the court room and appeared to walk with great pain and difficulty." The jury then met to consider the case. Wadlow looked out through the window and saw Kinney walking across the street without the use of his cane and not limping. Kinney "had his cane across his arms and was walking like a sound man."
L. H. Murray, a wealthy merchant, Democratic politician, and president of the Western Missouri Railroad Company, reported on Col. George S. Rathbuns (Kinneys
attorney) address to the jury. The essence was, "Give this plaintiff a good round sum; he is a poor man. $2,000 to $5,000 will not be too much to give him. The City can stand it; it wont hurt her. A city with 25,000 inhabitants, the tax [to pay Kinneys award] per capita would be almost nothing." City attorney T. J. Delaney strongly objected to these remarks and asked the court to reprimand Col. Rathburn, but the court refused to do so.
With affidavits contradicting Kinneys testimony and complaints about court procedure, the City of Springfield appealed their case to the St. Louis Court of Appeals. Meanwhile, three Bald Knobbers were hung in Christian County, and feuding continued in Taney County. In August, 1888, Billy Miles killed Nat Kinney in Forsyth. The City continued its appeal while Kinneys widow Maggie represented the Kinney estate.
The St. Louis Court of Appeals summed up the case. In 1885 Dr. L. T. Watson built a new brick building along South Alley, a thoroughfare with a saloon, blacksmith shop and wagon yard. The court ruled that the public way had "more the character of a street than an ordinary alley."
A brick sidewalk, three feet wide, was constructed along the South Alley side, including a ventilation hole--two feet wide, three feet long, and three or four feet deep--covered with an iron grating fastened into the brick and stone work in the walk. The grating had been broken some weeks before the time of Kinneys injury. The remaining hole was sometimes covered by "a loose plank or by a loose box" totally unfastened. There was nothing present to warn anyone of the danger. And, Springfield Mayor Ralph Walker knew about the problem.
The Court would not relieve the City of Springfield from the charge of negligence. The City was held legally responsible for public safety regardless of who traveled the thoroughfare and regardless of who constructed the sidewalk. The makeshift covering for the hole in the sidewalk "could have been easily removed by the smallest urchin on the streets of the City," wrote Judge W. H. Biggs. The Appeals judges unanimously concurred in the decision for the plaintiff.
The Court of Appeals, in writing its opinion, singled out the lower court for sharp criticism in its procedure. Included were the comments by Col. Rathbun to the jury, the courts failure to appoint a physician to examine Kinney, plaintiffs improper declaration of the law, refusal of instructions asked by the defense, and that the lower court should have granted the City of Springfield a "new trial on account of newly discovered evidence." The Court of Appeals castigated the Greene County Circuit Court for improper, misleading, irrelevant procedures.
Springfieldians still had trouble with the Appeals Court judgment. On May 4, 1889, the Greene County sheriff demanded the award from the city treasurer who refused to pay it. The Circuit Court then required Mayor Walker, the treasurer, the collector, the clerk, and all councilmen to
assemble in Circuit Court on July 8,
The Court issued a writ of Peremptory Mandamus to the City of Springfield requiring city government "to levy, assess and collect a special tax" to pay the judgment, $1,650 to Mrs. Maggie J. Kinney and $269.30 for court costs, at once. The issuance of this writ commanding performance of payment to Mrs. Kinney was an extraordinary decision, invoked only in unusual situations. Obviously, the City of Springfield loathed the command to satisfy Bald Knobber Kinneys suit.
Interestingly enough, the month of July, 1889, brought closure to Kinneys case and major vigilante events in the White River Hills. Taney Countians witnessed two more killings at Kirbyville, the last of eleven related deaths in the Taney Bald Knobber conflict. Nat Kinney was dead, and Maggie Kinney collected her financial settlement in Greene County. In neighboring Christian County the legal system had executed three Bald Knobbers by hanging. Hearings in Springfield had resulted in Federal district court sentencing several Douglas County "knobbers" to jail for conspiracy and transgression of civil rights laws. The Kinney court case ultimately faded into the background of the overall journalism concerning the rash of vigilante news in southwest Missouri. Fiction, folklore and local journalism continued to invoke imaginations of the era by mixing an expanding oral tradition with local history. The process continues yet.
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