Matthew J. Hernando is Instructor of History and Government at Ozark Technical Community College, Hollister, Missouri. He has contributed articles and book reviews to such publications as the North Louisiana Historical Association Journal, the White River Valley Historical Quarterly, and the online journal Civil War Book Review.
Faces Like Devils: The Bald Knobber Vigilantes in the Ozarks was published in the spring of 2015 by University of Missouri Press.
Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions, Matthew.
Q: You graduated from Louisiana State University, and you now work in the Ozarks. Were your people from the Ozarks?
A: Alas, no they weren’t. I am totally an adopted Ozarker. My family relocated to the area from New Jersey in 1990. I was ten years old at that time. So far as I know, no member of my family ever lived here before that point. My mother’s family is Scottish, and my father’s family is Russian, Polish, and Filipino.
Photograph by James D. Hernando
In a weird way, however, I think that I might actually have a bit of an advantage not being a native Ozarker. A lot of things that a native of the region might take for granted—such as the continuous “insider” versus “outsider” dynamic that plays out time and again in our history—strike me as different and fascinating. Perhaps as a result of that I have always found the history of this area intriguing, which may explain why I chose this topic.
Q: The Bald Knobbers existed in three counties in the Missouri Ozarks—Taney, Christian, and Douglas. Briefly what were the Bald Knobbers and how many men were involved?
A: The Bald Knobbers were a vigilante organization that were founded in Taney County sometime in the winter of 1884 to 1885. Thereafter they spread north into the neighboring counties of Christian and Douglas. Contemporary accounts suggest that up to a thousand men may have belonged to the Bald Knobbers, although I have only been able to document the names of around 140 members in the three counties.
Q: Why would Ozarkers choose to improvise and circumvent existing, elected civil authority?
A: For the same reason that other nineteenth century Americans did so in other places: they became dissatisfied with the operation of the legitimate law enforcement mechanisms in their communities, either because they did not move fast enough or because they yielded results that many people found to be unjust or inequitable. If you look at nineteenth century America, particularly Post-Civil War, you have these sorts of organizations popping up everywhere. Right here in Missouri you have organizations like the Stone County Sons of Honor, the Marmiton League in Vernon County, the Anti-Horse Thief Association up in Clarke County, and of course the Klu Klux Klan, which was heavily active in Southeast Missouri. So what happened in Southwest Missouri in the 1880’s is hardly unique.
Q: You say significantly in the book and in your conclusion that some of the conflict was an extension of, or was perceived by participants as an extension of, the very bloody and often personal Civil War in the Ozarks. What had these men learned in the war?
A: Well, first and foremost they had learned that violence solves problems, and they had learned how to use violence to solve problems. They had also learned to view people from the “other side” of that conflict with suspicion and hostility. It’s no accident that, among the Bald Knobbers who were old enough to have served in the Civil War, union veterans predominated. Moreover, in Taney County – where the Bald Knobbers actually faced organized opposition – confederate veterans flocked to the Anti-Bald Knobber faction.
At the same time, it would be a mistake to conclude from this that Civil War loyalties were the sole factor in determining whether a person joined the Bald Knobbers, something that I don’t say in the book. Instead, I see civil war loyalties as one of several factors that could influence that decision, including economic or financial motives, a concern for law and order, a desire for probity in local government, and a person’s willingness to impose his own version of morality upon his neighbors.
Q: Other counties saw the rise of anti-horse thief leagues or law-and-order committees. Why did Taney County in particular see a vigilante group that became so large and dominant so fast?
A: By the mid-1880’s, conditions were ripe for vigilante justice to take hold in Taney County. First, you have the local political situation: the end of ex-confederate disfranchisement in 1872 led to local Democrats recapturing control of local government in Taney County, so for about a decade you have this clique of Democratic, mostly southern sympathizing, office-holders calling the shots in local politics. At the same time, you have substantial immigration from former Union states—including the North and the Mid-West—which brought in a lot of people who were ill-disposed to accept this state of affairs. The newcomers blamed Taney County’s problems on the Democratic “courthouse ring” or “old county ring” controlling local government. They particularly focused their ire on the county’s burgeoning local debt—which reached the once staggering total of $42,600 in 1883—even though as I point out in the book the county’s debt problem actually began before the Democrats took over.
The other issue the critics harped on was crime, particularly violent crime, which they said the local authorities had allowed to get out of control. There was a lot of talk about crime statistics leading up to the Bald Knobber episode. A commonly cited claim was that some thirty to forty murders had occurred in Taney County during the twenty years from the end of the war to the founding of the Bald Knobbers, although that claim has never been substantiated. As often happens, however, perception became more important than reality. The perception that Taney County had become this wild, lawless place was reinforced by a number of high profile violent crimes that did occur in Taney County in the early 1880’s, particularly the murders of Amos Ring and James Everett, and the attempted murders of John T. Dickenson and his wife by the brothers Frank and Tubal Taylor, whom the Bald Knobbers later lynched.
Underlying the complaints about crime and corruption, however, was a very real concern on the part of many of the vigilantes for the progress of their community. To them “progress” meant continued immigration to Taney County, as well as new investment, business development, and so on. Many of them had moved to the area expecting to participate in what they anticipated would be a bright and prosperous future, and they saw that future jeopardized by what they perceived as rampant crime and political corruption. Such a threat justified taking extreme steps to wage what the Bald Knobber chieftain Nat Kinney described in his typically overheated rhetoric as a “war between civilization and barbarism” in which all the county’s “best men”—lawyers, doctors, businessmen, taxpayers, etc.—sided with him, while presumably the county’s “worst” element sided with his opponents.
Q: The Christian and Douglas County Bald Knobbers were very different organizations than what started in Taney County. How so?
A: That’s a great question because it gets to the heart of the distinction I try to draw in the book: I view the two groups of Bald Knobbers as being very different organizations. They differed first in terms of composition: they attracted different sorts of people into their ranks. The Taney County group consisted mainly of middle and upper class men who tended to be older (about forty years old on average), and came from diverse occupational and geographical backgrounds. About half of them practiced something other than agriculture as their primary form of employment, and several were successful lawyers, doctors, businessmen, and politicians. Only about three in ten claimed Missouri as their birth place. By contrast, the Bald Knobbers in Christian and Douglas counties tended to be younger (averaging age of about thirty), and came from poorer, less socially-prominent backgrounds. A majority of them claimed Missouri as their birthplace, while about nine in ten practiced agriculture as their primary livelihood. Needless to say, fewer of them ever became lawyers, businessmen, or politicians.
They also differed in terms of their motives. As we’ve seen, the Taney County group organized primarily in response to issues like crime and violence, and corruption in local government. By contrast, the Bald Knobbers in the two northern counties, particularly Christian county, displayed a much greater interest in what I call “moral regulation,” or the use of vigilante tactics to impose your own version of morality and proper behavior on your community. That’s why they engaged in such actions as busting up the “blind tigers” (i.e., saloons) in Chadwick, or whipping adulterers, sexual deviants, and people who abused or neglected their families.
They also attempted to advance the economic interests of their members, which was perhaps similar to the Taney County vigilantes, except that in Christian and Douglas counties the focus was different: they were primarily concerned with protecting the livelihoods of their members, rather than promoting the economic “progress” of their community, per se. For example, many of the Bald Knobbers in these counties—like a lot of people at that time—supplemented their income through “tie-hacking,” or cutting railroad ties for the old Frisco Railroad that ran through the area. As a result, they sometimes clashed with officials from local timber companies who in their view treated their members unfairly. On at least two occasions, they attempted to coerce company representatives from a Springfield-based timber company into giving them more favorable prices for their ties and not rejecting as many substandard ties.
The concern with timber also helps explain why so many of them became involved in homesteader intimidation cases. From 1887 through 1888 dozens of Bald Knobbers from Christian and Douglas counties stood trial in federal court for intimidating homesteaders and running them off their land. As I argue in the book, they did so because they felt homesteaders were crowding them off of land they had used for years, especially for timber-cutting (i.e., “tie-hacking”) purposes. This is something, by the way, that was entirely absent among the Taney County Bald Knobbers, none of whom were arrested for intimidating homesteaders.
Q: I was fascinated to learn that the Taney County Bald Knobbers wore no masks, but the Christian and Douglas County Bald Knobbers had the very distinctive horned sacks with red thread setting off the eyes. Why would one group operate unmasked and overtly and the other always in disguise?
A: You can pretty much boil the answer to that question down to one word: power. After about 1884, the old Democratic courthouse ring had been vanquished in Taney County, and the Bald Knobbers and their Republican allies clearly held control over the local government, as they would continue to do long after the organization itself had phased out of existence. For example, from 1886 to 1892 four known Bald Knobbers or former Bald Knobbers—James K. Polk McHaffie, Galba Branson, Reuben Isaacs, and John L. Cook—held the office of sheriff. Other Bald Knobbers would frequently hold such offices as county clerk, assessor, treasurer, and prosecutor well into the 1890’s. So if you’re in charge, why disguise your identity? You can count on your friends in local government to protect you.
By contrast, the Bald Knobbers in Christian and Douglas counties never had anywhere near that level of influence. They were poorer, less socially prominent, and few if any of them held political office. They needed to disguise their identities because they were more vulnerable to prosecution for their vigilante activities. Ironically enough, those fearsome Bald Knobber masks were a mark of that comparative vulnerability.
Q: A colleague of mine often trots out the phrase, “It’s all about money and power.” How would that apply to the Bald Knobbers?
A: Were the Bald Knobbers interested in money and power? Absolutely. But I think it would be a mistake to reduce it to that. I see the Bald Knobber episode as being primarily a struggle over the future. The men who joined the vigilantes had a particular vision of the future that they wanted to create for themselves and their communities, and they were willing to use force to make it a reality.
Q: What drove you to write this?
A: As a child growing up in the Ozarks, I could hardly have avoided some contact with the Bald Knobbers, or at least the Bald Knobber mythology presented in popular culture. I rode the “Fire in the Hole” ride at Silver Dollar City, and I read Shepherd of the Hills for the first time in middle school. But it wasn’t until I did a research paper on Christian County as part of a class I took at LSU that I first began to think about tackling this project seriously. A small section of that paper concerned the Bald Knobbers, and my professor made the comment that he would have liked to find out more about this group. I thought, “Well, so would I.”
Q: There is a LOT of sensational information and misinformation from newspapers and all the other books about the Bald Knobbers. How did you fend off the “story” to salvage the history?
A: First, I set out to dig as deeply as possible into the available primary sources: newspapers, numerous court records, contemporary accounts, census records, tax records, and so on. I also tried to ask questions a lot of questions that hadn’t really been tackled systematically before. For example, I wanted to know not just what the Bald Knobbers did—who they whipped, lynched, drove out, etc.—but who they were. What type of men joined this group? Where did they come from? What were their social and/or professional backgrounds? What was their family status? Had they been veterans? If so, which side did they fight for?
Lastly, I tried to let the sources guide my research by raising new questions that I hadn’t considered before. For example, one of the things I investigated a little more closely than previous writers is the lawsuit between Nat Kinney and the City of Springfield, which stemmed from an injury he sustained when he fell into a pot hole on a city street. I became fascinated by the fact that, in the midst of all these tumultuous events going on in Taney County, he was simultaneously involved in protracted litigation against a municipal government that actually lasted beyond his death. Without giving away too much of what is in the book, the way that case played out sheds some light on the Bald Knobber episode down in Taney County and the role that Nat Kinney played in it.
Q: Assuming that there is an Ozarks Literature and then there are trends within that Ozarks Literature, I see now a raft of novels that involve crime, lawlessness, murder: Laura McHugh’s The Weight of Blood, many of Daniel Woodrell’s novels. What in the narrative of the Bald Knobbers has contributed to the persistence of our rough justice narratives?
A: As I suspect you probably know, the Bald Knobbers owe much of their enduring notoriety to one man: the minister-turned-author Harold Bell Wright, whose wildly popular 1907 novel, Shepherd of the Hills, included a highly sensationalized depiction of the group as a gang of cut-throats and outlaws who defied the law and terrorized their neighbors. Since then, this distorted image of the Bald Knobbers has been linked to the Ozarks in the popular imagination, even as the actual history of the group has been largely forgotten. It is no surprise that when the Mabe family decided to open their hillbilly-themed music show in Branson in 1959, they chose the name “Baldknobbers” for their enterprise. It is also no surprise that much of the popular literature concerning the region should focus on themes like crime and violence, not only because that stuff sells books, but also because that is how the region has been portrayed for more than a century.
Q: Are there ways in which this vigilante instinct later contributed to the horrific years of racially motivated lynchings in Joplin, Pierce City, and Springfield? Why were Ozarkers seemingly hardwired to answer anything they feared with a rope?
A: Well, once again, it is only fair to point out that a lot of nineteenth century Americans shared that same predisposition. Ozarkers were not unique in that respect. I would say that the Bald Knobbers, and their numerous late nineteenth century counterparts both in Missouri and the rest of the country, set a precedent that tended to normalize vigilante justice in the eyes of many Americans and Ozarkers. The rash of racially-motivated violence that struck the Ozarks around the turn of the century—which Kimberly Harper chronicles so well in White Man’s Heaven—naturally drew upon that precedent. As always, it becomes easier for people to contemplate doing something when it has been done before.
Q: Any word on when and if Faces Like Devils will appear in paperback?
A: Alas, no word on that yet. That decision will be made by the University of Missouri Press.
Q: Are you done with this subject? What will you work on for your second book?
A: I am done with it for now, except that I am often asked to give talks to various local groups about the Bald Knobbers, which I am usually very happy to do. Next month, for example, I am giving an address to the Vernon County Historical Society. As for my second project, I will be honest and say I have not got very far yet. I am exploring a couple of possible topics, but my teaching load keeps me rather busy during the Fall and Spring semesters.
Thanks again for taking the time to do this, Matthew. I hope you find the time and space to write about the Ozarks again, and soon!
Interviewer Steve Yates is the author of two novels set in the Ozarks, Morkan’s Quarry and The Teeth of the Souls. His collection, Some Kinds of Love: Stories, won the Juniper Prize and was published by University of Massachusetts Press. Sandy and Wayne: A Novella, chosen for Big Fiction’s Knickerbocker Prize by New York Times-bestselling author Lauren Groff, is forthcoming this February from Dock Street Press in Seattle.