Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Bald Knobbers, Nocturnal Terrorists of the Ozarks

by Pa Rock
Native Missourian

I have just finished reading Bald Knobbers:  Vigilantes of the Ozarks Frontier  by Mary Hartman and Elmo Ingenthron,   That book, perhaps the best to date on the complicated subject of the history of Ozark vigilantism, was first published in 1988, the same year that saw the death of it's primary gatherer of history, Mr. Ingenthron.  It was also exactly a century after the death of Nat Kinney, the acknowledged instigator and leader of the bald knobber movement.

Elmo Ingenthron, himself an Ozark character of some renown, was the grandson of a bald knobber, and his father, even though just a boy at the time, was old enough to have absorbed much of that history and passed it along to his son.

The bald knobber movement, one originally intended to clean up the lawless conditions in the Ozarks a couple of decades after the Civil War, occurred primarily in the southern Missouri counties of Taney and Christian.  It began in the spring of 1885 with a meeting in a remote area near Forsyth, Missouri, that was called by Nat Kinney, himself a mountain of a man who had served as a private in the Union Army.   Kinney's initial meeting attracted a core group of a dozen or so armed men.  Those men set about recruiting others, and the next meeting, at a mountain top "bald"  welcomed over a hundred individuals whose goal was to help their government enforce its laws.

Kinney organized this large core group into separate units to cover the remote geographical areas of Taney County.  Recruitment continued, and soon most of the county was either aligned with the bald knobbers (former Union soldiers and Republicans) or the anti-bald knobbers (Confederate sympathizers and Democrats).  The movement quickly spread to neighboring Christian County, and had off-shoots in other counties as well.

The bald knobbers were a colorful group who amassed a great deal of power quickly.  They rode at night in their campaign against lawlessness, often disguised with horned masks, their coats on inside-out, and socks over their boots.   They were concerned with law-breakers, criminals to whom they would mete out their own punishment (whippings, orders to move out of the county, and lynchings), and they also quickly became the moral police of the area paying particular attention to couples who were living together without the benefit of actual marriage.  Their membership included farmers, merchants, politicians, lawyers, and even clergymen.

Not surprisingly, though, as the power of the group increased, so did its abuse of that power.  Soon blocks of the local citizenry were so up-in-arms at the bald knobbers that they approached the state's governor and asked him to take some action to protect them from the armed hordes of night-riders.

This book gives a detailed history of the bald knobber movement.   It contains several pages of bibliographical sources and an adequate, though far from complete, index.   Anyone whose family passed through southern Missouri or northern Arkansas is likely to unearth tidbits of family history within its pages. The volume is honest in its hard look at the bald knobber movement, and it does nothing to glamorize or romanticize those events of a century ago - like some of today's shows in Branson do.

It wasn't a glamorous time.

No comments: