Faces Like Devils: The Bald Knobber Vigilantes in the Ozarks

Author: Matthew J. Hernando
Publisher: Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2015. 313p.
Reviewer: J. Blake Perkins | May 2016

Historian Matthew J. Hernando’s Faces Like Devils aims to cut through the thicket of popular myth and legend surrounding one of nineteenth-century America’s largest, most violent, and most colorful vigilante groups. During the 1880s, the Bald Knobbers organized as a secretive vigilance organization in a handful of counties in the Ozarks, where they aimed to root out those they held responsible for corrupt and corrosive social, political, and economic problems in their communities. Their ambitious, extralegal attempts effectively “threw much of southwest Missouri into turmoil” (2). Hernando’s careful study of these vigilantes and the circumstances that created them offers a refreshing social history of the post-Civil War Ozarks, and the forces of change that the region’s people confronted and navigated during this transformative era. Readers of this journal may find particularly noteworthy Hernando’s commentary on how the story of the Bald Knobbers “informs a broader narrative of vigilante justice that has been part of American history and culture from the beginning” (4).

The vigilantes held their first meeting in late 1884 or early 1885 in Taney County (present-day Branson area) and soon adopted the label “Bald Knobbers,” a name inspired by the remote treeless hilltop called “Snapp’s Bald,” where they frequently held their secretive meetings. Hernando shows that a large number of these Taney County vigilantes were recent, business-minded in-migrants from the North and Midwest and most—newcomers and “native” Bald Knobbers alike—came from Unionist backgrounds. With only a few exceptions (including, ironically, the group’s main leader, Nathaniel Kinney), the Taney County Bald Knobbers generally supported the Republican Party. The primary target of their antipathy and vigilante activities was the local Democratic political establishment and its supporters, who were more likely to have sympathized with the Confederacy during the Civil War era. In fact, Hernando contends that the Bald Knobbers cannot possibly be understood outside the “context of the Civil War and its aftermath in the Missouri Ozarks,” due to the war’s “legacy of bitterness and mistrust,” “polarized…political culture,” “surge in criminal activity,” and “increased societal acceptance of vigilantism and violence as methods of solving problems and deterring crime” (14-15). For the generally well-to-do Taney County Bald Knobbers, a principle motive of their vigilantism was to overthrow the corrupt and inept courthouse ring, to stamp out crime and, despite the contradiction inherent to their methods, to restore law and order. They ultimately sought to make the county safe and friendly for business growth and economic progress. Naturally, their extra-legal activities “did eventually stray from their original goals…and in many cases they used their power to pursue personal grievances and promote their own interests” (12). Opponents responded by organizing an “Anti-Bald Knobber” militia, and lawless violence between the vigilante factions plagued Taney County even after Missouri governor John S. Marmaduke attempted to mediate a truce between them in 1886. Vigilante terror reigned in the county until the murder of Bald Knobber leader Nat Kinney, and a subsequent shootout in August 1888 prompted the groups to disband.

Bald Knobber vigilantism also spread north to Christian and Douglas counties, though Hernando discovers significant differences there. While Bald Knobbers in Christian and Douglas counties shared a common strategy to use extralegal force, intimidation, and violence to achieve their ideals of justice and “social order,” a “fundamental distinction” separated them from the “original vigilance committee in Taney County” (16). Unlike the middle- and upper-class socioeconomic status of the Taney Bald Knobbers, those in Christian and Douglas were mostly poor farmers and wage laborers. Frustrated by emerging inequalities and disruptions wrought by the evolution of industrial capitalism in the region, they targeted immigrant homesteaders who had recently arrived to acquire land and other property, as well as a number of new town proprietors and corporate railroad agents. They also bore an “intensely devout evangelical Christianity,” and aimed to use their vigilante organization to punish and suppress individuals and activities they deemed immoral, such as illegal drinking, adultery, and spousal and child neglect. Like their counterparts in Taney County, they typically blended their efforts to restore righteous values in their communities with motives driven by self-interest and personal grudges. Bald Knobberism in Christian and Douglas counties came to a rather quick end after the vigilantes murdered two men in March 1887. Many of the group’s leaders and members were largely discredited amid the high-profile court cases that followed. In addition to local officials’ “crackdown,” federal law enforcement also stepped in to help suppress Bald Knobberism there because of the vigilantes’ violation of U.S. homesteading laws (3). The end came in a dramatic “scene of ghastliness” (184). Four convicted Bald Knobbers were sentenced to the gallows (though one escaped), including the group’s leaders, Dave Walker and his son William Walker. The sheriff and his men botched the executions, and both of the Walker men had to be re-hanged in an agonizing and horrific process that was drawn out for over half an hour after the first attempt.

Ultimately, Faces Like Devils illuminates the “multifaceted nature of vigilantism as a whole” (17). Indeed, it is remarkable and telling that two contemporaneous vigilante groups that adopted the same label and inhabited the same general area were so different in the backgrounds of their memberships, their outlooks, and their goals. Hernando’s history of the Bald Knobbers in the Missouri Ozarks “demonstrates the inherent flexibility of vigilante justice” (17).

As the book’s fifty pages of endnotes attest, Hernando’s account is impressively researched. It offers a much-needed scholarly treatment of a “legendary” vigilante group that has heretofore mostly been ceded to local lore. This reviewer’s only complaint is that Hernando’s narrative occasionally fails to capture the truly fascinating drama and suspenseful developments as they played out in real life. For example, Hernando spoils part of the ending of the remarkably suspenseful trial of William Walker and subsequent events, which he appropriately identifies as the “beginning of a climactic phase in the history of the Bald Knobbers,” by prematurely revealing the vigilante leaders’ “eventual executions” in the third paragraph of Chapter 6 (161-162). While the author’s efforts to counter sensationalized folklore with a more sober and historically accurate account are to be commended, scholarly studies ought not to deprive readers of experiencing the riveting entertainment of history’s real-life drama. That qualm aside, Faces Like Devils is a fine book that those interested in the history of American vigilantism, violence, criminal justice, and rural social change will find very useful.

J. Blake Perkins, Williams Baptist College

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