The Bald Knobbers of Taney County
If things around you are going to hell in a handcart, there is a temptation for some to take the law into their own hands. In Taney County, Missouri, between 1865 and 1885 there had been forty murders and not one suspect had ever been convicted, Nat N Kinney and twelve others decided in 1883 to take matters into their own hands.
This group of what we would now term as vigilantes called themselves the Citizens’ Committee or, alternatively, The Law and Order League. Their principal objectives, at least at the outset of their six-year existence, were to “protect life and property, aid law enforcement officials in the apprehension of criminals, oppose corruption in local government and punish those who violated the social and religious morals of their community”.
They met in secret on the grassy bald knob summits of the Ozark Mountains – their first meeting was held just north of Kirbyville on Snapp’s Bald –the better to keep a look-out for spies. As a result they were known colloquially as the Bald Knobbers. The majority of the original members were Republicans who had fought on the Union side in the Civil War and, initially, only wore a handkerchief to mask the lower part of their face to disguise their appearance, so confident were they that they had the support of the majority of their community.
This may have been the case as the Knobbers soon attracted more and more members, at their peak numbering several hundred in a county that only had a population of some 7,000. Their costume became more menacing featuring a simple white hood made of muslin with the ends tied to give the appearance of ears and with holes for the eyes and mouth cut out. They were initially successful in driving out outlaws from the area but with so many in their ranks it was perhaps inevitable that they would soon overstep the mark.
Their opponents, known as the anti-Bald Knobbers, resented their growing influence and a nineteen year old, Andy Coggburn, became an outspoken critic, deriding Kinney. In short order Kinney shot Coggburn dead outside the local church at Forsyth where he (Kinney) was about to preach, allegedly in self-defence. This outrage provoked a petition to the Governor of Missouri to sort out the problem of the Knobbers once and for all and following an enquiry by an Adjutant General they agreed to disband with due ceremony in the town square.
But matters didn’t stop there. Other groups of Knobbers had sprung up in neighbouring counties, splitting their communities between supporters and opponents. William Edens was a vociferous opponent of the Christian County Knobbers and a splinter group decided on March 11th 1887 to silence him for good. They broke into the cabin, guns a-blazing and William Edens and Charles Walker were killed and James Edens seriously injured from an axe blow to the head. The screams of women and children caught up in the maelstrom led neighbours to the site of the massacre.
In August 1888 Kinney met a grisly end when Billy Miles shot him three times, the gunman pleading self-defence and exonerated. Eighty were arrested for the Edens’ shootings and four swung, although that is probably too precise a term for the botched execution as the ropes were too long. It took 34 minutes for the last of the four, Billy Walker, to die. After that the Knobbers were pretty much a thing of the past, a salutary lesson of the perils of fighting fire with fire.