The Bald Knobbers: Missouri’s Deadly Vigilantes

“You condemn on hearsay evidence alone, your sins increase.” —African proverb

In A Nutshell

At the end of the US Civil War, law enforcement in the Ozark region of Missouri was basically non-existent, and lawlessness reigned. Fed up with the crime and unpunished murderers, the Bald Knobbers group formed with the noble goal of bringing law and order back to the area. Unfortunately, these masked vigilantes became as corrupt as the people they were fighting against, and although they did instill some order, they did so with violence and terror.

Note: The image above is a depiction of the Bald Knobbers from the 1919 film The Shepherd of the Hills.

The Whole Bushel

Missouri was considered a border state during the Civil War, which meant residents were largely divided on whether to support the Union or the Confederacy. Of course, when the war ended, these tensions didn’t immediately dissipate, and neighbors were still fighting with each other over land and everything else imaginable. These conflicts, along with the general hardships brought on by war, left Taney County with a failing economy, lawlessness, and an overall collapse of society. This created the ideal environment for gangs and marauders to thrive. Things got so bad that between 1865 and 1885 there were over 40 murders in Taney County, yet not a single person was ever convicted of one.

Wanting to put a stop to the mayhem, Nat Kinney—who was a massive 135 kilograms (300 lb) and 198 centimeters (6’6″) tall—created a vigilante group in 1883 with the purpose of putting a stop to the crime and debauchery that was ruling the county. His posse quickly grew to over 200 members who were mostly former Unionists.

People started calling the gang the “Bald Knobbers” because they held their private meetings on top of a treeless mountaintop, which served as a good lookout spot. And, as so many clandestine societies have done before and after them, the Bald Knobbers chose to hide their identities by donning bizarre face masks. In the Knobbers’ case, they wore black pillowcases over their heads with the corners tied up to resemble horns.

The Bald Knobbers seemed to start with good intentions, but things quickly went sour, as their first major action involved dragging a pair of burglars out of jail and hanging them. Some of the Knobbers dropped out of the group after this first violent incident, yet many more joined and the band swelled to somewhere between 500 and 1,000 members.

Enlivened by their success and with no one to stop them, Kinney’s Bald Knobbers began ruling Southwest Missouri with an iron fist. Criminals, gamblers, drunkards, loose women, wife abusers, fornicators, and anyone who opposed the Knobbers were punished with beatings, brandings, the mysterious disappearance of family members, and death. Their “calling card” was to tie so-called criminals up to a tree, strip them naked, and whip them over 100 times.

The brutality escalated when the anti–Bald Knobbers (mostly former Confederates) started fighting against Kinney’s oppressive mob. Eventually, Governor Marmaduke ordered both crews to disband, and although it still took a while for them to call it quits, things eventually fizzled out around 1889, after Kinney was assassinated and several Bald Knobbers were sentenced to death in a somewhat botched hanging.

Ironically, in much the same way modern society reveres pirates, Branson, Missouri now celebrates the bloodthirsty Bald Knobbers. Today, Branson is filled with everything Knobber; there are Bald Knobbers hotels, restaurants, and even a jamboree (although nowadays they’re a bit more clownish than they are vigilante).

Show Me The Proof

Haunted Ozarks, by Janice Tremeear
Springfield-Greene County Library: Bittersweet
Missouri Legends: The Fierce Missouri Bald Knobbers
Baldknobbers Jamboree Show