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David Fisk (Lens of
The Fierce Missouri Bald
Missouri was a devastated area characterized by a failing economy,
high taxes, lawlessness, disorder, and a general breakdown of society,
especially in the small towns and rural regions of the area.
Nathaniel N. Kinney settled in Taney County,
in 1883, he found a deplorable state of affairs.
Outlaws and renegade ruled, most of them holdovers from the
bushwhackers and guerillas that rampaged through
Civil War. After the war, the lack of even minimal law enforcement afforded
outlaws free reign. Clans elected and controlled the local
sheriff, whose authority it was to subpoena jury panels. If
outlaws or their relatives didn’t sit on the juries, they bribed
those who did. As a result, although as many as forty murders
occurred in Taney County between 1865 and 1885, not a single suspect
was convicted. Taney County includes the towns of
Forsyth, Hollister, Merriam Woods, Rockaway Beach, Table Rock, and
Kinney feared no man, standing six feet six and weighing in at more
than 300 pounds. After yet another murder on September 22, 1883,
Kinney began to consider forming a law and order league patterned
vigilante groups that were popular during the time. When a
biased jury acquitted the murderer, Kinney called together twelve of
the county’s leaders who met in secret, forming a committee to fight
the lawlessness and elect officials who would enforce the law. The group became known as the
Though the Bald Knobbers
began with "good intentions,” the violence displayed by the
vigilante group eventually gained national attention.
organization grew rapidly and by the time they met on April 5, 1885,
two hundred people showed up at a meeting on Snapp’s Bald, a hilltop
south of Forsyth,
Missouri. Kinney, an excellent speaker, was
unanimously elected as their leader. Extracting a vow of
secrecy from his followers, Kinney instructs them to recruit new
members to carry out the goals of the group.
made a public display of their force when over 100 hundred of them broke
open the door of the Taney county jail and kidnapped brothers, Frank and
Tubal Taylor. The Taylor brothers were well known in the area for
their viciousness and were being jailed for wounding a storekeeper during
an argument over credit for a pair of boots. The local storeowner,
John Dickenson, happened to be a Bald Knobber. After breaking the
two out of jail, the mob hauled the brothers south of Forsyth and hanged
of violence appalled several of the founding members who quickly dropped
out, but the
continued to grow and before long the group had between 500 and 1,000
group began to further "correct” the lawlessness by making night rides to
scare such "lowlifes” as drunks, gamblers or "loose” women into changing
their ways. They frightened wife beaters, couples "living in sin,”
and men who failed to support their families. Sometimes they even called
on those they simply considered "ornery.”
The community began into split into two factions – those
who followed or supported Kinney and those who thought him a tyrant and
wished him dead.
The violence increased as the group would flog or brand
suspected thieves, arsonists and robbers. They would hang or beat a
man to death for assault, disturbing the peace or destroying property. Some
began to use their menacing power for greedy and selfish purposes as they
went after men who owed them money or who owned land that they coveted. They "settled” feuds over fence lines and property deeds, whipped men for
disrupting services in their churches, or for supporting the wrong
candidate in the election.
harshest punishment was saved for those who talked against them. Some victims who resisted the
disappeared. Several turned up in the woods beaten to death. Those who lived to tell claimed that Kinney’s followers killed more than
thirty men and at least four women, but estimates that are more realistic
place the number between fifteen and eighteen.
grew in numbers and their violent acts escalated, a vehement resentment
festered among a small group of men who called themselves the Anti-Bald Knobbers. However, the
thwarted every effort to mitigate the situation. When a judge called
for a state audit to ferret out corruption among the county’s
officeholders, the courthouse was burned down.
newspapers published stories about the bloody war in
were described as the nation’s largest and fiercest
movement. In 1887, the
killed William Edens and Charley Green, both of whom had been critical of
the group, and seriously injured several members of their families. This brought a further outcry from the nation’s newspapers.
were arrested and most received light sentences ranging from fines to
short prison terms. However, four were sentenced to death.
Forsyth Courthouse in 1915
20, 1888, Nat Kinney was shot and killed by Billy Miles, a member of the
in a planned assassination. Though Miles was tried for Kinney’s
murder, he was found not guilty based on self-defense.
violence continued for a short time, by 1899, the era of the
had run its course.
were, in actuality, no different from hundreds of other law and order
groups, which proliferated after the