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'Lawlessness' — How the Taney County Baldknobbers shaped Ozarks culture from 1883 to the present

Nathaniel "Nat" Kinney, leader of the Baldknobbers vigilante group in Taney County, Missouri.
Courtesy White River Historical Society / State Historical Society of Missouri
Nathaniel "Nat" Kinney was the organizer of the Baldknobbers vigilante group in Taney County, Missouri.

Silver Dollar City will close Fire in the Hole next year, a ride many park visitors have enjoyed for years. The theme of the ride includes a vigilante group that once ruled the Taney County area.

It’s post-Civil War in the late 1800s in the Ozarks. There are no motorized vehicles, phones or email. Instead of recognizing your friends by their car, you recognize them by their horse. Greene County was the booming area in southwest Missouri, but this story takes place in a county to the south. This is the story of the Taney County Baldknobbers that played out between 1883 through 1891.

If you grew up in the Ozarks, you’ve likely heard of the Baldknobbers — maybe you’re even related to one. Trish Trimble is the managing director of the White River Valley Historical Society in Forsyth, the Taney County seat. Her great-great-grandfather was an Anti-Baldknobber, and her great-great-uncle was a Baldknobber who later became an Anti-Baldknobber.

Trimble explains Taney County Baldknobbers "were the professional men. They were lawyers. They were store clerks. They were mostly Union. They were mostly Republican.”

Meaning — they believed in small government. According to Trimble, there were three known groups of Baldknobbers in Christian County, Douglas County and in Taney County — where the original group began. Trimble says the black-and-white horned masks that may be familiar to many local residents were worn only by the Christian County group.

Nathaniel “Nat” Kinney served as a Union soldier during the Civil War and moved to Springfield after meeting his wife in Kansas City. He worked in a saloon and ran for public office multiple times, never winning. Kinney decided to buy land in Taney County and moved his family there. He wasn’t happy with what he saw.

“There was lawlessness that was going around, and he saw that and said we need to get together, us prominent good citizens, lawyers, doctors merchants, and help the sheriff out," says Trimble.

Trimble says there was one sheriff and one deputy who were responsible for the entire county, which spanned hundreds of square miles.

“If a neighbor came over and stole your pig and took it back to their farm, who are you gonna get to help you?" she says. "‘Hey wait a minute. That guy has my pig. That guy took my apples off my apple tree.’”

According to Trimble, there wasn’t a permanent religious minister at the time, but rather travelling ones who would visit occasionally to marry and baptize residents as needed. Citizens would take turns leading Sunday sermons in schoolhouses. And Trimble says Kinney was upset by the immoral actions of some of the people in the area.

To address what he saw as rampant crime, Kinney rounded up 12 men — including the sheriff — and named their secret group "The League of Law and Order," which later would be known as the Baldknobbers.

Photo of Alonzo Prather, one of the original 13 Bald Knobbers.
Courtesy White River Historical Society
Alonzo Prather was one of the original 13 Baldknobbers.

“When he began, I believe they did all have positive intentions that this was going to be a good thing," says Trimble.

They began by making threats to those who committed petty theft. For example, if someone stole a pig, the group would tell the thief they had to give it back — or else.

“The wrath of the Baldknobbers is going to come down on you," Trimble says.

"And what does that mean?" a KSMU reporter asks.

Trimple replies, "You’re going to get beat up, possibly, and if you still don’t comply — then the punishment is going to get worse and worse.”

Trimble says the Baldknobbers started running residents out of town, and they would then take the property that was left behind. By this time, the secret group had increased and it wasn’t so secret anymore.

“Then they began to meet where they would build a big bonfire on a hilltop, and that told everyone that was a member of the organization to come — that there was a meeting," says Trimble.

That was how the group got the name Baldknobbers, because they would meet on bald hilltops.

Photo of the Groom family. Charles Groom (left) was one of the original 13 Bald Knobbers.
Courtesy White River Historical Society
Charles Groom (left), one of the original 13 Baldknobbers in southern Missouri, is shown with his family members.

Residents of the county became increasingly frightened as the Baldknobbers inflicted more serious — and even deadly — punishments, Trimble says.

“When people were arrested and put in jail, sometimes they would be broken out of jail — by the Baldknobbers — took to a tree and hung," says Trimble.

To protect themselves, some residents created a group known as the Anti-Baldknobbers to try to stop the Baldknobbers. The presence of the vigilante group had a significant impact on area citizens.

Picture of William Moore (left) and Martha Moore (right). William Moore was an Anti-Bald Knobber.
Courtesy White River Historical Society
William Moore (left) with Martha Moore (right). William Moore was an Anti-Baldknobber.

Trimble says, “they either moved out of the area. Or they were just trying to law as low as they could, not to go into town when they thought the Baldknobbers were in town — just try to lay low."

“So, they were kind of living in a state of fear?” a reporter asks..

“Yes, I think everybody was living in a state of fear.”

According to Trimble, in 1885 the Taney County courthouse was burned, and almost all records — including land deeds — were destroyed. Each group blamed the destruction on the other, and there’s still no evidence to determine who actually did it.

In 1886, the Anti-Baldknobbers decided to take legal action against the Baldknobbers.

“Three of them went to Jeff City on horses to deliver their petition to Gov. Marmaduke to do something about the Baldknobbers — that they were out of control," says Trimble.

According to Trimble, the governor sent an official to southwest Missouri to meet with Nat Kinney and other Baldknobbers to tell them to stop what they were doing. It wasn’t really successful, as Kinney had grown to become a powerful figure in the area. He led Sunday sermons; he would settle court issues; he was — as the saying goes — the new sheriff in town.

Copy of 1886 Adjutant General Report on Taney County. Under section "Taney County Troubles" details the meeting between Missouri government and the Taney County Bald Knobbers.
Courtesy White River Historical Society
An 1886 Adjutant General Report on Taney County includes a section titled "Taney County Troubles" detailing a meeting between Missouri government and the Taney County Baldknobbers.

“I think he was imposing, but I think he also was charismatic. I really believe he was," says Trimble.

According to Trimble, things got better after Kinney was murdered.

She explains the story: "Supposedly, a group of the Anti-Baldknobbers who were young unmarried men who had no responsibilities to the world all got together and said, ‘we got to take Nat out.’”

They were the Miles brothers who met, and it was Billy Miles who shot Nat Kinney, according to Trimble. Kinney was alone in a store taking inventory for the courts for a divorce case, and Miles walked in and shot him. According to Trimble, there is no record of whether Billy said anything to him. Witnesses heard shots and then Billy turned himself in to the sheriff.

According to Trimble, Billy Miles went to trial with the lawyer, J.J. Brown, who was one of the original Baldknobbers, but who later flipped to the other side. Miles won his freedom, and things started to cool down.

The Baldknobbers were a vigilante group that reigned for only eight years, but Trimble says they still have on impact on the culture of the Ozarks today.

“It’s why we do some of the things we do. It’s why we are distrustful of new people," Trimble says. "We got to get to know you before we’re going to trust you.”

The Baldknobbers’ legacy lives on in stories that have continued to be passed down from generation to generation.

“When I was a kid, other kids are afraid of the boogieman — I was afraid of the Baldknobbers because my mother had told me about the Baldknobbers," says Trimble.

As Silver Dollar City prepares to close Fire in the Hole, the Baldknobbers’ presence at the theme park will disappear, but their legend will live on in the Ozarks for many years to come.

Meghan McKinney is an undergraduate journalism student at Missouri State University. She works as a news reporter and announcer for KSMU. Her passions, other than journalism, are psychology, music, sign languages and dancing. She also runs a local music page on Facebook called "SGF Playlist."