Thursday, May 4, 2017


3/11/1887 - What could possibly go wrong when law and order Republicans that backed the Union in the Civil War, decide to fight crime in the Ozark region of southwest Missouri (between 1865 and 1885, the area has 40 murders without a single suspect ever being convicted), mostly at night, by wearing white muslin hoods, tied off at the ears, with holes cut out for eyes and mouth, and are opposed by Democrats that supported the Confederacy?  Plenty of course is the correct answer, as will begin being demonstrated, when in 1883, led by Nat N. Kinney (Civil War veteran and a behemoth of a man standing 6'7" tall and weighing over 300 pounds), 13 citizens of Taney County, Missouri form a vigilante group that will soon become known as Bald Knobbers (named so for their meetings taking place on top of "bald" mountains where lookouts could be posted to watch for "enemies").
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Successfully putting a dent in the crime situation (beatings, shootings, brandings, and hangings are all used), hundreds join the group's vigilante efforts (in a county consisting of only 7,000 souls, most are Republicans and former members of the Union Army during the Civil War, the neighboring counties of Christian, Douglas, Greene, and Stone also join in the masked night riding fun) ... but a backlash also swells in the county as Democrats and former Confederates join into an opposition group led by a local 19-year-old orphan named Andy Coggburn.  Insults given and taken, no one in the area is surprised when Kinney kills Coggburn in "self defense" outside the town of Forsyth's church in which the Bald Knob leader is about to preach.  Not put behind bars or hung for the killing, on recommendations from the state's governor, Kinney decides to tempt fate no further and in the Forsyth town square, officially disbands the group.  However, there are many more vigilantes that are not as peacefully inclined.
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Expanding on Kinney's creation and keeping it viable to deal with the loose morals and corruption found in the bustling railroad town of Chadwick, the Christian County chapter of the Bald Knobbers is led by a farmer named Dave Walker.  They meet in a large cave on the outskirts of Walker's property, wear black hoods with either cork or wooden horns, decorate their masks with white and red stripes around the eyes, ears, and horns, and sometimes put tassels on the tips of the horns, burn down local saloons, and threaten those they deem as menaces to the public safety with violence.  Opposing the "good" soldiers of Walker's group are a group of locals led by William Edens.  Gasoline just waiting for a match, the match is struck on the night of 3/11/1887, when Walker's Bald Knobbers get together to discuss disbanding like Kinney's group, but instead, become incensed about the latest disparaging remarks to be sent their way by Edens, and decide to "visit" their opponent on their way home from the meeting (despite being told not to by Walker).  Finding Edens not at home, thirsty for blood, the men, led by Walker's son Billy, and firebrand Wiley Mathews, proceed down the road to the home of Edens' parents where they find the elder Edens, William Edens and his sick wife Emma (a bout of measles is passing through the region), Edens' sister, Melvina (also down with the measles), Melvina's husband,   Charles Green, and the Green children, ages three and three months ... victims!
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Actual Bald Knobber Head Piece
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The Christian County Meeting Cave
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David & Billy Walker    

Ignoring David Walker's shouts for the men to go home, the Bald Knobbers (80 men will be indicted for their actions) attack the Edens home, blowing out the cabin's windows with shotgun blasts and smashing in the front door.  Abode violated, William Edens and Charles Green are killed in front of their families, James Edens is seriously wounded by an axe blow to the head, while Bald Knobber invaders William Walker and John Mathews are wounded.  Attack over, help is drawn to the cabin by the horrifying wails of the two widows, with the first to arrive being dead Charles Green's father, who lives on a nearby ranch ... and then its the turn of the vigilantes to get a big dose of justice.  Participants in the incident brought to trial over the next 18 months, it is decided that four men will hang for their part in the attack ... David Walker (despite trying to stop the group), Walker's son Billy, Deacon John Mathews, and Mathews nephew, Wiley Mathews (Wiley escapes from jail before his neck can be stretched).
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Bald Knobber Night Riders
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John Mathews

Justice meted out, after a night a prayers, vows of repentance, and last meals, the men are brought from their jail cells to a small enclosed area for their neck-tie party.  Prayers and goodbyes given to family and friends, the three men mount the gallows, have nooses adjusted around their necks, and take their drops into VERY cruel and unusual punishments.  Scaffold personally built by a sheriff with no experience in executions, on ropes that are too long, the men don't have their necks broken in the drop, and instead, dangle at the end of their ropes, writhing and twisting as their feet barely touch the ground, strangling slowly.  And Billy Walker goes through the worst because hope is briefly involved in his death ... struggling against his fate, the younger Walker's rope breaks, but instead of taking it as a sign to stop his execution, the sheriff just grabs another rope and starts the doomed man air dancing once more.  It takes thirty-four minutes before all the condemned stop twitching.  Retribution, but not enough for some of the opponents of the Bald Knobbers.
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The Wichita Eagle
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Memorial At The Hanging Site

Unhappy at the marauding that has infected the region, a group opposed to the actions of the Bald Knobbers decides that the organization's founder must go and sends an assassin after Nat Kinney.  Inventorying a store for a bankruptcy court case, in August of 1888, local farmer Billy Miles enters the store, pulls out a pistol, and shoots Kinney three times (a hot day, Kinney removes both of his guns during his counting inside the store) killing the giant.  Then he steps outside, surrenders his pistol, and allows himself to be arrested, claiming self defense ... and whether believed or not, is soon officially fully exonerated and released.  But the region now blood feud crazy, some friends of Kinney are unwilling to let the killer's deed go unpunished.  Sheriff Galba Branson, one of the thirteen original members of the Bald Knobbers, enlists the aid of an out-of-state bounty hunter named Ed Funk to find Miles.  Mission accomplished, on 7/4/1889, the men find Miles celebrating Independence Day at the annual Kirbyville Picnic ... hate, booze, and weapons all on-hand, a gun battle breaks out between Bald Knobbers, their opponents, and lawmen present, and in the bullet exchange, both Branson and Funk are killed, and Miles is able to flee the area.  
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Branson And His Wife

Civilization encroaching on the area, the gun battle marks the "known" end of vigilantism in the area (for years there will be rumors of miscreants vanishing), but the Bald Knobbers live on far beyond their breakup due to the 1907 publication of Harold Bell Wright's novel, "The Shepard of the Hills," in which the Bald Knobbers are the tale's villains, which is twice made into a movie ... a 1919 silent version, and a 1941 Paramount version directed by Henry Hathaway (an action director whose list of credits also includes the first "True Grit"), starring John Wayne. And because of the singing Mape Brothers.  Needing some kind of hook for their act and thinking the name funny, in 1959 the boys start a musical-comedy revue in the town of Branson they name Baldknobbers that is still running to this day. Additionally, at the Silver Dollar City theme park near Branson, the indoor roller-coaster ride called "Fire in the Hole" features a Bald Knobber background of masked men and burning fires, in 2000, the town of Forsyth begins celebrating an annual "Law Day" that features a Bald Knobber pageant, and in 2007, a documentary called "Fire in the Mountain" about the Bald Knobbers is released (and there is talk about the White River Valley Historical Society creating a Bald Knobber museum in the near future).
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Bald Knobbers In 1919 Movie
Original  Baldknobbers case Bill-Mabe-Bob-Mabe-Delbert-Howard,-left-to-right-back-and-front-left-Jim-Mabe-Lyle-Mabe-Chick-Allen.
The Mape Boys
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Baldknobbers At Branson
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Wayne's Turn

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