When I was 7 years old, in 1983, my family took a road trip from Stillwater, Oklahoma, to Branson, Missouri, a family-oriented resort town deep in the Ozark Mountains. Our destination was Silver Dollar City, a Christian-owned theme park that is like Disneyland reimagined as a 19th-century mining village, all built around a cave that was a bat guano mine in the 1880s. My most vivid memory of the park is of a frightening dark ride called Fire in the Hole.
In the waiting area, the walls were covered with paintings of men in creepy hoods, twisted devil’s horns protruding from the sides. Once we got in, my fear only heightened. It was a roller coaster—in the dark. At first, we rode past a town on fire as villagers cried for help. Then it looked as though we were going to run off a broken track on a cliff’s edge. A steam engine’s horn blared, the train’s headlight appeared close enough to run us down, and finally we hurtled toward a wall of fire before plunging down to splash in a pool of water. I was sobbing as we walked out.
Six years later, when I was 13, I came back to Silver Dollar City with my best friend’s church group. We rode Fire in the Hole six times in a row. We thought it was awesome. There was something primal about its frights—runaway trains, walls of fire, and the strange shadowy men with the bizarre devil horns—especially for kids brought up Christian.
For decades, the imagery from Fire in the Hole has stuck with me. Who were those hooded men in devil horns supposed to be? Recently, I did some research and learned that the villains in the ride, which is still operating, are based on a real 19th-century Ozark vigilante group called the Bald Knobbers. Though they never lit a town on fire—that part of the ride is completely invented—the real story of their rise is a terrifying parable about what happens when government fails and violence reigns. It’s a lesson that’s perhaps more relevant in the political climate of 2017 than Americans would like it to be.
When I called Dr. Matthew J. Hernando, a professor at Ozark Technical College and author of Faces Like Devils: The Bald Knobber Vigilantes in the Ozarks, he told me that “Fire in the Hole”—which he has ridden many times—“is basically a bunch of nonsense.” For the real story of the Bald Knobbers, Hernando explained, you have to look at southwest Missouri’s peculiar history. In a region where the Civil War had laid waste to the rule of law, ne’er do wells like the notorious James-Younger Gang and vigilante groups like the Bald Knobbers emerged to fill the void of authority. Admirers saw them as righteous folk heroes; adversaries regarded them as murderous thugs.
Under the Missouri Compromise of 1820, Missouri was admitted to the United States as a slave state at the same time Maine was admitted as a free one. But during the lead up to the Civil War, Missouri never voted to secede from the Union. While few official battles between the Union and Confederate armies occurred in the Ozarks, the region was rife with Confederate guerrillas, Union militias, and “irregular” troops of sometimes shifting loyalties. In his book, Hernando describes how the local people were beset by these groups, suffering rapes, beatings, pillaging of their farms, and even gruesome murders with heads displayed on sticks. By the end of the war, violence had become an accepted way to address conflict, or at least extract revenge, in the Ozarks.
In the Taney County section of the Ozarks, early white settlers wanted to maintain their pre-war way of life, based on subsistence agriculture, hunting, and fishing. They were mostly Democrats who had sided with the Confederates. New homesteaders, largely Republicans who had sided with the Union and were drawn by the Homestead Act of 1862, had ambitious plans to develop the region so that it would thrive in the rising American industrial economy.
Outlaws tormented the new residents, but the Democrats in charge of local government, who were sometimes kin to the criminals, usually let them off the hook. Period newspapers claimed that 30 to 40 murders were committed in Taney County between 1865 and 1882, but none resulted in a conviction.
One gang, led by brothers Frank and Tubal Taylor, ran rampant in Taney County, flaunting the cash they’d stolen. After a local businessman criticized the brothers, he found three of his prized cattle starved to death because miscreants had cut out their tongues.
In response to this and two murders that went unpunished by judges who were related to the Taylors, 13 upstanding citizens including merchants, wealthy business owners, and lawmen met to form the Committee for Law and Order. They signed pledges to “respond to the call of the officers to enforce obedience to the law.”
On April 5, 1885, the Committee called an organizational meeting on a treeless ridge (a “bald knob”) known as Snapp’s Bald near Kirbyville, just north of the Arkansas border. Roughly a hundred men listened as Nathaniel “Nat” A. Kinney, a Union Army veteran, delivered a moving speech over the bloody shirt of one of the murdered men. A charismatic jack-of-all-trades, Kinney had settled on a livestock ranch with his family in 1883, started his own Sunday School, and joined fraternal orders. After his rousing oration on Snapp’s Bald, the group voted to elect him “chieftain” of the Committee, which became known as the Bald Knobbers.
Shortly thereafter, one of the Bald Knobbers, a storekeeper whose shop was frequented by Frank Taylor, refused to advance him any more credit. According to Faces Like Devils, Frank smashed up the store. The next day, the storekeeper filed an indictment against Frank, who quickly posted bond before returning to the store with Tubal and a friend, shooting and wounding the storekeeper and his wife.
The Taylor brothers surrendered to the local sheriff, confident they would be released after a brief jail stay. But that night, a Bald Knobber posse rode their horses into Forsyth, broke into the jail, and took the Taylors. The next day, the brothers were found dead, hanged from an oak tree outside of town, with a sign affixed to Tubal’s shirt that said, “Beware! These are the first victims of the wrath of outraged citizens. More will follow. The Bald Knobbers.”
After the hanging of the Taylors, the Bald Knobbers didn’t have to kill anyone else; they could rely on their reputation to intimidate whomever they considered undesirable. At first, they targeted criminals for intimidation. Once they drove the outlaws away, they zeroed in on anyone who might obstruct their goals of economic and industrial expansion. Some locals, usually Democrats who had supported the Confederacy, were outraged, asserting that the Bald Knobbers were biased, oppressive bullies.
In the summer of 1885, citizens in nearby Christian and Douglas Counties invited Nat Kinney to help them establish their own Bald Knobber chapters. He assisted. But these new branches of the Bald Knobbers ultimately developed goals completely opposite to those of their Taney County counterparts.
Unlike the merchants and politicians going on “night rides” in Forsyth, Hernando explains, the newer Bald Knobbers in the northern counties were mostly poor and politically powerless subsistence farmers, often Democrats and strict Baptists. The northern Bald Knobbers resented incoming homesteaders and the railroad-tie company shipping from Chadwick, particularly because it attracted “blind tigers”—saloons where men would waste their wages on high-proof liquor, gambling, and prostitutes. In Christian and Douglas counties, Bald Knobbers enforced religious morals, not just laws, wrecking the bars and whipping men believed to have neglected their families, kept “lewd women,” or lived as polygamists.
These vigilantes met in caves, and Faces Like Devils details how the Christian County Bald Knobbers distinguished themselves by wearing elaborate, nightmarish masks of black fabric with cut-out eye- and mouth-holes sewn with a red buttonhole-stitch, while the eyes and mouth might be circled with white. The masks were topped with two horns made of black fabric stuffed with cork, sometimes with red tassels on their tips. Even though these Bald Knobbers saw themselves as righteous men of God, they wanted to startle their enemies appearing like devilish “horrid, hideous creatures,” according to Robert Harper’s 1888 “New York Sun” exposé on the group.
Meanwhile, back in Taney County, the original Bald Knobbers disbanded in 1886; with surprising swiftness, their vigilantism had transmuted into the leadership of the Republican-run local government, enabling them to punish their enemies the “lawful” way, by jailing them for tax evasion, embezzlement, and minor hunting and fishing violations. In less than a year, they had become the crony government they originally fought: When Nat Kinney shot and killed a 19-year-old antagonist, he was cleared of all charges by the Bald Knobber sheriff for reasons of self-defense. But then Kinney and the sheriff were killed by Anti-Bald Knobbers, a group of the vigilantes’ enemies who had unsuccessfully petitioned the state government to let them form a militia and retaliate.
Up in the northern counties, the Bald Knobbers were disbanding too; but as a last act, in 1887, they sought revenge on a young Christian County man who said the Bald Knobbers were “no better than a sheep-killing dog.” A mob of about 25 men found him sleeping at his father’s house, along with eight other members of his family, including women and children. The Bald Knobbers broke into the home and started shooting, killing brothers-in-law William Edens and Charles Greene and wounding two of their family members. One Bald Knobber also died.
Sensational news articles about the atrocity spread across the United States, and public opinion of the Bald Knobbers went sour. To an extent, neighbors had tolerated the group’s lashing of wayward fathers and sexual deviants. But the ambush of the family was too much—four Bald Knobbers were charged with first-degree murder, and more than a dozen others faced second-degree murder charges. Eventually three men were hanged while a fourth escaped from jail.
Although from our perspective the Bald Knobbers may seem like renegade outliers, in Faces Like Devils, Hernando asserts that vigilantism has been a part of America’s culture since its rebellious founding, and our country’s obsession with conquering lawless frontiers has only fed that impulse. It’s a legacy of violent uprising we may not be entirely free from today.
“All U.S. vigilante groups are in some way a representation of the American value of self-government,” Hernando said. “We are a society that was founded, at least in part, on the firm belief that the people have the right to create their own institutions of government, what is referred to as the ‘right of revolution,’ expressed right there in the Declaration of Independence. If the government is not doing what it’s supposed to, if it’s not protecting the people’s liberties, if it’s not serving the people’s interest, we have the right to rise up and replace that government. The problem is, you cannot do that on a continuous basis and have a stable society.”
Some scholars have traditionally defined vigilantes as groups of middle- and upper-class men who want to reinforce “law and order.” However, Hernando points out that several vigilante groups were founded by members of poor, disenfranchised classes hoping to gain the economic or political power they didn’t have or to restore traditional morals. Inevitably, most groups fighting lawlessness by going outside the law become the corrupt criminal element they were trying to tamp down in the first place.
“The frontier experience was such a big part of early American history, because for the first century or so, we were constantly moving west,” Hernando said. “There was always an area on the fringes of American settlement where regular institutions of law enforcement had not taken root. The people who were pushing into the frontier improvised and created their own law-enforcement mechanisms that may not have actually had the sanction of law. The North and South Carolina Regulators are two early examples of that, but they’re not the only ones.”
“Whoever wields power in a Democratic society has to be accountable to someone. The problem with vigilante groups is they confer this power onto themselves. That’s what makes it so dangerous.”
The Regulators were two distinct vigilante groups operating in colonial America in the 1760s: The North Carolina committee, made up of lower-class citizens, staged an uprising against the government dominated by the wealthy planters. In South Carolina, the Regulators were more “traditional” vigilantes, property-owning farmers contending with bandits, or, as Hernando put it, “the upper class and the middle class keeping the lawless and miscreant elements of the lower class in check.” Almost a century later, the Gold Rush in San Francisco attracted thieves to mining camps, so vigilance committees formed to protect prospectors’ claims.
Preceding the Ku Klux Klan by a few decades, the White Caps formed in Indiana around 1837. Instead of focusing on government corruption, the white-hooded vigilantes went after people who defied their religious or social morals; people they considered lazy, men who neglected their families, and single women who bore children might be whipped, beaten, or drowned. Others would lose their homes to arson. The White Caps, usually poor white farmers, also attacked people they saw as a threat to their economic well-being, including merchants and black laborers. After the Civil War, the “whitecapping movement” grew and spread to Oklahoma’s Indian Territory and Southern states like Tennessee and Kentucky. Another very different group played on the “White Cap” name in the late 1880s New Mexico.
“Las Gorras Blancas were a predominantly Latino vigilante group basically trying to prevent Anglo ranchers and cattle barons from intruding upon their land,” Hernando said. “There have been hundreds of vigilantes with a wide variety of purposes all over the country, all the way up to the present day. Right now, we’ve got militia groups patrolling the southern border between the U.S. and Mexico under their own authority—that’s vigilante justice. During the Civil Rights period you had African American vigilante groups, like the Deacons for Defense down in Louisiana, which was made up of civil-rights activists fighting against the Ku Klux Klan. And then, on the other side, you had the Klan.”
The original post-Civil War Ku Klux Klan, Hernando explained, was essentially a terrorist group that used vigilante tactics. “Its purpose was to overthrow the Republican-controlled Reconstruction government in the Southern states,” He said. “They had a political objective, and they used intimidation and terror to accomplish those ends, including assassinating officials, using violence to keep black voters away from the polls, and so on.
“The second Ku Klux Klan, a nationwide organization founded in Georgia in 1915, tended to fit the traditional pattern of a vigilante group, depending on where you were,” he continued. “In some places, they tried to enforce Prohibition quite vigorously, going after bootleggers, as well as their own version of social mores, which rejected mixed-race coupling, for example. The second Ku Klux Klan was concerned with more than just anti-black animus; they were also anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, and so on.”
Despite what you might think looking at their creepy Klan-like masks, the Bald Knobbers operated in a region populated with very few people of color. Because of treaty agreements and increased white settlement, Osage and other Native American tribes had mostly abandoned the Ozarks in the early 19th century, and by and large, the former Confederates in the region had been too poor to own slaves. All the Bald Knobber lynchings and related murders were acts of white-on-white violence. In Taney County, the vigilantes were mostly Lincoln Republicans driven to advance business interests in the name of “progress,” while the Democrats were populists who wanted to hold on to the old subsistence-agriculture way of life. Today, Donald Trump’s populist supporters long for the good old days of industrial factory work, so his platform often merges the big-business economic interests of Lincoln Republicans with the “little guy” individualism of 1880s Confederacy-defending Democrats.
“If the government is not doing what it’s supposed to, we have the right to rise up and replace that government. The problem is, you cannot do that on a continuous basis and have a stable society.”
In 2017, the people who elected Donald Trump into office say they have done so because of his promises to purge the government of corruption, to tear down the Washington establishment, to reinforce borders, to improve the economic standing of the white working class, and to crack down on crime and perceived terrorism threats. After his election, there was an uptick in hate crimes against minorities, with some of the perpetrators claiming allegiance to Trump. Meanwhile, his inauguration has also stirred up a nationwide protest movement calling itself The Resistance. While the overwhelming majority of the protestors are peaceful, a small splinter of leftist anarchists are engaging in “black bloc” tactics such as wearing black bandanas as masks, smashing business windows, setting small, controlled fires at protests, and sometimes even punching a white nationalist in the face. In this moment, our country’s history of revolution and extralegal violence is more relevant than ever.
“Vigilante justice is an extreme interpretation of the right of revolution,” Hernando says. “Sometimes, the local law-enforcement authorities promote the creation of these groups, which is why in Taney County you had four different sheriffs who belonged to the Bald Knobbers. But the problem is, once you grant the power to these groups, then they become unaccountable, and they can get out of hand. That’s one of the ironies of power. Whoever wields power in a Democratic society has to be accountable to someone. The problem with vigilante groups is they confer this power onto themselves. They’re not elected; they’re not authorized by any legislature. That’s what makes it so dangerous.”
Today, the Bald Knobber name lives on in Branson—in distorted depictions that cast them as an outlaw gang, like in the outdoor drama, “The Shepherd of the Hills,” or as goofy hillbillies, like in the Baldknobber Jamboree variety show. Then, of course, there’s the entirely fictional ride about pyromaniac Bald Knobbers in Silver Dollar City. Last November, I returned to Fire in the Hole for the first time in nearly 30 years, with my 12-year-old niece. This time I could see the premise was ridiculous. A wall mural I hadn’t noticed before read: “In the year ‘1873’ this Entire Village and Countryside was Destroyed by the Great Fire which was set by Baldknobbers after a Saturday Night Fight at the Tavern … 58 Citizens served as Firemen.”
The ride, though, had changed and become more tame. My niece, who had heard the story of my 7-year-old crying jag multiple times, looked at me like I was crazy at the end of the ride. “That wasn’t scary at all.”
(An edited version of this story originally appeared on What It Means to Be American, a collaboration between the Smithsonian and Zócalo Public Square. To learn more about the Bald Knobbers, pick up Matthew Hernando’s book, “Faces Like Devils: The Bald Knobber Vigilantes in the Ozarks,” published by the University of Missouri Press. Also, check out this fascinating discussion on Civil War Talk and this 1979 article that appeared in “Bittersweet” magazine. Don’t miss The Carpetbagger’s blog on his adventures in Silver Dollar City.)