Even after the Civil War had officially ended in 1865, the United States was a divided nation. Confederate states that bordered Union states were a particularly hostile political landscape, with neighbors fighting neighbors and brothers pitted against their brothers. Missouri had been one of such states during this period in time. Being claimed by both Confederate and Union forces, Missouri would become overrun with crime as tensions grew between their county governments.
Somewhere between 32 and 42 murders had been committed in Taney County and no one had ever been brought to justice. In fact, the only people ordered to the penitentiary within 20 years were a couple of burglars from St. Louis who robbed the local treasury of $3,000. The county had been overtaken by lawlessness, but when Capt. N.N. Kinney had come to the area he thought he had a plan to change those statistics. Those who agreed with Kinney, a frontiersman and former saloon owner, believed that he wanted to restore civil law, while his mostly Confederate opponents believed that Kinney only wanted to organize a gang for both personal protection and to carry out his will.
Kinney talked over this idea he had with a few friends and before long the group had agreed to go along with Kinney’s plans. However, the group wouldn’t be officially formed, complete with secret meetings and interesting headwear, until after the shooting death of a saloon owner and a friend of Kinney’s named J.M. Everett in 1883.
According to Bald Knobbers: Chronicles of Vigilante Justice, a heated fight had broken out with two men over a billiards game in Everett’s saloon. Everett attempted to intervene in the fight and had managed to wrestle one of the men, Al Layton, to the ground. Layton pulled out his revolver and Everett tried to calm Layton down. It would seem that he was successful until Layton grabbed again for his gun and shot Everett before fleeing the saloon.
Layton was taken into custody. He was later allowed to walk free after the prosecutor encouraged the judge to “go easy on him.” To ensure that Layton beat the system, the defense took the jury out during the deliberation and got them good and drunk. Not too surprising, the jury found Layton not guilty of the charges.
It was after the fatal shooting of Everette that the Bald Knobbers made the transition from a small militia of concerned citizens to a vigilante organization. The first meeting was held in January of 1885. The Bald Knobbers had been comprised of 13 original members, all of which were required to take a solemn oath and sworn to secrecy about the group.
The group wouldn’t become a subject of extreme controversy until the lynching of the Taylor brothers. Frank and Tubal Taylor had been involved in a number of petty crimes related to carrying concealed weapons, discharging their guns in public and petty theft. A ranch owner made the mistake of speaking poorly about the boys for flaunting their crimes around town and routinely using stolen cash to purchase rounds of drinks for the local saloon patrons. The Taylor brothers retaliated by cutting the tounges out of two healthy cows, which they were later arrested for.
Breaking out of jail, Frank held up a shop owner and shot him in the mouth. Though the shot had knocked out several of his teeth and had passed through his neck, the shop owner managed to survive the attack. The shop owner’s wife also survived the attack after she had fainted when a bullet grazed her cheek. The boys believed they were both dead, but the shop owner and his wife were able to identify their attackers. After an exhaustive manhunt. the boys were taken back into custody, deciding they’d rather face the law than to risk going toe-to-toe with the Bald Knobbers, but even the law could not protect them from the group.
Marching in formation to the prison, The Bald Knobbers rounded up the prisoners and tied them to horses, sending them out of town and never to be seen again. The Taylors were spared from this, however. Instead, the brothers were taken two miles into the woods. There, a pair of nooses were hung from a tree branch. After giving the Taylors a chance to speak their last words, the Bald Knobbers gave a yell and the horses that the ropes had been attached to rode off into the forest. Left on the bodies was a note that read:
“These are the first Victims of the Wrath of Outraged Citizens— More will Follow. THE BALD KNOBBERS.”
This first show of force caused extreme controversy, including within their own group. Several Bald Knobbers decided to leave after the lynching of the Taylors, believing that they had joined in order to make sure the existing laws were enforced and not to take the laws into their own hands. During this time, several opposition groups formed and violence and tensions within the community continued to increase.
When the county courthouse was set on fire, both the Bald Knobbers and an Anti-Bald Knobber group pointed fingers at one another. According to the anti-knobbers, the Bald Knobbers had set the fire to destroy county land records, allowing them to take the land for themselves. The Bald Knobbers asserted that the anti-knobbers had set the fire in an attempt to frame them. Though the cause of the fire remains unsolved, curiously enough the only thing saved in the fire were several books containing county tax and land records, which happened to be conveniently located near an open window.
After the group’s leader Capt. Kinney had shot another rabble rouser about town, Andrew Coggburn, in what he said was self-defence outside of church, the already fierce climate began to boil over. Though Coggburn had been a thorn in Kinney’s side, he was hardly a criminal. Coggburn was known to play pranks and attempt to embarrass Kinney at any turn, much to the chagrin of Capt. Kinney. When Kinney found a coat marked with skull and crossbones, as well as a coffin with a note addressed to him, Kinney was not amused, to say the least. Kinney swore to Coggburn that he would be in that box before he ever would, a premonition that would later come true.
It wouldn’t be until after the unjust death of Coggburn that anti-knobber groups started a petition to dissolve the vigilante group for good. Word of the petition traveled back to the Bald Knobbers and Kinney swore revenge on anyone who spoke out against the group. This confrontation nearly turned violent and then governor John S. Marmaduke had no choice but to step in. The Bald Knobbers agreed to disband in 1886.
While the founding chapter of the Bald Knobbers had been dissolved, other chapters had sprouted up in neighboring counties. Though the Bald Knobbers of Taney County had caused a considerable amount of controversy in their methods of restoring civil law on their own, the chapter that arose in Christian County would put an end to the organization altogether.
The local sheriff was called to the scene of an apparent home invasion on March 11, 1888. A farmer had been shot and his skull had been split open with an ax, while his son also lay dead on the floor. Other members of the family had been severely injured. During the attack, the farmer’s daughter managed to rip off the mask of her attacker. The family had undoubtedly been attacked by Bald Knobbers.
It was determined that there had been no apparent reason for the attack and The Bald Knobbers attempted to cover-up the crime by hanging two other innocent men for the murders. The group went into hiding but after the Sheriff captured a member of the group he admitted that the family had been suspected of being Anti-Bald Knobber. According to the Bald Knobber in custody, the group went to the home after hearing that the family had killed a dog and was rumored to have killed one of their fellow Bald Knobbers. After the confession, 25 Bald Knobbers were rounded up and arrested.
Two of the arrested Bald Knobbers managed to escape, but at least three weren’t so lucky. A judge ordered the men to hang. A black hood was placed over their heads as they were escorted up the scaffolding. It had been the first time the sheriff had been involved in a hanging and due to this inexperience, the rope that had been placed around the men’s necks had been cut too long. Two of the men were left to choke to death, while another man was able to slip through. The Sheriff had no choice but to place the man back up on the scaffolding to hang again as the crowd watched in horror.
Today the Bald Knobbers are considered folk heroes, not unlike Robin Hood and his band of merry men. Festivals and tourist traps can now be found celebrating the vigilante group that is remembered as the fiercest the nation has ever seen.