Bald Knobber Song, the
DESCRIPTION: "Adieu to old Kirbyville, I can no longer stay. Hard Times and Bald Knobbers have driven me away." He does not wish to leave family and home, but the vigilante Bald Knobbers drove him away. He describes their various villainies
AUTHOR: Andrew Coggburn?
EARLIEST DATE: 1932 (Randolph)
KEYWORDS: exile crime outlaw violence
1884 - Organization of the Bald Knobbers (according to Randolph, but see NOTES)
1889 - Dispersal of the Bald Knobbers
FOUND IN: US(Ro,So)
REFERENCES (8 citations):
Randolph 154, "The Bald Knobber Song" (1 text plus a fragment, 1 tune, plus a third brief fragment of another piece)
Randolph/Cohen, pp. 175-177, "The Bald Knobber" (1 text, 1 tune -- Randolph's 154A)
Cohen-AFS1, pp. 374-375, "The Bald Knobber Song" (1 text)
Burt, p. 164-165, "(Bald Knobbers' Song)" (1 text, 1 tune)
Harvey N. Castleman (pseudonym for Vance Randolph?), _The Bald Knobbers: The Story of the Lawless Night-Riders Who Ruled Southern Missouri in the 80's_, Haldeman-Julius Publications, 1944 (I use the Kessinger print-on-demand reprint, my copy being from 2011), pp. 14-15, (no title) (1 text, of the same type as Randolph's "A" but with some differences in the lyrics)
Mary Hartman and Elmo Ingenthron, _Bald Knobbers, Vigilantes on the Ozarks Frontier_, 1988 (I use the 2002 Pelican Press edition), pp. 96-99, "The Ballad of the Bald Knobbers" (1 text plus a fragment, 1 tune, the fragment and tune being an excerpt from Randolph's "A"; the full text appears to be an expanded version of Castleman's text)
Vincent S. Anderson, _Bald Knobbers: Chronicles of Vigilante Justice_, History Press, 2013, pp. 175-177, "The Ballad of the Bald Knobbers" (1 text, almost certainly derived ultimately from Randolph)
NOTES [7324 words]: The history of this song is mysterious. Randolph's texts ("A," which is fairly full, "B" a fragment, "C" a mere allusion of two lines) clearly represent at least two, and probably three, songs -- but since "B" and "C" seem to be attested only by Randolph's fragments, I (and Roud) see little point in splitting them.
Still, there is a genuine mystery about the relationship of these songs. Randolph's short "B" text, which is not found in any other source known to me, claims to be by Andrew Coggburn. Yet Randolph's "A" text, which is also the version printed by Castleman, Hartman/Ingenthron, and Burt, also claims to be by Coggburn (at least in the versions in Burt, Castleman, and Hartman/Ingenthron; Randolph's "A" has the probably-distorted name "Robert Cobart"). Did Coggburn write *two* songs? Alternately, did Coggburn's brother write a version with his name in it, as suggested by Anderson, p. 47, who says that there was a song by this other Coggburn "referred to Kinney and the Knobbers obscenely"?
And what is the relationship between the Burt, Castleman, Hartman/Ingenthron, and Randolph "A" texts? Burt's is the shortest, and might well have arisen naturally from one of the longer texts. Castleman's text is closely parallel to Randolph's for the first seven verses, but it has the name of "Andrew Coggburn" where Randolph prints "Robert Cobart," plus it fills in a half-verse missing in Randolph. And Hartman/Ingenthron in turn have a text quite close to Castleman's but with additional lyrics at the end.
Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 97, say that one person thought Coggburn's uncle Robert Coggburn originated this song, and explicitly cite two people who thought one Aunt Matt Moore was the writer (the tune being "Charles Guiteau"). They also suggest that several others added some lyrics to the piece. I rather suspect that these "others" were Castleman/Randolph and Hartman/Ingenthron. Probably the only legitimate versions are Randolph's "A" and Burt's.
About all that is certain, historically, is that Andrew Coggburn was a real person, and sang *something* about the Bald Knobbers, and was eventually murdered by them. About the Bald Knobbers themselves we know more. The Bald Knobbers were named after the rise of ground on which they met. According to Randolph, they organized in 1884 to combat outlaws in Taney County, Missouri, but soon turned outlaw themselves, being regarded by some as the Ozark equivalent of the Klan.
Randolph inevitably simplifies a complex situation. There are at least four books about the Bald Knobbers, Lucile Morris Upton's Bald Knobbers, published 1939, Castleman (which however is more of a pamphlet and has no documentation), Hartman/Ingenthron, and Anderson, the latter two of which Randolph of course did not know (although he knew members of one of the author's families). As a matter of fact, Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 41, thinks Castleman is a pseudonym for Randolph himself, and Norm Cohen confirms that this is the case (message to Ballad-L mailing list, April 8, 2011). Cohen also notes a typescript about the Bald Knobbers by Vandeventer, but this has not been published to my knowledge.
For the record: Yes, I believe Elmo Ingenthron, the co-author of Hartman/Ingenthron, was related to Charles Ingenthron, who was one of Randolph's greatest informants. Online social security records show that Joseph Ingenthron and Eliza Cornelison had at least two sons, James Jacob Ingenthron, born 1876, and Charles Ingenthron (1883-1974). Elmo Ingenthron (1911-1988) was the son of James Jacob.
Although the Bald Knobbers were primarily vigilantes, with perhaps some Klan influence (according to the frontispiece in Hartman/Ingenthron, they wore hoods which looked like ski masks with holes for eyes, nose, and mouth and with long horns coming from the top of the head), the inspiration was at best indirect -- according to Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 7, the Bald Knobbers were "mostly conservative Republicans and former Unionists" (recall that Missouri was split in its sentiments in the Civil War), while the anti-Bald Knobbers were mostly "Democrats and former Confederate soldiers" (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 8). And surely no Klan-inspired group would ever have included anyone who could even bring himself to say the word "Republican"!
The Civil War had apparently stirred up many problems in the White River region of Missouri; there was a Union garrison in Forsyth, the primary town in the area, and both Union and Confederate recruiters worked the district -- sometimes refusing to take "no" for an answer, according to Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 13-15.
In the postwar period, there was a significant increase in local violence, and local justice was unable to control it; criminals would flee over the Arkansas or Indian Territory (Oklahoma) border. Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 287, says that more than thirty murders were committed in Taney County in the two decades after the Civil War -- but no one was ever convicted for any of them. Castleman, p. 7, says that no one in Taney County had been sentenced to the penitentiary for *any* crime for twenty years.
On September 22, 1883, Al Layton murdered a saloonkeeper named J. M. Everett in a barroom fight seen by several witnesses (Anderson, pp. 17-18), shooting Everett after Everett had halted a fight between Layton and Sam Hull. In 1884, Layton was acquitted by a jury which was accused of being drunk (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 21-23) and perhaps bribed (Anderson, p. 19). This seems to have been the final straw, or nearly.
Overwhelming evidence indicates that a Union veteran named Nathaniel Kinney was the founder of the Bald Knobbers (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 23-25). Born in (West) Virginia but taken west while young (Castleman, p. 60), he had a tendency to exaggerate his War record (he was a private, not an officer); after the war, he worked in the railroad industry, then ran a saloon (Castleman, p. 6, claims the brawny Kinney killed four men in brawls during this stage of his career), then used the proceeds of that to start a farm. Castleman, p. 6, reports that he imported the first piano ever found in Taney County.
Disgusted with local justice, Kinney brought together about a dozen men in late 1884 or early 1885; they formed a secret, oath-bound society. Castleman, p. 9, and Anderson, p. 22, quote the oath, although Hartman/Ingenthron says it was not preserved, and Castleman admits that the members kept no records. It appears that all those called to the initial meeting were former Union soldiers (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 27); several would probably have been considered carpetbaggers. But their agreed-upon goal was to control the lawlessness they observed in Taney County (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 30).
There was talk of limiting the group to 100 people, who were required to "have a clean reputation, pay taxes, and own property" (Hartman/Ingenthron,p. 32). But they also ended up recruiting men who were willing to join because they were rowdies who wanted to have some "fun" (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 34). Eventually the Knobbers started organizing "legions," or companies, of 75 men (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 37).
To their partial credit, these Republican reformers also worked through the ballot box, and had some success in 1884 (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 32) -- indeed, part of their purpose in organizing the Bald Knobbers may have been to influence the votes of the rank and file (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 41). This may have been why they decided to expand beyond one hundred -- and why they brought in as much riff-raff as they did. Most of their recruits "abhorred slavery, belonged to the Masonic Order, and supported the Republican Party" (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 40). But future elections could not change what they saw as past miscarriages of justice. So the Bald Knobbers held their first official meeting some time in early 1885. According to Anderson, p. 20, there had been an informal meeting in January of that year in what had been J. M. Everett's saloon; the thirteen men there planned the organization then prepared for a larger gathering outside, on a hill.
The "Bald Knob" where they gathered was formally known as Snapp's Bald, near Kirbyville. It was chosen because it had a good view of the neighborhood, meaning that any spies could easily be spotted -- plus, because it was outdoors, the Knobbers could claim that they were technically having "open" meetings (Anderson, pp. 20-21).
Open, but not very public; they proceeded to adopt a set of by-laws and take an oath which bound them to absolute secrecy on pain of death -- and then they burned all copies and declared that there would never be any paper records (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 37-38). They seem to have made this decision stick -- few if any internal documents survive. To strengthen the secrecy, they adopted a series of handshakes and passwords and rituals (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 39).
The oath they created seems to have been used only at the original meeting, after that, they developed a shorter ceremony in which an initiate had a rope placed around his neck and a pistol aimed at him and swore to maintain secrecy upon pain of death (Anderson, p. 22).
It appears, based on Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 43, that outsiders knew about the group from the very start; the name "Bald Knobbers" came from those not part of the organization. Non-members at first didn't know what to expect. Their answer came on the night of April 6/7, 1885, when the Bald Knobbers tried to take Newton Herrell from the Forsyth jail -- an ominous act, because Herrell (who had been arrested for killing his mother's lover Amus Ring and then turned in by his own mother; Anderson, p. 25) had not been tried (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 44). Thus it appears the Bald Knobbers were trying to apply their form of justice even before the ordinary legal machinery had rendered its verdict. The break-in failed, however. The Bald Knobbers backed down in the face of resistance by Sheriff Polk McHaffie; they hung a noose by the jail door and left (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 44-45; by contrast, Anderson, p. 26, says that McHaffie was in great fear but that the Bald Knobbers never intended more than a demonstration, although on p. 48, Anderson says that McHaffie was a Bald Knobber; his sources may be confused).
(Herrell would eventually be sentenced to fourteen years in prison, which Anderson, p. 26, says was the first sentence of more than two years ever given in Taney County.)
The relatively peaceful phase did not last. Around this time, two brothers, Frank and Tubal Taylor -- who are mentioned in the third verse of the Randolph/Castleman/Hartman/Ingenthron text of the song -- at the very least made nuisances of themselves; Frank robbed (Castleman, p. 10) and/or trashed a store (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 47; Anderson, p. 28, says he got married, bought a bunch of stuff on credit, then demanded still more merchandise before he had paid off the bill, and trashed the store when he did't get it), and Tubal, who was accused of maiming the cattle of someone he disliked, fled from confinement (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 48). They then shot and injured the Dickinson family, owners of the shop Frank had earlier damaged, and fled (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 49-50; Anderson,p. 29). The Taylors supposedly then concocted a plan to collect the reward money for themselves, and then escape or trust in a weak jury to acquit them (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 51). Castleman, p. 11, thinks the Taylors counted on the fact that they were locals and the Dickinsons recent arrivals.
Once again, the Bald Knobbers decided to anticipate justice. On the night of April 15/16, they broke into the jail, dragged out the Taylors, and hanged them (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 50-53; Anderson, pp. 30-31, observe that they were simply dangled from a rope, so they were strangled slowly rather than having their necks broken). There may have been a notice on the bodies: "These are the first Victims to the Wrath of Outraged Citizens -- More will follow[.] THE BALD KNOBBERS" (Hartman/Ingenthron seem somewhat dubious about this, because the Bald Knobbers never put their name on anything else, but they do not footnote a source for the notice; Castleman makes no mention of the sign on p. 11 of his account of the affair; Anderson, p. 32, repeats the account without question).
Apparently the Taylors were felt to be no loss -- they certainly sound like they were completely worthless -- but the lynching caused people to question vigilante methods (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 58). Several of the founders are said to have never attended another Bald Knobber meeting after the lynching (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 60). But Kinney responded by increasing recruitment; supposedly their numbers eventually reached one thousand -- although many of the new men may have been coerced (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 62) or at least afraid (Anderson, p. 33). Other respectable citizens, unwilling to accept this sort of law, reportedly sold their land and left Taney County.
Still others decided to fight back. Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 67, note that "A month or two after the Taylor lynchings, about thirty men formed a sort of home guard or militia that quickly became known as the Anti-Bald Knobbers." Many of these people were deeply conservative -- but Nathaniel Kinney's right-wing sanctimoniousness turned them off (he condemned informal marriages, accused county officials of corruption, railed against debt, and preached sermons with guns set before him, even though he was not ordained by any sect). It seemed particularly hypocritical coming from an ex-saloon keeper.
The Anti-Bald Knobbers, however, did not have the sort of charismatic leadership supplied by Kinney (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 68), so it took much longer for them to get organized. They did not amount to much -- and they may have convinced Kinney to ramp up his activities. The Bald Knobbers increasingly held "trials" in absentia and convicted based on hearsay (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 70) -- and they adopted a Klan-like tactic of riding past an alleged evildoer's house and ordering him to reform. Often they would leave a pile of hickory switches, indicating how many days the victim had to reform or leave (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 71). Hartman/Ingenthron follow Castleman, p. 12, in suggesting that they adopted this method because many of the Bald Knobbers were illiterate and could not give a written warning (and some of the victims could not read).
There seems to be little information available about just how much violence took place. There are reports of several victims of the Bald Knobbers being whipped to death, and also instances of them fighting back and killing individual Bald Knobbers. But Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 74, can cite no numbers and few names, and Castleman, p. 12, admits that all that is certain is that some men disappeared. Anderson, p. 51, claimed six men had died between January and August of 1886 as a result of Bald Knobber activities, although some of these should perhaps be called collateral damage.
The Bald Knobbers were numerous enough, and powerful enough, that they started to take over both grand and petit juries, meaning that they decided who to indict and who to let free (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 80). As they gained power and forced property owners to flee, increasingly it was the Bald Knobbers who bought the land -- usually at fire sale (or flee-the-county-sale) prices (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 83-84).
In a very curious development, a petition was submitted to a judge, signed by many (suspected) Bald Knobbers, asking for an audit of Taney County's books. The judge granted the petition, but before the audit could proceed far, an arsonist set fire to the courthouse (Anderson, p. 34). No one seems to know which side was responsible (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 90-91), but the records needed for the audit were destroyed (Castleman, p. 12). (The need for a replacement courthouse eventually provoked a major political fight, again involving the Knobbers, but that was later; Anderson, pp. 140-141.)
The situation eventually grew so bad that people began talking about killing Kinney (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 95). Nothing came of that at the time -- but the topic would come up again.
One of Randolph's fragments claims to be by Andrew Coggburn -- although I think it more likely, if we had the whole song, that it was another person's account of his death. Coggburn apparently liked to make fun of the Sunday School where Kinney presided (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 78; Anderson, p. 38, reports that it was the first Sunday School in the county). This made him Kinney's enemy -- and Kinney didn't take well to having enemies.
Coggburn's troubles with the Bald Knobbers went back even before the founding of the organization. According to Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 95, his father had been killed in 1879 by future Bald Knobbers. Castleman, p. 14, says that Kinney had had Coggburn himself flogged, and adds that Kinney thought Coggburn had sent him a death threat.
Certainly Coggburn's constant insults toward Kinney finally caused the chief of the Bald Knobbers to turn against him. Supposedly Coggburn and his brother fought off a band of Bald Knobbers who came to deal with them. Kinney then induced a judge to issue a warrant against Coggburn for carrying concealed weapons (so Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 100; Castleman, p. 15 says it was for disturbing the peace; Anderson, p. 38, mentions Coggburn paying a fine for the weapons charge well before his death, which makes me wonder if two crimes aren't being conflated) -- and entrusted Kinney with enforcing it (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 100). Kinney's posse approached Coggburn in the presence of an independent witness, Sam Snapp.
Exactly what happened next is unclear, because the witnesses disagree. Kinney called on Coggburn (and Snapp) to put his hands in the air. Snapp says Coggburn did; Kinney says he put up his left hand but reached for his gun with his right. Whatever the truth, Kinney shot Coggburn dead (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 101-102; Anderson, p. 40) -- but let Snapp live (for a while) to tell his version of the story.
According to Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 103-104, the coroner's jury was packed with Bald Knobbers, who passed a judgment of "justifiable homicide" on Kinney -- claiming that Coggburn would have shot first but his weapon jammed. Whatever the actual facts, Kinney went free. Even Castleman, p. 16, says that "The killing of Coggburn was, it seems to me, much less reprehensible than the cowardly murder of the unarmed Taylor boys, or the numerous outrages against women and children for which Kinney and his followers were responsible." He says this because Coggburn was armed and knew that Kinney was looking for him.
The level of terror was reaching the point where the opponents of the Bald Knobbers were finally forced into action. In addition to writing to state newspapers to announce their plight (Castleman, pp. 16-17), they drafted a petition and sent it to Missouri Governor John S. Marmaduke (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 106; Anderson, pp. 42-43).
This was a major move -- and not just because it put Taney County's problems before the wider society (in years to come, there would be substantial newspaper coverage). Marmaduke was quite a character. He was a West Point graduate (1857), and had been serving on the Utah expedition against the Mormons when the Civil War broke out (HTIECivilWar, p. 475). Joining the Confederate side, he served in Missouri and Arkansas, led a regiment at Shiloh, and was promoted Brigadier General in late 1862. He spent most of the rest of the war leading cavalry in Missouri and Arkansas, and was finally appointed Major General in 1865 -- the last officer to be given that rank in Confederate service (HTIECivilWar, p. 476).
He also killed one of his junior officers, Lucius March Walker, in a duel in 1863. Boatner, p. 885, says that the reason for the duel is unknown; HTIECivilWar, p. 798, suggests that Marmaduke called Walker a coward, and Walker responded by demanding satisfaction. Marmaduke complied, despite the attempts by their superior officer to intercede.
This was the man who was elected Democratic governor in 1884. According to Settle, p. 155, he took an anti-railroad position -- and, although it was never officially stated, he was against allowing Frank James to be convicted or extradited to Minnesota for trial (Settle pp. 157-158; Yeatman, p. 289).
Since he was a Democrat and a former Confederate, and the Bald Knobbers were largely Republican and Unionist, Governor Marmaduke would seem a natural opponent. On the other hand, he had a certain streak of small-government vigilante-ism in him.... And, although apparently initially receptive to the anti-Bald Knobbers, a delegation from the Knobbers -- who argued that the anti-Bald Knobbers were not Taney County taxpayers in good standing -- caused him to pause and send an official to investigate (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 111-112). Randolph seems to refer his "C" fragment to this visit by Adjutant General J. C. Jamison (for whom see Castleman, p. 17), but there isn't enough text to be sure.
Upon arriving, Jamison declared that *two* unlawful groups were in existence -- i.e. the Bald Knobbers and the anti-Bald Knobbers. The investigator was persuasive enough that Kinney promptly called together the Bald Knobbers and announced that they were disbanding (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 120-121; Castleman, p. 18, says that Jamison ordered Kinney to shut things down or go to prison; Anderson, p. 44, suggests that Jamison suggested Kinney pretend to disband). Kinney and friends even drew up documents to that effect (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 123-125).
The first mention of a Bald Knobber song is reported from this time. Sam Snapp, the man who had seen the murder of Coggburn, was heard singing it in the town of Kirbyville. One of those present was George Washington "Wash" Middleton, who had apparently already been chosen by Kinney to eliminate Snapp (Castleman, p. 18, although Anderson, p. 47, says that the Bald Knobbers claim the whole thing was spontaneous). Middleton promptly shot Snapp to death (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 131-133). Since Snapp's wife was already dead, that left his five children as orphans.
So much for the claim that the Bald Knobbers had disbanded. Other acts of vigilantism took place at the same time. Houses were once again shot up -- and the rot was beginning to cross into other counties. A man named Cobble, who lived in Christian County, was flogged (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 126-127).
People in Taney County continued to sell their lands due to Bald Knobber activities. Some of these were Kinney's political enemies -- but many were genuine social undesirables. And they had to go somewhere. Christian County, north of Taney Country, became the refuge for a large fraction of them (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 139). Eventually Kinney came north to encourage the founding of a Bald Knobber group in that county as well (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 140). He also helped found a chapter in Douglas County (next to Christian County) in 1885 (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 187). According to Anderson, p. 75, seven counties eventually had Knobber chapters, and p. 89 includes a claim that "the organization extends not merely through southwestern Missouri, but into Arkansas, Texas, Indian Territory [i.e. Oklahoma] and Kansas." Even if this is true, it appears that only the chapters in Taney and Christian counties were active enough to make much mark in history: "So far as [is] known no lives were taken by Knobbers in any save Taney and Christian counties" (Anderson, p. 78).
The Douglas County chapter chose as its chieftain Joe Walker, whose relative Dave Walker headed the Christian County chapter (Anderson, p. 78). The level of violence in Douglas County was less (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 189), but ironically they came under federal investigation sooner (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 190). The Knobbers there would eventually be charged with interfering with the operation of the Homestead Act controlling land distribution (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 191). Most of those charged pled guilty (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 191) and were sentenced to periods from two to six months in prison (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 192). Those still free seem to have tried to intimidate witnesses, but as more and more sentences came down, they gave up (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 193).
If the Douglas Country chapter never did too much harm, things grew ugly in Christian County. Unlike the Taney County group, which at least pretended to meet in the open, the Christian County branch's preferred meeting place was a cave (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 143). Their rituals were different, but by 1886 it was clear that they used much the same sort of terror techniques (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 145-146). And they were concerned with morality as well as upholding the actual law; they destroyed a saloon's stock in trade (Anderson, p. 78, says they also threatened to hang him), beat men they considered lazy, and forced a polygamist to give up his wives (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 148-149).
Eventually their behavior grew extreme enough that their own chairman Dave Walker tried to disband the group -- but the rank-and-file (which apparently consisted largely of ne'er-do-wells) refused to contemplate the idea (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 151-153). Instead of disbanding, they went out and committed mass murder -- they targeted one man, James Edens or Charles Eaton (the sources cited by Anderson differ in the spelling, which probably tells you all you need to know about their reliability), but left two men dead on the scene, a man and a woman injured to the point of unconsciousness, and two widows and several children unharmed but witness to the slaughter of their parents (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 158-161; Castleman, p. 20; Anderson, pp. 83-84). The Bald Knobbers had one man injured -- but he was one of their leaders, Billy Walker (so Hartman/Ingenthron; Anderson in some places calls him Will Walker).
According Anderson, p. 86, no physician dared go to help the injured, but justice in Christian County was less feeble than in Taney. Anderson, p. 87, claims that five thousand people visited the site of the slayings. There was a real attempt to investigate the murders, and one of the participants was not only arrested but induced to talk. His testimony led to other participants (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 164; Castleman, pp. 20-21; Anderson, p. 87). Eventually more than two dozen men were in custody, and about half confessed. There were so many of them that the existing jail couldn't hold them (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 165-167; Castleman, p. 21). Sixteen men were charged with two first degree murders (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 171); others were charged with assault and battery (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 172); in all, eighty men were indicted (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 173; Anderson, p. 88, in what is surely an exaggeration, says there were three hundred indictments).
The course of the trials was fascinating. Many minor cases were quickly disposed of, with the defendants fined and set free so the county didn't have to pay for their upkeep. Most of the defendants were poor, and could not afford to post bail, but initially hoped for a delay until emotions died down. But one man insisted on a speedy trial, and was acquitted (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 176; Anderson, pp 113-121, has an account of the trial of this man, Gilbert Applegate; it seems to me, based on this account, that while there wasn't much doubt about the crime, it couldn't be shown that Applegate was part of it).
Somewhere in here, according to Anderson, pp. 124-125, most of the key witnesses were lynched. But it didn't seem to affect the course of the trials. Billy Walker (the son of Dave), the only Knobber wounded in the fight and so clearly linked to it, then decided to allow his trial to proceed -- and, after a ten day trial, was found guilty of first degree murder (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 177-180). He was a juvenile (Castleman, p. 23), but that still meant a death sentence -- and threw the remaining Bald Knobbers into confusion, because they had given up all their claims for a change of venue and such after the first acquittal.
Since there could be few legal games after that, a series of convictions followed, including even that of Dave Walker, the father of Billy (Anderson, p. 126). He had been the founding organizer of the Christian County Bald Knobbers -- but had argued against the massacre, and had taken no part. After it was over, however, he was said to have suggested silencing the witnesses, and that -- even though the testimony came from witnesses who were trying to save their own necks -- was enough to cause him to be convicted of first degree murder (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 180-182).
After that, many of the accused started scrambling to plead guilty to second degree murder (Castleman, p. 24). The pleas were generally accepted, and most of the men sentenced to more than twenty years -- although one alleged minister (of what? Satan?) was given what amounts to benefit of clergy and got off with a dozen years (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 182-184; Castleman, p. 24; Anderson, pp. 96-97, prints a writing of this allegedly educated man, C. O. Simmons, which shows him to have been incapable of spelling or punctuation). As a side effect, most of the accused lost their land, turning it over to their lawyers in return for legal services (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 184-185). Those sentenced to death naturally appealed. This gained them a few months of life, but the first three sentences were promptly upheld (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 185).
The Federals also eventually caught up with George Washington Middleton, the man who had killed Sam Snapp. According to Anderson, p. 48, he planned to head for Arkansas, but heard a rumor that he was being pursued by vigilantes and decided to turn himself in. He was acquitted of first degree murder, but convicted of second degree murder. The jury sentenced him to forty years, reduced by the judge to fifteen years (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 200-203; Castleman, p. 19). But someone unlocked his jail cell and he simply walked away from his sentence and fled to Arkansas (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 203-204). It is apparently not known who set him free, although Anderson, p. 48, says the sheriff was responsible. The Missouri government and the Snapps themselves put up some hundreds of dollars in reward money, and also hired a detective/bounty hunter to trace him (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 204-205). The bounty hunter killed him in July 1888 (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 205-207; Anderson, p. 48, who adds that Missouri did not pay its share of the reward money).
This was a token of disasters to come for the Bald Knobbers. The death of Middleton came as the Missouri Supreme Court was preparing to take up the Walker case. And even as that was happening, a quarrel was starting which would lead to the death of Nathaniel Kinney. It seems to have begun as a case of adultery. Two men named Berry and Taylor apparently were both involved with Mrs. Berry; and Berry was not one to take that lightly. Anderson, p. 52, calls J. S. B. Berry "revengeful and cunning," and claims that this is how he attracted his wife -- but also why she came to lose interest. He is also said to have been a counterfeiter. Taylor, a young lawyer who was friends with Kinney, supposedly took lodging at Mrs. Berry's hotel because she was a good cook (Anderson, p. 53).
Supposedly Berry came home unexpectedly one night to find Taylor intimate with his wife (Anderson, p. 54). Berry and Taylor on occasion took potshots at each other, without effect ("It was very disgusting to the mountaineers to see such wretched marksmanship," according to Anderson, p. 55). Supposedly Taylor eventually admitted to adultery in court, but Mrs. Berry never did. She did, however, obtain a divorce (Anderson, p. 56). Berry eventually filed for bankruptcy, apparently to assure that his wife didn't get his hands on his property (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 209-211). Since the sheriff didn't want to be the receiver in the bankruptcy case, a judge assigned the role to Kinney (Anderson, p. 56).
Kinney probably had people watching out for Berry, who would resent Kinney's inventorying of his property. But they were not watching for Billy and Jim Miles, who earlier had been chosen by anti-Bald Knobbers to eliminate the vigilante chief. On August 20, 1888, the two walked into the store when Kinney was alone. Shots were fired, and Kinney ended up dead. Billy Miles promptly announced that he had killed Kinney "in self-defence" (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 214-215. Echoes, obviously, of Kinney's claims in the case of Andrew Coggburn). There were claims that Kinney was shot in the back (according to Castleman, p. 23, this was the story of pro-Bald Knobber witnesses), but the bullet wounds seem to have been in his chest and side. There is genuine dispute over whether his pistol was in or near his hand or was on a shelf (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 216-217); the account cited by Anderson, pp. 58-59, says that there was an unfired pistol near his hand, but that it was Berry's, not Kinney's, and that Kinney's was in the shop but not near his body.
There was fear that there would be unrest at Kinney's funeral, but it never materialized. Quite a few people attended the burial (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 218-219), but there doesn't seem to have been a real #2 in his organization. Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 220, notes that there seem to be no issues at all in existence of the August 23 edition of the Taney County News, which should have covered his death. Castleman, p. 28, says that his grave is unmarked.
On October 1, some six weeks after the murder, Berry was charged with first degree murder (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 221). He faced a variety of other counts as well, on weapons charges (which were later dismissed; Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 262) and for the fight with Taylor; he was eventually sentenced to five years for that (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 263). Miles, of course, was also charged, but had no trouble making bail because he had so much local support (Anderson, pp. 59-60).
In the Christian County case murder case (the one which involved the Walkers), prisoners John and Wiley Matthews managed to escape. One version of the story says they were rescued; another, that they dug a hole in the wall; another, that the guard set them free (Castleman, p. 25); still another, that they managed to make an impression in soap of the keys to their cell, and got a jailer to supply metal for a duplicate key (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 225-227). In January 1889, they made their break for freedom (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 228). The Walkers refused to join them. John Matthews was soon recaptured, but Wiley and his family would remain free for decades (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 228-229).
The cases of the other Christian County defendants had by this time moved from the judicial to the political system. As the Supreme Court worked on the Dave Walker case, petitions started to reach the governor for clemency (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 230).
Governor David R. Francis (1850-1927) was a more significant character than his predecessor Marmaduke. According to DAB (volume III, p. 578), he was a grain merchant, then went on to the governorship. In the last months of the second Cleveland administration, he became Secretary of the Interior (1896-1897) after his predecessor Hoke Smith resigned to campaign for William Jennings Bryan. As Interior Secretary, it was his task to implement the Forest Reserve Act of 1891, establishing what became the National Forests. According to DeGregorio, p. 348, he put 20 million acres into the Reserve -- a small amount compared to what Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft would set aside, but it was Francis who got the Reserve started (and provoked some controversy by so doing -- according to Morison, p. 746, "The McKinley administration threw most of them back to the loggers," but Francis had set a precedent that future administrations would follow).
When McKinley came into office in 1897, Francis was out, and he had opposed William Jennings Bryan in 1896, costing him popularity; he left politics for a decade, refused to consider a vice presidential bid in 1908, and failed in a primary in the 1910 Senate race (DAB, volume III, p. 578). But in 1916, Woodrow Wilson called him to be Ambassador to Russia. He served at that post until 1918, thus witnessing both the February and October revolutions and the beginning of the Russian Civil War. From what I can tell, he was rather a cipher in that role -- but Moorehead, p. 165, says that America was the first nation to recognize the Provisional Government (i.e. what became the Kerensky government), and that this was largely due to Francis.
He sounds like a character out of Dickens. According to Moorehead, p. 165, "He was a remarkable figure, more attuned to the world of O. Henry than the Czarist court (and indeed O. Henry mentions him as a gourmet). He had his portable cuspidor with a foot-operated lid, his cigars, his Ford touring car for summer and his sleigh and team of horses for winter; the horses had United States flags stuck in their bridles, and according to Norman Armour, the second secretary at the Embassy, 'gave you the impression when you drove with him that you were on a merry-go-round.' At the Ambassador's dinners (which were rare; he preferred poker) a hand-cranked phonograph played from behind a screen."
In 1889, however, Francis was still new to his role as governor, and the Bald Knobber situation was one of the first things he had to address. He did delay the executions of Billy Walker and John Matthews briefly to let the Supreme Court reach its decision in the case of Dave Walker. But the court affirmed Dave Walker's conviction (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 230). Francis then ordered the executions to go ahead (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 232; Anderson, p. 134). Although Francis was a Democrat and the Bald Knobbers mostly Republicans, there is no hint in Hartman/Ingenthron that this was considered political. He simply felt that it was the duty of the state to execute duly convicted criminals.
Billy Walker, shortly before his execution, was baptized in a bathtub (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 233; ANderson, p. 135). I can't help but note that if the new Baptist had read the words "thou shalt not kill," he wouldn't have had to worry about execution.
A extremely large crowd eventually gathered for the execution, forcing the sheriff to bring in armed guards and even to knock a hole in the jailhouse wall to bring the convicts out (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 233-235). This even though hangings in Missouri were not supposed to be public spectacles. But the onlookers did not stop the execution; at 9:55 a.m. on May 10, 1889, Billy Walker, Dave Walker, and John Matthews were hung (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 238).
It was incompetently done. A hanging is supposed to break the neck -- but only Matthews had his neck broken. Dave Walker strangled to death -- slowly. Billy Walker's rope broke and he had to be re-dropped -- after begging once more for mercy (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 238-239; Anderson, p. 137, says that even Matthews took thirteen minutes to die, and Dave Walker fifteen). Apparently nothing could ever go right where Bald Knobbers were involved. The flip side is, the condemned men brought it on themselves; the sheriff had wanted to bring in a professional executioner, but the convicts had wanted him to do it himself (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 225, 243; Castleman, p. 27, says that he had never even seen an execution).
As the Walker/Matthews case reached its end, Billy Miles went to trial for the murder of Kinney. The judge found local sentiment so strong that he moved the trial (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 245). There seems to have been an organized attempt -- possibly supported by the Kinney family -- to assassinate Miles, who had been bailed out by anti-Bald Knobbers despite a very high bail of $8000 (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 246-248). The new sheriff of Taney County, Galba Branson, who had lived in the county since 1883 and was pro-Bald Knobber (Anderson, p. 61), seems to have actively taken a hand in the attempt. After the Miles brothers went free, Branson and the hired gun he brought with him were killed in a shootout with the Miles Brothers as they attempted to bring them back, with Jim Miles being wounded (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 250-253; Anderson, p. 63).
In an ugly move, Bald Knobbers set out after the Miles Brothers, and in their quest to learn where they had gone, actually put a noose around a friend of the family, although they did not hang him (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 256). The wounded Jim Miles gave himself up on July 6; about a week later, Billy Miles was taken into custody, although it is not clear if he surrendered or was taken (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 257-258). On March 22, 1890, after a six day trial, Billy Miles was acquitted of first degree murder in the death of Kinney on the grounds of self-defence (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 263-265, 292). Then it was time for the trial in the Branson case. That case took almost no time, and on September 5, Billy and Jim Miles were found not guilty in the murder of Branson. The prosecution then dropped the murder charge in the case of Funk, the hired gun (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 267-269; Anderson, pp. 67-68).
Billy Miles soon after left the state (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 270). That seemed to be the effective end of actual Bald Knobber activities. Jim Miles would later get into a fight and end up serving a ten year sentence for second degree murder, but not for anything related to Bald Knobberism (Hartman/Ingenthron, p. 270). Later, there was a vigilante killing of one John Wesley Bright (a man charged with killing his wife; Anderson, p. 147), which also resulted in the death of an innocent man who was guarding Bright in the prison (Anderson, pp. 148-149); pro- and anti-Bald Knobbers seem to have taken different sides in the case, and former Bald Knobbers were probably involved -- but there was no actual Bald Knobber organization involved (Hartman/Ingenthron, pp. 271-284). In any event, the trial for Bright's murder largely came apart because of local sentiment and prosecutorial mismanagement (according to Anderson, p. 153, the entire jury pool consisted of Bald Knobbers who would not have been willing to convict).
According to Anderson, p. 167, after the Bald Knobbers collapsed, a network called the "Black-Caps," which held to many Knobber ideals, continued to hold some sway. But it clearly didn't exert the same power.
There is a certain amount of documentation about the Bald Knobbers on the web, although it adds little (as of this writing) to what is in Hartman/Ingenthron.
http://tinyurl.com/tbdx-WhiteRivQtr is an affidavit by I. J. Haworth about how the Bald Knobbers threatened him. Hartman/Ingenthron calls him John Haworth and refers to his story on pp. 82-83 and other places.
The site http://tinyurl.com/tbdx-BaldKnob summarizes the Knobbers history, and has photos of Nathaniel Kinney and a Bald Knobber mask.
I note with some disquiet that there now seems to be an act at Branson, Missouri called the "Baldknobbers show." And, no, Branson is not named after Galba Branson; the town is older than the murdered sheriff.
The Bald Knobbers also appeared in Harold Bell Wright's famous book "The Shepherd of the Hills," and also in the associated movie; Anderson, p. 24, shows a movie still of masked Bald Knobbers. The masks look accurate, but the Bald Knobbers of the book are outlaws who share little but the name with the real Bald Knobbers.
This tradition of fake Bald Knobber stories goes back a long way; apparently a bunch of Bald Knobbers made up a play about the events and hoped to take it to New York. Happily, the idea failed (Anderson, p. 139). - RBW
Last updated in version 4.1
- Anderson: Vincent S. Anderson, Bald Knobbers: Chronicles of Vigilante Justice, History Press, 2013. N.B. This claims to be compiled from newspaper accounts and eyewitness evidence (and it certainly sounds like nineteenth century newspaper stories), but there is no way to verify this as no sources are cited.
- Boatner: Mark M. Boatner III, The Civil War Dictionary, 1959 (there are many editions of this very popular work; mine is a Knopf hardcover)
- Castleman: Harvey N. Castleman (pseudonym for Vance Randolph), The Bald Knobbers: The Story of the Lawless Night-Riders Who Ruled Southern Missouri in the 80's, Haldeman-Julius Publications, 1944 (I use the Kessinger print-on-demand reprint, my copy being from 2011)
- DAB: Dumas Malone, editor, Dictionary of American Biography, originally published in 20 volumes plus later supplementary volumes; I use the 1961 Charles Scribner's Sons edition with minor corrections which combined the original 20 volumes into 10
- DeGregorio: William A. DeGregorio, The Complete Book of U. S. Presidents, fourth edition, Barricade Books, 1993
- Hartman/Ingenthron: Mary Hartman and Elmo Ingenthron, Bald Knobbers, Vigilantes on the Ozarks Frontier, 1988 (I use the 2002 Pelican Press edition)
- HTIECivilWar: Patricia L. Faust, editor, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War, Harper & Row, 1986 (I use the 1991 Harper Collins edition)
- Moorehead: Alan Moorehead, The Russian Revolution, 1958 (I use the 1987 Carroll & Graf paperback edition)
- Morison: Samuel Eliot Morison, The Oxford History of the American People, Oxford, 1965
- Settle: William A. Settle, Jr., Jesse James Was His Name, 1966 (I used the 1977 Bison edition)
- Yeatman: Ted P. Yeatman, Frank and Jesse James: The Story Behind the Legend, Cumberland House, 2000
Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List
Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography
The Ballad Index Copyright 2019 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.