- Faces Like Devils: The Bald Knobber Vigilantes in the Ozarks by Matthew J. Hernando
You may be wondering the same thing I was when I first read the title of Matthew Hernando’s book Faces Like Devils: The Bald Knobber Vigilantes in the Ozarks: What the heck is a Bald Knobber? Hernando does well to answer this question right away, explaining, “The Bald Knobbers were a vigilance committee that originated in late 1884 or early 1885, in Taney County, Missouri.” They made claims of being “an alliance of taxpayers and law-abiding citizens dedicated to fighting rampant crime in their communities and corruption in their local government” (2). Indeed, Hernando’s excellent history of this underground movement distills from mythological and co-opted characters of Ozark lore the very real men who struggled to regain control of their world. [End Page 457]
You may still be wondering why the so-called Bald Knobbers chose such an oddly descriptive moniker. Hernando tells us that in the Ozarks region of Missouri there are small hills that have few trees or no trees at all on their summit and that “these small hills are commonly referred to as ‘knobs’ or ‘balds’ (or sometimes ‘bald knobs’)” (21). He later reveals that during the first formal meeting of the Bald Knobbers, they met on one of these treeless ridges. They chose this particular knob, known as Snapp’s Bald, because it would allow them to keep watch over the surrounding environs while they met. It seems fitting that a vigilance committee name themselves after the place where one watches over the community.
Hernando’s history of the Bald Knobbers of southwest Missouri explains their origins, goals, and demise. He identifies four factors that contributed to their creation: demographic changes, economic modernization, intense political partisanship, and a surge in criminal activity. The original Bald Knobbers of Taney County were community leaders who had lost faith in their civil institutions. In classic vigilante style, these men took the law into their own hands and worked to eradicate murderers, thieves, and corrupt politicians from their county. At their most extreme they used violence to “purge” their county of their enemies, lynching two men who had killed a local businessman and gunning down their enemies in armed confrontations. After a year or two of violence, the Bald Knobbers regained a number of political seats in the county and no longer needed to work outside the law to accomplish their ends.
Two new groups rose up in neighboring counties that shared only a part of the original Bald Knobber vision. These two new chapters—one in Christian County and the other in Douglas County—were filled less with community leaders and more with men from the poorer classes of this rural, mountain society. Moreover, this new brand of Bald Knobber sought to enforce its own vision of proper morality. These Bald Knobbers targeted barkeepers, polygamists, “lewd women,” and anyone who went astray of their own narrow expectations of behavior. It did not take long for these men to go too far. After murdering family men in their own home in the middle of the night (presumably for an insult uttered earlier in the day), a few ringleaders of the Bald Knobbers were tried and put to death.
Hernando places the history of the Bald Knobbers squarely within the historical literature of vigilantism. As he points out, “For the most part, the Taney County Bald Knobbers conformed to [Richard Maxwell] Brown’s basic model of vigilantism” (219). They were socially conservative, committed to law and order (even if they operated outside of it), and sought to maintain the social hierarchy of their communities. Indeed, the history of [End Page 458] the Bald Knobbers contributes a great deal to the historiography of vigilantes in American history. Or, as Hernando says: “The story of the Bald Knobbers illustrates why people living in communities like these often resorted to vigilantism to cope with problems that seemed beyond ordinarily legal or political means...