1855 - 1889
Featuring a man with a devilish cloth mask–complete with black and white striped horns–this photograph depicts an infamous vigilante group that operated in the Ozarks following the Civil War: the Bald Knobbers. The group first organized in 1885 in Taney County, Missouri, gathering atop the grassy, treeless “bald knobs” of the Ozark Mountains. As a collapsed economy and outlaws–many of whom were former pro-Confederate guerrillas–plagued the region, the Bald Knobbers presented themselves as a group of business-minded citizens who were seeking to establish order amidst the chaos.
Although their proclaimed mission was to combat crime and promote development, the Bald Knobbers became notorious for their violence. The organization first declared its authority within the Ozarks by kidnapping the infamous outlaw brothers, Frank and Tubal Taylor, from the Taney County jail and hanging them. As the group spread into neighboring counties, the new Bald Knobbers group policed religious violations as well as criminal infractions, targeting couples living “in sin,” “loose” women, and men who frequented the saloons of the area. The Bald Knobbers’ distinctive masks underscored the “devilish” nature of their victims. Nevertheless, the vigilantes themselves came under scrutiny, standing as both heroes and criminals in the public eye.
The legacy of the Bald Knobbers persists in the Ozarks today, as their name and image feature prominently in Branson’s entertainment scene. From the “famous Branson Baldknobbers” country music and comedy show and the family-friendly performance of folk justice, “The Shepherd of the Hills,” to the Fire in the Hole ride at Silver Dollar City, the Baldknobbers’ current image remains as divided as it was in the 19th century. Their enduring presence illuminates the critical ways in which Southwest Missouri’s continues to struggle with–as well as glorify–the violence of its fraught past.
Date: 1855 - 1889
Subject: Bald knobbers (Night riders); Guerrilla warfare
Contributing Institution: State Historical Society of Missouri - Rolla
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County: Christian; Douglas; Taney