Tuesday, May 19, 2015

FACES LIKE DEVILS: The Bald Knobber Vigilantes in the Ozarks

A remarkable, in-depth and readable story of post Civil War vigilante bands in the Ozarks.
 Matthew J. Hernando’s new book, Faces Like Devils, is an engrossing account of the Bald Knobbers, a southwest Missouri vigilante movement that emerged as a result of post Civil War lawlessness.
Hernando places the Ozarks’ own vigilante groups in the broader context of American history: “Although often treated as a matter of local interest, the bloody history of the Bald Knobber organization informs a broader narrative of vigilante justice that has been a part of American history and culture from the beginning. It is a tradition literally older than the country itself.”  The Bald Knobbers are ideological cousins to the “Regulator” movements of colonial era North and South Carolina, San Francisco’s Committees of Vigilance during the California Gold Rush, ‘”fence cutting wars” in the West, and of course the KKK among many others.
This is not news for people in southwest Missouri. These were murderous nightriders whose “improvised dispensing of justice” has been written about and portrayed in locally produced plays and movies both fictional and documentary. The phenomenon has been subject of feature writers’ columns since their beginnings in the nineteenth century.  They were the heavies in Harold Bell Wright’s 1907 huge bestseller, Shepherd of the Hills. The Mabes, a talented country music family, pulled the words into one to name their Branson hillbilly music show. These popular appropriations, Hernando notes, may explain the relative sparseness of Bald Knobber scholarship: “The popular image of the Bald Knobbers may also have tainted the group with the stigma of sensationalism and provincialism, causing some historians who might otherwise have written about the group to defer from doing so.”
Two full-length books - Lucille Morris’s Baldknobbers, Caxton Press, 1939 and Elmo Ingenthron’s Bald Knobbers, Pelican Publishing, 1988 – have been published. Numerous popular articles, pamphlets and investigative journalist’s exposé have added detail and color to this compelling story.  The bibliography of Faces like Devils provides an extraordinarily comprehensive account of materials produced on the vigilantes in the last hundred years.
Hernando has absorbed all these. He has also delved deeply into voluminous court records and newspaper articles from the time. He applied microscopic examination of the condition of post Civil War turmoil that brought about this war, which involved 700-900 people at one time.  Night riding, hangings, floggings and gunfights were standard operating procedures.
Certainly this tumult was not good for business. Missouri’s Governor pushed the court system to crack down on these vigilantes in the mid 1880s. Four were sentenced to hang.  One got away.  The other three were executed in a horrifically inept public hanging on grounds of the Christian County courthouse in Ozark. 
For those that know the story – and many in our part of the country do – this is an unprecedented compendium of personalities. Though one name is popularly applied, there were two distinct groups – the Bald Knobbers of Taney County and the Bald Knobbers of Christian and Douglas counties.  The distinctions, Hernando contends, are important: “The two groups … used the same name, operated simultaneously, and inhabited roughly the same compact geographical area. Yet they exhibited such stark differences in their goals, tactics, and membership that it is sometimes difficult to see how they were considered part of the same group.” This book expertly clarifies these distinctions.
Faces Like Devils tells a gripping story with blind tigers, prostitutes that followed the railroad lines, and Yankees and Confederates fighting old battles. Hernando has produced a fascinating book, an easy read with good balance between academic research and readable prose.
 (NOTE:  This review is also posted on amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/review/R2ZSDCV4P9UMSJ.  Check there for more information and purchase details.)

Saturday, May 2, 2015


Some might ask if the "Irish Wilderness" is a geographic place - or an Irish state of mind? Our book Mystery of the Irish Wilderness explored the history of a real place in the Missouri Ozarks, once populated by real Irish immigrants seeking a new life, a place now a component of the National Wilderness system.

Come to find there are other Irish Wildernesses, like Mount Irish Wilderness in Nevada's Basin and Range: "a 28,274-acre parcel less than two hours’ drive north from Las Vegas, harbors the parched region’s most precious resource: water."

And in 2013, The Irish Department of Art, Heritage and Gaeltacht and Coillte signed a Memorandum of Understanding, creating the country's first wilderness area in the Nephin Beg Range of North West Mayo.  This is a project with a twist ... the plan is to "rewild" 4,400 hectares of land to provide "a dedicated wilderness of forest, mountain, bog, river and lakes in the Nephin Beg Range." Wild Nephin is a fascinating and ambitious project, it's "the first of its kind in Western Europe."

An Taoiseach Enda Kenny TD, photographed at Néifinn Fhiáin in North Co. Mayo with from Left to Right Mr. Jimmy Deenihan, Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Dennis Strong National Parks & wildlife Services, and Bill Murphy, Head of Recreation Coillte to mark the  signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Coillte and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht that designates 11,000 HA along the Nephin Mountain Range as Ireland’s first wilderness area. March 14, 2013
(Images released by Ken Wright Photography)

Friday, March 20, 2015

OSCEOLA Book Signing

Many thanks to Larry Lewis of Osceola for arranging our presentation to the St. Clair County Historical Society last week. With Larry’s recommendation and the support of Angie Jones, Director of the St. Clair County Library, we were invited to discuss Damming the Osage with the members of the Historical Society.  The town of Osceola and much of St. Clair County were deeply affected by the changes brought on by the construction of Truman Dam and Reservoir. Leland was a plaintiff in the lawsuit filed by the Environmental Defense Fund (1972) to stop or reduce the size and impact of the dam. It was a position that put him (then) at odds with many people in at least three, maybe four counties. Feelings were strong during the lawsuit. People took sides with strong opinions. We were curious to see what the reaction was to our description of events.

Osceola Book Signing

The gathering was cordial and the audience knowledgeable about the events and issues. Indeed, we learned a lot from them. Personal stories of life on the Osage River pre-dam, paddlefish season,  the Civil War and its aftermath, outlaws and their final resting places, and meteors (that’s another post!) were lively, informative and added an intimate perspective on the costs and consequences of such huge and intrusive projects.

We showed our book video and one titled Osceola’s Lament evoking the after-dam realization that reality doesn’t begin to meet the optimistic promises of the dam-builders and promoters. Sadly, many of the negative consequences predicted by that lawsuit seem to have come to pass. Today, many residents are unenthusiastic about the monstrous and shallow reservoir that destroyed so much of the history and natural resources of the area.

Many thanks to Jim Arnett of Leawood, Kansas for taking the photographs.  (click on any photo to enlarge and start slide show)

OSCEOLA Book Signing

Monday, March 16, 2015


Twelve years after authorization of what was then called Kaysinger Dam, and a little more than two years before the actual groundbreaking commencement of construction, Army Corps of Engineers Lt. Gen. W. K. Wilson, Jr. recommended to the Secretary of the Army the addition of power generators and a larger conservation pool to the already massive project. Senator Stuart Symington was also informed of the recommendation.The Star notes this will make the reservoir larger than Lake of the Ozarks.

Not surprising – the cost was creeping up. Read all about it!  KCStar_03.16.62


Wednesday, February 18, 2015


--> -->
Chapter 7 of Hogan’s memoir, On the Mission in Missouri 1857-1868, begins with the account of his third exploratory trip to the Ozarks. A different priest friend accompanied him this time, Father William Walsh of St. Peter’s parish in Jefferson City. As they rode the rails and by horseback, their conversation undoubtedly ranged wide. Two young priests, both born in 1829, from County Limerick searched the American frontier for land suitable for Irish immigrants fleeing their troubled homeland.  Those were not their only ties. Like Hogan, Walsh studied at the seminary at Carondelet and was ordained (1854) by Archbishop Kenrick in St. Louis.
This  wintery exploratory trip was longer than the first two. It appears that Hogan met Father Walsh in St. Louis in mid to late January. From there they headed south at the end of the month. Parish records from Chillicothe indicate the Hogan was absent from January 7 to March 13. 
(from On the Mission in Missouri, 1857-1868)

REV. William Walsh, the devoted zealous pastor of St. Peter's church, Jefferson City, ever a loving faithful friend of the emigrant, took the greatest possible interest in every effort made to lead the good Catholic Irish people from the railroad shanties and the back streets and cellars of the cities, to locate them on lands. With this purpose in view, he offered to accompany me on my next journey into southern Missouri, so that having knowledge of the country and of the progress of the undertaking in which I was interested, he could aid me, if in his power, to do so.

We set out from St. Louis together in the last days of January, 1858. Traveling on the Iron Mountain Railroad to its southern terminus, then somewhere in Washington County, we thence proceeded on horseback, following somewhat, but diverging more southerly from, the route taken by Reverend Father Fox and myself a short time previous. At Van Buren we found a Canadian named Ronge, a Catholic, whose three children I baptized. Going eastward from there we crossed the Black River at its junction with Brushy Creek. Reverend Father Walsh when crossing the river, although keeping his feet raised as high as possible along the horse’s sides, still could not keep them entirely out of the water, which was deep and very cold, it being freezing weather at the time. The result was bad for the dear Reverend Father. The only change of clothing which we had was a pair of socks, which he put on instead of the wet ones. These did not save him. The cold wet boots and the wet frozen clothing brought on a chill, which was soon followed by coughing, and fever. Next, the flushed face and the short, difficult breathing with other symptoms of pneumonia, came on apace.

We diverged from our intended course and made by the shortest way for Greenville, the county seat of Wayne County, where we hoped to find some kind of hotel accommodation. For some days the dear Reverend Father lay in danger of death, in a poor uncomfortable tavern, and under the care of an unskilful physician. Soon, however, he began to recover and by degrees grew better so as to be past all danger, for which merciful favor I was most grateful to Almighty God. During his convalescence I made a journey to Jackson in Cape Girardeau County, to employ an agent near the Land Office there, to transact business for the settlers. Returned to Greenville, I was glad to find my dear reverend friend in much better health and courage than when I had left him. We again set out together and rode by easy stages towards the Iron Mountain and Potosi, thence homeward by rail to St. Louis; he going to Jefferson City and I to Chillicothe.
Father Walsh survived the illness and the “unskillful physician.” His cash contribution for the construction of the log church in Oregon County is noted in Hogan’s small account book. He continued as pastor at St. Peter's in Jefferson City until January 1863, when he became pastor of St. Bridget’s parish in St. Louis., where he served for 35 years. He died there in December 15, 1898.
The archives of the Archdiocese of St. Louis have a file of papers to and about Father Walsh.  In the file are several letters over the years from Bishop Hogan. An article about him in the 1920 Reunion book of St. Bridget’s Parish notes he was a defender of the poor and enemy of the dance halls. The article recounts a story of Father Walsh scattering revelers at a “Kerry Patch’ dance hall one Saturday night. They note: “not a hand was raised against the giant priest.”

Mystery of the Irish Wilderness is now $16.95 (regularly $18.95), postpaid.
On the Mission in Missouri and Fifty Years Ago: A Memoir ,which contains full text of both of Hogan's personal memoirs as well as additional biographical information, is now $18.95 (regularly $24.95), postpaid.

Saturday, February 14, 2015



Pasted in one of Hogan’s little scrapbooks, in the archives of the Diocese of Kansas City – St. Joseph, a yellowed newspaper clipping has Father Fox’s obituary.  He died February 14, 1879. Unfortunately, Hogan did not note the publication name.

Shared characteristics of the two Irish prelates come through in this accounting – fiscal responsibility and near-abhorrence of debt; dedication; plain spoken clarity of thought and word. Hogan and Fox were both frontier priests, ordained by Archbishop Kenrick, dedicated to the promise of America for the poor, the hopeful and the ambitious. They built churches, established schools and cleared debt

A brief biography was included in Father Fox’s obituary:

Obituary: The Rev. James Fox
Sketch of his life and labors – His last sickness – the funeral arrangements – services tomorrow.
The death of another well-known Catholic priest, in the person of Rev. James Fox of St. Patrick’s parish, which occurred yesterday, will occasion emotions of no ordinary depth among many persons who enjoyed no intimate acquaintance with the deceased, but had heard of his labors. The loss of him will be especially felt in the parish to which he had devoted the last years of his life, and for which he had done so much, and there will be abundant manifestations of the profound sorrow, which his decease has caused amongst his parishioners.
Father Fox was born in the county of Wicklow, Ireland, in 1820, and his college days were spent at the Carlow institution, which is one of the highest in that country and to which no one who is not very proficient in his studies is admitted. He had as a fellow student Bishop Ryan, and both made great progress at the college. In 1849 he emigrated to the United States and on St. Peter and Paul’s day—the 29th of June of that year—was ordained a priest by the Most Rev. Peter Richard Kenrick in this city. After his ordination he remained six month here in various capacities and was then transferred to Potosi, Washington County to take charge of the church there. He remained there one year and was next appointed successor of Father Cotter of Old Mines, in the same county.
At that time the country was in the condition of all newly opened territory, and the labors which devolved upon him were unusually arduous. His mission extended through Washington and into Jefferson, Iron, St. Francois and Crawford counties, he giving personal supervision to other churches than his own. He lived, or had his residence, at Old Mines eighteen years. It has been said that he lived on horseback, so large a portion of his time was he away from his home. He built the Old Mines, Irondale, Potosi and DeSoto churches, and was largely assisted in his work by Bishop Hogan of St. Joseph and Father Hays of this city, who had charge of the churches established by him. While at Old Mines, in 1868, he was appointed successor of Father Cavanaugh as pastor of Assumption church, St. Louis. He was eighteen or nineteen months at the Assumption and then in May,
… Father Wheeler, at Munich. While at the Assumption his zeal had found fitting employment in clearing off the debt of the church and in bringing the Sisters of St. Joseph from Carondelet to a convent in the parish. He was especially attached to children, and finding on his accession to the pastorate of St. Patrick’s that there were 2,500 or 3,000 of them in the parish without the opportunities for Catholic education, he at once actively interested himself in procuring the needed facilities and the result was the erection of St. Patrick’s school, which is considered the finest school in the city, public or private, and the finest parochial school in the United States. The school and ground cost upwards of $90,000. He looked upon it as his crowning effort, and sickness alone prevented him from witnessing the school in operation. His last words from the altar, the last time he officiated at the church, nearly six weeks ago, were that the school would be open for the children on the morrow. The morrow came, but it found him on a sick bed.
In connection with his labors at St. Patrick’s parish, it may be stated that he was successful in paying off a debt of $24,000, which there was on the church
Father Fox was not an orator, and in the pulpit he devoted less attention to doctrinal points than to practical every day advice. He was a plain but forcible speaker and what he said acquired additional force from the zeal with which he was filled and which made itself manifest in all that he did. He was a very earnest worker; years ago he was the embodiment of the pioneer spirit; disregarded fatigue, and bore up under circumstances which would have overwhelmed many stronger men. In St. Patrick's parish he gave his whole energies to his work, and went from door to door urging his parishioners to a more faithful performance of their duties. His charities were uncircumscribed.
His health had always been frail, and it was kept so by his forgetting himself in his work. Some six weeks ago he was attacked with typhoid pleurisy, and his system, as it were, collapsed. It is thought that there were some evidences of consumption, which had been induced by exposure in all kinds of weather. The best of medical advice was obtained for him, and two of the Alexian brothers waited constantly upon him during the past month. He died with perfect resignation shortly after six o'clock yesterday morning. His confessor was Father Tschieter, S.J., of St. Joseph's church and the blessed sacrament was administered by Father Hays.

Friday, February 6, 2015


John Hogan, priest and bishop, and Father James Fox remained lifelong friends.  Father Fox continued his support of Hogan’s Ozarks settlement, sending cash and donating property. Hogan kept close accounting of the costs of building the wilderness settlement in a small pocket notebook, which rests now in the archives of the Archdiocese of St. Louis.  
 Hogan noted contributions for the construction of a log church in his Ozarks settlement.  Father Fox was most generous ($17.00)- especially when you consider that the actual cash cost for the log church in the wilderness came to $85.31 for material and labor.
 In addition to his cash contribution, Fox donated land for the church site. 
“Fox was issued a land patent on September 1, 1859 for 320 acres in Oregon County. The Irish pastor of Old Mines and Potosi donated it for the colony’s use. On this site, a forty-foot square log chapel and priest’s quarters were built by Father Hogan. On May 17, 1879, the property was sold for back taxes. For a long time, the outline of the church’s stone foundation was a visitable feature in “the priest’s field.” Through the years, the rocks have been appropriated for other building uses or removed to facilitate plowing. It is today a fescue pasture."
Mystery of the Irish Wilderness is now $16.95 (regularly $18.95), postpaid.
On the Mission in Missouri and Fifty Years Ago: A Memoir ,which contains full text of both of Hogan's personal memoirs as well as additional biographical information, is now $18.95 (regularly $24.95), postpaid.