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.)