The truth about the Wild West vigilantes who wore horned masks

"Swear to me!"

We can assume many non-Batman vigilantes don't rasp that catchphrase when rappelling onto near-sighted thugs on docks or in factories in the dead of night. We cannot assume, however, that real-life doesn't occasionally produce reality more ludicrous than Christian Bale's diction. Fictionally, American media is full of glorified portrayals of vigilantes (Dirty Harry, Death Wish, Kick-Ass, John Wick), which fit nicely with the US ethos of rugged individualism, mistrust of authority, and its "man against all odds" power fantasy.

Of course, it makes sense to question the adequateness of the criminal justice system, especially at a time of obvious inequality, unchecked violence, or oppression. But to toss on a poorly-crafted homemade mask, complete with wonky devil horns, and charge around on horseback, hanging people willy-nilly? Yeah, kind of a different story. 

Such was the case with the amazingly comically named Bald Knobbers, a band of vigilante costume-wearers who, as cited by Legends of America, prowled southwest Missouri in the years following the Civil War, taking the law into their own hands to fill the gap left by inept sheriffs, nepotistic juries, and a largely absent governmental presence. Started in the early 1880s, their organization grew up to a thousand members, led by 6' 6", 300-pound Nat Kinney. While not quite as pastoral or pioneering as Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, or Pecos Bill, these fairly well-documented, but not too well-known, off-brand rough riders definitely qualify as a notable, and even quite disturbing, piece of Americana.

A bloody vigilante movement

As the story goes, Kinney was quite the gifted orator, which, along with his Herculean size, were enough to convince locals to secretly recruit others into their merry band of ... well, murderers. Shortly after their first official meeting south of Forsyth, Missouri in 1885, 100 of the Bald Knobbers stormed a jail and broke out Frank and Tubal Taylor, who were there for injuring a shopkeeper in an argument. The Taylor brothers were promptly lynched.

Before long, the Bald Knobbers were not only policing criminals, but roving the night to terrify "immoral" people such as drunkards, gamblers, and people having sex before marriage. They would whip or brand suspects (not convicts), and beat those accused of theft or assault. Some Bald Knobbers went rogue and simply attacked men who owed them money, or owned land they wanted. If someone interrupted them during a church service, or voted for a politician they didn't approve of, the Knobbers went on a spree of vengeance. People who spoke out against them wound up in the woods, dead.

Bit by bit, in response to the Bald Knobber's unchecked violence, a group called the Anti-Bald Knobbers grew in number. Strengthened by Bald Knobbers who had left the group, the conflict between the two sides received national coverage and was even described as a war. In the end, Nat Kinney was assassinated by Billy Miles, an Anti-Bald Knobber. Miles was acquitted on grounds of self-defense.