Vigilante Bald Knobbers still lurk in these hills

Bald Knobbers hit home

5 minute read

Over 30 years ago, when I moved into an avocado green house located on the upside of a wooded holler, I was the entertainment for the elderly couple across the road. Addis and Francis Everett watched intently out their window to see what John was doing on his new 7 acres. I’m sure they questioned my taste when I dragged out the old, orange shag carpet, and wondered how many coats of yellow it would take to cover all that 70’s paint.

I visited them regularly to give updates on my progress and get advice from Addis, who built my house and others on a 160 acre homestead that he sold off bit by bit to feed his family. Addis rarely spoke except about construction, but he came close many times. His back would straighten, crooked fingers gripped the arm of the chair, bushy eyebrows raised, his mouth opened slightly to pull in a gush of air…. and Francis finished his thought. Addis would release the wasted breath and sink back into his chair.

During one visit, Francis rattled about all the Everett relatives and a bit about their lives. Then she quieted for a moment and her expression changed as if something wrong. Her eyes darted around then looked down at her thin, dark-speckled hands that were clasped together. Francis leaned to me and spoke as if her first time in a confessional: “We had one relative that… well…,” she said and paused.  Looking over wire-rimmed trifocals she tried again, “He owned a bar. And another relative…” She went no further. She had already said too much and almost appeared afraid. Addis sat motionless with his small, hollowed eyes staring low and away.

Now for me, a relative that owned a bar would be a bonus, but for some reason to my neighbors, it weighed heavy on them. It would be a while, but I eventually understood why.

These little gatherings with my neighbors lasted just a couple of years until Addis passed away somewhere deep in his 80’s. Francis asked me to be a pallbearer at their family gravesite over the hill. Addis was a thin man and carrying him and his coffin was little effort for me and the other men I didn’t know. As we strolled between the dozens of graves I was imagining he looked the same as usual with his sallow skin and a few wisps of thin hair when I suddenly saw the words “James Everett… 1883” on a weather worn, ominous headstone. My mind spun as all the pieces fell together.

I’m a bit of a history buff, and history is just that – history - but this was too close to home. My neighbor was a relative of Jim Everett. Jim owned a bar and not just any bar in the 1880’s.

A bar owner can be a pretty shameful profession among God-fearing family members, but that wasn’t what made Francis fall short of telling her story. It was the avalanche of bloodshed that stopped her cold. Jim was gunned down in that bar, the two men that murdered him were murdered, and a wrath of gruesome vigilantism engulfed the Ozarks Mountains for years thereafter.

The Ozarks was a nasty, ruthless place to be in the 1880’s. If a razorback didn’t eat you by day a mountain lion did by night, and it was home to forty murders in that decade and not one conviction. Everyone knew everyone and a jury wasn’t about to convict and sign their own death warrant; someone’s vengeful relative wasn’t far away. So, when Jim Everett was gunned down and two men were jailed, they would walk free and everyone knew it. That is exactly what happened.

That is when Nat Kinney, a big man with a short temper, had had enough and formed the Taney County League of Law and Order. They put up signal fires and held their meetings atop sparsely covered hills known to locals as bald knobs. The league quickly got the nickname Bald Knobbers.

To add even more to my neighbor’s apprehension was another name: Yell Everett. If you carried the same last name in these parts, you were related. Yell Everett was one of the original Bald Knobbers.

Nowadays, if you say Bald Knobber you automatically think of the hillbilly country show in Branson. The Mabe brothers borrowed the name and adjusted the spelling for their show to Baldknobbers. There was nothing funny about the REAL Bald Knobbers. To mention the name aloud even into the 20th Century was risky lest you find yourself in a predicament.

The two men that killed Jim found themselves back in jail for a different shooting and became the Bald Knobbers’ first act as the self-proclaimed law. Nat, Yell, and the masked vigilantes dragged the two out of jail and hanged them. This deed and numerous others were so gruesome and violent, that some citizens rose up against them causing even more bloodshed. With power on their side, many Bald Knobbers became greedy and self-righteous; becoming the outlaws they wanted to stop.  The area was inching into its own civil war.

Book after book has been written, tale after tale has been told of the Bald Knobbers, but none hit so close to me as to see my elderly neighbors reluctant to even speak of it in their final years. Surely as small children they were told to never mention it for the consequences could be doom for their own families.

Addis and Francis both rest in that small graveyard along the tree-shaded, curvy Casey Road among their own and hold secrets that are no longer so secret. They are among tough generations of hill folk that endured more than what they deserved and their lives are now dwarfed and all but forgotten amidst a land of carefree tourists and entertainment - much more entertainment than watching the new neighbor across the road.  

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