As a child, writer Lisa Hix visited Silver Dollar City, a surreal theme park in the Ozark Mountains that I have been fortunate enough to experience myself. Like me, Lisa was enchanted with the nutty dark ride Fire In The Hole and its story of people in creepy devil-horned hoods who torched a town. No, they weren’t KKK members but rather the Bald Knobbers, a 19th century vigilante group. Over at Collectors Weekly, Lisa explores the history of the Bald Knobbers:
Though they never lit a town on fire—that part of the ride is completely invented—the real story of their rise is a terrifying parable about what happens when government fails and violence reigns. It’s a lesson that’s perhaps more relevant in the political climate of 2017 than Americans would like it to be.
When I called Dr. Matthew J. Hernando, a professor at Ozark Technical College and author of Faces Like Devils: The Bald Knobber Vigilantes in the Ozarks, he told me that “Fire in the Hole”—which he has ridden many times—“is basically a bunch of nonsense.” For the real story of the Bald Knobbers, Hernando explained, you have to look at southwest Missouri’s peculiar history. In a region where the Civil War had laid waste to the rule of law, ne’er do wells like the notorious James-Younger Gang and vigilante groups like the Bald Knobbers emerged to fill the void of authority. Admirers saw them as righteous folk heroes; adversaries regarded them as murderous thugs.