Villains & Vigilantes

For over a century the lawlessness of the frontier has been an integral part of America’s “western” literature. Normally, we think of such violence as taking place in the untamed cattle towns of the high prairies or the gold camps of the Rocky Mountains. But much of the violence associated with the frontier originated right here in Southwest Missouri. What is generally thought to be the first street shoot-out, for example, took place not in Dodge City, Kansas, or Tombstone, Arizona, but in Springfield, Missouri, when in 1865 Wild Bill Hickcock killed a man named David Tutt over a dispute dealing with a watch. The date is significant because the shoot-out occurred in the year the Civil War ended. And it was the Civil War which made Southwest Missouri a lawless no man’s land.

Pre-Civil War violence started in bloody Kansas as pro and anti-slavery advocates used intimidation and bloodshed to try to drive off settlers who opposed their views. Once the war started, the hatreds spilled over into continuous border violence in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. Although a number of major battles took place in the two states, neither side wished to expend their limited resources on the frontier. Because of this, irregular armies began operating in the area. The most notorious perhaps was Quantrill’s Raiders, a group of cutthroats who terrorized Missouri and Kansas during the Civil War. In fact, they were so violent and unscrupulous that the Confederates, after originally encouraging Quantrill, would not formally commission him or support his activities. Though Quantrill was killed, other members of his gang went on to lives of violence after the war was over – characters like Frank and Jesse James and the Younger brothers.

In the southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas area any number of unscrupulous characters used the war as an excuse to prey on the defenseless women and children who were left behind when their men went off to fight. These ruthless gangsters, who came to be known as bushwhackers, used the chaos of the war as a cover for their crimes. Of these, the infamous Alf Bolin was one of the worst.

It is almost impossible for us to imagine the total devastation which prevailed in the no man’s land of the Arkansas-Missouri border during the Civil War. Family loyalties were commonly split, passions ran high, and murder and thievery were commonplace. As the war dragged on and towns on both sides of the border were occupied by alternating armies in succession, the devastation to the region accelerated. Towns like Forsyth, Missouri and Berryville, Arkansas were put to the torch. Families left the area by moving further north or south, seeking shelter not only from the opposing armies but from the bands of outlaws.

The war created radical dislocations even for years after it formally ended. In the vacuum of authority which followed the end of the war, many unsavory men seized control of civil authority. Justice was virtually non-existent, with a resultant lawlessness which plagued the area. When murder after murder went unpunished, vigilante organizations like the Bald Knobbers came into existence to impose law and order – and quickly established their own new brand of lawlessness.

While the years finally healed most of the wounds associated with the rift between Yankee and Reb, the Ozarks region has continued to be a place which because of its relatively remote and inaccessible nature has lured individuals escaping from the law, such as, the infamous outlaws Bonnie and Clyde, and the notorious gangster Jack Fleagle. So read on and learn about a few of the Ozarks historical villains and vigilantes.

NOTE: The previous excerpts are printed with permission from the book “In The Heart of Ozark Mountain Country”.