Revisiting Famous Inlaws Who May Have Been Outlaws
Though my wife and I and our son and his family now live west of Jefferson City, Mo., we grew up in and around Springfield. Most of our relatives are buried in southwest Missouri – including a couple who achieved great notoriety during their lives.
On Day 3 of our trip we decided to visit the graves of our best known kinfolk.
A distant relative by marriage of my wife’s family was recently portrayed in a new movie produced by Branson resident Michael Johnson. It was released in 2019 and titled Baldknobber. Nathaniel Kinney, known as “Captain Kinney” by his fellow Baldknobbers, was featured prominently.
After the Civil War ended, southwest Missouri was a dangerous, lawless place. Forsyth, Mo., not far from Branson, was one of the most dangerous. According to the Missouri State Historical Society, The Chariton Courier reported in 1892 that “the town of Forsyth is 50 years old, but does not contain a single church and never did.” According to Google, there are 18 churches in Forsyth today so there has been progress.
After the formation of the Baldknobbers, which were predominantly in favor of the Union, another group was formed known as the “Anti-Baldknobbers”. They were predominantly Confederate supporters according to a Doctoral dissertation by Matthew James Hernando titled “The Baldknobbers of Southwest Missouri, 1885-1889: A Study of Vigilante Justice in the Ozarks.”
At the height of the vigilante justice, Nate Kinney was gunned down in his own store in Forysth, Mo. He is buried in the Forsyth Cemetery, which was our first stop of the day.
We had only minor difficulty finding Mr. Kinney’s grave. His wife Maggie is buried beside him in a small, peaceful cemetery on the outskirts of Forsyth. My wife’s family used to vacation in nearby Rockaway Beach with distant relatives of Capt. Kinney when my wife was a kid. That was in the days when the water in Lake Taneycomo was still warm enough to swim in before the Table Rock dam was constructed.
If you would like to see a movie that shows the good side and the bad side of the Baldknobbers, the movie Baldknobber is available to rent or purchase on Amazon Prime at the following link:
As I often do, I wandered among the other graves to see what else I could find. Off by itself, I found the large, moss covered crypt of Ernest Crist. Ernest died January 8, 1923 at the age of 14. I did some research but was unable to find a cause of death or any other information about Ernest, but his crypt was unique so I suspect his family was well-to-do.
Near the entrance to the cemetery I found the headstone for James C. Johnson, MD, who died in 1906 at the age of 66. Buried next to him was his wife, Sarah E. Johnson, Nurse, who died in 1934 at the age of 93. It is very possible that James and Sarah treated many of the Baldknobbers and their victims, possibly even Nate Kinney himself.
What I found most interesting about the Johnson’s headstone was the inscription below the names and dates on the headstone. It read:
Remember Stranger As You Pass by,
As You Are Now So Once Was I
As I Am Now Soon You Will Be
Prepare For Death And Follow Me
This is not the first time I have heard of this epitaph, but it is the first time I have actually witnessed it. When I first heard about it, it was because someone had taped a note below it which read:
To Follow You I’m Not Content
Until I Know Which Way You Went
That is one of my favorite epitaphs, rivaled only by one I found in the Cemetery in Anutt, Mo. It was on the grave of a girl who died young. It read:
Here Lies Debbie
Who Didn’t Give a Doo-Dah
All Decked Out in Her Purple Baracuda
I would love to know the story behind that.
Our Day 3 cemetery tour ended at Bonniebrook, the home of one of my distant relatives by marriage, Rose O’Neill. Rose is best known as the creator of the kewpie doll, though she had many other achievements in her life, including some that were quite controversial for her day. Bonniebrook is 10 miles north of Branson in the woods on Bear Creek. When Rose O’Neill first moved there around the turn of the 20th century, it was a two-day wagon ride to get from Bonniebrook to Springfield.
I’ve read Rose’s autobiography. At one time she was one of the richest women in America. She got some of her artistic ideas from gazing into the forest around Bonniebrook where she used her imagination to conjure up the images of “sweet monsters” in the foilage of the densely wooded property.
Bonniebrook was closed when we visited, but the gate was open so we strolled the beautiful trail from the home and museum down to the small family cemetery in the woods just across a small bridge over Bear Creek. Rose died of pneumonia on April 6, 1944 in the Springfield home of my grandfather’s sister and her husband, Rose O’Neill’s nephew. She was 69.
Though there is no epitaph on her grave, in her autobiography Rose said her personal philosophy was “Do good deeds in a funny way. The world needs to laugh or at least smile more than it does.”
On our way back to the car, we noticed a relatively large dog eyeing us suspiciously at the gated entrance we had breached.
“Maybe that’s the guard dog” I told my wife.
While I am not scared of dogs, I did get a little nervous when it came running toward us. When it reached us, it laid down, rolled over, and put its feet up in the air. It wasn’t playing dead, though that would have been appropriate based on our days activity.
Turns out with the museum closed it was just looking for someone to rub it’s stomach.