October has been proclaimed Bullying Prevention Month. It seems appropriate, therefore, to take a look at the person who might be described as the ultimate bully, Ken Rex McElroy. I wrote about McElroy in the book “In Broad Daylight,” but in brief Ken McElroy was a hog farmer who lived outside of Skidmore, Missouri, a small farming community. Over a twenty-year period, he bullied people, communities and the entire legal system. He was a master of the art. He bluffed and stared people down, and followed through on his threats enough to make them credible and his reputation scarier. He raped, burned, assaulted and stole virtually at will through a three-county area in Northwest Missouri, and even into Kansas. He pushed the town Skidmore, his primary victim, relentlessly, until one day in the summer of 1981 two farmers shot him to death as he sat in his pickup on the main street of town. In spite of at least 45 witnesses, no one has been prosecuted for the crime. The town itself has never totally recovered.
In this article, I will give an overview of McElroy and the story of his bullying and his apparent immunity from any consequences. In the next article, I will take a closer look at McElroy from a clinical perspective: What made him the way he was? Did he suffer from mental illness? Finally, in the last piece, I will look at the victim, the town itself, its character, and its role in the events leading to McElroy’s death.
So, what is bullying? One definition states: Bullying is when a person is picked on over and over again by an individual or group with more power, either in terms of physical strength or social standing. Bullying can mean physical contact, including tripping, hitting, or sexual assault. It also includes verbal insults, such as taunts or name calling, and can include negative attacks in the social media. Two of the main reasons kids are bullied are because of appearance of social status: They don’t fit in.
Bullies are described as people who enjoy dominating others or who are actually insecure individuals who feel better about themselves by putting others down. Some bullies, it is said, have actual personality disorders that prevent them feeling empathy for others. Teen bullies have a high risk of indulging in criminal behavior as adults.
There are several problems in applying the bully label to McElroy. First, I was unable to find much evidence that he bullied kids in school. There were several instances of him harassing kids on the school bus, but it didn’t appear that he targeted any kids in particular. He wanted as little to do with school as possible.
The second problem is the criteria that there by an imbalance or perceived imbalance of power between the bully and the bullied. McElroy bullied not just an individual, or a few individuals, but an entire town, an entire county, and the law enforcement system in a three- or four-county area. He raped, assaulted, burned and stole almost at will, for twenty years with few if any perceived consequences. How did one man get the upper hand on an entire community? How did he have law enforcement so freaked out that the word went out toward the end that if an officer found him out at night with a weapon in his truck he should shoot him? How did he have the judiciary so scared that judges would refuse to hear cases against him? Witnesses so scared they would refuse to testify? Juries so scared they would refuse to convict?
Obviously, the town and the law had more real power than Ken McElroy. In the end, it could be argued that McElroy had more “perceived power” than the town and the law, but what a weird perception that is to have become reality. An uneducated hog farmer is more powerful than the community? The law? The entire judicial system? How did that twisted reality result?
It is often said that bullies tend to pick on weak people, and in that sense McElroy was intuitively quite smart: he singled out for his attention the weaker members of the community. He didn’t go directly after the bankers or the wealthy farmers—although he loved to brag about “screwing their wives”—but focused on the poorer or broken families. Yet he was able to elevate the fear he created in their lives into a fear felt by the entire community. In the end, when McElroy drove into Skidmore, the businesses would be closed and the streets cleared by the time he pulled into the D & G Tavern. He could put a family in fear of their lives by simply driving slowly by their house several times on a summer evening. His brilliance, if you could call it that, was an intuitive ability to sense the weak spots in the community and the social and legal institutions that were supposed to protect it.
McElroy also understood how fear worked. When he committed a crime and went unpunished, he rubbed people’s faces in it. He knew that law and order depended on the willingness of individuals to testify in a court of law. Those few who did, he went after them, too. He harassed people relentlessly, until the mere sight of him made them go inside and lock their doors. In the end, the system was so broken the citizens didn’t even bother to call the law when he drove by their houses in a caravan with shotguns hanging out the window, or when they found hogs missing from their pens, or when their barn burned down in the middle of the night. He understood that fear spreads like a disease. He could provoke it with a sideways glance at the men sitting at a table in the tavern. He seemed always on the edge of violence.
So, certainly Ken McElroy was a bully. He was the town bully. But he was much more than a bully. You could argue that he was terrorist, except that there was no ideology driving him. He acted for purely personal reasons. In the next article, I will look further into those reasons in an attempt to understand who he really was.