Uncategorized Patrick Mead on 14 Jan 2013 09:04 pm
How dirty did things get before the Battle for Blair Mountain broke out? During the trial of miners for killing Albert Felts in Matewan, Sid Hatfield and his bride to be, Jessie Testerman, went 120 miles north to Huntington, West Virginia in order to be married privately. Upon arrival they couldn’t find a minister available. It was far too late to go back to Matewan – no trains would be available until the middle of the next day. They found a hotel with a room still available and assuming that they were safe in the big city (at 75,000 it was WV’s largest city. It’s population is now 49,000) they took it. What they didn’t count on was the deviousness and amorality of Tom Felts. He had his detectives shadowing Hatfield constantly. They had followed him to Huntington and as soon as they saw the two unmarried people enter the hotel room, they alerted the local police to the “improper relations” going on inside.
As hard as it is for this generation to believe, it was illegal to have sexual relations outside of marriage in 1920 and it was illegal to enter a hotel room if you would be alone with a person of the opposite sex unless you were related to them. Hotels employed detectives to watch those checking in and every entrance and exit to make sure that no illicit liaisons occurred.
While the Huntington police stormed the room and arrested the two, Tom Felts held a press conference across town claiming that this was the real reason for the shooting in Matewan: Sid Hatfield had shot Jesse Testerman’s husband to get him out of the way. The fact was that Albert Felts killed Testerman, the mayor of Matewan, and everyone in Mingo County knew it. Still, he fooled enough of the press and the locals to make a huge scene.
The press stormed the jail where Hatfield and the widow Testerman were being held but they found that the two were not afraid of them nor cowed by the accusations. They both told the same story – nothing improper had occurred, they had come to be married, had known each other for a long time, etc. When it came to Tom Felts claiming Hatfield had shot down Mayor Testerman, the chief of police in Huntington stepped up and called that accusation ridiculous. Everyone knew, he said, that Albert Felts had shot down Testerman. The press then began to notice other holes in Tom Felts’ story. They found out that the hotel Hatfield and Testerman had stayed in was a musty old relic, not one lovers would travel 120 miles to conduct an affair. And it really was the last room they could get at that time of night.
The justice of the peace was summoned and Hatfield and Testerman were put in front of him. He had no choice, he told them, but to charge them $10 for improper behavior (he was correct – that was the law) but he offered to toss that charge and fine if they would be married that same day. Hatfield pulled a signed and paid for marriage license out of his pocket and presented it to the justice who immediately performed their wedding service and cleared them of all charges.
When they returned home, prosecutors arrested him for the murder of a witness for the mine company, Anse Hatfield (not Devil Anse, but a relative). The trial was a sham and a show. There is no question but that the mine owners wanted to railroad Hatfield and there were plans to steal him from jail and hang him…but the US Army was in town and they were guarding the jail. Inside, the jail was turned into a hotel for Sid Hatfield as the jailer and the locals brought goods and comfort items to make Sid feel right at home.
Meantime, they tried to impanel a jury and ran into problems. Every person in Mingo County seemed to be known as a supporter of either the mine workers or the owners and their detectives. Officials thought about putting women on the jury but that wouldn’t be legal for another month when the 18th Amendment would become law. They considered putting black people on the jury but quickly decided that would cause other problems. It took two weeks to find 12 men who had no known allegiance to either side. I won’t give details about the trial – those exist in several books out there – but both sides lied constantly, paid witnesses to give testimony that suited them, and intimidated witnesses before they made it into the courtroom. Some witnesses were offered $1000 – far more than they could make in a year – if they testified for the mine owners and the detectives. Even those who turned them down knew that meant they would never get a job in that county or any other county in West Virginia. They knew that gun toting Baldwin-Felts men would be watching them testify and following them home. They knew mine foremen would be moving against their families and friends. Some witnesses set their shoulders and jaws and spat back at the prosecutors anyway. By March 21st, the jury had had enough. They acquitted all of the defendants; Sid Hatfield was free.
Meanwhile, in Charleston, a new governor and his administration were taking their place in the capitol building. Republican Ephraim Morgan moved into his office about the same time the Matewan verdict was being delivered. The ineffectual and vacillating John Cornwell was now gone from the governorship but if the miners thought things would get better, they were sorely mistaken. The miners had backed Morgan’s opponent – Arthur Koontz, little known, little qualified, and little loved. When he faltered and showed how unqualified he was while on the stump, the miners switched to another candidate but the damage was done. The democrats were swept out. The new governor was from Marion County in the north of the state, far away from UMW strongholds, and was known to have friends who owned stock in mines.
Meanwhile… gun battles were breaking out between disenfranchised miners and company guards. During Hatfield’s trial, on February 19th, a sustained battle took place in Fayette County. Both sides used rifles and threw dynamite at each other’s homes and emplacements. When Hatfield and his co-defendants were declared not guilty, the miners thought maybe the gun thugs would leave their state at last… and then they looked at Charleston. The new administration was in league with the men who hired those thugs. The war wasn’t going away. Both sides employed snipers to demoralize their enemies. It was dangerous to be anywhere near the Tug River as miners placed snipers to stop strikebreakers from entering their state.
A huge battle took place on May 12th 1921 when miners attacked the White Star mine in Merrimack, WV. First, they cut off all communications from the camp, downing telegraph and phone lines. They blew a warning horn and then fired three blasts of rifle fire into the mine and its camp of strikebreakers. They thought the strikebreakers would surrender but, instead, they returned fire. Historians believe over ten thousand shots were fired that day as bullets struck nearly every home in Merrimack and pulverize the headquarters of the State Police.
Governor Morgan sent in the State Police led by Captain J.R. Brockus, a decorated veteran of the Philippine War and the Great War. To get there quickly, they were sent in newly purchased cars – still a rarity on West Virginia’s roads. The cars didn’t do well and continually got stuck in the mud and ruts of mountain roads. Once they got to the scene, miners sniped at them and caused them to take cover behind a train before fleeing even that for safety in the woods. Brockus blamed the 2nd Amendment for his trouble. “Arms and ammunition are being purchased daily from the local merchants…Under the present conditions we have no authority to take a rifle form a man whom we might meet on the public road…”
The fighting continued and spread along the Tug for the next two days. People in Merrimack, Matewan, and along the river laid on their floors day and night to avoid the bullets that were flying through their walls. A strikebreaking superintendent tried to unload a railroad car when Sid Hatfield – who was patrolling the area in his day job as Constable – told him to stop. He was afraid the man would be killed by sniper fire. The man refused to stop so Hatfield knocked him down…and would later be charged with assault for doing so. The battle finally ended after a third day and is known in union history books at The Three Day’s Battle.
The Republican governor of the state tried to get federal troops sent back into Mingo County (they’d been withdrawn after March when the trial in Matewan ended) but there was a new president and he wasn’t keen on getting involved in the wars in West Virginia. President Harding would go down in history as a terrible president, but a wonderful person. He was warm and personable and liked to get along with people. He refused to send troops and told West Virginia to sort out its own affairs. West Virginia’s National Guard still had not been reconstituted after the Great War and there were a mere 300 deputies and policemen that could be spared… and that wasn’t enough. The mine owners and their allies formed Vigilance Committees – yes, vigilantes – to come to the aid of the “common people of the state” against the evil, murderous union miners. Governor Morgan declared martial law on May 19th 1921, stating that West Virginia was in a “state of war, insurrection, and riot.” His decree was a broad sweeping one – banning the carrying of arms, banning public assemblies, banning parades or marches, and prohibiting the publication of any pamphlet, newspaper, or book casting the state and its business owners in a bad light. Not only was the 2nd Amendment to be suspended, so was the 1st Amendment. He had precedent to do this for Abraham Lincoln had done the same thing during the Civil War, jailing some newspaper men until the war was over and destroying their presses while suspending habeas corpus and civil rights. He gave amazing powers to his adjutant general, Thomas Davis, who would rule with such an iron fist that he would be called the “Emperor of the Tug River.” One biographer said that he had been “nonchalant concerning civil liberties” all of his adult life.
Davis jailed people not in the local lockups but in the terrible and terrifying Moundsville State Prison (home to ghost tours today). He locked up newspaper editors and jailed those who dared to criticize him. He formed a militia of 780 men, each given a rifle, eighty rounds of ammunition, a whistle to get help from nearby militia members, and a badge. No union members, farmers, or blacks were allowed in the militia (farmers were suspected of being in league with anti-business people for some reason). He alone decided what was and what was not a crime and what the punishment might be. He pushed hard. And the miners pushed back.
[Thanks for reading and especially thank you for commenting. I write these and publish the first draft, not even re-reading them. Sorry, but time constraints and some life issues make this a hard hobby to maintain. A college prof asked me if he could use these in his classes and that amazed me. Sure! I don't copyright what I write here or over at Tentpegs. Pray for Kami and I as we try to do Kingdom work and keep our pace strong and our smiles wide]
On May 23rd, the militia arrested a UMW organizer named Lavinder for carrying a pistol. Lavinder showed them a permit for the pistol but they claimed that all permits had been nullified by martial law and Davis. They tried to get Lavinder to follow them to Davis’ headquarters but Lavinder told them “If the adjutant general wants to see me he can come to union headquarters.” The militia grabbed him, beat him severely, and dragged him off to jail. The union immediately launched lawsuits against the militia and Davis. The next day, Sid Hatfield came to town to answer the charge of assault filed against him by the strikebreaking superintendent. Davis sent the militia to arrest him (no charge, just an attempt to jail a possible problem) but Hatfield got off the train using a different door and was quickly surrounded by his fans who protected him all the way to the courthouse.
That same day, Davis accepted a huge shipment of Thompson submachine guns and distributed them to his state police. They were told to go get the miners, their snipers, and anyone else who got in the way. Some miners went into Kentucky to escape the police but quickly found out that the police no longer recognized state boundaries. When the miners fought back and killed one trooper and a militia man, squads of state police stormed into Kentucky and arrested anyone they could find, bringing them back to West Virginia without warrants or extradition. One State Police spokesman told the New York Times “We do not know the state lines down there and we don’t care. The prisoners are lucky to get into the lockup alive.”
Davis even planned to storm the tent cities of union miners and striking miners in order to remove men, women, and children to an internal prison camp – a gulag – to be set up far away from Mingo County. That fell through for a variety of reasons, but it didn’t slow him down. His force grew to 800 men, many of whom were coal company guards, and an unknown number of strike breakers, all of whom were allowed to be armed despite the imposition of martial law. He sent troopers in every time there was a report of snipers with orders to sweep the hillsides with their Tommy guns regardless of who might be living there. They did. One trooper shot a miner named Breedlove in cold blood. One of the trooper’s own men shot him through his shoulder in the melee. Captain Brockus ordered his men into the area to shoot at anything and anyone they saw in response to “this cowardly attack.” It is generally thought that he knew it was his men who had launched the cowardly attack but who knows?
The horrific attack that ensued beggars the imagination when one thinks that this was less than one hundred years ago in the United States of America. State Police stormed the tent city firing their Tommy guns. They drove families out onto the road and into the woods as they slashed tents, smashed furniture and toys, and marched 47 men to jail, holding them for four days before charging eight of them for violating martial law.
It was June 14th and things were about to get even hotter in West Virginia.