91 Years Ago Today

Published in: on May 19, 2011 at 10:00 am  Comments Off on 91 Years Ago Today  
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Matewan Massacre

Bullet Holes from Battle

In January 1920, the United Mine Workers of America launched a major campaign to organize the non-union coalfields of southern West Virginia. Along the West Virginia-Kentucky line, some 3,000 miners responded by joining the union and, under coal company policies forbidding employment of union miners, were discharged from their jobs. Hundreds also were forced to vacate their company-owned homes, and many who refused were forcibly evicted by hated Baldwin-Felts detectives.

On May 19, 1920, 13 Baldwin-Felts detectives, including Al and Lee Felts, brothers of one of the agency founders, arrived in the Mingo County town of Matewan on the Tug River to evict striking miners and their families from company houses. The detectives, under an intermittent drizzle, forced several families, including women and children, from their homes at gunpoint and dumped their belongings out on the road. Word of the evictions enraged area miners, who began arming themselves.

Matewan’s police chief, Sid Hatfield, 27, a strike supporter, tried to stop the evictions as being unauthorized by law. At 4:00 p.m., as the detectives prepared to leave, Hatfield, accompanied by Matewan Mayor Cable C. Testerman and a host of angry miners, confronted Al Felts near the Matewan railroad station and tried to arrest him. Felts, in turn, tried to arrest Hatfield. As the men argued, shooting started.

Hatfield admitted he fired but said Al Felts shot first. A number of the miners and several detectives joined in. When it ended a minute or two later, ten people—seven Baldwin-Felts detectives (including both Felts brothers), two miners, and Mayor Testerman—had been fatally shot.

Hatfield and 17 strikers were tried for murder in early 1921 and were all acquitted; such was the hatred of the detective agency. The Matewan Massacre is often cited as the opening of the West Virginia Mine War of 1920–21, which escalated into an armed conflict involving thousands after Hatfield’s murder at Welch later in 1921.

From: Savage, Lon. Thunder in the Mountains. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1990.

Published in: on April 24, 2011 at 11:40 pm  Comments Off on Matewan Massacre  
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Sid Hatfield

Plaque at Matewan History Society

Sid Hatfield was one of the key figures that led up to the eventual Battle at Blair Mountain. Sid Hatfield may not have been a member of the Hatfield family involved in the famous Hatfield-McCoy Feud though he boasted that he was. He received his nickname, ” Smilin’ Sid” Hatfield because of the gold caps on every one of his teeth.

Sid Hatfield (1893–1921) was Police Chief of Matewan, West Virginia during the Battle of Matewan, a shootout that followed a series of evictions carried out by detectives from the Baldwin-Felts agency. On May 19, 1920, thirteen detectives, including Baldwin-Felts president Thomas Felts, younger brothers Albert and Lee, arrived in Matewan to evict miners and their families from their homes in the Stone Mountain Mine camp. Sid Hatfield protested their arrival. No one knows whom started the famous gun battle but it ended with twenty people seriously wounded or killed, including the mayor of Matewan. There were rumors that Sid, himself, had shot the mayor in order to marry his widow. However, this is more likely a rumor.

He was put on trial several times, including in front of the US Senate. However, he proved to be a difficult man to charge due to his overwhelming popularity from the media and miners. He was also present during the 3 Days Battle, which occurred several months later in Matewan in which miners fought against the Coal Operator’s private militias for several days along the Tug River in West Virgina and Kentucky.

Fifteen months after the gun battle, Hatfield was indicted on murder charges stemming from the shootout but was later acquitted by the jury. He was sent to stand trial with Ed Chambers on conspiracy charges for an unrelated incident and was set to stand trial in Welch, West Virginia. Hatfield was unarmed when several Baldwin-Felts men shot and killed him on the McDowell County Courthouse steps.

Reports from that time say that the unarmed Hatfield had seventeen bullets in him. None of the Baldwin-Felts detectives was ever charged in Hatfield’s assassination. This caused an outpouring of grief for the fallen local hero at the funeral. It was one of the causes of the stem of outrage that led to the Battle of Blair Mountain.

Hatfield was buried in a plot across the Tug River in KY.

Published in: on April 24, 2011 at 4:36 pm  Comments Off on Sid Hatfield  
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Matewan Massacre returns to region

For those that may be interested, more of a play group than living historians:

Matewan history comes to life

By Big Jim Charles

Lots of our visitors who come to Southern West Virginia visit the trails in Mingo County and enjoy the town of Matewan. Ironically, before the trails opened up in our area Matewan had been a town that was hard set and many people felt it’s best days were behind it.

Which is sad, considering how world famous Matewan is.

Back in the 1980s, the story of the Matewan Massacre was brought vividly to life in the critically acclaimed John Sayles movie, “Matewan.”

The story of that conflict actually came from a novel called “Union Dues” written by Sayles after he lived and worked in Mingo County during the 70s as a coal miner. Everything in that classic, critically acclaimed movie is told in one chapter of the novel “Union Dues.”

Visitors to Matewan often like to watch the movie. The last time I was at Historic Matewan House they were still playing it on a wide screen in that wonderful establishment.

And many of our visitors who come back early in the spring enjoy the reenactment that takes place in Matewan on the very streets where the real shoot out took place, early in the 20th century.
Now, I have some big news for our visitors.

The reenactment of the legendary Matewan Massacre will be coming to Logan County on St. Patrick’s Day and it is the first time the reenactment has been staged on the stage.

The reenactment will be presented indoors at the Savas-Kostas Theater at Southern West Virginia Community Technical College at the Mount Gay campus in Logan. The Matewan Massacre reenactment will be featured twice at SWVCTC on March 17 at 11 a.m. for local gradeschool students and at 6 p.m. for the public. The events will be free of charge.

The reenactment will also do two performances in the streets of Matewan in May. This will be the most times that the production has been presented in a year one cast member told me recently.
The Matewan Massacre took place in the era of the mine wars when the coal barons who brought in an army of “gun thugs”, private detectives who were in effect a private army working on behalf of the coal barons to keep Union organizers out of the area.

In those tough times, when mine operators found out a worker had joined the union they often sent gun thugs (who had been deputized) to evict miners and their families from mine owned housing. The miners were virtually slaves as they lived like indentured servants thanks to the company stores, and traveling from one community to the next could be extremely difficult in those days, making a mine operator that much more powerful.

A group of miners had formed a tent city in Lick Creek which lead up to the Matewan Massacre. Baldwin-Felts Detectives were ordered to crack down on striking miners. On May 19, 1920, 11 Baldwin-Felts detectives stepped off the train in Matewan and started evicting miners. They were stopped by Matewan Police Chief Sid Hatfield and several townspeople then went to the sheriff in Williamson and got a warrant to arrest the detectives.

The Baldwin-Felts detectives claimed to have a warrant to arrest Sid Hatfield. When the two groups met again sparks erupted and guns were drawn. To this day, nobody knows who fired first, but when when the smoke cleared, three of the miners group, including Mayor Testerman were gunned down in the street. Testerman died later in a hospital in Welch.

Court proceedings followed in Mingo County and Hatfield, Chambers and the miners were declared innocent. The detectives then filed charges in McDowell County. Hatfield and Chambers went to Welch to answer the charges. Right before that, Sid Hatfield married Mayor Testerman’s widow and he was unarmed when he went to the courthouse.

When the men were on the courthouse steps, C.E. Lively and several other detectives opened fire, gunning them down in cold blood. That was the final straw to a series of events that culminated in the unionization of southern West Virginia and lead to the Battle of Blair Mountain.

John Christopher “Chris” Gray portrays Mayor Testerman in the reenactment and Gray has made a study of the life of C.C. Testerman, who came to Matewan, married into a local family and became close friends with Two Gun Sid Hatfield, who actually married Testerman’s widow ten days after the shootout where the mayor was gunned down, supposedly by Baldwin-Felts detectives. But Gray can explain how there is a conspiracy theory behind that one if you stop and talk with him!

For many years, cast members have wanted to present the reenactment on stage indoors and to take it on the road. Now they will, and if you are in Logan during that week, you can get the chance, or if you are in Matewan in May, you will have another chance.

In addition to the presentation of the Matewan Massacre reenactment at Southern’s Savas Kostas Theater on March 17 at 6 p.m. you can see it in the town itself in Matewan on May 14 at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.

“People from all over the United States come to Matewan to see the reenactment,” Gray told me, explaining that he first heard of the Matewan Massacre as a kid, in regards to the later gunning down of Sid Hatfield and Ed Chambers on the streets of his hometown in Welch at the courthouse steps.

Published in: on March 17, 2011 at 11:28 am  Comments Off on Matewan Massacre returns to region  
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