"Two Gun" Sid Hatfield
by Joe Roxby
There’s people here from everywhere
The colored and the white;
Some mother’s son bites the dust
Almost every night.
- Ballad of Thurmond
Two groups of men faced each other and all save one were armed. The arena for this confrontation was a rain-soaked and muddy main street bordered by a set of railroad tracks on one side and business buildings on the other. Body language from both groups indicated that the mood was tense. Some onlookers carrying rifles stood on the sidewalk, and the air was charged with tension. The larger group numbered between ten and twelve men. It was made up of private detectives, who were known to be hard and violent sorts. Many of them carried a pistol under their coats and several carried rifles either in cases or wrapped in paper. Just this moment they were getting ready to leave town on the 5:15 train, and were probably pleased at the prospect of departing. Word had come to them that the town was in an ugly mood, and what they could see undoubtedly reinforced that opinion. The group that now confronted them was a bit larger than a quarter that size. It was made up of the town mayor, the police chief, and two other men that had been hastily deputized a short time earlier. Both sides tried to give themselves the color of law as they presented warrants for the leaders of the other side and each quickly dismissed the other’s paperwork as bogus. At the end of the arguments there was a brief, awkward silence. The tension was broken by a single gunshot. Who fired that first shot is still a controversial subject, but before the echo of it died out, literally all hell broke loose. The staccato of gunfire filled the air as men facing each other fired wildly from nearly point-blank range. As the shooting became more general, the detectives realized why a smaller group had been so willing to face them down. Other of the town folk fired at the detectives from a near-by hardware store and other surrounded buildings. Before such a deadly fusillade the out-of town gunmen broke and ran for their lives. A few of them were fortunate enough to hide and escape, but most were not. Those not so lucky were run to ground and shot where they stood. The whole affair was reminiscent of the opening scenes of Sam Peckingpaugh’s violent, cult-classic film, The Wild Bunch, which was set in the same time period. The only things lacking at the beginning of this gunfight were William Holden’s often quoted line, “ If they move, kill ‘em,” and the strains of “Gather at the River” playing in the background, which would have been oddly appropriate. By some accounts the firing went on for 20 minutes, an eternity for gunfights, which are usually measured in mere seconds. Finally there was a lull in the shooting and those who were non-combatants emerged from the safety of their homes. The victors looted the bodies of the fallen detectives of weapons, jewelry, and considerable sums of money.
The participants had just minutes ago engaged each other in a Wild-West style face-off and shoot-out, that in terms of shots fired and body count, would go beyond the pale of anything that Tombstone, Northfield, or old El Paso would ever record. Even the less-well-known but far deadlier Indian Nations in Oklahoma would be hard pressed to match this day’s deadly festivities. Nine men lay dead and one more would expire of his wounds to join them before the next sunrise. The final tally for this day’s gunplay was ten men dead and five wounded. Perhaps the most crowning irony was that this lethal encounter did not happen anywhere in the time and location that we think of as the Wild West. It occurred in 1920 in the sleepy little burg of Matewan, West Virginia.
That a conflict should occur in this region should come as no surprise. Since the start of the mining industry in the region there had been a struggle between the men who own the mines and those who mine the coal and this was another chapter in that saga. The final act in the bloodletting that had just transpired would lead to a battle that would involve thousands of men. It would overwhelm the state government of West Virginia, involve the United States Senate, two Presidents, the U.S. Army, and lead to the suspension of most civil liberties in southern West Virginia. The man at the point of the spear in this conflict was a small town police chief named Sid Hatfield. The shootout would make Sid nationally famous but he would pay a terrible price for that fame.
At first glance Sid Hatfield would seem an odd choice to be the champion of law and order. He was born into a poor mountain family and given a minimal education. Like most poor young men in that time and place, Sid started his adult working life as an underground miner By good luck and natural ability he later got a job working outside the mine as a blacksmith. When he reached adulthood he had a reputation as a likable fellow who was a bit on the quiet side and possessed an easy smile. However, he did have a darker side. Those who mistook his easy manner for weakness found that once he became angered they were dealing with hellfire unchained. When not actually working, Sid engaged in his favorite activities, drinking, whoring, and gambling. Fist-fighting and barroom scrapes came as part of that lifestyle and Sid proved he was nobody’s weak sister. Though he stood but five feet, four inches tall, and probably never weighed more than 135 pounds, young Hatfield was known as a tough hombre in a real hardcase town.
Aside from a reputation as a hell raiser, he was known as a crack shot with his pistols. Sid’s preferred arm was the large frame double action revolver. Carrying two of them he must have looked like an Elmer Keith prototype. He would often demonstrate his skill-at-arms by throwing a potato into the air and hitting it on the wing. In that time and place, men took their marksmanship seriously. A couple of years before he became the police chief, Sid engaged in a shooting contest with a mine foreman named Wilson. The details of what happened are hazy, but when the smoke cleared from the contest, the other man was dead. Sid was later cleared of criminal charges resulting from the incident. His life was about to be drawn into the whirlwind of circumstances and the vortex of violence that surrounded him.
When rich veins of coal were discovered in the hills after the Civil War, wealthy interests bought up the lands and mineral rights. The railroads laid track, built bridges, and blasted tunnels to get back into the rich coal seams. The United States possessed a rapidly expanding industrial base and it was coal that fueled that growth. The local people initially viewed this activity in their midst as good news. The mines offered them the prospect of good paying jobs and steady work. When the mines actually got into production, the prosperity the local folks had hoped for proved to be an illusion. Instead, they found themselves working from sunup to sundown far underground, in unbelievably dark and dangerous conditions. The threat of gas explosions and roof falls were always present. Even should a miner be lucky enough to survive those dangers, his life would be shortened from breathing coal dust. One period historian noted that when several miners enlisted to fight in WWI, it was statistically safer in the killing fields of France than it was in the mines.
If the conditions inside the mines were not enough of a problem, the mine owners added to their misery. For the sake of convenience miners and their families lived in company owned housing near the entrances of the mines. They bought food, clothing, mining tools and household goods from a company owned general store. The miners were playing a rigged game where the miner’s wages never quite covered his expenses so he was always in perpetual debt to the mine owners. By the turn of the century miners in the southern West Virginia coalfields lived in a sort of industrial serfdom
Part of the problem was that the miners were paid, not by the hour but by the tons of coal they brought out of the mine. Mine owners enhanced their profits by cheating miners at the scales. The crowning insult came when sometimes the workers were not even paid in cash, but in company script, which could only be spent at the company store. . Government offered them no redress to their grievances, as the mine owners bought up all the political influence. That included everything from the local sheriff to the governor, with the state legislature thrown in for good measure. Their control included most of the judiciary as well. During periods when martial law was declared, men were actually sentenced to the state penitentiary at Moundsville from military tribunals. There was no pretense of any sort of civil rights or due process. The miner had a hard time even finding solace in his religion. The company even paid for the preacher, lest any foolish ideas get into the miner’s heads via the pulpit or the Good Book. The control that the coal barons tried to exercise over the miners went beyond dictatorial and bordered on totalitarian.
To maintain this sort of control required force. For the mine owners the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency provided a sort of one-stop shopping for all their enforcement needs. It took its name from the founders and owners William Baldwin and Thomas Felts. The company headquartered out of Welch, West Virginia, and began as a private police force for the railroad. They filled a definite need as there were no federal law enforcement and only two state police agencies in the entire nation. Sources disagree on the actual date the agency came into existence, but it morphed into its final form by 1910. The majority of their work centered around strikebreaking in the coalfields. They had a particularly evil reputation for violence and they reveled in it. They acted as mine guards, union spies, payoff agents, and muscle and triggermen as needed. The employees openly challenged that no one ever killed a Baldwin-Felts man and got away with it. By the time of the Matewan confrontation their employees numbered in the hundreds and they must have rivaled the better known Pinkerton Agency in size and influence. West Virginia State Archivist Kyle McCormick said he knew both founders. In a newspaper piece that appeared in the Welch Daily News in 1950 he stated that the Baldwin-Felts Agency had ”the most complete espionage system in North America.”
Among their clients was the United States Government. The federal government had always cast a wary eye on the violent ways of the locals in the coalfields. Recently conditions had gotten worse. Gun battles, dynamite explosions, looting, and arson, started to take their toll on mine company properties. The coal operators took the opportunity to portray this violence as an attempted communist revolution. The federal government took the bait and decided to make use of the agency’s domestic spying capabilities. That gave the Baldwin-Felts Agency plenty of friends in high places
In reality most of the agency’s spying capability went toward seeing which miners had union sympathies. As soon as one expressed any thoughts of joining the union he was fired from his job, evicted from his home, and blacklisted so none of the other non-union mines in the area would hire him.
The United Mine Workers had succeeded in unionizing all the coalfields except those in southern West Virginia. WWI briefly stopped this march. The Federal Fuel Agency was anxious to avoid any sort of stoppage. It should be remembered that coal was as important to the overall economy then as oil is today. It heated the homes, fired the mills and fueled transportation on land and water. The mine owners were pushed at least temporarily to pay better wages. Their losses were more than offset by high coal prices caused by the war. Everyone was making better money, and for the moment patriotism replaced unionism. At the close of the war labor peace went by the wayside.
The miners began to get a few local officials elected who would at least enforce the law as was written and not always stretch it to favor the coal company. The matter of how the law was to be interpreted and enforced was particularly ticklish when dealing with the subject of home evictions. To keep the union out of the coal camps miners were forced to sign “yellow dog” contracts. One of the key provisions of these contracts was that if the miner joined a union he would be fired and immediately evicted from his company-owned house. The UMW fought this to the U.S. Supreme Court and lost. The problem was that even though the contracts were held to be legal, the miners were still entitled to due process in court, and they were not getting it.
Rather than depend on local officials to handle the evictions the coal companies gave the job to their faithful enforcers, the Baldwin-Felts detectives. The rise of local elected officials who would oppose them gave the agency a two-fold problem. The first was in the past the county sheriff was usually part of their team. He would deputize the mine guards and give them the color of law for their actions. The second problem it caused for them was in the battle for public opinion. When they could longer claim to be enforcing laws they appeared to be little more than hired thugs. Throwing out poor families into the cold with their few meager possessions made for miserable public relations and it was hard to paint a happy face upon it. As a result the locals not affiliated with either group, whose opinions were formerly neutral, turned against the out-of-town muscle men. Still, it would take a local official with plenty of bottom to dare oppose them.
Two such individuals were George Blankenship, the sheriff of Mingo County, where Matewan was located, and Cabell Testerman, the mayor of Matewan. Both had let it be known that the Baldwin-Felts operatives would also have to obey the law as well. The mayor realized he needed someone to keep a lid on things in Matewan. Testerman was a businessman and a politician. The new mayor needed someone to keep the tougher elements of the town in line. To accomplish that task he needed his own enforcer. He appointed Sid Hatfield to the job of police chief.
Hatfield proved to be an excellent choice. One might reasonably surmise that only recently having been part of the problem he had a clear understanding on how to handle it. He knew every drunk, whore and hardcase that inhabited the gambling dens and pool halls, and they respected him Sid could offer a little humor and charm to defuse a violent situation, or be free and easy with his fists or blackjack, as the situation required. Given his reputation as a gun hand, few were ready to take the fighting to the next level. Beyond that, the tougher elements simply viewed him as one of their own and they respected him for it. Sid was not a lackey for the coal companies, just a local boy enforcing local laws. He took his newfound responsibilities seriously enough that he even swore off the demon rum. Sid may have decided that his new status required a better example. He may also have done this simply because the liquor addled his wits and dulled his shooting.
All of those facts bothered the Baldwin-Felts agency a great deal. They too, had heard that the town’s diminutive minion of law and order had plenty of grit and were initially reluctant to cross him. They moved to another well-tried tactic, the bribe. Initially Mayor Testerman was offered $1000 for his goodwill. Part of that goodwill was to include allowing them to place machine guns at opposite ends of the town. Had they succeeded, the shootout at Matewan may have resembled the final scene from The Wild Bunch not the opening one. The rest was for him to reign in his police chief. When Testerman refused them they moved on to Hatfield and upped the ante. The agency offered Sid $200 to $300 a month. That was a considerable sum in that time as a miner making top rate only averaged under $700.00 annually. Sid passed on the offer as well. Whatever his other character flaws were, being a backwoods Judas was not one of them. Taking some of the sting out of passing on the bribe was the fact that there was most likely a fair amount of other extra money to be made floating around the little town. Moonshining was a tradition in the hills. The hated Volstead Act would not become a national law for another six months but West Virginia had been dry since 1914. The locals were more than willing to pay local law enforcement to look the other way where their liquor was concerned. The private detectives decided that if Hatfield would not do things the easy way, they would just roll over him. He might be a tough David, but they were a very large Goliath.
The situation came to a head on May 19th, 1920. Several miners who lived at the edge of town had joined the union. The Stone Mountain Coal Company fired them and wanted them evicted immediately on the basis of the “yellow dog” contracts they had signed as a condition of employment. Since the problem was in Matewan, the Baldwin-Felts agency sent seven of their best operatives. The group was lead by Albert and Lee Felts. The noon train brought in six more of their men bringing the total number to 13. Around one in the afternoon the group started their work. They went to six houses and forced the miners and their families from their homes. They piled the unlucky families’ few household goods outside in the rain, on the muddy street, and told them to move on.
About 1:30 Mayor Testerman and Sid Hatfield confronted Albert Felts and his men. Testerman asked them if they had any sort of court order for the evictions. Felts offered the vague reply that he had an order signed by a circuit judge, but did not have it handy just this moment. Testerman told Felts and his enforcers at they could no longer just do as they pleased. He and Hatfield turned and went back to town. During this confrontation Hatfield watched Albert Felts and said little. Undoubtedly the two heavyweight enforcers eyed each other like a pair of boxers preparing to cross the ring in a championship fight. As they were seriously outnumbered and unsure of their legal ground just this second, the mayor and police chief momentarily retreated.
The Baldwin-Felts group must have breathed a sigh of relief. They had just faced down their most serious adversaries and had come off well. By 3:30 they finished their work and were back within the friendly confines of the Urias Hotel. The hotel owner, Anse Hatfield, was a friend of theirs. He prepared them an early supper and they would depart on the 5:15 train back to their main office at Welch. The situation appeared to be nearly ideal. They would slip into town, take care of business, and leave before any opposition got organized.
The problem with that plan was that the opposition was getting organized. Mayor Testerman and Chief Hatfield had two problems to deal with before they confronted the Baldwin-Felts detectives again. One was legal and the other tactical. Hatfield made a call to the sheriff’s office to see if the actions of the Felts group were legal. When he was informed that they were not, Hatfield sent one of the evicted miners by train to the county seat at Williamson to sign a complaint as the basis for arrest warrants for the group. Ironically warrants would be returning on the same 5:15 train that the detectives would be hoping to board.
With the legal part of his problems solved, Sid went to work on the tactical portion of it. The chief had to deal with the fact that he was seriously outnumbered. To counter this he deputized six “sober minded” citizens to help him detain the out-of-towners. The legal grounds for this temporary detention would be that some of the men were probably carrying pistols without a permit. Word of what was about to happen spread like wildfire. As the afternoon passed, many of the unemployed miners drifted into town and they brought their rifles with them. Soon those half dozen men that Hatfield had deputized had plenty of back up.
By the time they were getting ready to board the train, the detectives knew what was brewing. Two teenage girls operating the telephone switchboard had overheard Sid Hatfield’s conversations and got word of them to Albert Felts. In later testimony Sid Hatfield was quoted as saying, “We’ll kill every God damned one of those detectives, with or without God damned warrants.” The Felts party could have no doubt that a storm was headed their way.
Around 5 o’clock the detectives started the short walk toward the railroad station. Several of them carried rifles either in cases or wrapped in paper. They no doubt could sense the hostility from the onlookers. Some of them also carried rifles too, but they were uncased and ready for instant deployment. As those seeking to leave neared the hardware store the drama reached its zenith. Hatfield and two other men walked up to the group and told them he had municipal warrants for their arrest. Albert Felts laughed and pulled out his own paperwork, which was supposed to be an arrest warrant for Sid. Mayor Testerman walked over, examined it, and pronounced it bogus. Both sides laughed for a moment, as if trying to break the tension. A heartbeat later Albert Felts produced a pistol from under his jacket. He shot Mayor Testerman in the stomach and fired a second shot into the hardware store. Sid Hatfield drew his pistols and returned fire. The closest and most dangerous target to him was Albert Felts. One of his first shots hit his hated adversary in the head. After that the firing became general. The detectives broke ranks and ran for cover. They were in the open and seriously outgunned as most of them were using pistols against adversaries armed with rifles. Troy Higgins was the next to fall. William Bowman cut him down with a rifle as he tried to flee. Lee Felts with two pistols and miner Art Williams with one, opened up on each other at almost point blank range without a single round finding its mark. The impasse between them was broken as nearby Reece Chambers took out the younger Felts with a single rifle shot.
William Bowman took a pistol from the dying Felts and followed a fleeing A. J Boorher into a nearby bank. Learning from his previously miserable marksmanship Bowman shot him from so close that he was splattered with his blood. At the start of the fight C.B. Cunningham also fired into the hardware store. Seconds later he was hit with so many bullets that half of his head was removed. Felts operative J. W. Ferguson was wounded and staggered down the street gasping, “I’m shot to pieces.” He wandered into a nearby house. A softhearted lady gave him quarter and sat him up in a chair. Moments later a vengeful miner stepped in and shot him where he sat. At that point the battle became a series of individual duels where the townsmen ran the detectives to ground and killed them including one named E.O. Powell. Before the killing stopped, seven of the detectives lay dead. Albert Felts had once wisecracked that he would break the union even if he had to send a hundred men to hell. Little did he realize he would be among the first into eternity.
Two innocent residents were also killed. Bob Mullins had been watching the battle from the start. He had just lost his job earlier in the day for joining the union. His already bad luck took a turn for the worse as round from A.J. Boorher hit him in the chest and killed him. Another non-combatant named Tot Tinsley was later discovered shot in the head. The shot that killed him was thought to have been fired by Lee Felts.
Some of the Baldwin-Felts gunmen were more fortunate. C.B Hildebrand ducked into an outbuilding and hid there for several fear-filled hours. In the wild melee of the fight, Walter Anderson was wounded, but he and his brother, Tim, made it to the train station. Oscar Bennett was even more fortunate. Moments before the start of the shooting, he had wandered off in search of a pack of cigarettes. When he observed the plight of his comrades, he decided that good judgment was the better part of valor and quietly made his way to the train depot. It would probably have been difficult to convince him that smoking was bad for your health. John McDowell initially sought cover and then ran directly toward his assailants. He passed between the buildings and jumped into the Tug Fork River and made it safely to the Kentucky shore. Bill Salter hid inside a trashcan for several hours. As soon as the firing stopped, the dead were looted. The Felts brothers were each said to be carrying a $1000 in cash and both wearing rings sporting two-caret diamonds. The pistols and rifles of the dead were also grabbed up as trophies.
Word of the shootout traveled quickly. Not only did the state’s major newspapers cover the story but national ones did as well. They began to give Sid nicknames like “Two Gun Sid” or “Smilin’ Sid” or “The Terror of the Tug.” For Sid, the new-found fame was a mixed blessing at best. It was probably a boost to his ego to tell his story to reporters and see his name in print. The problem was the spotlight kept him in the eye of his enemies. He would find that he had won the gunfight, but lost control of his life.
A couple of months later a grand jury indicted Sid and 22 other co-defendants for the shootings at Matewan. Initially he felt he had little to fear. Circuit Judge James Damron was to hear the case and had a reputation for being a fair-minded jurist. The UMW hired a Wheeling lawyer John J. Conniff to defend Sid. Conniff was considered the finest defense lawyer in the state. Further, the trial would take place in the friendly confines of Mingo County.
Sid’s greatest problem was that he had acquired Tom Felts as an archenemy. Felts meant to revenge his two slain brothers, one way or the other. Felts commanded enough money, influence, and triggermen that a New York mafia chieftain might not have dared to cross him. Sid’s actions added to his troubles as well. A fortnight after the shooting Sid shocked those around him by marrying the widow of the slain mayor. Jessie Testerman was a pretty 23-year-old girl who had just inherited her late husbands business interests. Two weeks after the events at Matewan she and Sid slipped off quietly to Huntington to get married. Tom Felts had them trailed. When he discovered what they were doing, he notified the police and had them arrested on morals charges. At the hotel the police found two pistols that belonged to the slain detectives on Sid’s nightstand. Felts called a press conference and stated that Hatfield had killed the mayor to acquire his wife and estate. .
Politically the ground was shifting under Sid’s feet as well. The elections of 1920 brought a new governor, legislature, and a new sheriff in Mingo County that were far less sympathetic to the union’s cause. The new mayor of Matewan fired him as police chief. Deciding that law enforcement suited him, he ran for constable of the Magnolia district of Mingo County and won. Even more alarming, the formerly reasonable judge that presided over his indictment promptly resigned and joined the prosecution. Two former West Virginia Supreme Court Justices were hired by private interests to assist him. One lawyer on the prosecution staff was said to be a veteran of 500 murder trials. Murder trial lawyers did a brisk business in the hills.
Sid’s friends added to his woes as well. Anse Hatfield had been with the Baldwin- Felts detectives prior to the shooting. The prosecution was counting heavily on him as a star witness. On August 14th 1920 one of Sid’s co-defendants, Fred Burgraff, decided to silence him permanently and shot him on the front porch of his hotel. That same month a large gunfight broke out between striking miners and mine guards backed up by deputies at a small mining camp called Mohawk in McDowell County. Sid was believed to have had a part in it, either as a planner or a participant.
The trials for the shooting started in Williamson on January 16, 1921. It was not until February 9th that a jury was selected and the proceedings were conducted under the watchful eye of the U.S. Army. In a move that surprised the defendants, bond was revoked and all were kept in the Mingo County jail until the trial was completed. The prosecution offered two surprises. The first was that one of the defendants, Isaac Brewer, had turned state’s evidence. The second was of another traitor in their midst. C.E. Lively owned a small restaurant in Matewan and was a union member. His eatery was a hang out for the union crowd, and consequently he was privy to all the latest rumors and gossip, which he dutifully reported. It was finally revealed in court that he was in fact a spy in the pay of the Baldwin-Felts Agency. After weeks of wildly contradictory testimony, the trial concluded on March 18th, 1921. Three days later the jury voted for acquittal. One old mountaineer juror summed it up best when he opined that the mountains were brown when the trial started and were now turning green. He said he was prepared to sit there until they turned brown again before he would vote to convict a single Matewan boy. Later that day the defendants were released from jail and Sid and wife Jessie returned to a hero’s reception in Matewan. It took them two hours to cover 200 feet from the depot to their home, due to the throng of well-wishers. It was later said to the Matewan’s happiest day.
Sid again found trouble. On May 12th 1921 a battle broke out between the striking miners and non-union miners and guards. For three days no one around Matewan dared raise his head or venture outside, and even trains were shot up as they approached. It was later estimated that this less than social soirée involved over 3000 men with as many as 20 men killed on each side. Harry Stanton, who had testified two months earlier against Sid, was shot near his home. While the battle raged Sid became involved in a dispute with a mine superintendent. In the course of that argument Sid rifle butted the gentleman to help him see things his way. Scarcely two months after being acquitted he was in trouble again. Overall the situation along the Tug became so grave that on May 19, the one-year anniversary of the shootout, martial law was declared to restore order.
The trials in Mingo County, the commitment of the Army, and various declarations of martial law attracted the attentions of the U.S. Senate. Sid was questioned if front of that august body on July 14th, 1921. While he was being cross-examined in those hearings, Sid found out that new charges awaited him when he returned home. Those charges stemmed from his involvement in the shootout at Mohawk the previous summer.
What made them particularly worrisome was that the trial would take place in neighboring McDowell County. In Mingo County events had proved he was nearly bulletproof. Friendly juries could protect him from legal charges and friends helped watch for assassins. McDowell would be a particularly unfriendly venue, as it was controlled by the coal operators. Ever since the Matewan shootout, Sid openly commented that he was a marked man. Sid would have to appear in that court unarmed and the circumstances that now confronted him seemed tailor-made for his murder.
On July 28th McDowell County Sheriff William Hatfield and another man came to Matewan to arrest Sid. On the counsel of his friend and union attorney Sam Montgomery, Sid submitted peacefully to the arrest. He was taken by train to Welch, charged and placed in jail. The following day his wife Jessie posted his bond and they returned home. At that time Sheriff Hatfield assured Jessie that Sid would be safe. Sam Montgomery contacted the newspaper, the Wheeling Intelligencer, and publicized his fears of assassination. The trial judge, French Strother, also said that Sid would be safe.
On August 1st Sid and Jessie Hatfield and Ed and Sallie Chambers boarded the early morning train from Matewan to Welch. Ominously, at one of the stops along the way, their old enemy, C.E. Lively, boarded the train. The quartet met their attorney, C.J. Van Fleet in Welch. After they conferred with him at the hotel they started toward the courthouse. The steps to the courthouse form an uphill, inverted T, with a landing at the junction. The last leg ascending is bordered by a stone wall about four feet high. As the quartet got off the landing they noticed several Baldwin-Felts men at the top of the steps. Sid looked up at them, smiled, and said hello. At that moment several of them produced pistols and began firing. Sid hit the ground with four bullets in him and Ed Chambers followed him with at least as many. While the shooting was still going on Hughey Lucas turned and fired several shots behind him into the courthouse wall Sallie Chambers threw herself on Ed and begged them to quit shooting. A man dragged her away, as the detectives were not finished. C. E. Lively gave Chambers an insurance shot behind the ear. As the killers surrounded them, Felts operative Buster Pence placed fired weapons into the hands of the slain men. One of the women looked at detective Bill Salter and asked, “Why did you do this?” Salter, who was a survivor of the Matewan shootout replied, “We didn’t come to Matewan for this either.” McDowell County deputies standing nearby didn’t even bother to arrest the killers. Tom Felts finally had his revenge. The following day the new widows brought their husbands back to Matewan.
The funeral was immense and the mourners numbered in the thousands. The funeral procession took the caskets across the Tug River to a hilltop in Kentucky that overlooked the town for their final resting place. News of the killings dominated the headlines. The Wheeling Intelligencer probably summed it up best when the said ‘it was the most glaring and outrageous expression of contempt for law that ever stained the history of West Virginia.”
The anger that the miners felt about Sid Hatfield’s murder finally reached a boiling point. By the end of August hordes of armed and angry miners hijacked trains and descended on the coalfields. Their objective was to go to Mingo and Logan Counties and release miners that had been arrested and held there under martial law. The miners were stopped short of their goal by a combination of West Virginia State Police, Logan County Deputies, and Baldwin-Felts mine guards backed by a citizen’s militia. The estimate of the numbers involved in that battle range from a minimum of 10,000 to possibly double that number. It was the largest land battle in the United States since the Civil War. The miners finally laid down their arms when confronted by the honest diplomacy of Brigadier General C. Bandholz backed by 2100 regular army troops.
Initially the mine owners and the Baldwin- Felts Agency had won a huge victory. The miners were forced by hunger to go back to work and United Mine Workers was nearly bankrupted. The election of Roosevelt in 1932 changed things. All mines were unionized. Public opinion had turned against the use of private police, and they were outlawed. By the end of the 1930s both William Baldwin and Tom Felts were dead. Al and Lee Felts, who might have taken over the company, lay silent in their graves. It had taken the Baldwin-Felts Goliath a little over a year to kill the upstart David who had dared to challenge them. Though he did not realize it at the time, Hatfield had struck them a mortal blow as well.
Some historians have tended to dismiss Sid as a sort of violent, ignorant, hill-jack Events proved that this was not true. In a time when most deputies were illiterate political hacks, Sid was not. His actions show a clear understanding of the law and legal procedure and of the pains he took to see that he stood on firm legal ground. Still, for all his calculations, one can only wonder, at what point did Sid realize that he was playing a hand he could not win.
1) Savage, Lon - Thunder in the Mountains, Northcross House, 1985, Elliston, VA
2) Shogun, Robert - The Battle of Blair Mountian, Westview Press, 2004, Boulder, CO
3) Lee, Howard B. - Bloodletting in Appalachia, McClain Printing Co., 1969, Parsons, WV
How tough were those West Virginia coal camps in Sid Hatfield’s day?
No one mistook being a peace officer in one of these wide-open coal camps for life in Mayberry. Two of the most notable towns were Thurmond in Fayette County and Keystone in McDowell County. Each was dangerous but catered to a different trade.
“Mr. McKell built the Dunglen Hotel in 1901at Thurmond…The coal operators, newly rich and dripping with profits, threw their big parties at the Dunglen, which were second to none. The hotel was filled every night with traveling men, business men, coal operators, gamblers, harlots and every type of person …For the next 13 years in the Dunglen Hotel the bar never closed, nor did the gambling room, nor the poker game… The poker game lasted 14 years… There might have been as much as $50,000 upon the table at one time…Harrison Ash, a Kentuckian, was police officer of the town, and he was another Wild Bill Hickok- a terror to evildoers. He was six feet four inches tall and weighed 275 pounds… Ash’s pistol had seven notches filed upon it.
For the poor sorts desiring action, they could go to Keystone, known as the Sodom and Gomorrah of McDowell County. The standing joke was that the only difference between Hell and Keystone was that a creek flowed through the town. A police chief offered his thoughts of the crime rate in 1911 to recent law school graduate, Howard Lee, who would later become Attorney General for the state.
“Very high…it runs the gamut of crimes-theft, rape, robbery murder. Never a week passes without at least one murder. Some weeks as many as three or four. As you came down from Northfork you no doubt noticed that deep railroad cut through the spur of the mountain. We call it ‘Dead Man’s Cut.’ All too frequently a man is robbed and murdered and his body is dumped into it to be ground up under the wheels of the numerous passing coal trains.”
They didn’t serve up a dead man for breakfast every morning, as was the boast in some towns in the Wild West, but it must have been awfully close. The chief later took Lee on a guided tour of the town’s Red Light District and offered this commentary.
“Well here it is, the infamous ‘Cinder Bottom,’ known far and wide as the International Whorehouse District of the coal fields- the toughest of the country’s tough spots. In addition to America’s white and Negro prostitutes, their likes are here from every country in Europe. That gives the place an international flavor. In these dives all barriers are down, and there is complete racial, social and sexual integration.” …”The Chief opened a few bedroom doors as we passed through the houses. In one bed we saw a white man and a Negro girl. In another house we saw the reverse… In some houses we saw girls running around in nightgowns, others in bras and panties and in one house we saw two girls clad in only smiles.”
- Bloodletting in Appalachia by Howard B. Lee pp. 203-211