Double podcast episode on the West Virginia mine wars 1902-1922. We speak with Catherine Moore and others from the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, as well as some West Virginia teachers who had just been on strike about the conflicts, and how they are remembered today.
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Long-term listeners may recall that our podcast episode 7 was about the mine wars. However, like all of our earliest episodes, it was basically raw audio from our interview with volunteers at the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum. So the sound quality wasn’t great, and there wasn’t narrative to fill in any gaps, explain context and pull the story together. In addition to working on new episodes, thanks to support from our patrons we are also going back over our earliest episodes to re-edit and release them in the new, narrative format we use for all of our later episodes. This is the first such episode we have reworked and rereleased. So the interview audio will have the same quality as before, but there will be added narrative with better quality audio to explain things better and hopefully tell the story in a more cohesive manner. We hope you enjoy it.
- Part 1: Background, the 1902 strike, 1912 Cabin Creek and Paint Creek strikes, the Battle of Matewan
- Part 2: Matewan aftermath, women in the disputes, the Battle of Blair Mountain, legacy.
- Here is our selection of books about the West Virginia Mine Wars
- This is a short overview of the mine wars: https://libcom.org/history/west-virginias-mine-wars-1920-1921
- Find out more about the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum here: https://www.wvminewars.com/
- We have some video and photographs from the re-enactment and museum in our Instagram story highlights. Follow us and find them here: https://instagram.com/workingclasshistory
- Matewan (1987 film) – you can stream it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PvLwOfLZAbY
- West Virginia teachers strikes – this is a short overview of what happened: https://libcom.org/library/no-promises-insurgent-teachers-strike-west-virginia
- Rick Jarrett, “Coal Mine Disasters,” West Virginia Encyclopedia, July 23, 2021, accessed October 4, 2021, https://www.wvencyclopedia.org/articles/1356.
- John Dorney, “The Great Irish Famine 1845-1851 – A Brief Overview,” The Irish Story, October 18, 2016, accessed October 4, 2021, https://www.theirishstory.com/2016/10/18/the-great-irish-famine-1845-1851-a-brief-overview/.
- “Papers of Mother Jones,” National Archives, accessed October 4, 2021, https://www.archives.gov/nhprc/projects/catalog/mother-jones.
- Jonathan Grossman, “The Coal Strike of 1902: Turning Point in US Policy,” Monthly Labor Review (June 1974), accessed October 4, 2021, https://www.dol.gov/general/aboutdol/history/coalstrike.
- “West Virginia’s mine wars, 1920-1921,” West Virginia State Archives, accessed October 4, 2021, https://libcom.org/history/west-virginias-mine-wars-1920-1921.
- John Simkin, “Ralph Chaplin,” Spartacus Educational, accessed October 4, 2021, https://spartacus-educational.com/USAchaplin.htm.
- Ralph Chaplin, Wobbly (Kessinger, 2010).
- Archie Green and David Roediger, eds, Big Red Songbook: 250+ IWW Songs! (Oakland: PM Press, 2016).
- Dave Tabler, “Lengthiest murder trial in WV history begins,” Appalachian History, January 28, 2019, accessed October 4, 2021, https://www.appalachianhistory.net/2019/01/lengthiest-murder-trial-in-wv-history.html.
- “Jury Acquits 16 of Coal Strike Murder,” New York Times, March 22, 1921, 6.
- “redneck (n.),” Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed April 24, 2020, https://www.etymonline.com/word/redneck
- Huber, Patrick. “Red Necks and Red Bandanas: Appalachian Coal Miners and the Coloring of Union Identity, 1912-1936.” Western Folklore 65, no. 1/2 (2006): 195-210, accessed April 24, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25474784.
- Thanks to our patreon supporters for making this podcast possible. Special thanks to Conor Canatsey, Shae, James, Ariel Gioiaand Stone Lawson.
- Music used in these episodes is Which Side Are You On, by Florence Rees, performed by Tom Morello: The Night Watchman. Buy/stream it here. And Solidarity Forever by Ralph Chaplin, performed by David Rovics. Stream it here.
- This episode was edited by Tyler Hill.
A little over a century ago, a war was going on in the US state of West Virginia. It was a protracted war, one fought with intense violence with hand-to-hand fighting, with guns, with guerrilla warfare, armed insurrections and even with aircraft. But it was not a conflict with a foreign nation. It was a battle between a multiracial mine workers’ community on one side, and coal bosses, company thugs, police and the military on the other. This is Working Class History.
Now, before we get started today, I need to explain something. Long-term listeners may recall hearing an episode about the mine wars before, and they would be right. Our podcast episode 7 was about the mine wars. However, like all of our earliest episodes, it was basically raw audio from my interview with volunteers at the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum. So the sound quality wasn’t great, and there wasn’t narrative to fill in any gaps, explain context and pull the story together. In addition to working on new episodes, we are also going back over our earliest episodes to re-edit and release them in the new, narrative format we use for all of our later episodes. This is the first such episode we have reworked and rereleased. So the interview audio will have the same quality as before, but there will be added narrative with better quality audio to explain things better and hopefully tell the story in a more cohesive manner. We hope you enjoy it.
Before we get on with the main episodes, just a reminder that our podcast is brought to you by our patreon supporters. Our supporters fund our work, and in return get exclusive early access to podcast episodes, bonus episodes, free and discounted merchandise and other content. For example, our patreon supporters can listen to both parts of this double episode now. Join us or find out more at patreon.com/workingclasshistory, link in the show notes.
Over the course of two episodes, we’re going to tell the story of the West Virginia mine wars, which took place roughly between 1902 and 1922, mostly in the southern portion of the state. We’re going to cover incidents including a strike in 1902, a strike in Paint Creek and Cabin Creek in 1912, more strikes in 1920 including the Battle of Matewan and the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921, which was the largest armed confrontation in the US since the civil war.
In 2018, thanks to support from our patrons, we were able to travel to Matewan, a small town in Logan County, West Virginia, which was at the centre of many of these conflicts. Still a coal mining town, every year it holds a reenactment of the Battle of Matewan. There, we saw the commemoration, talked to some of the cast and sat down with members of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum to find out more about what happened.
The first thing they said it’s important to understand is how much control mining companies had over their employees, and just what it meant to live in a “company town”.
Catherine: To understand what happened during the West Virginia mine wars, you really have to look at what the conditions were like for the mining families, who lived in West Virginia, on the ground that would lead someone to take up a gun and fight.
This is Catherine Moore, a board member and President of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum.
Catherine: What were those conditions? First of all, you have to understand that West Virginia had the highest margin of miners who lived in company towns, as opposed to an independent town. Company towns sprung up all over southern West Virginia with the coal rush that we had. There weren’t places for people to live and so the company had to come and build the houses but they also built the churches, schools and the stores because none of this stuff existed. What that created was a dynamic where pretty much all aspects of the society that the mining families were living in were controlled by their bosses, the coal companies. That left them vulnerable to the whims of the company. You had logistical stuff like they controlled the prices of the company store. They hired the preachers and if a preacher was preaching a union sermon, they wouldn’t last very long there. They hired the teachers and paid the teachers in many cases. Since there really wasn’t much law enforcement in these rural places, they even hired constables to police the towns. So you’re looking an environment that wasn’t a democracy and it wasn’t a very democratic place to live and the miners have very little access to any kind of democratic power, especially when you take into account that there was quite a lot of corruption in various places and various times. That was the social control and then there was also a form of economic control that happened because the companies issued their own form of currency and that was called scrip. A miner would have a payday coming to him in two weeks, let’s say, but he needed food now and so his wife could go and show up to the company store and say, ‘I’d like to cut $10 worth of scrip from his future wages.’ When that payment comes around, gosh, he might not even have anything coming to him. I mean there were times when that happened to families. You can see how very quickly that could spin into a situation of almost a debt peonage system, so there was an economic control. West Virginia had some of the most dangerous mines in the nation at the time and so miners were struggling at their workplaces, literally, to stay alive.
This is no exaggeration. On 6 December 1907 two mines run by the Fairmont coal company in Monongah exploded, killing at least 361 miners. Between 1910 and 1920 alone, 4260 miners in West Virginia were killed at work. This is of course ignoring the much larger numbers injured and disabled, and those who developed fatal illnesses which would kill them later.
And so, mine workers started to try to gather together to request better conditions from their employers.
When they tried to do that, they ran up against what we call the mine guard system of policing. Essentially, they were mercenaries hired by the coal companies to squash any sign of union organising or talk of unions. You can see where miners’ constitutional rights were being trampled on, like freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of movement. The companies even owned the roads, for goodness sake, and so you couldn’t even necessarily walk up a road without a mine guard, if he didn’t want you to be there, telling you to get lost. With years of that social control and that economic control – this police state, in a sense – you can see how, over time, that would really wear a person down and make them frustrated to the point where they were willing to fight for those very elemental rights that we have in America.
Contrary to many mainstream portrayals, mine workers were much more ethnically diverse than is often assumed. Many Black families had come to West Virginia to work on the railways, which were completed in 1870.
Catherine: Some of them were from sharecropping backgrounds and coming north to find a better opportunity and less discrimination. They could make equal wages as whites in the mines, so that was attractive. There were also immigrants flooding in from overseas and, in fact, the coal companies went out and recruited overseas. They would send agents out to Hungary, Italy and all these places where there were people starving and who needed food and needed to feed their families and they brought them over here to the States. They would land in New York and sometimes there would be an agent right there to pick them up, get them on a train and send them straight down to West Virginia. There’s even a town in New River Gorge, where I live, that’s called Brooklyn, West Virginia. The story goes that [laughter] some of these potential workers were told, ‘Hey, this is a train to Brooklyn. Get on this train to Brooklyn.’ They come to find out that it’s Brooklyn, West Virginia and not Brooklyn, New York [laughter]. So there’s a sense that maybe there was a bit of scamming going on and maybe they didn’t quite know what they were getting into. You had this immigrant population of Central and Eastern Europeans and then you had native-born whites who had been here and migrating westward over many generations.
Lou Martin, another Board Member of the Mine Wars Museum explains how coal operators attempted to exploit ethnic differences between workers to keep them divided.
Lou: I would say that in southern West Virginian counties, you had a higher percentage of native-born whites and African Americans but they were still striving for what the coal operator, Justus Collins, called a ‘judicious mixture’; meaning that if they these different groups and segregated them in the coal camps, they would remain divided and they wouldn’t work together to unionise.
In 1902, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) stepped up its activities in West Virginia, sending in famed working-class organiser, Mother Jones. Born in Ireland, Jones emigrated to America aged 10 as a result of the Great Famine – although as with any mention of the famine, it is worth pointing out that, like most famines, the scarcity of food was artificial, as farm bosses and British colonial authorities continued to export food while Irish people starved. Anyway, Jones eventually became active in the labour movement, organising strikes with the Knights of Labour before her work with the United Mine Workers, and was later one of the co-founders of the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World union, which we’ve released numerous episodes about. In 1902, as a result of her activity in West Virginia, Jones was described as “the most dangerous woman in America.”
Catherine: United Mine Workers formed in 1890 but they didn’t have anything to do with West Virginia, barely, until 1902. Back in 1902, the UMWA makes its first bid to unionise West Virginia and that’s really where stuff begins. They send in Mother Jones who is, of course, this legendary labour leader. At that time, she was probably in her 70s but she rained down rhetorical fire on these guys and told them to wake up. What are they doing? Why are they sitting on their laurels? Why aren’t they organising and asking for more out of their lives? So she comes in and she starts in this little pocket in the Kanawha field. There were multiple coalfields and the Kanawha field was one that was relatively close to Charleston. She started having meetings late at night, in secret, by lantern light often and just spreading the word clandestinely. She’s having these meetings and signing them up to be part of the union and gradually, she starts to get a little more public about it and making public speeches. It’s starting to take hold and she’s starting to plant some seeds. She winds her way up into the New River field and she starts organising there, making speeches and signing people up. 16,000 miners, in West Virginia, ended up going out on strike with the Pennsylvania miners and demonstrating that West Virginia miners were willing to be a part of this organisation. They ended up shutting down 408 coal mines in solidarity and they had an estimated 180 union men killed on the picket lines during that strike and marches during that 13 month period of the strike. It culminates in something that’s called the Stanaford Massacre which was a super brutal ambush by a combination of lawmen and armed company guards called mine guards who surrounded a village where some union miners had been sleeping that night after a union rally. They had just been walking up and down the river with a band and trying to bring people out and sign people up. They then slept and when they woke up, these lawmen surrounded the houses where they were staying. These were mostly African American miners. They ended up shooting them and six or seven people died in that. The 1902 strike is really when you start to get the prototype for how the rest of these strikes were going to go down. What that looked like was that the miners went on strike, they demanded something and the company said, ‘We’re not even going to recognise you as having a union. We’re not going to deal with that. If you go on strike, by the way, we’re going to evict you from your homes because we own your homes.’ The miners were evicted and these families set up tent colonies; dozens of dozens of tents in fields which were contributed by the UMWA and they lived there during the strike. The companies tried to break the strike by bringing in what we call ‘scabs’ (people who go against the strike and work anyway) and use coercion and violence to break the strike by using a combination of those factors. We see that pattern repeated.
So, while the striking coal miners in Pennsylvania ended up winning a 10% pay increase, those in West Virginia did not. The coal operators’ justification for this was that they argued that coal buyers were in the big cities of the north-east, and Pennsylvania was closer and so had lower transport costs. The operators therefore argued that the only way they could compete with Pennsylvania coalmines was by keeping labour costs low.
The UMW did manage to achieve some recognition in the Kanawha-New River coalfield. But over the coming years, repression and harassment of union organisers by mine guards eventually largely destroyed the union organisation in the area. But in 1912, another major strike took place in Kanawha County, at Cabin Creek and Paint Creek.
That’s right, yeah. That was in 1912. The northern coal operators had all formed an agreement with the union and coal operators in Pennslyvania, Ohio and Illinois had all formed an agreement to try to standardise their wages because fluctuations in prices and wages were both bedevilling them. By joining this agreement, they were hoping to bring some uniformity to their industry. The only way for it to work was if they could also unionise Appalachian coal mines as well because those lower wages were threatening their business in the north. The United Mine Workers agreed to make a concerted effort to bring mines in West Virginia into the union. They went to the place that Mother Jones had spent so much time on Paint Creek. She chastised the men for letting their local lapse and urged them to join the union again which they did. This was also at a time when the workers were, I would say, at their wits’ end with the mounting casualties underground because of dangerous conditions, the low wages, the poor living conditions and mine guards patrolling their towns. They were ready to join the union.
The workers had numerous demands, including the right to organise, rights to free speech, an end to blacklisting of union activists, for alternatives to company stores and for the abolition of mine guards. Miners were typically paid based on the weight of coal they extracted, and so this system was also ripe for abuse. So the workers also demanded for scales to be installed in all mines, and for the unions to be able to hire workers called checkweighmen, who would literally check the weight of coal to ensure workers were not being swindled by the employers.
Lou: So they went out on strike in Paint Creek and the miners in Cabin Creek soon joined. That would be a year-long strike and it would be one of the bloodiest strikes in U.S. history.
Catherine: About a year into the strike, around early February 1913 – February 7th is the day – by this point, the operators along Paint Creek and Cabin Creek had been bringing in strike-breakers for a while now. One of the means that they did this was they had commissioned an armoured train that was known as the ‘Bull Moose Special’ because of a politician that was affiliated with Teddy Roosevelt who was the President at the time.
Lou: Running for President.
Catherine: [Laughter] Running for President at the time. They commissioned this armoured train to bring in not only strike-breakers but weaponry that they needed, as they saw it, for defending their private property from these renegade strikers who were just anarchists who were blowing things up. It had two machine guns on it and it had portals for putting the butt of a rifle out and shooting from this train. There had been guerilla warfare going on in this area for the greater part of a year. Not only were miners killed during this warfare but also company men were killed. In response to one of the killings of a company man earlier that day or the day before, the Sheriff of Kanawha County went out to pool halls all over Charleston and rounded up a posse of former mine guards, current day mine guards and deputy sheriffs, a bunch of lawmen and mine guards, to get on this train. They’re going to their clubhouse, which is in a little town called Mucklow, where they have their fortress. They’ve literally built a fortress in this town and so they’re headed there. They pack their guns and they have their guns ready. As they’re passing by the striking miners’ tent camp, where not only miners but women, children and families were living through the winter, the story goes… it’s like many of these battles, nobody can agree who fired first. There seems to be agreement that there was a whistle from the train, the lights went out on the train and then there was firing. The guys on the train said they fired first and the guys in the tent camps said the train fired first. We don’t know but there was some fire exchanged and miraculously, only one person was killed as he was fleeing from his house and trying to hide his family in his basement. He was caught by a bullet and died. A woman, who was in her bed, had her foot shot. I don’t know whether it was the geometry of how they were shooting or if they were shooting high on purpose but thankfully, it wasn’t the bloodbath that it could have been. If you can imagine being stirred from your bed at night by machine gunfire from a train passing through, that would be enough to really terrify someone. I don’t want to say it’s become a legend because it was true but it’s certainly become one of the most repeated and most remembered moments from the Paint Creek and Cabin Creek strike because of the sheer drama of it.The miners and the companies fought for over a year during this strike and then in the spring of 1913, Governor Henry Hatfield in West Virginia tried to dictate a strike settlement between the operators and the UMWA. The Hatfield settlement was reluctantly agreed to by the coal operators’ association in Kanawha field as well as the UMWA officials. It gave the miners a wage increase and a nine-hour workday but it didn’t really address what a lot of the strike was about. So the rank and file, which was led by two men named Frank Keeney and Fred Mooney, who lived on Cabin Creek, rejected these terms and they led the miners there back out on strike in the summer of 1913. By the end of that summer, the operators negotiated even newer terms with Keeney and Mooney which expelled the mine guards from Paint Creek and Cabin Creek and allowed for the check-weighman, who was the guy who determined how much coal you had mined in a day and then how much you got paid… there were many accusations that they were being cheated out of their wages. They also agreed to prohibit the blacklisting of union miners. It was a significant step towards the recognition of a union by West Virginia operators. By the end of that strike, in the Kanawha field, things were getting pretty unionised. There were more remote regions that we’ll get to, like Blair Mountain, that were still not unionised and were very much hold-outs. The Paint Creek and Cabin Creek strike was also the inspiration for the writing of the famous labour anthem Solidarity Forever. There was a socialist poet named Ralph Chaplin who would go through the strike zone and throw labour newspapers and socialist newspapers out into the strike zone which were illegal there and had been cut off. However, he would go and deliver them. Based on some of the scenes he saw, he wrote that song a little bit later on in collaboration with a West Virginia unionist miner named Rummy something.
This miner was called Elmer Rummy” Rumbaugh. After the strike, both Rummy and Chaplin joined the Industrial Workers of the World union. Rummy also wrote a song called Paint ‘Er Red, which is frequently misattributed to Chaplin.
During the Cabin Creek strike, some of the mine guards working for the operators worked for an organisation called the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency. Like the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, Baldwin-Felts played a key role in the often violent repression of union miners.
Catherine: The Baldwin-Felts hired spies to pose as union miners to inform on the meetings that were taking place and who was signing up to be part of the union. If you showed up for a meeting, the next day, everyone at that meeting got fired from their jobs because there was a spy there. That made for a pretty distrustful environment. The thing that I think is pretty unusual and really chilling to me is the way in which public law enforcement at this time was enmeshed in and almost inseparable from these private mine guards – these mercenaries. In some cases, the mine guards would also be deputy sheriffs and paid not only through public wages but paid private wages through the coal companies and through the Baldwin-Felts Agency. Sometimes, when you read through the trials that took place and the senate hearings, people would be questioned and asked, ‘Who were you working for?’ Sometimes, in their answers, you can tell that they don’t know. Were they part of a public law enforcement at that time? You can see how someone living in a society like that would think, ‘Who’s protecting me if this person that’s purportedly part of public law enforcement is also being paid by the people who are the aggressors in this labour dispute?’
Following the dispute at Paint Creek and Cabin Creek, World War I broke out and, like in many places around the world, the end of the war would see a further outbreak of intense working class struggle in West Virginia.
Lou: During World War I, the United Mine Workers made a lot of gains in West Virginia, partly because the federal government was trying to ensure that there would be a steady supply of coal to the steel mills and the railroads to keep the war effort going. In exchange for not striking, the coal operators had to let the miners organise, essentially. They had to allow union organisers into the coal camps and they signed up a lot of members, especially around the Kanawha coalfield and started to head to the southernmost part of the state. When the war ended, the coal operators were determined to roll back those gains. The United Mine Workers were, of course, determined to finally organise those non-union mines so that the northern U.S. coal operators would get off their back and they would finally have a national, standardised wage scale. The operators in southern West Virginia were equally determined to prevent unionisation and roll back those wartime gains. This really set the stage for the very violent conflicts that would follow.
Logan and Mingo counties, two quite remote counties in the south-western corner of West Virginia, were the largest non-union coal area of the eastern United States, and was the top organising target for the UMWA. The employers’Association in Logan County, the Logan Coal Operators Association, paid the county sheriff to keep out union activists. The sheriff, Don Chafin, hired an army of deputies, paid for by the association, who would harass, arrest and beat anyone suspected of union involvement.
In the summer of 1919, rumours spread elsewhere in the state of atrocities being carried out by Chafin’s deputies. 1500 miners across West Virginia armed themselves and marched towards Logan County. They eventually reached Boone County, before turning back after a commission which had been appointed by the governor to investigate the allegations, determined were largely unfounded.
A few months later, coal operators cut wages in southern coalfields, and a wage increase awarded to union miners by the US Coal Commission excluded workers in south-western West Virginia.
In the spring of 1920, non-union miners in Mingo County walked out on strike, and appealed to District 17 of the United Mine Workers for assistance. District president Frank Keeney responded by calling a general strike of miners in Mingo County. Thousands of miners were on strike, and around 1500 joined the UMWA.
Lou: this was the first real success that they had trying to organise the southernmost part of West Virginia. What they found was that, once again, the company started to evict the miners from their homes because the companies owned the housing. However, here in the town of Matewan, it was an independent town and it wasn’t owned by the companies. So the mayor, who had been elected on a reform ticket along with the Chief of Police, Sid Hatfield, decided to put a stop to the evictions and they went out to confront Albert Felts of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to put a stop to the evictions. There was a tense stand-off. Hatfield and the mayor returned to town and they got a writ for the arrest of the Baldwin-Felts agents. When they confronted the Baldwin-Felts agents later, Albert Felts claimed that he had a warrant for Sid Hatfield’s arrest and a shootout ensued at the end of which ten people were dead, including Albert and Lee Felts and the Mayor of Matewan, C.C. Testerman.
This incident and the preceding dispute was made famous by the 1987 film, Matewan, directed by John Sayles. We were able to record audio from the reenactment of the Battle of Matewan, which give an account of the events which took place and some of the people involved, beginning with a description of Sid Hatfield,a key individual in these events anda fairly unique character in US labour history.
Mayor Testerman: ‘Sid Hatfield was one of the bravest men I ever saw. Crack shot with a rifle or a pistol. And he could whip a bigger feller in a fight. He wasn’t but five feet six and couldn’t have weighed more than 150lbs but no one crossed Sid Hatfield, unless they wanted their face in the dirt or worse. It’s probably the reason why I made him Chief of Police. Sid was a mountain boy. He grew up around here and he started in the coal mines over at Blackberry Creek and eventually worked his way up to the mines in Auburn. Maybe I should introduce myself. C.C. Testerman is my name and I was the Mayor of Matewan in the spring of 1920. Now you might think, ‘That’s a fine thing to be, the mayor of a small town.’ There was a time I thought I had it pretty good. Remembering those times, I’d done quite well for myself. I owned several prosperous businesses in this town, including Testerman’s Jewellery Store. I had me a pretty, young wife, Jessie, and we had us a little, blond, five-year-old boy we called Jack. But being the Mayor of Matewan in the spring of 1920 [laughter] was no easy job, I’ll tell you. Sid is a typical mountain man. He liked to play pool and he liked the ladies but he loved a good fight and truth to tell, that worried me. Even after I made him Chief of Police, he couldn’t stay out of trouble. Why twice, the winter before that fateful spring, I had to bail him out of jail. Once it was for possession of the illegal whisky and the other time, he got hauled in for fighting. That boy just could never stay out of a fight. Some of the businessmen around here criticised me for keeping him on as Chief of Police after that. Now in the spring of 1920, this area along the Tug River of West Virginia and Kentucky was the frontline in the battle between the coal operators and United Mine Workers of America. In a place like this where everybody knows everybody and is related to half of them, there’s no use trying to straggle the fence. You’re either for the union or against it and in these parts, Sid Hatfield was the union. I’ll tell you, after I made him Chief of Police, I pretty much let him run the show around here. I’ll be the first to admit, he enforced the law in a lopsided way. The miners could drink, and fight, and carry their guns as they pleased but not many union miners ever spent a night in our jail. If they fought, Sid would separate them and he had this ability to remind them all that they were all working together for the same cause. Sometimes, if they insisted on fighting, Sid let them go at each other until they wore themselves out but you let a company sympathiser break one fraction of the law, Sid would have them behind bars in no time. All that spring, the Baldwin-Felts detectives had been evicting coal miners up and down the Tug River, so things were getting pretty bad around here. Trouble was brewing and if I would have known how things would have turned out, I believe I would have left my job as mayor and got out of town.’
Here, the characters of two Baldwin-Felts detectives describe what led to the shootout after Mayor Testerman and Sid Hatfield presented warrants for the arrest of the detectives.
‘Detective One: Those striking miners, they were out for blood.
Detective Two: He said, ‘I’ll just return the compliment.’ He reached into this pocket and pulled out a piece of paper and said, ‘That’s a warrant for Hatfield’s arrest,’ and we were taking him back on the train to Bluefield with us.
Detective One: That’s when I noticed the number of guns… everywhere [laughter]. There was men watching from the square. They looked on from doors and windows. I even saw a couple of them hanging out of the upper storey of windows at the hardware store. Everywhere, men with pistols and rifles. We were completely surrounded and I began to get a very, very sick feeling in my stomach.
Detective Two: Then somebody ran out of the square yelling that Sid Hatfield was under arrest.
Detective One: Then you could feel that tension build.
Detective Two: Then Mayor Testerman come bustling out of his jewellery store. He was a baby-faced man with a big pot belly. He demands to see the warrant. Takes one look at it and he says, ‘This here’s a bogus warrant not worth the paper it’s written on.’ That was it. It was like lighting a match to the end of a fuse.
Townsperson: What’s going on Sid?
Sid: Claim to have a warrant for my arrest.
Detective Two: He’s going with us, ma’am.
Townspeople: That ain’t no claim. This warrant is fake. It’s not even worth the paper it’s written on.
Sid: That’s what I was thinking. Let me tell you something. The only way any of you boys are taking me out of this town is D-E-A-D: dead.’
[Burst of gunfire]
That’s all we’ve got time for in this episode. In Part 2, we talk more with Catherine and Lou from the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum about the fall-out from the Battle of Matewan as well as women in the mine wars , andinfamous Battle of Blair Mountain, which was the largest armed uprising in US history since the civil war. We also talk to some West Virginia teachers who took part in the reenactment, about their state-wide wildcat strike in 2018 and what the legacy of the mine wars means to them.
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If you want to learn more about the mine wars, we have a great selection of books in our shop. Just see the link in the show notes. As always, we’ve got sources, links to more info, photos, transcripts, further reading and more on the webpage for this episode, link in the show notes.
Thanks again to our patreon supporters for making this podcast possible. Special thanks to Conor Canatsey, Shae, James, Ariel Gioia and Stone Lawson. Music used in these episodes is Which Side Are You On, by Florence Rees, performed by The Nightwatchman, Tom Morello. Buy/stream it here. And Solidarity Forever by Ralph Chaplin, performed by David Rovics. Stream it here. This episode was edited by Tyler Hill.
Welcome back to the second episode of our two-part series on the West Virginia Mine Wars. If you haven’t listened to Part One yet, we recommend you go back and do that first.
Before we start off, just a reminder that our podcast is brought to you by our patreon supporters. Our supporters fund our work, and in return get exclusive early access to podcast episodes, bonus episodes, free and discounted merchandise and other benefits. Join us or find out more at patreon.com/workingclasshistory
At the end of the last episode, following a series of violent strikes in the Kanawha coalfields, we ended with infamous Battle of Matewan, when union-busting agents from the Baldwin-Felts detective agency attempted to arrest pro-union police chief, Sid Hatfield. The battle left ten dead: two miners,one of whom was unarmed, the town Mayor, and seven Baldwin-Felts detectives.
After the shootout, Sid Hatfield and 22 other people, mostly striking miners, were charged for the killings of the detectives. Seven defendants had their cases dismissed, and Hatfield and 15 others were subsequently put on trial, in what became the lengthiest murder trial in the history of the state. The trial began on 28 January 1921, and 40 armed Baldwin-Felts detectives assembled in the street outside the courthouse in a blatant attempt to intimidate the jury. But this was unsuccessful.
Lou: In the end, they could not find a jury that would convict Sid Hatfield and the others of murdering the Baldwin-Felts agents.
All of the defendants were acquitted at trial, by a jury who knew what Baldwin-Felts detectives were like. The New York Times reported that on the day the defendants came back from trial, the entire population of Matewan came to the railway station to meet them. They quote one “rugged mountaineer” as declaring: “It is the happiest day Matewan ever knew”. They also reported that it took Hatfield more than an hour to travel 100 m from the station to his house, as everyone wanted to shake his hand, and stated that Hatfield’s right hand was swollen from the “hearty grasps of his neighbours”.
After the trial, struggles in the coalfields continued.
Lou: Over the next year, there were a lot of small skirmishes and there were even some coal tipples that were blown up by the miners.
Tipples are also known as coal prep plants. They are basically structures in which coal gets transferred from the mine into railway cars.
Lou: In fact, Sid Hatfield and his deputy, Ed Chambers, were indicted for blowing up one of the coal tipples. Whether or not they actually had anything to do with it is doubtful but this was a way to put them back on trial. In this case, the coal operators got the trial relocated to McDowell County which they knew would be more in their control. In fact, it didn’t even get to the trial. Sid and Ed travelled by train to Welch, West Virginia and then they got off the train and went to their hotel. They left their hotel unarmed and they went to the courthouse and C.E. Lively, a spy for the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, led a group of agents and they killed them on the courthouse steps in front of their wives.
Lively and the other Baldwin-Felts agents were also later acquitted of murder on the grounds of self-defence, even though both Hatfield and Chambers were unarmed when they were killed.
Coal mining is a very male-dominated industry, but women have always played a really key role in industrial disputes in mining communities. For example, we discuss the role of women in the 1984 British miners’ strike in our episode 13. West Virginia was no different in this respect.
Catherine: Women, of course, couldn’t be miners because of superstitions and also sometimes the law just prohibited it but that didn’t mean that they weren’t very involved in these disputes. In fact, they led these disputes in numerous ways. They wrote songs, for one thing. Some of the most iconic and incredible works of art that came out of these disputes were written by women. They picketed and they attacked strike-breakers and coal company officials because they could, in a sense, sometimes get away with more because of their gender. During the Paint Creek and Cabin Creek strike, this woman named Sarah Blizzard, an older woman, led a mob that attacked strike-breakers with broomsticks. She also led a group of women to tear up the railroad tracks after the ‘Bull Moose Special’ came in so that they could never come back. This was militant involvement. They participated in gunfights even, occasionally, and they also demanded that the males in their families take action. You have to think about the fact that for women, their workplace was the coal camp. So if we’re talking about all these elements of the coal camp life that were eventually building and leading up to all this frustration and injustice on the part of the miners, the women were on the frontlines of the coal camp. They were the ones who went to the company store and saw the prices that were so high. They were the ones who cut the scrip and saw how their wages were being… they were the ones who had to haul the water because the water was five blocks away. They were the ones who had to clean everything that was so dirty in the coal camp. So their very lives were enmeshed in this struggle in a very real way and so it’s perhaps not surprising that they, in many instances, were the ones goading the men along saying, ‘Let’s get some change here. Let’s demand something more.’ They also worked as organisers. People like, of course, Mother Jones is the most famous but there were also people like Fannie Sellins, Nellie Spinelli and Sarah Blizzard, who worked as organisers. I think women also bore part of the brunt of the psychological stress of the coal industry. Males were the ones going underground and facing death every day but women were also facing the death of husbands and loved ones every day. If they lost a husband or a loved one, they’d be struggling even more. They had to deal with the stress of possibly losing a husband or their children. So coupled with housing and economic instability in this debt peonage system, you can see how they would be willing to take a risk to win some gains but they could not be a part of the union. They were barred from being a part of the union at the time.
We spoke to one of the participants of the Battle of Matewan reenactment about her character, which dramatises the experiences that many miners’ wives lived through at the time.
Allie: My name is Allie Paxton. My character is the coal miner’s wife to Charlie Kelly, a coal miner. We play it off like she was the mouthpiece and he was the silent, strong stone who kept her going. We were one of the families that were evicted that day on May 19th, 1920 and it was a brutal time. The Baldwin-Felts were doing a job but they did it viciously and it didn’t matter if you had children in the house. It didn’t matter if you had elderly or sick people in the house. Everything was gone. You had to go. It didn’t matter if you had so much stuff because they’d throw it out for you.
One of the lines that I have in the play is when it talks about the conditions that the coal miners, that were in the union, had to deal with once they were evicted. These families were put in tents together. Sally and Jessie would bring food to the tent colonies. When nightfall came, they would have the armoured train coming through and there would be more thugs on the train and they would shoot into the tents.
My family is pretty much union coal miners. I am part of the union, for education. Her character resonates with me because I feel her emotions when I’m her character. I teach first-grade babies every day and I have babies of my own and I couldn’t imagine watching children go through that as she had to and watching her children grow up in a tent colony. Coal company operators just wanted you out if you weren’t willing to forgo and not be a union member.
One song that I most connect with is ‘Which Side Are You On’ and it’s a song from Kentucky. It talks about a woman who was in the tent colony and she was experiencing what they were going through. They would come by and they would shoot, and shoot, and shoot, and shoot. She wrote this song in her house as she was being shot at with her children and herself under the bed. It connects with the coal miner’s wife and her story because she was thrown out at gunpoint and then she had to live in the conditions of the tent colonies when they would drive the armoured train through and shoot, and shoot, and shoot. It didn’t matter if there were children in the colony. It didn’t matter if there were elderly people who couldn’t walk or weren’t able to get to shelter quick enough. They just shot into it. It was very brutal. Like her husband says in the play, he was a patriot and he fought in World War I and they didn’t care that he was a veteran. They were going to kick him out just as much as they were going to kick anybody else out.
‘Which Side Are You On’was written by Florence Rees, the wife of a UMW organiser, during a miners’ strike in Harlan County, Kentucky.
Just over a year after the Matewan shootout the Battle of Blair Mountain occurred. Its centenary has just taken place, and a whole series of events was organised to commemorate it. It is definitelyone of the more famous incidents of the mine wars,, although it is still relatively little-known.
Catherine: All this stuff that we’ve been talking about around these 20 years of ongoing strikes, guerilla warfare, resentment and violence, it all comes to a head in an incident that we call The Battle of Blair Mountain which was the largest, armed insurrection in U.S. history since the Civil War. You saw 10,000 armed, unionist coal miners go up against a force (numbers are approximate) of about 3,000 company officials. After Sid Hatfield and Ed Chambers were murdered, which was at the beginning of August 1921, by the end of August, the miners had also presented a set of demands to the Governor and they were agitating for some more gains. The Governor rejected those demands and so that, along with Sid Hatfield’s murder, really set off this spark that would lead to a series of events that would culminate in this huge battle. By the end of August, beginning of September, the miners get a call from their district and their locals and it starts to spread through Kanawha Valley and through New River – ‘We’re going to gather at Marmet.’ They start mustering. Some of these miners were World War One veterans and occasionally, would even show up in their army fatigues and have their U.S. issued firearms. They were gathering along the river in a place called Marmet. There would be speeches there and townspeople were coming too because this was a spectacle. It wasn’t every day that they saw this big mob. People were set up with camps and there were campfires. Mother Jones comes and there were speeches. Eventually, the miners set off from Marmet and they headed to Mingo County where a lot of their union brothers were being kept under martial law in jail without due process. This was intolerable to them. It wasn’t the first time it had happened and they were tired of it and they wanted to free these men. Mingo County was on the other side of Logan County which was the last anti-union stronghold in southern West Virginia at that time. Mingo was in the process but it was one of the most strong anti-union counties left in southern West Virginia and it was controlled by a man named Don Chafin, who was the sheriff and he was also paid by the coal companies to keep the union out. He did a very good job of it [laughter]. To get to Mingo, they had to go through Logan County, so they set off from Marmet and they marched 50 miles. Their plan was to go through Kanawha County, through Boone County, through Logan County and unionise Logan County as they go. Some of them wanted to murder Don Chafin and then get to Mingo and so one of their rallying cries was ‘On to Mingo!’ That’s where they were going to go. They go on this march and along the way, even their union leaders tell them to turn around and say, ‘This has gotten out of hand. You need to just go back home.’ Some of them do and then they get called back. It’s kind of mess and people are on trains and they’re hoofing it on foot or in cars. I mean it’s really a battle zone and it looks like a war is happening in this area and it was. They’re heading there and they get to the foot of Blair Mountain. Blair Mountain is a big mountain that separates union territory from anti-union territory in Logan County, so for the miners to get to Mingo County, they have to go across that mountain. Logan County guys know it, so they start to rally and they get a whole bunch of guys to go up the mountain on the other side and take positions up on this ridgeline. You have to imagine a long ridgeline like a backbone where they’re setting up machine guns and nests where they can fire down on the miners who they assume are going to start to charge up that mountain to get past them. The men in Logan County, who are going to be fighting the miners, see their role as defending their home from these anarchist rebels. They’re for law and order and they want to keep the peace. That’s how they see themselves and fighting this chaos that these miners are bringing. They do, in fact, end up clashing along this ridgeline and they fight for five days with machine guns, rifles and all manner of weaponry. Don Chafin, the Sheriff of Logan County, chartered private planes to drop homemade, essentially kind of pipebombs with nails, nuts and bolts onto the miners who were fighting. Some of these bombs did explode, although no one was hurt but there are still famous photographs from the time of miners holding up this bomb. It was very dramatic and these things started to make national headlines, for sure. The miners, in order to identify themselves to each other, wore red bandanas around their necks or on their arms as a kind of badge or symbol that they were on the union side. Many on the other side were wearing black armbands to differentiate themselves.
This red bandannas were the reason for the miners being referred to as the “Redneck Army”.
Catherine:They were known as the Redneck Army and that term “redneck” as being applied to unionists goes back to a railroad strike in West Virginia in the 1800s sometime. Folk wisdom tells us that the term ‘redneck’ comes from this battle and from the Paint Creek and Cabin Creek strike where the red bandana came to symbolise solidarity and working together for the greater good.
In general, use of the term “redneck” was recorded before this time, but it was not in widespread use. Around the time period of the mine wars, the term was popularised, and much of its use was in demonising union and communist workers. So this period is very important in the history of the use of the word “redneck”.
Catherine: About five days into the fighting, U.S. troops show up who have been deployed from throughout the East Coast. They come in on trains and they’re wearing their uniforms. They come from both directions to try to do this kind of pincer movement to cut off both sides. It’s kind of classic military movement, I guess. As soon as the miners see the U.S. troops, they surrender because remember that some of them just got done fighting in World War I and these were their army brothers. They’re not going to fight the U.S. government because that’s not who they have a beef with. They have a beef with the private companies that employ them and it has nothing to do with the U.S. government. That’s how they see it. They see the U.S. government as their saviours coming to stand up for them and fight for what they want. Meanwhile, the other side also sees the U.S. government as the saviour who’s come in to put in law and order and get what they want. Fortunately, there was no more bloodshed because both sides were willing to very quickly surrender to the federal troops that came in.
However, despite the miners thinking that the US government would support them, they did not. As in almost all other historical examples, while the federal government pretends to be neutral, in reality it intervenes nearly always on behalf of the employers. In the end, the Battle of Blair Mountain ended in defeat for the workers and their union.
Lou: After the fighting was over, 200 plus miners were indicted for treason and some were indicted for murder. Ultimately, only a handful went to prison and even there, some of the people who were convicted of murder had their sentences commuted after about a decade. But this was devastating for the union. The union’s membership dropped to historic lows in the 1920s. District 17 had to give up its autonomy to the international office. Frank Keeney and Fred Mooney left the union. Throughout the ’20s, miners had to go back to work in the company towns and dangerous conditions. There were some attempts to ameliorate the worst parts of company town life but the miners would have to wait very patiently for another opportunity to organise for more than a decade. That would not come until 1933 when, under Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act I which included a section that recognised the right of workers to unionise.
Fred Mooney and Frank Keeney, you may remember from part 1, were militant local union activists. The National Industrial Recovery Act would be introduced following a massive wave of working class struggles with the background of the great depression which began in 1929.
Despite taking place a century ago, the legacy of the Battle of Blair Mountain continues to this day. For instance, in 2018, during the state-wide wildcat strike of West Virginia teachers, many strikers wore the red bandanas made famous during the Battle of Blair Mountain.
Catherine: Yeah, it was super fascinating to see that and you saw all sorts of signs of it during the strike. There would literally be signs of Mother Jones’ quotes. I saw a bunch of insignia Mother Jones on shirts. People were talking about the union organising that happened back then. Many of these teachers were West Virginia history teachers. I talked to a fair number of them who were literally seeing history come alive in front of them. The parallels were kind of crazy. During the West Virginia teachers’ strike, at a certain point, the union leadership decided, ‘Okay, we’re going to take this deal with the Governor. The strike is over.’ The rank and file said, ‘No, we don’t trust that this promise is going to happen,’ so they continued their strike beyond what their district leadership recommended. It became this wildcat strike which was very similar to what happened in Paint Creek, for example. These parallels started cropping up to the point you’re thinking history, in some cases, is repeating itself, or mirroring itself, or reflecting back. They were largely women who were leading the strike and they were fairly reflective about that. I don’t want to take all the credit but I do think the existence of the museum has allowed that conversation to come out more than it has in the past. We try our best to use social media and all means that we can to get this story out into the world.
Allie Paxton, whom we spoke to earlier from the Battle of Matewan reenactment, was one of the many teachers taking part in the West Virginia strike.
Allie: I was on the frontline with the rest of the teachers in Charleston.
We were on strike for nine days. It was a very stressful time. We didn’t know if we were going to get the support that we did. We were very lucky that we had our superintendent’s support. We had 55 counties’ support. If there had been just one county that said, ‘No, we’re not going out,’ we wouldn’t have gotten the success that we did.
It fills me with awe that I got to be a part of the ‘shot across the world’ (as Donald likes to say with the coal mine). Mingo County started the coal mine wars and Mingo County started the teachers’ strike. It makes me feel good that I stood up for what I believe in, my fellow teachers stood up for what they believed and we actually accomplished what we were looking for. We still have a long way to go and we have told them, ‘If we have to, we’ll go out again.’ We’re going to get it done. As long as we have that mentality of ‘we’re going to get it done’, it’s going to get done.
We also spoke to Hillary Hall, another striking West Virginia teacher, who played Mother Jones in the reenactment.
Hillary: I am a striking teacher from West Virginia, Mingo County, and so that is a little bit of personal involvement. It’s actually what got me involved in this, so that was a nice connection.
I’m very proud about the area I grew up in. I am a very strong union member and I spent a long time in Charleston on our strike, so getting to play Mother Jones was a big deal for me. I am one of the newest cast members and I got thrown in about three weeks ago but it meant so much to be asked and to be part of this.
It started way back in the middle of January and it started here. We were having meetings before anyone else did. We went out for one day on a work stoppage deal before anyone else, along with McDowell County and Wyoming County. It was very nice to be a part of that. We spent nine days on the line and we met all kinds of people from all walks of life. We were all together getting our health benefits fixed, getting a raise and making sure that we had high-quality teachers for posterity.
We asked Allie and Hillary whether they felt any connections between the West Virginia teachers’ strike, and the events of the mine wars a century before.
Hillary: Absolutely. Of course, we’re not out in the streets having to physically fight but as far as we have to be strong. Mentally, we can’t fold into not having a union anymore. We had gotten so complacence right before all this happened this year. It seems like they’re trying to say the same things to us that some of the mines did before. With one of the things in our health benefit plan, they were trying to do this thing where we would walk so much and we could earn rewards. It was almost like having scrip like the miners; not to the degree that they experienced but it was a lot like it. We got to the point of saying, ‘Really? You can’t pay for our health benefits but you can give us an Amazon gift card for whatever?’ [Laughter]. So there is a definite connection.
Allie: It had an effect on me. I have been telling this story for seven years because I’ve been on this cast for seven years. I had a personal connection to the character herself but now I have a connection to what the miners went through, to get what they got and to get us what we have now. It was amazing! It was out of this world just being able to experience it; being there; holding each other’s hands; watching as thousands of teachers were shouting and protesting at the same time. When I then came back to practise the play and got into character, it meant so much more now because I know I can stand up for what I believe in now. I could really get into the headspace of what they were going through.
For years now, the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum has been doing really indispensable work keeping the memory of the mine wars alive. Here, Catherine explains the work they do and why it’s so important.
Catherine: One of the problems is that there has not been much of a memory of this incident and that’s due to a lot of reasons. One of the reasons it was taboo was because of these treason trials that Lou mentioned. People were being accused of murder and treason. This wasn’t something that you really wanted to brag about in your family. They were kind of vilified after the fact, in some cases, by the press, although not all the press. The stories that did survive, I believe really survived within families that were told around the dinner table or special occasions. But there really was never a public place to go to memorialise what happened, to talk freely about it, to ask questions about it and really dig into it. Our museum aims to be that place where people can come and many of the people who come have relatives who were involved. We get stories all the time from people coming in whose granddaddy fought in the Battle of Blair Mountain. I think, for them, it’s pretty affirming to have a place where they can see that this stuff really did matter; that it was this nationally significant event; that people are paying attention; that it’s being remembered; and that those who struggled and died in these conflicts do have a legacy and there is a memory of what they did. This is just me speaking but we strive to be that place to remember. We do all sorts of stuff. We have history events; we have parties; we host movie screenings of Matewan; we had John Sayles come last year. We’re working on an education programme and we’ve developed curricula for West Virginia public school teachers that I think is going to be a big success for us. What am I forgetting? We publish a journal and we have a membership programme and so you can definitely become a part of this. The number one way that you can support what we do is by becoming a member of the museum and you can do that on our website at wvminewars.org. It’s a yearly fee and that, literally, is what keeps the lights on at the museum. It would mean a lot if you would consider becoming a member and then you also get all kinds of cool perks, like you get a really cool membership card that looks like a union card. You get invited to special parties and it’s really a lot of fun. I really feel like a community is growing around the museum and that has also been somewhat lacking.
That concludes our double episode on the West Virginia mine wars.
We also have a great selection of books about the wars in our online shop. Just see the link in the show notes.
As always, we’ve got sources, links to more info, photos, transcripts, further reading and more on the webpage for this episode, link in the show notes. Also on the webpage for this episode we have a link to watch the film, Matewan. It is well worth a watch, although listeners should bear in mind that it fictionalises certain details. For example, the main character in the film is union organiser Joe Kenehan who is fictional. In actual fact, the main Black miner depicted in the film, Few Clothes Johnson was an outside organiser with the UMWA and was a key strike leader in the Paint Creek and Cabin Creek strike some years before. It also contains a fictionalised and problematic storyline around a sexual assault allegation.
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Thanks again to our patreon supporters for making this podcast possible. Special thanks to Conor Canatsey, Shae, James, Ariel Gioia and Stone Lawson.
Theme music for this episode is Solidarity Forever by Ralph Chaplin, performed by David Rovics. Link to stream it in the show notes.
This episode was edited by Tyler Hill.
Finally, thanks to all of you for listening. Catch you next time.
Original audio transcribed by