May 19, 1920: Albert C. Felts disembarks from a passenger train in Matewan, West Virginia. He’s flanked by twelve private detectives, all affiliated with the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency. Their mission for the day is to evict about half a dozen families from company-owned housing in the small mining town. The evictions were completed peacefully, without any physical conflict, but underneath the façade of compliance there was resentment threatening to boil over. By the end of the day ten men would be dead and the town’s history would be changed forever.1
Appalachia has been coal country for as long as anyone who is currently alive can remember. For West Virginia specifically, it acted as the almost sole source of work for most of its citizens for decades, since the state was at the center of coal mining in the United States. Matewan, West Virginia was no exception. It was a coal mining town, filled with hard-working families looking to put food on the table. Unfortunately, Matewan is most known for the massacre that took place in 1920, which left ten people dead, including the mayor of the town. The inciting incidents to this bloody confrontation between pro-union miners and the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency were common in many mining towns across the U.S. Living in a company town wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Nothing was ever clean. The houses that were given to miners and their families were run down and disgusting. There was very little social mobility for miners, their wages were low, and saving to move away from the coal camp was almost impossible. There was very little support from politicians, as they were in the pockets of the company owners. It was only when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt passed the National Industry Recovery Act in 1933 that things started looking up for miners.2 In order to better the living environment for themselves and their families, miners would join unions to lobby for improvements to their working conditions. Sometimes those running the coal companies chose to use alternative methods to bring down the unions. For example, they might hire a detective agency to get information on those in the union that could be used against the union. It wasn’t uncommon for detectives to go undercover to learn inside information and then betray the miners.
When you think of coal, you often think of the early twentieth century. In fact, the earliest descriptions of coal in the United States date back to 1673 and Louis Jolliet’s expedition on the Mississippi River. Despite this discovery, the first coal mine wouldn’t be established until almost a hundred years later in 1745.3 Appalachians were some of the first people in the United States to recognize the importance of coal and began to mine it and use it to their advantage. After that, it wasn’t long before the entirety of Appalachia began to mine for the dark material that eventually changed the landscape and the people of the region forever.
Often, the coal was used for weapons, and over time it became used for fuel, particularly for the automobile industry and the war effort in the early 1900s. During World War I, coal supplied 70% of automobile fuel and made itself known as a powerful source of employment and income. Eventually though, the discovery of gas and oil as a fuel source revealed the downside to coal. Today coal is still mined within the US, but not anywhere close to the amount that it was during its heyday.4 However, the culture and history that has sprung out of coal mining is prevalent even in the present day and many citizens of Appalachia are very proud of the work that they and their ancestors have done for the sake of the growth of the country.
The men of Matewan were proud of their work as well, but were frustrated and angry with the thought of being evicted from their homes. The mayor of Matewan, Cabel Testerman, was firmly on the side of the incensed miners. He met with Felts and his men, and attempted to get them to stop the evictions; but he was forced to stop when he was told that the evictions were legal. In order to get a fuller story, it is important to pull from sources from the time to get a better context. The Logan Coal Operators Association Collection possesses an article written shortly after the massacre. What follows is a description of the build-up of the storm that was to come. “In the afternoon, after the evictions had been made, Mr. Felts and his men went to the hotel at Matewan where they had supper and put all of their rifles in packages or grips, preparatory to taking train No. 16 of the Norfolk & Western Railway Company, which left about five o’clock, p.m., out of Matewan. In the meantime, Sid Hatfield had called one Tony Webb at Williamson, who was at that time a deputy sheriff of Mingo County, and who was a friend of the miners’ Union, and requested him to send up warrants for the arrest of Felts and his men. Webb informed Sid Hatfield that he could not get the warrants to Matewan before train No. 16 run. Whereupon, Sid Hatfield remarked, over the phone: ‘We will kill the G D S of B—— before they leave town.’” The tension built and built, and a powder keg was ready to explode at the slightest provocation.5
A miner’s day in the early twentieth century often started long before the sun would rise. Heading deep into the bowels of the earth, the men and boys endured 10 to 12 hour days for minimal pay. It was common for young boys to lie about their age in order to make a meager living for themselves and for those who relied on them. You could find boys as young as eight years old in the mines as “breaker boys,” who would separate the impurities from the coal by hand. The work was dirty and dangerous, but for some, it was the only option they had, if they wanted to survive. If a miner was strong and skilled, it would be possible to fill about five or more cars of coal in a day. In West Virginia, a hard working laborer could earn $2.00 for 10 to 12 hours of labor, but only if the work was steady. Some weeks the mine might be closed due to a lack of coal cars from the railroad company or because the mine needed to be repaired before work could be done again. During those times, a miner might only work two to three days a week. James Green says this in his article “A Day in the Life of a West Virginia Coal Miner”: “Even in a good week, there was unpaid work to perform: propping up newly opened rooms with wooden posts, laying track to his room, and lowering the floor of the main tunnel so loaded coal cars could pass through. The miners called this unpaid labor ‘company work.’”6 Without work, the family of the coal miner would starve, so it was important to get as much work done as possible in order to support their families. One of the securities that coal miners took was joining the local miners’ union in order to protect themselves from corrupt employers who were eager to take advantage of the lower class and often under-educated individuals who worked in the mines. Since mining was one of the only jobs available to uneducated adult males at the time, it made sense that they would join the mining companies in droves.
By banding together as a group, the miners were able to discuss grievances they had with the mining companies and worked together to increase wages or protest terrible working conditions. They knew that no one would protect them but themselves. The miners knew that the government wouldn’t protect them so they protected each other. They’d give up hard earned pay to ensure that sick or injured miners could still feed their families and risk their lives if their comrades were trapped in a collapsed mine. When a miner died on the job, and miners died on the job a lot, his fellow miners would refuse to work for the rest of their shifts for the day and would take up a collection to ensure the late miner’s family would be secure. The cramped, dark, and dangerous mines made brothers out of strangers. When you experience such a dramatic occupation together, you become compatriots for life.7 Since no one else would be on their side, the miners found a sense of camaraderie with each other and worked hard to ensure that every miner, as well as their families, made it through the difficult times. This cooperation inside and outside of the mine shows the camaraderie that made life easier for everyone in the mining town.
When on strike, it was common for employers to bring in workers from outside of the mining town, sometimes from out of state. Without a union to protect them, these strike breakers were willing to work in the grisly conditions for less pay. These “scabs” were ridiculed and admonished by striking miners as they walked past the picket lines filled with dozens and dozens of angry, tired men. It was a huge insult to be called a “scab” due to the connotation that you would take the job of a man who was fighting to improve working conditions for himself and his fellow miners. A “scab” could be treated badly in a coal mining town and often didn’t have anyone to sympathize with him, other than other “scabs” themselves. Patrick Huber explains the colorful language reserved for scabs and scab sympathizers. “Union miners saw themselves as inherently different than the cruel-hearted gun thugs and cowardly scabs, who were cast as class traitors and company toadies literally, in the miners’ richly descriptive, sexually suggestive language, company sucks and company licks who felt no sense of allegiance to their fellow workingmen. Nor were the miners like the money-grubbing coal operators who, they believed, exploited miners’ backbreaking labor rather than doing honest work themselves.”8 The unions brought the men together and gave them an “us against them” mentality that led them to take action when their livelihoods were threatened by the coal mining company and those whom they sent to do their dirty work. This is exactly what happened on that fateful day in Matewan. Violence was the last resort for those who were at their breaking point with nothing left to lose.
After eating and stowing their rifles, the Felts men headed towards the train station to return home after evicting the miners and their families. Felts and three of his men were armed with pistols and a group of men, lead by Hatfield, approached the detectives. Sid Hatfield and a crowd of men confronted Felts and his comrades to hold him until the train arrived. They had no legal right to do so. Before doing so, Hatfield remarked to onlookers that he wanted to kill Felts and all the men that came with him; he didn’t care if there was a warrant or not. After being approached by Hatfield, Felts showed him the warrant that gave him permission to evict the miners. Hatfield seemed nonchalant; he chatted with Felts as they approached No. 16, still followed by a crowd of angry miners. He enticed Felts into the doorway of Chambers Hardware Store and the legitimacy of the warrant was brought into question. Testerman examined the warrant and when Felts wasn’t looking, Hatfield shot him in the head. After this, the rest of the miners began to shoot at Felts’ men with abandon.9
In 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the National Industrial Recovery Act that authorized the President to make decisions regarding fair wages and prices in order to stimulate economic growth during the Great Depression. Among the many provisions guaranteed were trade union rights for workers across the United States. This was a huge breakthrough for miners and their struggling families. It was heartening to see pro-union legislation come down from such a high place in the country. It felt like Roosevelt was supporting their fight. The West Virginia Historical Society Quarterly describes the relief that miners and their families felt when the act was passed: “Mining families are nearly unanimous about the difference the presence of the union made in their lives and their communities. When FDR signed the NIRA into being, men could, for the most part, stop hiding while trying to organize their unions.”10 For the first time people began to see unions as something necessary for the working man and this caused a shift within mining towns and within the hearts of those exploited by the coal companies.
Not all employers were so forgiving though. Often, union members were harassed and even killed if they made too much of a fuss about their working conditions and pay. In 1920, as mentioned above, ten people were killed in a shoot-out between the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency and the pro-union men of the city of Matewan, West Virginia. The detectives were sent to make the protesting men cooperate, with disastrous results. These tensions had been building for a long time. In 1912, there was a massive strike in the town. According to an article in Smithsonian Magazine, “After five months, things came to a head when 6,000 union miners declared their intention to kill company guards and destroy company equipment. When the state militia swooped in several days later, they seized 1,872 high-powered rifles, 556 pistols, 225,000 rounds of ammunition, and large numbers of daggers, bayonets and brass knuckles from both groups.”2 Another eight years of high tensions in the mining town resulted in a massacre that left seven Baldwin-Felts detectives dead as well as two miners and the pro-union mayor. Despite support from both the mayor and the pro-union sheriff, the detectives infiltrated the town and caused the demise of almost a dozen people. Human lives meant little to the coal company; anyone on their payroll could be sacrificed for the greater good of the company. Any payout a family received for a dead relative was never enough to cover the hole left from losing them.
The miners in Matewan were merciless. They shot men multiple times and pursued those who ran away from the bullets. The Logan Coal Operators Association Collection describes the carnage in detail: “C. T. Higgins, A. J. Booher, O. E. Powell, and J. W. Ferguson were killed at different spots in the town of Matewan while endeavoring to get away. Captain G. W. Anderson, who was with Mr. Felts, was shot through the shoulder while running, but made his escape by hiding. Five of the other men with Mr. Felts also succeeded in making their escapes without being injured. After Albert Felts was shot, and while he was lying on the ground, in an unconscious condition and mortally wounded, Sid Hatfield fired a shot into his body with a revolver, and one Bill Bowman placed his rifle up against his head and shot him through the head.”9 The most gruesome death goes to J. W. Ferguson. After being hit in the initial volley of bullets, Ferguson succeeded in reaching the house of a local woman where he took shelter. The miners stormed into the house and shot him while he rested in a rocking chair. He made it to a nearby fence and was shot yet again while attempting to climb it. The postmortem examination showed that Ferguson had been shot six times.9
Day to day life was tough, not only for the miners but for their families as well. There was back breaking labor and clothes that never got clean. Wives worked as hard above ground as their husbands did below ground. Eileen Mountjoy states that, “The coal town housewife boiled her family’s clothes and rubbed them ‘on the board’ with homemade soap. When she hung her wash outside, she had to take it down quickly before the airborne coal dust blackened it again. A miner’s work clothes never got completely clean, even with the application of lye to the blackest areas.”14 A coal miner’s wife had to make due with what she could get from the company store, which was also owned by the mining company that her husband worked for. The company store was the only option for women who could not afford to travel out of town for sundries. The coal mining company had a monopoly on almost all aspects of a coal miner’s life, from the work they did, to the food they ate, to the home that they slept in. All of these things were given to them by the company and these things could be taken away by the company as well. Having little to no control of their lives frustrated those who weren’t in power: the miners and their families. But what choice did they have? With no other venues for work, the best the miners could do was work hard and join a union.
Out of all the things that the mining companies took from their workers, the most important of all were their lives. The life of a coal miner was fraught with danger and death at every turn. Rev. John McDowell was a miner before devoting his life to God. His experiences peppered his sermons and his “Life of a Coal Miner” oration is particularly moving: “His dangers are many. He may be crushed to death at any time by the falling roof, burned to death by the exploding of gas, or blown to pieces by a premature blast. So dangerous is his work that he is debarred from all ordinary life insurance. In no part of the country will you find so many crippled boys and broken down men. During the last thirty years over 10,000 men and boys have been killed and 25,000 have been injured in this industry. Not many old men are found in the mines. The average age of those killed is 32.”15 Not to mention the inhalation of coal dust that could lead to the “black lung” and turn even the strongest men into weak, wheezing invalids. Many wives and children dreaded the knock at the door that would tell them that their only source of income had departed from this world, with only thoughts and prayers and perhaps a pension offered as condolences, if they were lucky. The next day there would be someone to replace the fallen miner and the cycle of exploitation and poverty would continue, even into the modern era.
Modern day miners have learned from history and know that the lessons learned at Matewan can still be applied today. Unions and the health of miners is just as important now as it was then. Lorraine Boissoneault spoke with modern miners to get their opinions on current mining: “The things they were fighting for [in the Matewan massacre] are the things we’re fighting for today,” Terry Steele says. He’s one of the miners who will be losing his health insurance and retirement plan in the wake of his employer’s bankruptcy. “The things our forefathers stood for are now being taken away from us. It seems like we’re starting to turn the clock back.”2 The changes in the coal industry have been small but giving up is not an option. Miners today have just as little control as their predecessors. Despite all this, they remain hopeful for a future for themselves and the people that they care about. The Matewan union miners couldn’t have imagined what would come about because of their actions and the fact that their struggles are not well known in modern times is a shame. We could all learn something from their brutality and strong resistance against tyranny.
Seven of Felts’ men and three men from Matewan were murdered in the Matewan Massacre. Witnesses in Matewan were threatened and sometimes forced into silence when they were approached by the government to reveal the truth of what happened that day. In a twist, Sid Hatfield married Mayor Testerman’s widow two weeks after the slayings. Some believe that Hatfield killed Testerman himself during the chaos and made it seem as though he was shot by the Felts men.17 Even if Hatfield had other ambitions, the miners certainly sought to keep their homes in their possession and were overcome with rage when the violence finally broke out. Mob violence is often condemned, and in most cases it should be, but when faced with the prospect of life-altering occurrences, anyone can become a part of the mob.
To this day, this cycle continues. The life of a coal miner was plagued with difficulties inside and outside of the mine. Appalachia is a beautiful place with rich resources, certainly more than enough to go around. However, there is a huge disconnect and many of the people in the region are plagued by poverty. According to Gwynn Guilford, “Widespread absentee land ownership in Appalachia is largely responsible for the disconnect between the high value of Appalachia’s coal reserves and the region’s poverty.”18 The people of the region continue to be taken advantage of by a field of work that is still stuck in the past, through no fault of their own. With the turn towards green and renewable energy, we might see a decrease in the need for coal and in turn, for coal miners. It is possible that over time this job might become completely obsolete within the next century.
Even though we have now begun to recognize that coal has had a terrible effect on the planet, we should not blame coal miners for this, and should support them as coal is phased out and they search for new jobs in this changing world. No matter what happens, this remains true: without coal miners and their struggle for union rights, the status of working class people in the United States would be greatly reduced. The Matewan Massacre is just one example of the dangers that miners went through in order to survive in a world that wanted to push them into the very mines that gave power to the country. The fact that miners toiled in unsafe working conditions that drastically shortened their lives just goes to show how exploitative the industry was and still is to this day. One thing is for sure, the next time you meet coal miners, you should thank them for their service.