The Daily

The Trial of Sheriff Sid Hatfield

My great great uncle, LP Somerville, ran away from home to fight in the Spanish American War that made Teddy Roosevelt famous as well as President. Like many of the mountain settlers in Appalachia, LP was proud, adventurous, self-reliant and patriotic. Even ornery. That did not make him unique in West Virginia. I can remember him plowing a garden in his backyard in Parkersburg (with an old hand operated tiller) and cleaning out the gutters on his roof – in his nineties.

Getting a jury  was even more difficult than predicted. Finding jurymen unrelated to the Defendants’ families – including both Hatfields and McCoys – appeared impossible. When the name “Anse Hatfield” was called, a lawyer responded, “He’s dead, Your Honor,” as two men named Anse Hatfield stepped forward. The jury wheel turned again and again, and deputies fanned out across the county to bring in men. Veniremen arrived by car, horseback and hobo-style on trains. Their simplicity and honesty impressed reporters, as did their almost uniform hatred of Baldwin-Felts detectives. One thought he was showing impartiality when he announced he was neither “a union man or a Baldwin Felts thug.” Nearly a thousand veniremen were summoned and  more than four hundred were examined. There was even talk of allowing women to serve in view of their newly won right to vote, but West Virginia’s attorney general, in a hasty decision, ruled women could not serve on juries. Someone suggested taking blacks as jurymen, but Judge Bailey refused to countenance it. Finally, on February 9, twelve men sat in the jury box: two school teachers, four farmers, five laborers and an illiterate old backwoodsman who had ridden to town on horseback.

Thunder in the Mountains: The West Virginia Mine Wars 1920-21, Lon Savage.

West Virginia’s trial of Sid Hatfield and twenty two co-defendants for the Tug Creek murder of Albert Felts was the fallout of an ongoing dispute between miners and the mining companies that employed them. The Mayor of the rail town Matewan, West Virginia (CC Testerman) and his Sheriff (Hatfield) took the side of striking miners being evicted from their Company owned housing by Baldwin-Felts detectives. Hatfield, once acquitted of killing the Felts of Baldwin-Felts, became a folk hero in Appalachia. Baldwin-Felts men later killed him (and Testerman) on the courthouse steps in Welch. The miners, inspired by Mother Jones, then flew into open and violent rebellion opposed by the imposition of martial law against the miners, the use of Federal forces (primarily planes) to supplement Baldwin-Felts and culminating in the Battle of Blair Mountain.

“A condition obtains in Mingo County that has no parallel, even in Soviet Russia or any land in the world,” said Neil Burkinshaw, union attorney. “All civil processes are abolished, and the entire government is in the hands of a single man.”

Thunder in the Mountains, Page 65.

It was said that the ‘leader’ of the union army was Billy Blizzard but during his trial for treason a miner-turned-revolutionary noted, “A lot of people will tell you that Bill Blizzard was the leader of it all. Now, Bill’s one of the finest people that ever lived, don’t get me wrong … But he wasn’t the leader any more than the rest of us was, from the way I see it. We was just all leaders, in a manner of speaking.” Thunder in the Mountains, Page 136.

In the end, the striking union miners were happy to violently battle the coal mine operators and even the Baldwin-Felts agency. They were even willing to continue and increase their fight in the face of what they viewed as an improper suspension of their rights by the State. But they would not – could not and did not – take up arms against the Federal Government.