May 19, 1920: Matewan Massacre

The spring of 1920 was a troubled time in the West Virginia coalfields. A nationwide coal strike settled during the winter had won View of Matewanunionized miners a 27 percent wage increase. Unfortunately, the settlement didn't help most miners in southern West Virginia, the largest non-unionized coal region in the country. When the United Mine Workers (UMW) stepped up its campaign to organize Logan, Mingo, and McDowell counties, coal operators retaliated by hiring private detectives to quash all union activity. Miners who joined the UMW were fired and thrown out of their company-owned houses. Despite the risks, thousands defied the coal operators and joined the UMW. Tensions between the two sides exploded into violence on May 19, when 13 Baldwin-Felts detectives arrived in Matewan to evict union miners from houses owned by the Stone Mountain Coal Company. Matewan chief of police Sid Hatfield intervened on behalf of the evicted families. A native of the Tug River Valley, Sid Hatfield supported the miners' attempts to organize. He was also known throughout Mingo County as a man who was not afraid of a fight. After carrying out several evictions, the detectives ate dinner at the Urias Hotel then walked to the depot to catch the five o'clock train back to Bluefield, Virginia. They were intercepted by Hatfield, who claimed to have arrest warrants from the county sheriff. Detective Albert Felts produced a warrant for Hatfield's arrest, which Matewan mayor C. C. Testerman claimed to be a fake. The detectives didn't know they had been surrounded by armed miners, who watched intently from windows and doorways along Mate Street and, while Felts, Hatfield, and Testerman, faced off, a shot rang out. The ensuing gun battle left 7 detectives and 4 townspeople dead, including Felts and Testerman.

Photo of McDowell County Courthouse stepsHatfield became a local hero and was eventually acquitted of murder charges for his part in the "Matewan Massacre." But in the summer of 1921, Hatfield and an associate, Ed Chambers, were shot dead by Baldwin-Felts detectives on the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse, where they were to stand trial for a shooting in a nearby coal camp. Their murders galvanized thousands of union miners, who planned to march on Logan County. The march ended with the Battle of Blair Mountain, in which state and federal troops defeated the miners and halted the UMW's campaign in southern West Virginia. Most of the southern coalfields remained non-union until 1933.

The above text was extracted from the WV Department of Culture and History Website.

Photos by Dale Porter