The Mine WarsAired January 26, 2016 The desire for dignity runs deep.
At the dawn of the 20th century, coal was the fuel that powered the nation. Yet few Americans thought much about the men who blasted the black rock from underground and hauled it to the surface. The Mine Wars tells the overlooked story of the miners in the mountains of southern West Virginia — native mountaineers, African American migrants, and European immigrants — who came together in a protracted struggle for their rights. Decades of violence, strikes, assassinations and marches accompanied their attempts to form a union, culminating in the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921, the largest armed insurrection since the Civil War. The West Virginia mine wars raised profound questions about what freedom and democracy meant to working people in an industrial society.
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Based in part on the book, The Devil Is Here in These Hills, by James Green.
Original funding for this program was provided by
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National Endowment For the Humanities
Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this film do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment For the Humanities.
For American Experience
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Ronald Lewis, Historian: In most cultures where there are coal miners, middle class people and above think they're animals -- literally, and they treat them that way, and they know that. So what they do is reverse that matter and they take pride in the fact that they can actually survive in such a place. That makes 'em hard, and they stand on their own, and they don't care what the public thinks.
Narrator: Strangers rarely found their way into the coal camps of southern West Virginia. So when a matronly older woman walked into a camp one fall morning in 1901, the local storekeeper was curious. He invited her in and asked her who she was and what was her business in town. The answer appeared to unnerve him.
She was the notorious "Mother" Jones -- there to convince the coal miners in the area to join her union: the United Mine Workers of America, the UMW.
James Green, Author, The Devil Is Here in These Hills : Whenever somebody came down like Mother Jones to talk to people there about, you know, the union, they'd be run out of town by men with shot guns.
Doug Estepp, Local Historian: Southern West Virginia was an industrial police state more or less. The operators or owners did not want anyone who had union sympathies or was interested in bringing the union into their camps to be there.
Narrator: The president of the UMW had apologized in advance for sending Jones on this mission; some union officials thought it was a lost cause. While men in the northern coalfields had scratched and clawed to bring their union into being over the previous 10 years, miners in southern West Virginia had been beaten down by the mine owners, whose power in the state was virtually unchecked.
Mother Jones quickly found out what workers were up against; private guards hired by the coal operators waved guns in her face, and threatened to kill anyone who passed out handbills advertising a meeting about the union. But Jones insisted she could succeed where nobody else had.
Rosemary Feurer, Historian: West Virginia might be this backwater place to most people but for her she sees it as a place of resistance and a place that she wants to be part of a fight. Whenever there was a struggle Mother Jones was there. She said, "I have no home except where there is struggle."
Narrator: Mary Harris Jones had been driven from her native Ireland by the potato famine when she was a teenager, then watched her husband and four children die during a yellow fever epidemic just after the Civil War. After she lost her dressmaking business in the Great Chicago Fire, she remade herself as the nation's most unlikely labor organizer.
All through that winter and into the spring thaw the 65-year-old Jones kept up what she called "weary tramps through the dead of night," selling West Virginia miners on the idea of union.
Thomas Andrews, Historian: The basic impetus behind the union movement was the idea that by providing some sort of collective way for workers to bargain to present their grievances the unions could give workers strength, could sort of muster the strength of individuals and give them a way of standing up against these enormous corporations that were becoming ever more powerful.
Narrator: Jones challenged West Virginians to stop acting like "cringing serfs" and to commit to the UMW. She was loud. She was profane. And she was demanding.
Denise Giardina, Writer: The miners loved it. They loved seeing this little old lady just out there kicking butt basically, and cussing, and carrying on. And she was saying that they had something to stand up for and to fight back.
Rosemary Feurer, Historian: She was speaking in social revolutionary terms. "These towns are ours. These mines are ours. You really deserve to own these mines," that's what she would say. She does communicate a kind of motherly love that says, "Why are you letting yourself be abused? Aren't you better than this?"
Narrator: "This whole place is stirred up," Jones reported to UMW headquarters. "Six months ago... these men were afraid to look at me... today they are realizing they are men and have some rights on this earth."
Mother Jones could not have known it that spring, but she had sparked a fight that would escalate over the next 20 years from an unremarkable skirmish between capital and labor to the largest armed insurrection since the Civil War.
Mother Jones, her followers, and her antagonists would turn the coalfields of southern West Virginia into a blood-soaked war zone where basic constitutional rights and freedoms were violently contested.
James Green, Author: The story of the West Virginia mine wars is a profoundly American story of people's belief in the principles of the Founding Fathers. What these people were fighting for was the rights that they thought their government had guaranteed them and had been denied them.
Beverly Gage, Historian: The right to free assembly, the right to free speech, and the idea that just because you worked for someone shouldn't mean that that person had a kind of tyrannical control over you but that you as a worker had certain democratic rights as well.
Narrator: Mother Jones was constantly on the lookout for promising young lieutenants during her earliest trips to southern West Virginia. One man who caught her eye was a 20-year-old miner named Frank Keeney.
James Green, Author: Keeney was an ordinary young miner. Enjoys drinking cheap whiskey at a local saloon. He loves to joke around with his buddies. And, Mother Jones, she went up to him and she said, "Leave that pool hall alone. Take this book and go up on the hill and read it and, and educate yourself and learn how to lead your fellow miners." Keeney was inclined to hear that.
Narrator: Frank Keeney was a native West Virginian, descended from one of the first families to settle in the area. He was born on Cabin Creek in 1882, just as the railroads were beginning to cut paths to the rich coal deposits in the central and southern parts of the state. Keeney's father died before Frank's first birthday, and his mother was unable to hold onto the family's farm. She lost it to one of the many coal companies grabbing up land in southern West Virginia.
Joe William Trotter, Jr., Historian: A lot of outside investors were coming into West Virginia buying land and natural resources. And one of the major components of this is that they were pushing aside the old mountaineer families.
Rebecca Bailey, Historian: As the mining industry grew and developed and matured people became fully dependent on the mining system for not only their wages but their entire way of life.
Narrator: Keeney left school at age nine and began working as a trapper boy, manning the doors that led into and out of the mines.
Legal age to work in West Virginia was 12, but coal operators generally ignored state law. Keeney joined an army of young boys working the mines.
Chuck Keeney, Historian: Frank's mother, she wanted him to have an education. She didn't want him to go into the mines that young, at the same time she was unable to support the family on her own. When he was 12 years old there was a partial collapse of one of the mine shafts, the mule panicked and smashed him up against a wall. And he had to bite part of the mule's ear off in order for the mule to let go of him. My grandmother has always said that it was indicative of his character. He was more stubborn than a mule.
Narrator: At 18, Keeney was still supporting his mother and two sisters, as well as his new bride, Bessie Meadows. He took the best paying job he could get -- digging coal at 40 cents a ton.
The rate was well below the wages paid to union men in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. And according to rules set by West Virginia coal operators, a miner had to load more than 2,200 pounds -- the "Long Ton" -- to get his 40 cents. But a man with a strong back and staying power, good with a pick and blasting powder, could fill five or more cars in a shift, and make enough to support his family.
Thomas Andrews, Historian: Even though this is an industry where there is a tremendous degree of oppression it's also an industry where workers still had much more control over their own lives than they did in most American industries. These are guys who on the whole decided when they were going to work, when they would start, when they would stop. They do have this real sense of autonomy.
Ellis Ray Williams, Coal Miner: You got a certain dignity going in the coal mines, and working and drawing a paycheck, and coming out. That's what men would do to take care of their families.
Narrator: Coal was the engine of American industrial progress at the beginning of the 20th century. It ran locomotives, factories, steam ships, electric power plants and home furnaces; and it helped to purify the steel that made possible the rising skyscrapers.
Coal -- and the men who mined it -- fueled the nation's enormous surge in wealth. Increasing wealth brought increasing appetite. There was always a demand... for more.
Nearly three quarters of a million men across the country spent 10 or 12 hours a day in coal mines, blasting, hand-picking, shoveling and loading the indispensable rock onto rail-cars bound for destinations across the country.
Most of these miners worked the vast and long-established coalfields stretching from Pennsylvania to Illinois.
Just 20,000 worked the mines in West Virginia, but the coal operators there, propelled by a state government hungry for revenue from its biggest industry, had embarked on a furious game of catch-up.
The coal industry spread across the state. Production in southern West Virginia was increasing about 10 percent a year by 1900, and the potential seemed limitless.
Thomas Andrews, Historian: The southern West Virginia coalfields were really the up and coming coalfields. They had tremendous demand for new miners because the industry was expanding so much. The only way to really bring more coal out of the ground was to put more mine workers underground. And the coal companies in southern West Virginia are bringing African-American miners up from the South and bringing people in from southern and eastern Europe.
Jean Battlo, Local Historian: My father came here from Calabria, Italy with his brother Antonio. His name was Fortunato Battaglia. Coal company agents would come up to him, he said, and say, "Lavoro e casa," in other words, "We can give you a job and a home." And, they had nothing to lose.
Ellis Ray Williams, Coal Miner: My family decided to come from South Carolina to the coalfields of West Virginia for economic reasons and cultural reasons. My parents were sharecroppers, and the life of sharecroppers wasn't the best life. The South wasn't very free where black people were concerned.
Joe William Trotter, Jr., Historian: In West Virginia African Americans entered a class and racially stratified society. But compared to the South and compared to the North, West Virginia was a place in which they got a more equitable footing. There were more black miners in West Virginia than anywhere else in the nation. And black workers in this environment gained access to a system that proclaimed equal pay for the same work.
Denise Giardina, Writer: There was a lot of conflict among the different groups of coal miners because they didn't know each other, and so you had a great deal of prejudice. And the companies reinforced that by building coal camps so that you had a section for black miners, had a section for Eastern European miners, and there was a section for native, Appalachian miners. And that was done on purpose. The coal operators felt that that diversity would keep unionization at bay.
Narrator: By the time Frank Keeney met Mother Jones, he could sense larger forces gathering against West Virginia miners. Bankers and shareholders in cities like New York and Philadelphia were siphoning most of the profits from the mines, while transforming a mostly rural state. The quiet village where Keeney had grown up was rent with the "crush and grind" of the passing coal trains.
Keeney counted himself lucky to be living in an independent town; eight in ten miners in West Virginia lived in a town built and owned by a coal operator.
The housing workers were forced to rent was constructed to suit the purposes of the owners... within walking distance of their mines, hard by the railroad tracks and built on the cheap.
Denise Giardina, Writer: They were just hovels, maybe one-room shacks. And it's clear that the operators felt that that was all their miners needed.
Rosemary Feurer, Historian: A coal town really is almost an instruction ground for exploitation. Mine workers, they can see it very directly and their families see it very directly. They take all the risks. They bring out that coal and it's producing wealth for people who don't live there.
Narrator: The coal towns were almost always unincorporated; there were no elected officials, no independent police forces. Owners hired private detective agencies to watch over their workforce. Company towns were also untethered from the free market competition owners usually championed.
Operators often paid workers in company currency, called scrip. They forced mining families to shop exclusively at the company store, which they stocked with food, fuel and clothing, even the tools and blasting powder required on the job.
They set the prices of all those goods to assure a profit -- a hedge against operating losses in the mines themselves.
Carl Starr, Sr., Coal Miner: They paid you with their money. You bought your food off of 'em unless you wanted to take a dollar scrip and sell it for 75 cents government money and lose a fourth of your wages. They was oppressed all the time.
Ellis Ray Williams, Coal Miner: If they give the miners a raise then they're going to raise the rent and raise everything, the cost of food in the company store, and raise the clothing and everything so you actually, you're right back where you started from.
Jean Battlo, Local Historian: When a miner went to pick up his check they had what was called a check-off list. "Your house belongs to company," we'd check that much off, "You, you bought your groceries here this month at the company store," we'd check that off. By the time they finished the check-off there was very little left.
Chuck Keeney, Historian: The only options that you have once you're trapped in that system is to keep your head down, and do what you're told or stand up and fight.
Narrator: That choice between accepting the status quo or fighting for something better was forced on Frank Keeney and other miners in May of 1902. While Mother Jones was still in the middle of her West Virginia campaign, the UMW raised a strike in eastern Pennsylvania, and called for men in other regions to join the work shutdown.
Beverly Gage, Historian: There was the threat that you were going to lose your job. And there was the threat that you would be blackballed. And it wouldn't just be the job that you had in that very moment but every job in that region at any company that you went to, they would know your name and they would refuse to hire you. The stakes were very, very high.
Narrator: With Mother Jones leading the charge, thousands of West Virginia miners decided to stand with the strikers in Pennsylvania, and to fight for their own rights.
Eighty-five percent of the miners in the largest coalfield in southern West Virginia walked off the job; new union men shut down four of every five mines in another field.
A few owners were willing to recognize the miners' union and negotiate better wages and working conditions. But nearly all followed the lead of the most powerful operator in the area, Justus Collins. Collins had earned the respect of his fellow owners. He had come up from Alabama 15 years earlier and had been expanding his operation ever since.
Doug Estepp, Local Historian: The southern West Virginia coalfields were mostly opened by entrepreneurs, wildcatters really. They were very ambitious. Many of them came from the South and a lot of them came from the coalfields of eastern Pennsylvania. There were guys who came down there with absolutely nothing, came in with a rented mule, and a couple of harnesses, and some picks, and made fortunes.
Narrator: Collins, like all the West Virginia coal operators, saw himself as a man under siege... always on the brink of financial collapse. He believed he was in a death struggle with his counterparts in the more established coalfields to the north, whose mines were much closer to the big city markets on the East Coast and the industrial belt near the Great Lakes.
Doug Estepp, Local Historian: The southern operators were always in a difficult position. They were almost paranoid of their position because of the disadvantages. They had to pay higher rates to get their coal out. They had invested all their capital, developing these operations and now they were being squeezed for every penny they could get.
Narrator: Collins complained constantly about the difficulties of turning a profit.
And he was always worried about the single biggest line item in his budget: labor costs. Collins meant to keep the wage-inflating union out of his mines, whatever it took.
Thomas Andrews, Historian: The mine operators thought that there was something fundamentally un-capitalistic about unions. They believed in a sort of vision of rugged individualism. Many of these were men who had lifted themselves up by their own bootstraps, or at least that was what they believed. These operators wanted to have as much power as they could over their mines, which they viewed as their private property. And the union was going to stand in their way.
Narrator: To protect his mine operations, Justus Collins sent forty hired men into his coal camps. Collins's private soldiers were armed with the latest firepower, including Winchester rifles and machine guns. The employer of record for these enforcers was a local private detective agency.
Thomas Andrews, Historian: The Baldwin-Felts specifically worked in the nation's coalfields, and the Baldwin-Felts specialized in trying to neutralize the UMWA once strikes had broken out.
Beverly Gage, Historian: While sometimes you had professionals often you're just hiring in a moment of crisis people who are being described as thugs and convicts, anyone who's willing to pick up a gun, go down and try to engage in these already quite fraught labor conflicts.
Narrator: The mine guards mounted their new machine guns atop the tipples at the edge of town, and bolted in searchlights.
Rosemary Feurer, Historian: The Baldwin-Felts agents, they're designed to inculcate fear and panic. They have these powerful lights pointed at the camps. Children describe these lamps as monsters.
Narrator: Many miners were intimidated enough to go quietly back into the mines. Those who stayed out paid a heavy price. The Baldwin-Felts agents forcibly evicted miners and their families from company-owned houses. Thousands of men, women and children ended up in makeshift "tent colonies" set up by the UMW on strips of land not owned by the mine companies.
County judges upheld Justus Collins's right to throw the miners out of their homes.
Ronald Lewis, Historian : The court ruled you have master-servant rights, which is to say the only reason you're living there is because you're an employee of this company and therefore the operator can come in and evict you any time he wants to, or search the premises, which they often did if they thought there was some union activity going on there.
John Alexander Williams, Historian: The state was at that time generally sympathetic to the rights of property owners and that included the coal operators. And they were not sympathetic to the rights of mine workers to organize and to protest.
Narrator: When the coal operators demanded help in ending the strike, local, county and state law officers obliged.
They arrested Mother Jones and charged her with provoking an illegal work shutdown. At her trial, the prosecutor called Jones "the most dangerous woman in America." The judge found Jones guilty, threatened her with jail time, and warned her to get out of the state.
By then, the national president of the UMW had decided the union could only afford to support the strike in Pennsylvania, and cut back on much-needed financial assistance for West Virginia. Thousands of strikers there were left to fend for themselves.
Miners in southern West Virginia refused to back down.
Nine months into the strike, a posse, including a U.S. marshal, county sheriff's deputies and Baldwin-Felts agents, raided a miners' village after the citizens there had held a union rally.
Mother Jones rushed to the scene: "On a mattress, wet with blood, lay a miner," she wrote. "His brains had been blown out while he slept. In five other shacks men lay dead. In one of them a baby boy and his mother sobbed over the father's corpse."
By the spring of 1903, the strike was broken. Justus Collins and his fellow mine owners had decimated the union movement in southern West Virginia.
Mother Jones left the state with little to show for her efforts, but she did not forget the mountain hollows, or the people in them. And she suspected she had unfinished business there.
One young coal miner was already preparing for the battles to come. Frank Keeney had gone back to his job in the mines, but he was also reading Shakespeare, and poetry, and Mother Jones's favorite novel -- Les Miserables -- about a working-class revolt in 19th century France.
James Green, Author: Keeney was a proud mountaineer. There's a real sense of being independent. He saw his neighbors and people he'd grown up with being evicted from their houses during the winter and it was something that really set him off. And as a journalist said who interviewed him later, "He became angry. He became indignant. He became a Socialist." He wanted not only to have a union but he wanted to change the whole system.
Ellis Ray Williams, Coal Miner: You're going underground and you know that millions and millions of tons of rock, and dirt, and everything over you -- when the weight of that mountain starts pressing down, you could hear the top working, grunting.
Denise Giardina, Writer: When you walked in a mine you never knew whether or not you would walk out again, whether you would be crushed by a roof fall, or whether you'd be blown apart by an explosion. So you were living in a perpetual state of being threatened with violent death.
Narrator: Danger was literally in the air in the mines -- in the form of noxious gasses called damps. A build-up of "afterdamp" could asphyxiate miners. Methane-heavy "firedamp," when sparked by something as simple as a miner's lamp, could cause explosions big enough to kill men scattered through miles of interconnected tunnels.
Denise Giardina, Writer: Coal operators were very cavalier about accidents and what caused them. The assumption was that, "Mining is just inherently dangerous, and that's just part of it, you're lucky you have a job anyway, and, and so we're just going to go about business as usual."
Narrator: Coal operators were able to block most mine safety legislation by arguing that regulations would be too costly. The few safety laws on the books were rarely enforced. West Virginia's coal mines had a higher death rate than any other state in the union in the first decade of the 20th century... and in 1907 West Virginia suffered the single largest mining disaster in the nation's history.
James Green, Author: There was no one ever prosecuted for any of these hundreds and hundreds of deaths. There was a sense of fatalism I think among the miners in West Virginia, about what government could do to protect them, which helps explain their passion for the union, the sense of, "We have to take care of ourselves. We have to create an organization that's so powerful that it will protect our lives as well as our standard of living."
Narrator: In the ten years after the failed strike of 1902, little had changed in the working conditions of southern West Virginia miners. The United Mine Workers had made few inroads. More than ninety percent of the miners had no union in the Spring of 1912 ... when long-simmering tensions began to boil over once again.
Frank Keeney was out in front this time. The 29-year-old had convinced a few thousand miners on Cabin Creek to stand up and make specific demands of their employers: they wanted out from under the financial burdens of the company store and the long ton, an end to the mine guard system, and formal recognition of their union.
The owners responded by firing Keeney and his comrades, and putting them and their families out of their homes. More than two months later, the families were still living in tents, with little hope for success.
Chuck Keeney, Historian: In the summer of 1912 Keeney's wife Bessie was eight months pregnant. His kids were sick. They don't have enough food to feed their children. Three hundred Baldwin-Felts detectives had set up machine gun emplacements all around Cabin Creek. So this was when they were at their most desperate hour.
Narrator: Keeney saw little choice but to make the difficult twenty-mile trip to Charleston to beseech the leaders in the UMW district office to come to the aid of his sagging miners.
The local officers said they had their hands full. The union treasury was already depleted by a strike at Paint Creek, just across the ridge from Cabin Creek. The Paint Creek strike had turned deadly. UMW officials told Keeney he was on his own.
Chuck Keeney, Historian : He cusses them out and says that he'll take control of the strike himself and then says that, "If you're afraid to go to Cabin Creek I'll find a woman who will go."
Narrator: Mother Jones heard the knock on her hotel room door in Charleston that muggy July night, and found Frank Keeney standing outside, "with tears in his eyes," she recalled.
"I can't get anyone to go to Cabin Creek," he told her. "The national officers say they don't want to get killed."
"I'll come up," Jones told Keeney. "I've been thinking of invading that place for some time."
On August sixth, 1912, Mother Jones arrived in Keeney's hometown, the only town in Cabin Creek not controlled by a coal operator. Keeney had gathered a big crowd. They all wanted to see the woman known as "the miner's angel."
Rosemary Feurer, Historian: She was kind of a rock star of the labor movement by then. People would reach out to her. Their arms would reach out, you know, as though they were in a religious revival. They want to believe in themselves and she assures them that she's ready to fight with them, and that they are capable of fighting.
Narrator: The morning after Mother Jones' speech, miners up and down Cabin Creek began to walk off the job.
A week later, more than three thousand marchers pushed through armed militiamen and followed Mother Jones and Frank Keeney to a rally on the steps of the Capitol. They were there to persuade Governor William Glasscock to abolish the mine guard system.
Mother Jones issued an ominous warning: "Unless the Governor rids Paint Creek and Cabin Creek of these god-damned Baldwin-Felts mine guard thugs, there is going to be one hell of a lot of bloodletting in these hills."
Governor Glasscock believed that the fight between coal companies and their employees was a private matter, and that he lacked authority to step in.
Frank Keeney decided it was time to change tactics. If the state would not protect miners and their families, they would protect themselves.
James Green, Author: Keeney had a certain kind of charisma and a certain kind of certainty about what to do, and a sense of either recklessness or courage depending on how you look at it of leading his people to the brink of a cliff and facing the consequences that come from fighting.
Narrator: Strikers began buying guns, while sympathetic miners from nearby coal camps smuggled weapons and ammunition into Paint Creek and Cabin Creek. They stashed rifles, pistols, bullets, gunpowder and dynamite in the woods.
Chuck Keeney, Historian: Miners organized themselves into groups that would be ready to go on a moment's notice in case of an attack on the tent colony by mine guards. You also had another group called the "dirty eleven." And the "dirty eleven" were responsible for some of the more brutal acts of violence that took place.
The miners were dynamiting tipples, dynamiting railroad tracks, firing on trains. Anything that they could do to stop production, and anything they could do to kill a mine guard.
David Corbin, Historian: The Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike was an explosion of rage. For two decades the coal companies used mine guards to keep the miners in submission through use of terror. Now the miners learned to employ violence themselves to fight back to show the coal companies the terror was a two-edged sword.
Chuck Keeney, Historian: After some of the mine guards were killed miners pasted notes on the coffins saying, "Gone to hell. More to go." That streak of vindictiveness demonstrates the harsh feelings that had built up over decades of mistreatment.
Narrator: By early September, it looked like civil war was breaking out within 30 miles of the state capitol. Glasscock, bowing to pressure, finally stepped in. He declared martial law in the coal fields of Paint Creek and Cabin Creek, and sent in 1,200 West Virginia National Guardsmen to disarm the combatants on both sides.
The troops confiscated more than 2,000 rifles and revolvers, 225,000 rounds of ammunition, and six machine guns.
Once the worst of the fighting had been checked, the governor encouraged the antagonists to sit down and work out a truce.
The UMW agreed to negotiate; the owners refused.
John Hennen, Historian: The production of coal was always a low margin of profit business. And every penny for every ton, from the perspective of the coal operators, they needed to maximize that margin as much as they possibly could. And this of course meant to the operators, "We cannot afford to give an inch."
Narrator: Mine owners embarked on a vigorous campaign to import strikebreakers from New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland, St. Louis and the Deep South.
"Transportation men" as they were called, poured into the area on armed trains, often under the protection of National Guardsmen.
Strikers and their wives were often waiting to confront the transportation men when they disembarked at depots near Paint Creek and Cabin Creek.
"My aunt Nellie stomped a strikebreaker in the face with her high heels, and tore his ears loose and knocked his teeth out and just about killed him," one woman remembered, "she was just a little thing and pregnant but she could fight and cuss good enough to be a man."
Paul Rakes, Historian: The women involved in labor strikes, they have everything at stake. The survival of their family is at stake. They're going to be the ones who provide much of the support network to keep the strike going. Oftentimes standing up to company guards. My grandmother and my mother they would say, "There's nothing more vicious than a, than a woman on a strike line."
Denise Giardina, Writer: Usually the women would gather outside the mine en masse, and try to keep the scabs from going in. Armed not with guns, but with household utensils.
Ronald Lewis, Historian: African Americans are fully engaged in the strike. They meet the trains carrying strikebreakers. Dan Chain, alias "Few Clothes Johnson" was a very effective organizer and fearless. He was very good with a gun and his fist. It didn't matter if they were black or white, the strikebreakers. They were strikebreakers. This is not a race matter. This is a class matter. I don't mean that this is some kind of Utopian place, an egalitarian paradise or something. It's not. But it's just that there are more pressing matters right now.
Denise Giardina, Writer: The coal operators, they felt that there was no chance those groups would cooperate. But, no matter how segregated it is, you can't live in a coal camp without getting to know people. You know, everybody shops at the company store. The men all socialize underground. Nobody can see anybody's ethnicity 'cause everybody's covered in coal dust, and so after a period of time you get to know each other. You see a huge ethnic diversity coming together in those conflicts.
Narrator: At Christmastime 1912, as the strike headed into its eighth month, Mother Jones made a visit to the camps in southern West Virginia, delivering shoes, clothes and presents for children. Frank and Bessie Keeney, and their four children, rang in the New Year in a tent.
John Alexander Williams, Historian: The situation in the tent colonies would have been dispiriting. But at the same time if you invested that much time in it then your stubbornness probably was as important as your weariness.
Chuck Keeney, Historian: Frank Keeney had a book of poems and he kept it with him in his tent during the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike. And it was something that he turned to in probably some of the very dark moments of the strike. Keeney said to the miners, "One day there will be no more tent colonies, no more gunmen because of what you people are going through right now."
Narrator: Keeney and his family were still living in a tent four months later, when the long stand-off between the striking miners and the coal operators came to an uneasy resolution.
On May first, 1913, West Virginia's newly inaugurated governor, Henry Hatfield, went into the coalfields and told the miners that their bloody year-long strike was finished.
The mine owners, Hatfield asserted, were willing to make concessions: an impartial agent to verify accurate tonnage, the right to shop at independent stores, and a nine-hour workday. Most miners opposed it as too little, too late. But the new governor pressured union officials into accepting the deal.
He gave the miners an ultimatum: go back to work, or be deported by the National Guard.
Frank Keeney and a colleague from Cabin Creek, Fred Mooney, refused to be cowed by Governor Hatfield. "I am a native West Virginian," Keeney would say, "and we don't propose to get out of the way when a lot of capitalists from New York and London come down here and tell us to get off the earth. We don't propose to be pushed off."
Keeney and Mooney kept up a series of wildcat strikes, with thousands of miners behind them, then mounted an insurgent campaign for the highest-ranking union offices in West Virginia.
James Green, Author: He managed to build a movement behind him that proved to be irresistible. These renegades, these rank-and-file mavericks end up becoming the duly elected officials of a large district in the United Mine Workers union.
Chuck Keeney, Historian: Frank Keeney was elected President, Fred Mooney Secretary-Treasurer. Now they have control over organizing the entire state and they can expand on what they tried to build on Paint Creek and Cabin Creek.
Denise Giardina, Writer: For many West Virginians we have a strong attachment to place because it's not an easy place to live. At the same time, we relate to one another I think through the struggle of being here. Growing up in a coal camp you felt a sense of community. Your neighbors looked after one another. Everybody knew everybody else's business. Nobody looked down on anybody else and you're all in it together.
Narrator: Thousands of West Virginians answered the nation's call to war in 1917. The state also supplied an outsize percentage of the natural resource most critical to the war effort.
David Corbin, Historian: World War I is really a very powerful defining moment for West Virginia coal miners. When the war breaks out, coal is in demand. President Woodrow Wilson calls coal miners the keystone of America's second line of defense, and the war effort depends on the coal you dig.
Narrator: Frank Keeney, now president of West Virginia's most powerful and fastest-growing labor union, pushed his men to produce during the war, and to refrain from strikes. "There must be no laggards, no frivolous quibblings," he declared. "We must stand shoulder to shoulder in this great battle for liberty and democracy."
Chuck Keeney, Historian: Privately he condemned the war. Privately he felt that the war was rich, imperial powers sending off working men from various countries to go kill one another. But publicly he supported the war.
James Green, Author: Keeney and Mother Jones decide that the war is really a tremendous opportunity for the labor movement. They support President Wilson's view of this as a war to make the world safe for democracy. They see the rhetoric of the war as having an impact in West Virginia and it's going to open the door to unionization.
Beverly Gage, Historian: Once the war comes to an end, a lot of labor leaders who really did throw in their lot with the federal government during the war believed that this is going to continue, that the war has legitimized the role of labor in helping to mobilize for the war effort, and that what's going to come out of this is going to be a kind of new order.
Narrator: District 17 had emerged from the Great War with 30,000 members, a nearly five-fold increase in just a few years. The district had tens of thousands of dollars in the bank, and Frank Keeney and Fred Mooney were eager to finish the job they had started as young miners nearly twenty years earlier.
The two meant to leverage their war-time gains to make a push into West Virginia's most stubbornly non-union counties -- Mingo, McDowell, and Logan.
They appeared to have the backing of the national union. At the end of January 1920, John L. Lewis, the imperious new UMW president, made his first trip to southern West Virginia. Lewis stood in downtown Bluefield, just down the street from the headquarters of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, and announced the UMW's intention to organize every mine in southern West Virginia.
James Green, Author: West Virginia coal operators are gobbling up the market. Lewis can see that if the UMW is unsuccessful in West Virginia it will keep eating into the union advantage in the north and then eventually the mine operators in Ohio will say, "We can't afford this contract anymore. We're going to have to lower our wages and lower our prices to compete with the West Virginia coal."
Thomas Andrews, Historian: Southern West Virginia was the single biggest threat to the union. It had to be neutralized. The fear of union organizers and of union leaders, and it was a very legitimate fear, was that southern West Virginia coal would undermine everything that the union had gained at such cost in the struggles that it waged since its creation in 1890.
James Green, Author: The number one objective after the war is to organize West Virginia, and Lewis needs Frank Keeney to do that. So even though Keeney is a Socialist, and a renegade, and, and Lewis is a conservative and a Republican they become allies.
Narrator: West Virginia mine owners were in a fighting mood, too.
They were increasingly uneasy about their post-war prospects. Demand had plummeted after the armistice, while coal's share of the national energy market was being crowded by fuel oil and natural gas. The West Virginians clung to the one advantage they had over their counterparts to the north: they could pay non-union workers whatever they pleased, which was usually at least 15 percent less than the going union rate.
The state's coal operators had already created a fund to halt the UMW's encroachment into West Virginia -- much of it earmarked for Baldwin Felts agents.
West Virginia coal operators did not depend on intimidation alone. Justus Collins had spent several thousand dollars to build churches, schools and recreational facilities in his company town. "While no great money maker," his mine manager noted, "it will pay interest on the investment and will give our people here something to live for."
John Hennen, Historian: Companies in southern West Virginia wanted to go the route of so-called welfare capitalism. "We'll provide a little bit better housing than we used to, we'll provide recreational programs, we'll make sure that we have happy workers but it won't be by giving up any of our independence to control the means of production or to control wage rates."
Joe William Trotter, Jr., Historian: This whole idea of welfare capitalism and paternalism starts to really... take hold in some ways as a mechanism for short-circuiting the more militant demands from the union. Some of these operators believed that it would help to squash the union.
Narrator: "In our town we have good churches and schools," one miner said, "but there is another thing of much more importance that the coal operators have intentionally overlooked -- our freedom."
Doug Estepp, Local Historian: The coal operators controlled everything you did in the camp. The post offices were always in the company store and the postmaster was always a company official, and they went through your mail. They did not allow what they might consider subversive literature to come into your hands. You couldn't speak to who you wanted to speak to, and you couldn't say the things you wanted to say.
Denise Giardina, Writer: The hard part came from knowing that you did not live in a free place, and if you stuck out in any way you would get stamped back down.
Narrator: In the spring of 1920, a small delegation from a non-union mine in Mingo County arrived at Frank Keeney's office in Charleston. They had read about the post-war wage gains union coal miners were getting all over the country, and they did not want to be left out.
Keeney's campaign to unionize southern West Virginia had been stalled for three months. He jumped at the chance to organize the first local UMW chapter in Mingo.
Rebecca Bailey, Historian: Mingo County presented a unique opportunity to launch their effort to unionize all of southern West Virginia. The focus wasn't just on Mingo. District 17 looking at the situation in the spring of 1920 said, "we've got men down there who will join the union." Mingo County provided the beachhead opportunity.
Narrator: Keeney dispatched a team of organizers to set up headquarters in Matewan, a town on the West Virginia-Kentucky border.
John Hennen, Historian: Matewan was in many ways an exception to the rule of the company-owned towns. Matewan was independent.
Denise Giardina, Writer: Matewan wasn't owned by a coal company. It was a center where miners and union leaders could actually be there with some freedom.
Narrator: At the first union rally in Mingo County, held in Matewan's Baptist church, 300 miners came forward to swear allegiance to the union; hundreds more took their oath of obligation the next day.
Mine owners in Mingo began to take notice. They were pulling almost ten million dollars worth of coal from the ground every year, and they were terrified that the UMW would cut into profits.
James Green, Author: Employers start demanding that anybody in their employ sign a new contract, saying "you will never, as a condition of your employment, join the United Mine Workers of America." The union calls these contracts the Yellow Dog contract, in other words only a yellow dog would sign one.
John Hennen, Historian: If you went to work for the Red Jacket Coal Company you had to sign a contract that said, "I am not a member of the United Mine Workers. I'm not a member of the Industrial Workers of the World. I believe that individual contract between employer and employee is the American way and I will never violate this."
Narrator: In spite of the Yellow Dog threat, union operatives in Mingo County claimed to have signed up nearly 3,000 of Mingo's 4,000 miners.
The union had help from local public officials there, too.
The county sheriff was doing what he could to stall evictions, and to keep the mine guards out of his jurisdiction.
And the mayor of Matewan, Cabell Testerman, was a champion of the union cause.
His hand-picked chief of police, Sid Hatfield, was a miner's man, too. Hatfield had worked briefly in the mines, and was handy with a gun -- he had killed at least one man.
John Hennen, Historian: Sid Hatfield was somewhat of a rarity in that coal-dominated region because he was pro-union. He probably felt that being on the side of this force, this labor movement in southern West Virginia would, would work to his advantage in the long run.
Doug Estepp, Local Historian: Sid Hatfield definitely was no angel. He was a rough and tough character. He was not really a Hatfield by blood. But Sid liked that reputation of being a Hatfield because this was the area where the Hatfields of the Hatfield-McCoy feud had originated and so he played up to it.
John Hennen, Historian: He seemed to convey this sense of barely contained, possibly violent energy.
Narrator: On a warm, drizzly morning in May, 1920, a dozen Baldwin-Felts detectives boarded a train near their headquarters in Bluefield, bound for Matewan. The mine guards carried their trademark 30-30 Winchesters and pocketsful of eviction warrants.
The long-time head of the detective agency, Tom Felts, was tired of the Mingo County sheriff's delaying tactics. Felts had been in control of the West Virginia coalfields for nearly 20 years, and was unaccustomed to being challenged. He had sent the contingent -- led by his brothers Albert and Lee -- to see that the evictions were carried out.
Rebecca Bailey, Historian: Of all days, they chose May 19th, Union Relief Day. The union was in Matewan distributing the relief pay and the relief food supplies to the union miners. That added about 2,000 people to the population of Matewan on that day.
Doug Estepp, Local Historian: The Baldwin-Felts detectives showed up to carry out evictions at Stone Mountain Coal up on Warm Hollow. The Baldwin-Felts were met by Cabell Testerman and Sid Hatfield, who questioned their authority to carry out the evictions.
Rebecca Bailey, Historian: Albert Felts pulled the eviction writ warrants out of his pocket and he said, "prove to me that these aren't legal and we'll cease and desist immediately. But until you can and do, we're going about our business."
John Hennen, Historian: Everybody knew the Baldwin-Felts agents were out on the outskirts of Matewan evicting people from their homes.
Carl Starr, Sr., Coal Miner: They throwed this guy's, all his furniture, food, clothes, and everything, throwed it out in the road. The miners, they just, just got fed up. They just took so much they couldn't, just couldn't take no more, you know. Kick a dog around so long, pretty soon it's going to bite you.
Narrator: The Baldwin Felts agents returned to Matewan to catch the train back to Bluefield. Sid Hatfield was waiting. He and Mayor Testerman had sworn out arrest warrants against the mine guards for carrying firearms within city limits.
When Hatfield and Testerman began to argue with the Felts brothers, miners and townsmen edged toward the scene. The other Baldwin-Felts men were down the street at the railroad depot, waiting for their train home.
Carl Starr, Sr., Coal Miner: They already had their rifles put in their bags and all of a sudden somebody shot.
John Hennen, Historian: There was firing apparently from the ground level and from the second story of some of these buildings. That gives some credibility to the speculation that this was a, a planned attack.
Narrator: When the initial shootout ended, Albert and Lee Felts were dead and Mayor Testerman was dying. Two miners also died of gunshot wounds that day, and four local citizens were wounded.
Miners killed five other Baldwin-Felts agents, including a few who tried to run. The bodies of the dead mine guards were left in the streets until after nightfall.
Rebecca Bailey, Historian: To the miners, Sid Hatfield was a mountain Gabriel, an avenging archangel who struck back at their oppressors, giving them exactly what they deserved.
Narrator: The shootout at Matewan electrified the union movement in southern West Virginia. UMW President John L. Lewis scrambled organizers from the national office to the area. Frank Keeney shipped in extra men from the District 17 headquarters in Charleston.
Among the most enthusiastic newcomers was C.E. Lively, who invited the local miners to use his new restaurant in downtown Matewan as their clubhouse.
Doug Estepp, Local Historian: C. E. Lively had long been active in union affairs. He had grown up near Cabin Creek and knew Fred Mooney from his days as a boy there. So he was well-known amongst the miners and helped to organize several locals there.
Narrator: Mother Jones raced back to West Virginia to rally the miners in Mingo County. A bright new day was coming, she told a crowd of more than 1,500. In Matewan, Mother Jones posed for publicity photos with Sid Hatfield and other union supporters.
James Green, Author: Keeney believes that he can organize Mingo County and even move into McDowell County, which is an even tougher target. And he says to Lewis, "We've got 'em on the run."
Narrator: Keeney sent each of the 71 coal operators in Mingo County a message saying his union was ready to sit down and negotiate an amicable settlement of all matters of difference between the miners and their respective employers.
The owners answered individually, but in almost identical language. "We emphatically decline to join in any meeting to harmonize trouble which you have brought on in this county."
On July 1, 1920, Frank Keeney called for a general strike in Mingo County.
Thousands of miners walked off the job, and let it be known that they would not tolerate strikebreakers. "In their present temper these men are not to be fooled with," Frank Keeney told reporters.
When the miners and their families celebrated Independence Day three days into the strike, the mood was buoyant. There was music, picnics, baseball... and speeches from union officials.
Doug Estepp, Local Historian: These were heady days for the union in Southern West Virginia. Ninety-five percent of the coal miners in Mingo County were on strike and had joined the union. The miners were confident that things were going to change finally.
Narrator: Mingo County mine owners followed the old playbook that had always worked in West Virginia. They fired the striking miners, threw them out of their company houses, and imported strikebreakers.
But they were also working a new angle: a stirring plea in the court of public opinion. Coal operators played to middle-class Americans frightened by the murderous revolt in Russia, where the working class had seized private property by sheer brute force... and the Bolsheviks had nationalized every major industry.
Beverly Gage, Historian: Many of the mine owners, during this period were making a case that what American freedom was really about was the right to private property, the employer's right to control the property that he owned, and that the kinds of tactics and the kinds of institutions that workers were trying to develop during this period were un-American.
John Hennen, Historian: They had adopted this plan and they very calculatedly and brilliantly in a lot of ways called it The American Plan. It emphasized elements of loyalty and patriotism being equated with the capitalist model. They believed that this miners' uprising was a sign of disloyalty and revolution of the worst sort.
Beverly Gage, Historian: People were genuinely concerned that the United States was on the verge of some kind of revolutionary unrest, that they were actually beginning to see this happening and that things might only get worse.
Narrator: The biggest courtroom in Mingo County was full beyond capacity on the morning of January 26, 1921. The overflow crowded the streets outside. Federal troops stood at the ready in case the tense scene erupted in gunfire.
Twenty three men were about to go on trial for the murder of the Baldwin-Felts agents in Matewan, but the focus was on one particular defendant: Sid Hatfield.
Tom Felts had spent months building the case against Hatfield and disparaging his character. His whisper campaign marked Hatfield a liar, a coward, a cold-blooded killer, a bastard... and Felts never missed a chance to point out that Chief Hatfield had married Mayor Testerman's widow within two weeks of the shootout.
Doug Estepp, Local Historian: The Baldwin-Felts made a lot of this. They claimed that he was the one who shot the mayor in order to get to the mayor's wife.
Narrator: Sid Hatfield was unflappable; this wasn't his first run-in with the law. He teased newspaper reporters for labeling him the "Terror of the Tug," and kept them generally amused. "I reckon you thought I had horns," he told them.
Among the first witnesses at the trial was C.E. Lively, the union man who had given the miners safe haven in his Matewan restaurant. On the stand that day, Lively proudly revealed himself to be a long-time undercover detective for the Baldwin-Felts Agency.
Rebecca Bailey, Historian: They said the roof almost came off at the courthouse. Sid Hatfield and several of the other defendants supposedly jumped up out of their seats and began cussing and threatening his life, and then sat down shaking because what Lively proceeded to say was what these men in Matewan had said in what they thought was confidence. And he did his best to use it to try to help them hang.
Narrator: Lively testified that Hatfield had bragged to him of killing Albert Felts, and of putting a bullet in Mayor Testerman's belly so he could steal his wife.
The trial stretched for nearly two months; evidence included a scale model of the murder scene. The Baldwin-Felts Agency paid to bolster the prosecution team. The United Mine Workers of America paid the attorneys for the defense.
The jury returned a finding of "Not Guilty" for all the defendants, on all counts. Much of the audience in the courtroom stood and cheered; other onlookers sat in stunned silence, which quickly turned to outright fury.
Carl Starr, Sr., Coal Miner: Some of the people they called them murderers. It's just according to which way you believed. If you didn't believe in the union it was murders. If you believed in the union it wasn't murder.
Narrator: Tom Felts vowed to get justice for his dead brothers, but the Mingo County mine operators kept focus on the bigger battle. The state's new governor, Ephraim Morgan, had doubled the size of his police force, and he was using it to protect West Virginia's most profitable industry.
The coal mines in Mingo County were running at near capacity in May of 1921, when striking miners embarked on what appeared to be a desperate, last-chance offensive: union men opened fire on strikebreakers at a mine a few miles down river from Matewan and dynamited the company's power plant. A few days later, the strikers attacked the town itself.
David Corbin, Historian: The miners launched a full-scale assault. They cut down the telephone and telegraph wires, and started firing into the town indiscriminately, mostly at the mines, at the company store, at the homes to intimidate the hell out of the strikebreakers.
Narrator: Governor Morgan dispatched several State Police units to put a stop to the violence.
The fight between state troopers and mine guards on one side, and striking miners on the other, spread to a half-dozen mines. Strikers dynamited tipples and destroyed mine equipment.
The battle raged for three days.
"In the name of God and humanity," one coal operator wrote to the Secretary of War in Washington, "please hurry federal aid to Matewan. Our citizens are being shot down like rats."
On May 18th, a crowd of 250 men filled the courthouse where Sid Hatfield had been acquitted a few months earlier.
These were men who liked to think of themselves as "the better people" of Mingo: lawyers, physicians, merchants, clergymen, officers of the American Legion and the YMCA. They had come to take up arms in the county's new "vigilance committee."
John Alexander Williams, Historian: These are people that didn't necessarily identify with the miners that worked up in the hollows and mined the coal on which the county's prosperity depended. They felt threatened by the union and that they needed to guard against outside agitators.
Narrator: The day after the meeting, Governor Morgan declared martial law in Mingo County. It was to be enforced by the state police and the hastily formed and untrained vigilance committee, all under the command of the adjutant general of the West Virginia National Guard.
Thomas Andrews, Historian: What you see is really a failed state in a lot of ways. Both local politics and state politics were very much controlled by the coal operators. And so, often times you had state power coming into play on the side of the operators.
Narrator: "The big advantage of this martial law," a young trooper remarked, "is that if there's an agitator around you can just stick him in jail and keep him there."
Men were arrested on charges that included "bunching," -- talking in groups of three or more. State police jailed one union miner for "conspiracy," after he "passed through the tent colony and several men followed him into the woods."
Rebecca Bailey, Historian: The men who were sitting in the jails were there because they'd been denied the rights that the rest of America took and take for granted. One man was arrested because a deputy walked up and saw a copy of the United Mine Workers Journal folded up in his back pocket.
Ronald Lewis, Historian: They can haul you off to jail, for what? It doesn't matter, just because they decided to put you in jail. There is a supposed to be a rule of law, but whose rule of law is this? This not an objective rule of law. This is one suited only to maintain the power of the coal operator.
Joe William Trotter, Jr., Historian: It reminded black workers of slavery. They understood things about justice and about collectivity as opposed to individualism. But it was grounded, in a different set of sensibilities. There are a lot testimonials where black miners would say, "I was a slave just like we feel now."
James Green, Author: The rest of the residents of Mingo County say, "we're okay with this. This is a trouble that these miners put themselves into" and so they have sacrificed their rights as American citizens.
Narrator: On June 14, 1921, following reports that strikers had shot at a mine superintendent, 70 state troopers raided a tent colony near Matewan. They searched and ransacked every household, and confiscated all the weapons and ammunition they could find. They tipped over cookstoves, poured kerosene in milk and cut open the canvas tents.
They killed one unarmed miner, then marched 45 others into town at the point of a gun and locked them up without formal charges.
More than a hundred union men had been jailed under martial law by then.
James Green, Author: I think Frank Keeney feels a deep sense of personal responsibility for these people in Mingo County who are living in what are almost like concentration camps. They had sacrificed enormously and put themselves in very, very serious straits and he had let them down.
Doug Estepp, Local Historian: On August 1, 1921 Sid Hatfield, his wife Jessie, his best friend Ed Chambers, and his wife Sally caught a train from Matewan to Welch in McDowell County. A couple of stops before they got to Welch, C. E. Lively got on the train at the town of Iaeger and sat down across from Sid. When they arrived in Welch, Sid, and Ed, and Jessie, and Sally go to have breakfast and who walks into the restaurant but C. E. Lively. He's basically shadowing them.
Narrator: The acquittal in Mingo County had not ended Sid Hatfield's troubles. He was still under indictment for six other counts of murder stemming from the Matewan shootout.
Hatfield had been summoned to Welch, the county seat in neighboring McDowell County, to face a new criminal charge: blowing up a nearby mine tipple. As he and his entourage made the walk to the courthouse, something seemed strange.
Carl Starr, Sr., Coal Miner: I remember Sally talking, that they asked 'em to leave their guns at the room where they were staying, which they did. And they were walking up the steps and the deputy sheriff that escorted them over there, you know, he stopped at the bottom of the steps and stepped over to the side.
Rebecca Bailey, Historian: Sid, Ed, their wives were met at the top of the steps by C. E. Lively and two associates.
Doug Estepp, Local Historian: Lively reaches across in front of Sally Chambers and shoots her husband Ed in the neck. And at that point all the other Baldwin deputies start shooting.
Rebecca Bailey, Historian: My grandfather witnessed the end of the Sid Hatfield-Ed Chambers assassination. And he said that they shot him down like a dog. That's how he told the story of Sid's death. He was unarmed and they shot him down like a dog.
Narrator: The murder of Sid Hatfield brought increased attention to the West Virginia mountaineers... little of it good.
Rebecca Bailey, Historian: The New York Times stated that Sid Hatfield had died as he lived, like most of his people lived, primitive mountaineers essentially live by the sword and die by the sword, and that there would not be peace in the coalfields until these people had all died off. There was no sympathy or empathy for what the miners were enduring.
James Green, Author: You have people regarding these folks in Appalachia as subjects of condescension, and dismissal, and even condemnation. "These people may look like Americans, they may have been born in America, but they're not civilized yet."
Narrator: The funeral procession trailing the bodies of Sid Hatfield and his friend Ed Chambers counted more than 2,000 mourners.
A summer rain fell on the cortege.
The mood at the gravesite was somber but defiant.
"Is it any wonder," said the eulogist, "that the very heavens weep over the prostrate forms of these martyrs of constitutional government?"
Denise Giardina, Writer: Whether Sid Hatfield was innocent or not is beside the point. What happened to him symbolized the way that anybody who supported the union -- their life was worthless as far as the coal companies were concerned. It was clear that the only thing that was going to change anything was something more extreme. Something had to happen.
Narrator: Four days after Hatfield's funeral, Frank Keeney, Fred Mooney and Mother Jones called for a rally at the state capitol in Charleston.
Chuck Keeney, Historian: You have around 5,000 coal miners that congregate on the capitol. There's the presence of state police everywhere. Things are incredibly tense. The governor refuses to even come out of his office. Keeney tells the crowd, "you have no recourse except to fight. The only way you can get your rights is with a high-powered rifle."
James Green, Author: I think he was being pushed into action by his own angry followers but by his own conscience, and by his own sense of responsibility, and his own deep anger at what had happened to his people.
Narrator: "Every drop of blood and every dollar of the union will be spent in the attempt to lift martial law in Mingo County," Keeney declared at rallies around the state. "If we meet any resistance, the Matewan affair will look like a sun bonnet parade."
UMW men and sympathizers answering Keeney's call began to congregate at a small town near Charleston. "Miners with rifles by the thousands poured in, some riding on the tops of passenger trains," wrote one of the first reporters on the scene.
Word began to spread through the gathering army: the plan was to march into Mingo County and free the men imprisoned under martial law. The miners army would have to go through Logan County first and its sheriff, Don Chafin.
Chafin had been accepting money from mine owners for years. The quid pro quo was understood: he was to keep the union out of his county.
Rebecca Bailey, Historian : Don Chafin was called "the czar of Logan County" and one of the ways that Don Chafin exerted such control over Logan County was you didn't go in or out of Logan County without Don Chafin knowing about it. Don Chafin's deputies rode every train in and out of Logan. There were traveling salesmen who were beaten nearly to death by a Chafin deputy on the mere suspicion that they were actually union organizers.
Narrator: "No armed mob will cross Logan County," Chafin vowed.
He arranged for a detachment of state police to reinforce his army of deputies, and armed more than 3,000 volunteers.
Miners understood what awaited them in Logan County, but they refused to be intimidated, which greatly worried UMW president John L. Lewis.
Lewis was convinced the coal miners in West Virginia were about to do irreparable damage to his union's reputation; he wanted Keeney to shut down the armed march.
Even Mother Jones was having second thoughts.
Rosemary Feurer, Historian: I think she was concerned both for the fact that they might really lose, and lose a lot of lives. She sees this as something that will bring down the union, and at one point just basically says, "this is not going to work." She tries to get through to the governor, she's appealing to him, he's not coming through.
Narrator: Mother Jones decided to take matters into her own hands. She arrived at the miners' camp on August 24th, and a crowd gathered to hear her speak.
Jones pulled a piece of paper from her pocket -- a telegram, she claimed, from President Warren G. Harding. The president had promised her he would use his power "to forever eliminate the mine guard system from West Virginia," she explained, "but only if the miners abandoned their march."
Keeney grabbed for the telegram. Mother Jones snapped it away. He suggested it was probably a fake. She told him to go to hell.
Rosemary Feurer, Historian: The telegram is all about a subterfuge. She's trying to use whatever she can to stop this march. She sees no good that's going to come from it.
Narrator: Keeney and Mooney checked with the White House. The president, they were told, had sent no communication to Mother Jones. An angry Keeney issued a public statement calling the telegram "bogus." Mother Jones left West Virginia that night.
James Green, Author: In some ways her spirit had animated this whole thing from the very beginning. I mean she was the miners' angel, she was the one who was going to show them the light. And now she had been pushed aside. Her boys had become men with high-powered rifles and they were about to reject her counsel and reject her.
Chuck Keeney, Historian: Mother Jones wrote later that when Keeney turned on her. It kind of ripped her heart out.
Narrator: An advance unit of 600 miners broke camp later that same day, shouldered arms, and started marching south toward Logan County.
Union men and their sympathizers from other parts of the state began to converge on Logan County. Soon there were 8,000 men on the march.
"The time has come," one miner said, "for me to lay down my Bible and pick up my rifle."
James Green, Author: The miners who picked up those guns believed that West Virginia was not being governed by the normal mechanisms of law and order in a democracy. They felt like their government had been taken away from them and they were going to get it back.
Beverly Gage, Historian: At a moment when Jim Crow is tightening, at a moment when the United States is passing immigration restriction, at a moment when attempts to organize are increasingly being marginalized, and at a moment when radical ideas that had been really popular before the war are increasingly being pushed out of the American mainstream, this idea that a mass group of armed men -- black and white, immigrant and native born -- expressing ideas that often didn't have a lot of voice left by 1921, this was a really radical moment.
Chuck Keeney, Historian: It was a highly organized disciplined affair. They conducted themselves in a very military-like fashion. They didn't come into a town and just loot everything and break down all of the windows. They cut lines of communication. They did a lot of the things that they needed to do militarily but they didn't terrorize the local people. And I think a lot of the local people understood who the miners hated and they understood where the miners were headed.
Narrator: Sheriff Chafin's strategy was to cut off the miners before they got to the town of Logan. He massed his army of deputies, mine guards and volunteers at gaps along the ridge, particularly at Blair Mountain. Here, a dirt road led to Logan. Chafin's men dug trenches on the high ground above, and trained machine guns on the road.
On the morning of August 26th, as the miners neared Logan, Frank Keeney and Fred Mooney were summoned to an emergency meeting with General Harry Bandholtz of the U.S. War Department. Bandholtz had traveled to Charleston to deliver a message from his boss, President Harding: the armed march had to be stopped.
James Green, Author: His only card to play is to convince Keeney and Mooney that they have to do this for the sake of their union and the sake of their people. He said if you don't turn these men back we'll snuff this out in a moment.
Narrator: Later that same day, crowds gathered to gawk at three large military planes that had just landed at an airfield in Charleston.
They also gawked at the lead pilot -- World War I hero Billy Mitchell, who had commanded all American air combat units in France.
John Alexander Williams, Historian: General Mitchell was a relentless advocate of air power. He was eager to demonstrate that air power could be deployed in a civil disturbance. And this was a civil disturbance that had preoccupied the President and the Secretary of War, and he wanted to show that air power made a difference.
Narrator: Reporters asked Mitchell how his pilots would handle miners hidden in gullies and thick underbrush. "We'd drop tear gas all over the place," he replied. "If they refused to disperse, then we'd open up with artillery."
Keeney and Mooney were chastened by the arrival of the U.S. military brass and bombers. The two union officials sped toward the center of rebellion. Keeney warned the army of miners that they were facing impossible odds. He told them to stand down for now and wait for a better day, that special trains would be dispatched to take them safely back home.
Keeney and Mooney went back to Charleston. They left behind a District 17 organizer named Bill Blizzard to oversee the dispersal of the miners' army.
The fragile truce lasted less than 24 hours, until Sheriff Chafin decided to send the state police along with his deputies to arrest nearly 40 miners who had harassed and threatened his men two weeks earlier. They made the arrests, and killed two union men in the process.
James Green, Author: In retrospect people wonder why Chafin would've chosen such a terrible moment, such a fraught moment to order this kind of raid. Some historians have raised the question that Don Chafin, who was certainly no fool, might have done what seemed like a foolish thing to in fact provoke confrontation.
Narrator: "When news of Chafin's raid hit the miners' camp," one miner said, "it was like pouring gasoline on the warm ashes of a campfire."
Miners seized trains sent to take them home and pointed them toward Logan County. Others headed to Logan by car, or on foot. Led by Blizzard, they raided private homes to hunt weapons, stole food from company stores, even managed to commandeer a Gatling gun. The men entered the woods of Logan County ready for war.
On the morning of August 31st, a platoon of miners met a group of guards from Chafin's army. Each side asked for a secret password, then realized they were enemies and began shooting. Three guards and one miner were killed. What would be called the "Battle of Blair Mountain" had begun.
As many as ten thousand miners faced Sheriff Chafin's entrenched three-thousand-man army. The miners probed for breaks in Chafin's lines, while machine-gun fire echoed through the trees around them. It seemed like "the whole place was coming down on you," one miner remembered.
Doug Estepp, Local Historian: The fighting was very intense. In places it was not quite hand-to-hand but it was very, very close quarters. In a couple of places where it was more thinly defended the miners were actually able to breach the defenses.
David Corbin, Historian: This is the largest insurrection in American history since the Civil War. It was full-scale war on a 25-mile front.
Narrator: On the third day of battle two bi-planes swooped in low over a miners' encampment. As the planes banked and climbed away, the sound of concussions shook the mountain.
"My God," somebody in the camp shouted, "They're bombing us!"
Billy Mitchell, it was later confirmed, had not ordered these attacks. But Mitchell's reckless talk a few days earlier had undoubtedly inspired Sheriff Chafin, who had rented bi-planes and armed them with six-inch metal pipes filled with black powder, nuts and bolts.
None of the bombs hit their targets, and one of the attack planes careered into a nearby house.
General Bandholtz had seen enough; he feared the fight might soon grow beyond his ability to contain it. The next day he sent a force of 2,100 federal troops into the combat zone.
Blizzard and other union officials, fearing a slaughter, raced ahead to give their followers a simple message: "The war is over." More than 5,000 miners laid down their guns over the next few days.
Narrator: The known casualties in the three-day battle were remarkably small; as few as 20 men died on Blair Mountain.
David Corbin, Historian: The miners had fought the mine guards. They fought the state police. They fought the state militia. But they were not going to fight the United States Army.
Narrator: Many of the union men expected the U.S. Army to deliver both peace and justice to the occupied West Virginia coalfields.
James Green, Author: They were perhaps naively trustful of the federal government and what it would do for them, partly because so many of them had volunteered to fight for that government in the Great War and somehow they thought that those principles would prevail in West Virginia, too.
Narrator: The U.S. army troops did restore peace and order, but justice was not part of the mission. Once the miners were disarmed, the federal government backed out of West Virginia and left it to state officials to handle the matter.
Arrests of union men by local officials in Logan County and other parts of the state began a few days later.
Special grand juries handed down more than a thousand indictments, including 325 for murder and more than 20 for treason against the state of West Virginia. District 17 officers Keeney, Mooney and Blizzard faced the most serious charges. There were none against Don Chafin or his men.
Ronald Lewis, Historian: They find out the federal government is also on the side of the capitalists. Where does that leave working people generally? Where does that leave coal miners specifically? They said we are not even sure we're American citizens in the eyes of the government.
Narrator: The big strike in the southern West Virginia coalfields petered out over the next year. Coal operators throughout the state tore up union contracts and began hiring non-union workers.
UMW membership in West Virginia dwindled from 50,000 in 1920 to less than a thousand in 1930, the year Mother Jones died.
In the mid-1930s, as the Great Depression threatened to undermine American capitalism, Congress passed legislation guaranteeing the workers' right to unionize. It also outlawed blacklisting, private police forces like Baldwin-Felts, and industrial spies.
Men who had lived through the brutal and deadly mine wars in West Virginia flocked to the United Mine Workers of America by the tens of thousands. Their one-time leader, Frank Keeney, was not among them.
The mine wars had shattered his marriage, distanced him from much of his family, and left his professional life in shambles. Keeney had wriggled free of the treason charge, but UMW president John L. Lewis had forced him to resign from the union.
James Green, Author: Keeney has long ago been discredited as an apostle of violence. But what he created was a kind of culture of resistance. People with a fierce pride, he called them, "a people made of steel." I think that what they did with Frank Keeney during the mine wars contributed to their strength. And so when the union finally appeared again, it is what they had been waiting for since the days of Keeney and Mother Jones.
Chuck Keeney, Historian: Frank Keeney fought for what he believed was right. That there is a dignity in resistance. Even if they try to grind you and yours into the dust, your defiance rises above that.
Thomas Andrews, Historian: The West Virginia mine wars were about small people going up against very big forces where they didn't really have reason to expect that they would gain very much, and where the ultimate outcome was not a victory. But collectively through those struggles they did manage to pave the way for better workplace relations for more Americans and for a better nation.