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Matewan, West Virginia
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Matewan, West Virginia

A little-known chapter of American labor history is brought vividly to life in this period drama from writer-director John Sayles. It's a fictional story about labor wars among West Virginia coal miners during the 1920's, but every detail is so right that the film has the unmistakable ring of truth. The tension begins when the Stone Mountain Coal Company of Matewan, West Virginia, announces a lower pay rate for miners, who respond by calling a strike under the leadership of a United Mine Workers representative (Chris Cooper). Proving strength in numbers, the miners are joined by black and Italian miners who initially resist the strike, and a fateful battle ensues when detectives hired by the coal company attempt to evict miners from company housing. Violence erupts in a sequence of astonishing, cathartic intensity, and Matewan achieves a rare degree of moral complexity combined with gut-wrenching tragedy. The film salutes a pacifist ideal while recognizing that personal and political convictions often must be defended with violence. To illustrate this point, Sayles enlisted master cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who creates the film's authentic visual texture--a triumph of artistry over limited resources. The result is a milestone of independent filmmaking, and Matewan remains one of Sayles's finest achievements.
On May 19, 1920 ten people were killed at Matewan in the deadliest gunfight in American history. The Battle of Matewan (also known as the Matewan Massacre) was a shootout in the town of Matewan, West Virginia in Mingo County on May 19, 1920 between local miners and the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency Roughly three thousand men signed the union's roster in the spring of 1920. The Matewan community church, a block south of the battle site near the river, was the place where the miners signed their union cards. They knew it would cost them their jobs and in many cases their homes. The coal operators retaliated with massive firings, harassment, and evictions. Matewan, incorporated in 1895, was an independent town with it's own elected officials. It's mayor, Cabel Testerman, and it's police chief, Sid Hatfield, refused to go along with the companies retaliation against the miners. So the companies hired their own enforcers, the notorious Baldwin-Felts detective agency. The "Baldwin thugs," as the miners called them, had earned a reputation for brutality in other strikes. This time the coal operators had hired them to evict the newly unionized miners and their wives and children from the company owned houses. As a result, hundreds of families spent that chilly mountain spring in thin canvass tents with mud floors.

Two groups of men faced each other and all save one were armed. The arena for this confrontation was a rain-soaked and muddy main street bordered by a set of railroad tracks on one side and business buildings on the other. Body language from both groups indicated that the mood was tense. Some onlookers carrying rifles stood on the sidewalk, and the air was charged with tension. The larger group numbered between ten and twelve men. It was made up of private detectives, who were known to be hard and violent sorts. Many of them carried a pistol under their coats and several carried rifles either in cases or wrapped in paper. Just this moment they were getting ready to leave town on the 5:15 train, and were probably pleased at the prospect of departing. Word had come to them that the town was in an ugly mood, and what they could see undoubtedly reinforced that opinion.

The group that now confronted them was a bit larger than a quarter that size. It was made up of the town mayor, the police chief, and two other men that had been hastily deputized a short time earlier. Both sides tried to give themselves the color of law as they presented warrants for the leaders of the other side and each quickly dismissed the other's paperwork as bogus. At the end of the arguments there was a brief, awkward silence. The tension was broken by a single gunshot.

Who fired that first shot is still a controversial subject, but before the echo of it died out, literally all hell broke loose. The staccato of gunfire filled the air as men facing each other fired wildly from nearly point-blank range. As the shooting became more general, the detectives realized why a smaller group had been so willing to face them down. Other of the town folk fired at the detectives from a near-by hardware store and other surrounded buildings. Before such a deadly fusillade the out-of town gunmen broke and ran for their lives. A few of them were fortunate enough to hide and escape, but most were not. Those not so lucky were run to ground and shot where they stood. By some accounts the firing went on for 20 minutes, an eternity for gunfights, which are usually measured in mere seconds. Finally there was a lull in the shooting and those who were non-combatants emerged from the safety of their homes. The victors looted the bodies of the fallen detectives of weapons, jewelry, and considerable sums of money.

The participants had just minutes ago engaged each other in a Wild-West style face-off and shoot-out, that in terms of shots fired and body count, would go beyond the pale of anything that Tombstone, Northfield, or old El Paso would ever record. Even the less-well-known but far deadlier Indian Nations in Oklahoma would be hard pressed to match this day's deadly festivities. Nine men lay dead and one more would expire of his wounds to join them before the next sunrise. The final tally for this day's gunplay was ten men dead and five wounded. Perhaps the most crowning irony was that this lethal encounter did not happen anywhere in the time and location that we think of as the Wild West. It occurred in 1920 in the sleepy little burg of Matewan, West Virginia.

The man at the point of the spear in this conflict was a small town police chief named Sid Hatfield. The shootout would make Sid nationally famous but he would pay a terrible price for that fame. At first glance Sid Hatfield would seem an odd choice to be the champion of law and order. He was born into a poor mountain family and given a minimal education. Like most poor young men in that time and place, Sid started his adult working life as an underground miner By good luck and natural ability he later got a job working outside the mine as a blacksmith. When he reached adulthood he had a reputation as a likable fellow who was a bit on the quiet side and possessed an easy smile. However, he did have a darker side. Those who mistook his easy manner for weakness found that once he became angered they were dealing with hellfire unchained. When not actually working, Sid engaged in his favorite activities, drinking, whoring, and gambling. Fist-fighting and barroom scrapes came as part of that lifestyle and Sid proved he was nobody's weak sister. Though he stood but five feet, four inches tall, and probably never weighed more than 135 pounds, young Hatfield was known as a tough hombre in a real hardcase town.

West Virginia coal camps

How tough were those West Virginia coal camps in Sid Hatfield's day? No one mistook being a peace officer in one of these wide-open coal camps for life in Mayberry. Two of the most notable towns were Thurmond in Fayette County and Keystone in McDowell County. Each was dangerous but catered to a different trade.

Mr. McKell built the Dunglen Hotel in 1901 at Thurmond-€¦The coal operators, newly rich and dripping with profits, threw their big parties at the Dunglen, which were second to none. The hotel was filled every night with traveling men, business men, coal operators, gamblers, harlots and every type of person -€¦For the next 13 years in the Dunglen Hotel the bar never closed, nor did the gambling room, nor the poker game-€¦ The poker game lasted 14 years-€¦ There might have been as much as $50,000 upon the table at one time-€¦Harrison Ash, a Kentuckian, was police officer of the town, and he was another Wild Bill Hickok- a terror to evildoers. He was six feet four inches tall and weighed 275 pounds-€¦ Ash's pistol had seven notches filed upon it.

For the poor sorts desiring action, they could go to Keystone, known as the Sodom and Gomorrah of McDowell County. The standing joke was that the only difference between Hell and Keystone was that a creek flowed through the town. A police chief offered his thoughts of the crime rate in 1911 to recent law school graduate, Howard Lee, who would later become Attorney General for the state.

Crime runs the gamut of-theft, rape, robbery murder. Never a week passes without at least one murder. Some weeks as many as three or four. All too frequently a man is robbed and murdered and his body is dumped into it to be ground up under the wheels of the numerous passing coal trains."

They didn't serve up a dead man for breakfast every morning, as was the boast in some towns in the Wild West, but it must have been awfully close.

The infamous -€˜Cinder Bottom,' known far and wide as the International Whorehouse District of the coal fields- the toughest of the country's tough spots. In addition to America's white and Negro prostitutes, their likes are here from every country in Europe. That gives the place an international flavor. In these dives all barriers are down, and there is complete racial, social and sexual integration.

Aside from a reputation as a hell raiser, he was known as a crack shot with his pistols. Sid's preferred arm was the large frame double action revolver. Carrying two of them he must have looked like an Elmer Keith (Elmer Merrifield Keith was an Idaho rancher, firearms enthusiast, and author.) prototype. He would often demonstrate his skill-at-arms by throwing a potato into the air and hitting it on the wing. In that time and place, men took their marksmanship seriously. A couple of years before he became the police chief, Sid engaged in a shooting contest with a mine foreman named Wilson. The details of what happened are hazy, but when the smoke cleared from the contest, the other man was dead. Sid was later cleared of criminal charges resulting from the incident. His life was about to be drawn into the whirlwind of circumstances and the vortex of violence that surrounded him.

Locals not affiliated with either group, whose opinions were formerly neutral, turned against the out-of-town muscle men. Still, it would take a local official with plenty of bottom to dare oppose the Baldwin-Felts detectives. Two such individuals were George Blankenship, the sheriff of Mingo County, where Matewan was located, and Cabell Testerman, the mayor of Matewan. Both had let it be known that the Baldwin-Felts operatives would also have to obey the law as well. The mayor realized he needed someone to keep a lid on things in Matewan. Testerman was a businessman and a politician. The new mayor needed someone to keep the tougher elements of the town in line. To accomplish that task he needed his own enforcer. He appointed Sid Hatfield to the job of police chief.

Hatfield proved to be an excellent choice. One might reasonably surmise that only recently having been part of the problem he had a clear understanding on how to handle it. He knew every drunk, whore and hardcase that inhabited the gambling dens and pool halls, and they respected him Sid could offer a little humor and charm to defuse a violent situation, or be free and easy with his fists or blackjack, as the situation required. Given his reputation as a gun hand, few were ready to take the fighting to the next level. Beyond that, the tougher elements simply viewed him as one of their own and they respected him for it. Sid was not a lackey for the coal companies, just a local boy enforcing local laws. He took his newfound responsibilities seriously enough that he even swore off the demon rum. Sid may have decided that his new status required a better example. He may also have done this simply because the liquor addled his wits and dulled his shooting.

Initially Mayor Testerman was offered $1000 for his goodwill. Part of that goodwill was to include allowing them to place machine guns at opposite ends of the town. Had they succeeded, the shootout at Matewan may have resembled the final scene from The Wild Bunch not the opening one. The rest was for him to reign in his police chief. When Testerman refused them they moved on to Hatfield and upped the ante. The agency offered Sid $200 to $300 a month. That was a considerable sum in that time as a miner making top rate only averaged under $700.00 annually. Sid passed on the offer as well. Whatever his other character flaws were, being a backwoods Judas was not one of them. Taking some of the sting out of passing on the bribe was the fact that there was most likely a fair amount of other extra money to be made floating around the little town. Moonshining was a tradition in the hills. The hated Volstead Act would not become a national law for another six months but West Virginia had been dry since 1914. The locals were more than willing to pay local law enforcement to look the other way where their liquor was concerned. The private detectives decided that if Hatfield would not do things the easy way, they would just roll over him. He might be a tough David, but they were a very large Goliath.

About 1:30 Mayor Testerman and Sid Hatfield confronted Albert Felts and his men. Testerman asked them if they had any sort of court order for the evictions. Felts offered the vague reply that he had an order signed by a circuit judge, but did not have it handy just this moment. Testerman told Felts and his enforcers at they could no longer just do as they pleased. He and Hatfield turned and went back to town. During this confrontation Hatfield watched Albert Felts and said little. Undoubtedly the two heavyweight enforcers eyed each other like a pair of boxers preparing to cross the ring in a championship fight. As they were seriously outnumbered and unsure of their legal ground just this second, the mayor and police chief momentarily retreated.

Sid had to deal with the fact that he was seriously outnumbered. To counter this he deputized six "sober minded" citizens to help him detain the out-of-towners. The legal grounds for this temporary detention would be that some of the men were probably carrying pistols without a permit. Word of what was about to happen spread like wildfire. As the afternoon passed, many of the unemployed miners drifted into town and they brought their rifles with them. Soon those half dozen men that Hatfield had deputized had plenty of back up.

Around 5 o'clock the detectives started the short walk toward the railroad station. Several of them carried rifles either in cases or wrapped in paper. They no doubt could sense the hostility from the onlookers. Some of them also carried rifles too, but they were uncased and ready for instant deployment. As those seeking to leave neared the hardware store the drama reached its zenith. Hatfield and two other men walked up to the group and told them he had municipal warrants for their arrest. Albert Felts laughed and pulled out his own paperwork, which was supposed to be an arrest warrant for Sid. Mayor Testerman walked over, examined it, and pronounced it bogus. Both sides laughed for a moment, as if trying to break the tension. A heartbeat later Albert Felts produced a pistol from under his jacket. He shot Mayor Testerman in the stomach and fired a second shot into the hardware store. Sid Hatfield drew his pistols and returned fire. The closest and most dangerous target to him was Albert Felts. One of his first shots hit his hated adversary in the head. After that the firing became general. The detectives broke ranks and ran for cover. They were in the open and seriously outgunned as most of them were using pistols against adversaries armed with rifles. Troy Higgins was the next to fall. William Bowman cut him down with a rifle as he tried to flee. Lee Felts with two pistols and miner Art Williams with one, opened up on each other at almost point blank range without a single round finding its mark. The impasse between them was broken as nearby Reece Chambers took out the younger Felts with a single rifle shot.

William Bowman took a pistol from the dying Felts and followed a fleeing A. J Boorher into a nearby bank. Learning from his previously miserable marksmanship Bowman shot him from so close that he was splattered with his blood. At the start of the fight C.B. Cunningham also fired into the hardware store. Seconds later he was hit with so many bullets that half of his head was removed. Felts operative J. W. Ferguson was wounded and staggered down the street gasping, "I'm shot to pieces." He wandered into a nearby house. A softhearted lady gave him quarter and sat him up in a chair. Moments later a vengeful miner stepped in and shot him where he sat. At that point the battle became a series of individual duels where the townsmen ran the detectives to ground and killed them including one named E.O. Powell. Before the killing stopped, seven of the detectives lay dead.

Word of the shootout traveled quickly. Not only did the state's major newspapers cover the story but national ones did as well. They began to give Sid nicknames like "Two Gun Sid" or "Smilin' Sid" or "The Terror of the Tug." For Sid, the new-found fame was a mixed blessing at best. It was probably a boost to his ego to tell his story to reporters and see his name in print. The problem was the spotlight kept him in the eye of his enemies. He would find that he had won the gunfight, but lost control of his life.

In August of 1920 a large gunfight broke out between striking miners and mine guards backed up by deputies at a small mining camp called Mohawk in McDowell County. Sid was believed to have had a part in it, either as a planner or a participant. On May 12th 1921 a battle broke out between the striking miners and non-union miners and guards. For three days no one around Matewan dared raise his head or venture outside, and even trains were shot up as they approached. It was later estimated that this less than social soirée involved over 3000 men with as many as 20 men killed on each side. Harry Stanton, who had testified two months earlier against Sid, was shot near his home. While the battle raged Sid became involved in a dispute with a mine superintendent. In the course of that argument Sid rifle butted the gentleman to help him see things his way. Scarcely two months after being acquitted he was in trouble again. Overall the situation along the Tug became so grave that on May 19, the one-year anniversary of the shootout, martial law was declared to restore order.

Some historians have tended to dismiss Sid as a sort of violent, ignorant, hill-jack Events proved that this was not true. In a time when most deputies were illiterate political hacks, Sid was not. His actions show a clear understanding of the law and legal procedure and of the pains he took to see that he stood on firm legal ground. Still, for all his calculations, one can only wonder, at what point did Sid realize that he was playing a hand he could not win.

On the morning of August 1, 1921, the Gazette of Charleston, West Virginia, carried under an eight-column banner on its front page the following dispatch from the city of Bluefield: “Sid Hatfield lies in the morgue at Welch tonight, a smile frozen on his lips, eyes wide open and five bullet holes in his head and chest. On the slab next to him lies the body of his friend and bodyguard, Ed Chambers. They were shot down as they mounted the steps of the McDowell County Court House this morning, where they were scheduled to go on trial. Their wives, who were with them, ran screaming into the doorway of the building. Who started the shooting nobody seems to know. The true story of how the men met their death will, in all probability, always remain a secret.…”

Sid Hatfield was a lanky, rawboned, semiliterate mountaineer with the high cheekbones and cold, close-set eyes that marked him as a member of the clan of old “Devil Anse” Hatfield, whose feud with the McCoys raged along the West Virginia-Kentucky border before the turn of the century. He had been born to the mines, but by the time he was twenty-six he had become police chief of Matewan, a rough-and-tumble coal town in Mingo County, not far from his birthplace. With a silver badge on his shirt and a pair of six-guns slung around his waist, Sid Hatfield found that the life of the law suited him perfectly.

Mingo and its neighboring counties were used to violence. Though the American frontier had all but vanished by the time the twentieth century began, the code of the frontier still prevailed in this rugged, isolated mountain enclave. Fierce pride, quick suspicions, and short tempers called for the settlement of disputes on a personal basis, and human life was held to be much less dear than a mountain man’s sense of his own independence and dignity. “Bloody Mingo” earned its name before the miners’ union was ever heard of, but the coming of the union added a new dimension to the area’s tradition of violence.

Joe Roxby. Two Gun Sid Hatfield. Joe Roxby Ohio County Magistrate.
Cabell Phillips. The West Virginia Mine War. American Heritage. August 1974; Volume 25, Issue 5.

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