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Cleaning up "Bloody Mingo"

Welcome to Matewan!

The twang of the harmonica and the roar of the train whistle sounded as the rain fell softly on the unpaved streets of Matewan, West Virginia, a town nestled atop the banks of the Tug River, and tucked deep into the lush, rolling hills of Mingo County. On his way home from school, a young boy emerged from a street corner to see his mother and baby sister crying on the front porch of his home as a small group of men in black suits were exiting his house, throwing his mattress and his mom's laundry into the muddy streets. The boy turned and ran. He booked it to the police office where he told the chief, Sid Hatfield, that a bunch of Baldwin-Felts men were kicking his mom out of their house.


Gun-wielding Sid knew a thing or two about those Baldwin-Felts men. He knew they were detectives privately hired by the Stone Mountain Coal Company to insure that the United Mine Workers union never gained members in Mingo County. He also knew that when the company got word that some of its workers were talking about the union, it would send these Baldwin-Felts detectives to town to kick mineworkers and families out of their company owned houses.

Matewan's diamond in the ruff...COAL

Sid was a good man and a diplomat. He marched over to the boy's house and asked the detectives for their warrants, and upon receiving them, Sid knew that they were not official legal documents. Sid ordered the men to leave town and then hurried back to his office to obtain his own warrants to arrest the "detectives."


Sid, along with the Matewan mayor and a handful of mineworkers, met the men at the train station. The mayor reviewed the detective's warrants, saw that they had not been mandated by the proper authorities, crumpled them up and, in a thick mountain accent, called them bogus documents. As the mayor did this, Sid Hatfield, and the detectives glared at each other next to the railroad tracks, someone fired a shot and the Matewan Massacre, one of the worst gunfights in American history, began. Over one hundred shots were fired and when the smoke cleared, ten men were lying dead in the street: seven of them Baldwin-Felts detectives, three of them Matewan workers, including the mayor.

Modern day Matewan doesn't look much different

The story of the Matewan Massacre and political history that surround it have been hushed up for decades, the town's residents ashamed to talk about their 'bloody' past. And indeed, as Nick and I were driving through the hills around Matewan, I was a bit worried that the town didn't exist anymore and that the story was a hoax because NO ONE we ran into, even five minutes away from the town's center, recognized its name.


The people of Mingo County have been shamed into forgetting the radical history of Matewan because they have a reputation for being hillbillies, country folk, "mountain trash". They speak in thick accents and live in an area rich with coal that has been exploited by rich mining companies for years and years. What the people of Mingo County, the surrounding areas, and most of the United States do not learn about though, is that the area and its people form the beating heart of the worker's rights movement and represent a people who stand up for themselves and what they believe in.

The accused at the Matewan Massacre

On May 19, 1920, the day of the Matewan Massacre, there was already a lot of agitation in the town. It was a time of anti-unionism and 'yellow-dog contracts'. Before being hired by the Stone Mountain Mining Company, miners had to sign documents (aka "yellow-dog contracts") pledging never to join the mineworkers union nor to associate with union members. In exchange for signing the contract and being committed to buying food and clothes from company-owned stores, mine workers and their families received jobs and homes to live in. matetents.jpg: Families moved to union supported tent villages when Baldwin-Felts guards kicked them out of their homes


Celebrating Sugar... Raisenettes, Bit-o-honey, and Dr. Pepper...

As the coal industry began to boom, however, greedy company men began to pay less money to the mineworkers in order to make more money. There were times when company men would lower their payments to workers the same day they would raise the price of food and clothes in the stores where the workers shopped! Residents in the area whether they were blacks, immigrants, or West Virginia natives had moved to the area to make a nice life for themselves. But dealing with such greedy work politics on top of tough working conditions created unrest. It became apparent, and was often said, that "mules were more important than miners"!

Pedestrians Beware!

Workers soon started to listen to union men--organizers--who talked about worker's rights and equal pay. When workers began to associate more with union men, stories of Baldwin-Felts detectives throwing miners' families out of their homes at gunpoint became common. Furies rose.

When the workers got kicked out of their homes, the union would support them with tents and a basic relief fund to survive off of company land. Fired miners did not have much but they lived in the tent colonies for years. They were constantly threatened by Baldwin-Felts detectives and sometimes had their water supply poisoned with kerosene. What they did have, though, was solidarity. In the tent colonies, black, immigrant, and white workers lived together, as a united front.

Young blood defending the union

And united, they were!!! After the Matewan Massacre, Sid Hatfield's enemies had him publicly assassinated and the news spread throughout the land. Learning of the murder, almost 10,000 united miners marched across the state of West Virginia to avenge his death and to drive Baldwin-Felts detectives out of the area once and for all. Outside of the town center at the foot of Mingo County's Blair Mountain, the miners fought what would be become one of the largest armed labor battles in US history. It was a violent war during which the organized Baldwin-Felts front actually dropped bombs on the miners. Troops from the National Guard were eventually called in to enact martial law and to quell the dispute. With the arrival of federal troops, miners surrendered immediately: they were fighting the company not the government, nor the federal soldiers they had fought beside in World War I.

The Matewan Massacre bullets that got away

After the battle in Mingo County, support for the labor movement had been quashed, but later the Matewan Massacre and other labor incidents would influence legislation that eventually outlawed 'yellow-dog contracts' and caused the demise of detective agencies like Baldwin-Felts.

Stalking the Baldwin Felts men

Current Matewan resident, Joyce Dyar, believes West Virginians should not be ashamed of their history nor should they view Matewan's violent past as the "hillbilly legacy of 'Bloody Mingo'". Other industries like the garment workers in the South, the steelworkers in Pennsylvania experienced similarly violent confrontations in their development. "When we don't talk about our history", Joyce said, "we end up studying someone else's": We lose sight of who we are and where we come from.

Who says you can't be in two places at once?  Stephen's in Kentucky AND West Virginia!

The silence that surrounds the story of Matewan is surprising, but the drama of its past is truly unforgettable; its stories about guns, spies, and poison. Who was right? Didn't the coal company control the little town with guns and violence? Didn't they treat them like hillbillies and lower-class citizens and invite revolt? On the other hand, didn't the mineworkers break their legally binding contracts when they joined the union? While we could argue about who was right and who was wrong, it is perhaps more valuable for us just to remember the magnitude of union battles and the passion with which they were fought.


Please email me at: stephen@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Daphne - America's long legacy of injustice and intolerance claims two more victims
Neda - Are you a foreigner? Well, go to jail!
Jennifer - Letters home from the frontlines of America's worker strikes
Nick - Steel vs. flesh: A battle for worker's rights
Making A Difference - The global market place is destroying our globe