The gunfight in downtown Matewan on May 19, 1920, had all the elements of a high-noon showdown: on one side, the heroes, a pro-union sheriff and mayor; on the other, the dastardly henchmen of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency. Within 15 minutes, ten people were dead—seven detectives, two miners and the mayor. Three months later, the conflict in the West Virginia coal town had escalated to the point where martial law was declared and federal troops had to intervene. The showdown may sound almost cinematic, but the reality of the coal miners’ armed standoffs throughout the early 20th century was much darker and more complicated.
Then, as now, West Virginia was coal country. The coal industry was essentially the state’s sole source of work, and massive corporations built homes, general stores, schools, churches and recreational facilities in the remote towns near the mines. For miners, the system resembled something like feudalism. Sanitary and living conditions in the company houses were abysmal, wages were low, and state politicians supported wealthy coal company owners rather than miners. The problems persisted for decades and only began to improve once Franklin Delano Roosevelt passed the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933.
As labor historian Hoyt N. Wheeler writes, “Firing men for union activities, beating and arresting union organizers, increasing wages to stall the union’s organizational drive, and a systematic campaign of terror produced an atmosphere in which violence was inevitable.” The mine guards of Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency repeatedly shut down miners’ attempts at unionization with everything from drive-by assaults of striking miners to forcing men, women and children out of their homes.
The combination of perilous working conditions and miner-guard tensions led to a massive strike in 1912 in southern West Virginia (Matewan sits on the state’s southern border with Kentucky). After five months, things came to a head when 6,000 union miners declared their intention to kill company guards and destroy company equipment. When the state militia swooped in several days later, they seized 1,872 high-powered rifles, 556 pistols, 225,000 rounds of ammunition, and large numbers of daggers, bayonets and brass knuckles from both groups.
Although World War I briefly distracted union organizers and coal companies from their feud, the fighting soon picked back up again. As wealth consolidated after the war, says historian Rebecca Bailey, the author of Matewan Before the Massacre, unions found themselves in the crosshairs.
“Following World War I, there was an increasing concentration into fewer hands of industrial corporate power,” says Bailey. “Unions were anathema to them simply because human labor was one of the few cost items that could be manipulated and lowered.”
As the rich mine owners got richer, union-organized strikes became a way for miners to protect their salaries. Leaders like John L. Lewis, the head of the United Mine Workers of America, insisted that workers’ strength came through collective action. In one successful protest, 400,000 UMWA went on strike nationwide in 1919, securing higher wages and better working conditions. But while wages generally increased for miners throughout the period, they tended to rise more slowly in non-union areas, and the union itself struggled throughout the 1920s. For capitalists, it was a battle for profit—and against what they saw as Bolshevik communism. For workers, it was a fight for their rights as humans.
The two sides came to a head in the conflict in Matewan. In response to a massive UMWA organizing effort in the area, local mining companies forced miners to sign yellow-dog contracts that bound them never to join a union. On May 19, Baldwin-Felts agents arrived in Matewan to evict miners and their families from Stone Mountain Coal Company housing. It was a normal day on the job for the agents; the detective agency, founded in the 1890s, provided law-enforcement contractors for railroad yards and other industrial corporations. It also did the brunt of the work suppressing unionization in coal mining towns—and today, the Baldwin-Felts men were there to kick out men who had joined the UMWA.
That same day, the town of Matewan was teeming with a number of unemployed miners who came to receive a few dollars, sacks of flour and other foodstuffs from the union to prevent their families from starving. Whether the men also came in anticipation of taking action against the Baldwin-Felts agents is a matter of debate. Either way, the visiting miners had the rare support of pro-union Matewan police chief, Sid Hatfield, and the town’s mayor, Cabell Testerman.
According to one version of the story, the Baldwin-Felts agents tried to arrest Hatfield when he attempted to prevent the evictions from taking place. When the mayor defended Hatfield from the arrest, he was shot, and more bullets began to fly. In another version of the story, Hatfield initiated the violence, either by giving a signal to armed miners stationed around the town or by firing the first shot himself. For Bailey, the latter seems the more likely scenario because the agents would have known they were outnumbered—and if union miners and Hatfield did initiate the violence, the story of Matewan is darker than a simple underdog tale.
“I call it elevation through denigration,” she says, noting that the union benefited from the moral high ground as victims regardless of whether they instigated the violence.
But for Terry Steele, a former coal miner in West Virginia and member of the local UMWA, revolting was the only way to respond to abuse. He says local wisdom had it that, “If you got a mule killed in the mines and you were in charge, you could lose your job over it. If you got a man killed, he could be replaced.”
What made the situation worse, according to Wilma Steele, a founding member of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, was the contempt outsiders had for miners in the region. Locals had a reputation for being violent and unreasonable. “It set the stereotype that they were used to feuding and they were people who don’t care about anything but a gun and a bottle of liquor,” says Steele. “That was the propaganda. But these people were being abused.”
Although police chief Hatfield was celebrated as a hero by the mining community after the shootout, and even starred in a movie for the UMWA, he was a villain to T. L. Felts, a Baldwin-Felts partner who lost two brothers to the massacre. When Hatfield was acquitted in a local trial by jury, Felts brought a conspiracy charge against him, forcing the police chief to appear in court once more. On the stairway of the courthouse in August 1921, Hatfield and his deputy, Ed Chambers, were gunned down by Baldwin-Felts agents.
In response to the assassination, an army of miners 10,000 strong began a full-on assault against the coal company and the mine guards. While miners shot at their opponents, private planes organized by the coal companies’ defensive militia dropped bleach and shrapnel bombs on the union’s headquarters. The battle only stopped when federal troops arrived on the order of President Warren Harding.
The entire event was covered rabidly by the national press, says Chatham University historian Louis Martin, who is also a founding member of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum. “National papers sold a lot of copies by portraying the area as a lawless land where the mountaineers were inherently violent,” Martin says. “This was a romanticized version of events, creating an Old West type image of Appalachia. This obviously didn’t lead to widespread public support for the miners in their struggles.”
When the conflict concluded, hundreds of miners were indicted for murder, and more than a dozen were charged with treason. Although all but one were acquitted of treason charges, others were found guilty of murder and spent years in prison. Even worse, the UMWA experienced a significant decline in membership throughout the 1920s, and in 1924 the UMWA district that included Matewan lost its local autonomy because of the incident. As the years progressed, the union distanced itself even further from the Matewan massacre.
For Bailey, it’s easy to see this story in terms of good and evil—and that ignores the nuance of the story.
“When we essentialize a narrative into heroes and villains, we run the risk of invalidating human pain and agency,” Bailey says. “The Baldwin-Felts agents were professional men. They believed they were fighting the onslaught of Communism. Their opponents were fighting for a fair and living wage, an appropriate share of the benefits of their labor.”
This fight between collectivism and individualism, the rights of the worker and the rights of the owner, have been part of America since the country’s founding, Bailey says. And even today, that battle rages on—perhaps not with bullets, but with eroding regulations and workers’ rights. Though at first the federal government acted as a third-party broker, protecting union rights with bargaining regulations initiated by Franklin Roosevelt, workers’ rights were eventually curtailed by more powerful actors.
“[Unions] became so dependent on federal labor laws and the National Labor Relations Board that they lived and died by what the federal government would allow them to do,” Martin says. “That was the beginning of a decline in union power in this country”—one that’s still ongoing. Martin cites the failure of the Employee Free Choice Act to pass in Congress (which was aimed at removing barriers to unionization), the closure of the last union coal mine in Kentucky in 2015, the loss of retirement benefits for former miners, and the surge in black lung disease as evidence of unions’ fading power.
“The things they were fighting for [in the Matewan massacre] are the things we’re fighting for today,” Terry Steele says. He’s one of the miners who will be losing his health insurance and retirement plan in the wake of his employer’s bankruptcy. “The things our forefathers stood for are now being taken away from us. It seems like we’re starting to turn the clock back.”