Hollywood would tell us that the gunfights in America's history started with a battle between good guys and bad guys and ended with the bad guy's gut-wrenching death sequence, complete with the obligatory quickly-growing pool of aforementioned bad guy's blood, surrounded by the corpses of his countless henchmen. The bad guy stares up at the harsh sun, barely blotted out by the sweat-soaked, cowboy-hatted, bloodied face of our hero. Indeed, history sometimes agrees with this jazzed-up picture of America. Unfortunately, much to Hollywood's chagrin, often the bad guys end up winning, the good guys all either dead or cowed into compliance with some variety of tyranny. Worse yet, sometimes no one wins and lots of people die anyway.
Matewan, WV, started as a coal town--a company town run by the Stone Mountain Mining Company (SMMC). They had a company store (purchases at exorbitant prices, sold in company scrip only, please), company housing (provided by the company, paid for directly from employee paychecks, "for ease of use"), a daycare service (same provisions, whether the employee has children or not) and numerous other amenities that made working for the SMMC a golden opportunity in early 20th century America (remember the Great Depression?). Anti-unionism had taken off like a new strain of influenza in America, and "yellow-dog contracts" (signing a proclamation promising not to join the local union, nor to associate with any current members as a requirement of hiring) stood as the norm for new hires.
Despite how picturesque this all seemed, life for the employees oscillated between barely tolerable and positively abysmal. Thankfully, for the Company, the union hadn't become strong enough to do anything about the situation.
That started changing in March 1920, as the SMMC workers heard of a United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) brokered pay increase that netted its members 27% extra in their paychecks. The seeds of revolution germinated. By day (12-14 hours, mind you), the men and children toiled in the mines. By evening, in hushed voices, they spoke of a strike.
It came to fruition on 19 May, 1920, two months after the UMWA's success. By the Spring, nearly three thousand men had signed the union's roster, and the operators had retaliated with a massive string of firings, evictions, and all-around general harassment. Regardless of the risks to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the union continued to meet in private homes and the local pub. The mayor, Cabel Testerman, and the police chief, Sid Hatfield, refused to enforce or support the retaliation suggested by the SMMC. So, in typical early 20th century fashion, the company hired a group of their own enforcers--a notorious group of thugs and roughnecks known throughout America for their brutality in dealing with unions: the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency. They swept into town, evicting unionized coal miners from their homes. Hundreds of families spent a chilly spring in canvas tent "towns," while continuing their work in the mines.
Tension hung in the air, thick with a inevitable confrontation. On 19 May, 1920, a group of Baldwin-Felts detectives arrived, by train, to evict more families living at a camp just outside of town. Hatfield and Fred Burgraff, his deputy, met them as they disembarked. An argument began. It ended with shots fired.
No one knows who shot first--the heavies from the agency, or the sheriff, or some bystander. It did not matter to Cable Testerman, though. He fell first, blood spilling out of his raincoat, shot, likely, by Albert Felts, the man in charge of the detectives. Over one hundred shots later, seven Baldwin-Felts men lay dead, including two Felts brothers, Albert and Lee, another detective lay wounded, two miners fell to shots, Cable Testerman struggled for life, and four other passersby were wounded.
The shots echoed throughout America. Governor John Cornwell ordered the entire state police troop (fifty men) to control the situation. Hatfield and his men cooperated with the police, eager to have the hired goons run out of town. Meanwhile, the miners stepped up their efforts to organize and strike, praising Hatfield as their newest hero. On 1 July, the strike was finally called, and by the end of the month almost no coal was leaving West Virginia. Violence erupted throughout the state. Railroad cars were torn to bits, strikers beaten and left for dead. The National Guard was called in to help deal with the emergency.
Eager to avenge his brothers' deaths, the remaining Felts, Tom sent spies to collect evidence against Hatfield and his compatriots. Shortly thereafter, Hatfield and 22 other men were indicted by a grand jury for the murder of Albert Felts. However, the strength of the union was finally realized and put to the test--charges were dropped for most of the defendants, and the Williamson courthouse acquitted the rest.
Nevertheless, Felts had his revenge ultimately. Hatfield and his then-deputy Ed Chambers were assassinated by Felts's men on the steps of the Welch town courthouse. Neither Hatfield nor his deputy were armed. Not even the 2,000 person parade that followed his death could bring him back, though. In this game, neither team won.
anthropod says re Matewan: I looked this up because I just saw John Sayles' movie of this name; you did not mention it at all, but it's very good, and you should see it and include it in this w/u. I have copy-pasted this message into this writeup for two reasons: First because I haven't seen the movie mentioned, but any extra info is good info, and second because anthropod has a @ next to his name. You know how they can get.