Today in Security History: The Battle of Matewan
No one knows who fired the first shot, but when local miners, their pro-union town leaders, and a gang of private detectives met on 19 May 1920 in Matewan, West Virginia, a shootout formed the catalyst for a period of mine worker unrest and violence—later known as the West Virginia Mine Wars.
The shootout was the culmination of months of escalating action between local coal miners and a gang of private detectives. Known as the “Battle of Matewan,” the event stood as a battle for miners’ rights.
The town of Matewan, having been founded just recently in 1895, was an independent town with only a few elected officials. During this period, miners worked long hours in unsafe and dismal working conditions, while being paid low wages. Adding to the hardship was the use of “coal scrip” by the Stone Mountain Coal Company; the scrip was tokens or paper money issued by the company to workers instead of national currency. Stone Mountain, through the use of these scrips, not only owned the mines but essentially owned the town. The scrip could only be used at company stores, and miners, out of necessity, lived in company-owned housing.
Earlier that year, union miners in other parts of the United States went on strike, receiving substantial pay increases for their efforts. A union organizer with United Mine Workers of America, John Lewis, traveled to Matewan in hopes of getting more men to join the cause. Roughly 3,000 men signed the union's roster in the spring of 1920. Stone Mountain Coal Corporation fought back with mass firings, harassment, and evictions.
In response to Stone Mountain’s actions, Matewan elected officials—including the pro-union police chief, Sid Hatfield, and the town’s mayor, Cable Testerman—sided with the miners and the citizens. In turn, the Stone Mountain Coal Corporation hired their own enforcers, the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency—dubbed the “Baldwin Thugs” by the miners. The coal operators had hired them to evict the miners and their families from the company-owned houses.
According to the U.S. National Parks Service, hundreds of miners and their families ended up being evicted from their homes and living in makeshift tents and camps for months going into the spring of 1920.
On 19 May, detectives arrived to evict families from these camps. When Sheriff Hatfield approached Baldwin-Felts detectives, he was served with a fraudulent arrest warrant. Eventually, Hatfield, Deputy Sheriff Fred Burgraff, and Mayor Testerman met with the detectives on the porch of the Chambers Hardware Store, with both Hatfield and one of the Felts detectives claiming they had the right to arrest the other.
At some point shots were fired, however it is still unknown who exactly fired the first shot. A Felts detective and the mayor were shot. When the shooting finally stopped, the townspeople came out, many wounded. Seven Baldwin-Felts detectives, two miners, and the mayor were killed.
The battle to this day stands as an important historical event in the fight for union rights and the fight for fair wages and working conditions for the working class. It also continues to provide critical insight into the historical development of the private security industry.
William “Evan” Gillespie is a Certified Protection Officer from York, Pennsylvania. He has a background in occupational safety, healthcare, and nuclear security and writes about important developments in the historical development of private security.