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This summer marks the 100th anniversary of the largest armed uprising in America since the Civil War, and a major event in West Virginia history: the Battle of Blair Mountain. The battle came in 1921, several months after the Matewan Massacre, a shootout that’s also been immortalized in stories, song and film.
In these conflicts, the coal companies hired Baldwin-Felts private detective agency as henchmen to fight their battles.
Inside Appalachia co-host Mason Adams spoke with historian Bob Hutton about his research into the Baldwin-Felts agency, which started in the Virginia coalfields.
***Editor’s Note: The following has been lightly edited for clarity.
Mason Adams: For folks who may not be familiar, do you mind briefly recapping the role of the detectives in those incidents?
Bob Hutton: Well, sure.
In the so-called Matewan Massacre, a number of agents of the Baldwin-Felts organization were evicting women and children from miners’ houses in downtown Matewan. They were prevented from doing so by the local police chief and the local mayor, who commenced a gunfight that ended up working not in the interest of the Baldwin-Felts agents. They weren’t on the winning side of all this.
The police chief in question was a guy named Sid Hatfield. He was later put on trial for another incident, and he was assassinated on the courthouse steps in Welch, West Virginia, by agents of the Baldwin-Felts detective agency. That’s nearly 100 years ago, coming up soon.
Later in 1921, you had the Battle of Blair Mountain. Agents of the Baldwin felts detective agency probably did play a role in that, although their role in Blair Mountain is somewhat more obscure. Certainly, they’re the antagonists. In the so-called Mine Wars, going back to Paint Creek and Cabin Creek in 1912, 1913, going up to 1921 — they’re the primary bad guys in both cases.
Adams: I think a lot of us have an understanding of Baldwin-Felts as sort of the Appalachian version of the Pinkertons. Tell us a little bit more about this detective agency. Where was it formed? Who were Baldwin and Felts?
Hutton: William Baldwin was actually named “the Pinkerton of the South” at a policeman’s convention in about 1905. The most important thing to remember about both William Baldwin and Tom Felts was that they were both natives of Appalachia. Both of them were born and raised in southwestern Virginia. Both of them had gotten into the detective profession way back in the 1800s.
Baldwin had gotten a job working for an older detective in Charleston, West Virginia. He later turned that employment into his own agency. By 1895 or so, he’s the primary detective for the Norfolk and Western Railroad, and he’s got Felts working for him. Over the next few years, Felt’s position in the agency grew, and eventually they became partners.
Over the course of that time, they hired dozens of individuals as henchmen, as spies, as patrol guards — all sorts of different kinds of private security or investigation capacities.
Adams: We’ve talked a little bit about the Baldwin-Felts detective agency’s role in the Mine Wars, but that entire period is also remarkable in history for the sheer amount of upheaval, racial terror, and establishment of Jim Crow laws in the South. What role did the Baldwin-Felts agency play with that?
Hutton: I’ve found that Baldwin-Felts was an enforcer of Jim Crow. Beginning in the 1880s, there’s a massive African-American migration to both West Virginia and southwestern Virginia. They’re all being driven there by the availability of jobs in the mines and the railroads. It’s a huge demographic change.
This being the era of Jim Crow, the enforcement of the color line and the attempt to maintain white supremacy: This ultimately was Baldwin-Felts’ job on the railroad and in the rail yards. There was a demand to make sure that these Black workers stayed in line. William Baldwin and Tom Felts often saw that as their job.
Adams: Does your research support the casting of the Baldwin-Felts detectives as the bad guys in these narratives?
Hutton: Frankly, it does.
There’s very little good that seems to come from their work. For instance, going back to the 1890s, there were a lot of railroad accidents. Lo and behold, the Baldwin-Felts agency would always find some sort of individual to blame for these accidents. Very often it happened to be a Black worker. This mythology of the Black train wrecker becomes basically their bread-and-butter by about 1900. Anytime there’s some sort of railroad accident that the insurance companies might be trying to blame on negligence, or that families might want to try to sue the Norfolk and Western, they always happen to find someone — sometimes a child —that they can say, “Well, this person put something on the tracks and tried to derail the train.”
There’s so many other incidents where they would rough up individuals to try to get a confession out of them, probably very often a false one. That’s to say nothing of the years of their decline in the early 1930s, where essentially their primary job is harvesting hobos, and selling them to a workhouse in northern North Carolina. These are not good people. One person around 1913 referred to them as “the gunmen of capitalism.” I think that’s an apt phrase.
Adams: That is a jaw-dropping story — the fact that it’s homegrown.
Hutton: Precisely. They did work for companies that could be termed as “invasive.” But a very important thing to remember about Baldwin-Felts is the organization was founded by mountaineers. It was run by mountaineers. And most of the gunman they hired who shot miners or beat up Black railroad workers were native mountaineers. So they’re getting their gun thugs from the same labor pool as the people that they’re torturing. And that’s that’s a dynamic that really needs to be explored.
Bob Hutton is a historian at the University of Tennessee. His journal article on the Baldwin-Felts detective agency, “The Appalachian Gun Men of Capitalism,” is in the anthology, “Reconsidering Southern Labor History.” Hutton is also the author of “Bloody Breathitt – Politics and Violence in The Appalachian South.”
This interview is part of an episode of “Inside Appalachia,” featuring stories about Matriarchal Moonshiners, Legendary Lawbreakers and more.