The coal operators in the Hazard field, who also controlled the press, turned the incident into a national calamity. The same operators who had no compunction about hiring a man killed, used the newspapers to make the belling of the doctor a national scandal. This incident was a joke among coal miners all over eastern Kentucky for many years and was often talked about As the miners of Harlan County began to grow in strength, they occasionally became over-anxious to break their shackles and wanted everything done over night. Members of the Verda local union bought four cowbells and short chains and locked them to the seats in the local union hall. They said they had no intention of putting cowbells on anyone who did not join the union but only used them as a means of applauding when a speaker made a good point. I went to the hall one night and it was crowded. Much to my surprise, when I started talking I was applauded not only by human hands, but also by these four cow bells. The noise was deafening. I remember it as the greatest burst of applause ever given me anywhere. Pearl Bassham heard about this through some stooge he planted in the local union, and the next day deputies Lee Fleenor, Alien Bowling and Charles Elliott with Perry G. Noe, broke down the doors in the hall and tore the cowbells off the seats and arrested the officials of the local union. A week later I was indicted by the grand jury, charged with banding and confederating, and it was alleged that the cowbells were brought in to be put around the necks of the company officials and those of our own miners who violated the union rules.
I had been on fairly good terms with Pearl Bassham for about two weeks, so I went to see him. I told him what I thought of his under-handed action of having deputy sheriffs raid the hall and take the cowbells. He declared that he had nothing to do with it and to prove it he would bail the men out of jail. Their bail was $1,600. He told Ray Cornett, company clerk, to go to the company store, get $1,600 and give it to me to take down to put up as bond. I refused to do this, but Cornett went with me and put up the bond with Judge Ball, the County Judge. Ball at first refused to take the $1,600 because he said he had no safe strong enough to hold that much money; that if some of the thugs found out it was there, they would blow the safe and he would be holding the sack for the bond. However, he finally took the money and deposited it in the bank. The local union officials were then released.
On April 1, 1938 the cow bell case came up for trial. On April 2, the Knoxville News Sentinel carried the following story: "The jury today acquitted all of the "belling" charges. They were John Gross, Henry Gross, Pearl Pace and George Savior. A directed verdict of acquittal was ordered by Judge Gilbert for George Titler, International Representative of the UMWA, in charge of Harlan County activities, and Lee Mitchell. They have been accused of plotting with others at Verda to chain cowbells around the necks of non-union miners or rule violators. The court declared there was no evidence to connect Titler and Mitchell with the others. Attorney James Golden arguing for the defendants charged there is somebody in back of this case, feeding money into the prosecution of these union men because they are members of a legal organization. He termed the bells as innocent reminders of liberty and charged the deputy sheriffs had raided the hall and confiscated the bells, chains and locks and then framed a case against the defendants. Joe B. Snyder, attorney for the prosecution, argued that it was a queer thing that the chains they declare represented unionism and liberty were but just the right length to go around a man's neck."
The success of our organizers in Harlan County became a topic of interest to many newspapers. A lady reporter, representing the Louisville Courier-Journal, came to my office to get the facts for a story about our success in organizing a large part of Harlan County in just a few weeks. She came into the office unannounced and, while she was there, the organizers kept reporting in. As they came in they unstrapped their gun belts and threw them on the beds. Rifles and shotguns were hanging on the walls. The following Sunday, the Courier-Journal rotogravure section featured pictures of mine workers headquarters and "arsenal" at Evarts. This was a great help to us because the Courier-Journal is widely read in Harlan County and all of the thugs could see what they would be up against if they came looking for trouble.
While the story written was not very complimentary to the organizers, it was certainly an asset to the organization as a deterrent to violence by the deputy sheriffs. This seemed to me to be proof of the theory that if we, as a nation, are prepared, we are not so apt to be attacked — that prepared-ness brings peace. It was certainly true in Harlan County. CHAPTER XVIII
Our next step was to organize the mines from Harlan town to the Bell County line. This was done in very short order. The organizers were then recalled and began to organize from Harlan town to the head of Martins Fork and Catrons Creek. This job was simple. When we got to the United States Coal and Coke Company's mine, at Lynch, we knew management had set up a company union, the Union of Lynch Employees. Bill Hollins, president of the organization, and a company stooge, headed this organization. He was a big, six-foot-two, hillbilly from Clay County, Kentucky, with plenty of courage and not much gray matter. The organizing of Benham and Lynch was at that time under the jurisdiction of UMWA, District 30, who sent a crew of organizers in there to sign up the employees. The working conditions at Benham and Lynch were better than the other part of Harlan County and it was, therefore, more difficult to organize the miners. They had already begun making good money and working shorter hours. Of course, our efforts in other sections were responsible for the better pay and hours.
District 30 called for an NLRB election at Benham and lost by thirty-one votes out of about four hundred. They were about to demand an election at Lynch (because District 30 President Sam Caddy had been advised by his organizers that two-thirds of the men had signed United Mine Workers membership cards.) Bill Turnblazer asked me to make a survey. I did and reported back to him that if an election were held, it would probably be lost just as at Benham. I was then instructed by Turnblazer to file an unfair labor practice charge against the United States Coal and Coke Company. U. S. Steel did not know what we had for a hole card and apparently became worried.
During the time we were trying to organize Lynch, U. S. Steel threw every roadblock possible in our way. For instance, they used the Union of Lynch Employees as a front to try to stop the UMW organization at this mine. Sheriff Middleton sent them a little red-cherub-faced deputy by the name of Dan Cloud, about twenty-five years old, who worked around Lynch exclusively. His greatest stock in trade was planting moonshine whiskey in union men's cars. He would then have some one get a search warrant, search the cars and throw the owners in jail. Many a union man working in the mines at Lynch was arrested for bootlegging and moonshining through Dan Cloud's efforts. Another man U. S. Steel used was a fellow who worked in the Lynch mine, part of the time as a classified worker and at other times as a boss. His name was Preacher Johnson. Preacher Johnson had been a deputy sheriff for Theodore Middleton, and also for John Henry Blair. He was a big, ugly, sandy-haired fellow who looked something like a gorilla and who could not be trusted as far as you could throw a bull by the tail. Many a man was beaten up and kicked around in the Lynch camp by this so-called preacher. Johnson apparently was getting his advice and orders from somebody at the head of the United States Coal and Coke Company police force. A boy by the name of Elbert Witt, who was discharged at Lynch because he was helping to organize for the union, was put on the organizing force and sent to Lynch to line up the people he had worked with. Witt was a courageous individual who would go any place, regardless of the danger, in order to contact mine workers.
The slowest group of people at Lynch to join the union was Negro miners who had been imported to Lynch, mostly from Alabama. When U. S. Steel recruited these colored coal miners from Alabama, it thought they couldn't be organized, but it was our experience in Harlan County that the best stickers we had, after they were organized, were the colored men. They would not worry about getting fired as long as they had assurance that there would be corn bread and beans furnished them by the organization. While working with these people, Witt had arranged a party, or a dance, at the home of Amanda Davis, wife of a union miner. The organizers furnished the music and refreshments. Everybody was having a good time and Elbert Witt was signing up cards right and left when Dan Cloud and Preacher Johnson came into the hall and pulled guns. They claimed they had a search warrant for moonshine liquor. Several shots were fired and a bullet grazed Witt's head and knocked him to the floor. While he was on the floor, he shot and killed Johnson. The case was tried in Harlan County before a jury brought in from Wayne County. Witt was acquitted because the coroner's evidence was to the effect that the bullet that killed Johnson ranged upward and hit him in the stomach. The proof was that Witt was lying on the floor, after being knocked down by Johnson's bullet, and fired at the latter from a lying position. The case was tried on April 6, 1938, and Amanda Davis, a co-defendant, was also acquitted.
Lynch was then a town of more than ten thousand persons, 4,500 of who were employed in the U. S. Steel mining operation. As stated above, the company used all of its power to try to beat the union down. On our part, we had to use every ounce of our strength to fight back and to organize its men who were of almost every conceivable creed and color.
Among our greatest strengths were the rank-and-file members working for union organization. I remember two men particularly. One was a colored moderator of the Baptist church whom I hired to help to organize his congregation. He went to a Sunday mass meeting in Lynch and when he came back he was so high he could not hit the ground with a handful of shot. I bawled him out for getting high and said: "You are a fine Baptist. You cannot organize church people with your snoot full." He replied: "Brother George, you don't know what you are talking about. You just don't know your Baptists. They have no faith in anyone who does not take a little nip." The second was the man who became president of the Lynch local union, Hamp C. Wooten. He was a small motorman in the mine with the strength and courage of a wolverine. He furnished strong leadership to our largest local union for two years. In addition to this, he gave us yeomen service in other parts of the County. He later engineered the building of the Lynch local union hall that was dedicated January 1, 1940.
U. S. Steel was not the only company operating in Harlan County using the subterfuge of company unionism to fight the UMWA. Other Harlan County coal operators had found it legally dangerous to use killers to stop union organization so they held a meeting and decided to organize as many company unions as possible. Lynch had already organized the Union of Lynch Employees; Wisconsin Steel, at Benham, formed the Benham Employees Association; Harlan Central, at Totts, formed the Poor Fork Employees Association (with only twelve members); Harlan Fuel Company, at Yancy, formed the Yancy Workmen's Association; another company union was formed at Cardinal Coal Company, near the Harlan-Bell County line; and the Insul Employees Association, at Insul, in Bell County.
Kitts and Brookside, of the Whitfield Company, outsmarted themselves. Instead of forming company unions, they hired Red Anderson, a renegade machine runner, to form what they called an anti-union group. This group struck against working with union men. After the strike, the company bought them six kegs of beer as a reward for the demonstration. This was later revealed in the National Labor Relations Board hearings. U. S. Steel seemed for a time to become almost deranged in its efforts to use the company union system to break the United Mine Workers. On June 18, 1937, the Union of Lynch Employees staged a rally at Lynch with W. F. Corn, chairman of the company union's board of directors, as principal speaker. All other company union members in Harlan County were invited to attend the "picnic". Corn made an immoderate attack on the CIO and its "six hundred international unions" which he said were trying to impose "Red Russian leadership on American Workers." He alleged that the UMWA was behind this so-called movement in spite of the fact that the UMWA had long denied the privilege of membership to communists. Other speakers at this rally were W. B. Russell, Gus Moister, Harvest Goodgame, R. H. Lock of the Lynch company union, and Swamp John, a Negro clown from Benham. All reports as to membership in these company unions were inflated. For instance, it was said that the following representations were present at the June rally: Benham Employees' Association, three hundred; Yancy Workmen's Association, two hundred; Insull Employees Association, one hundred. The true figures were much lower. The companies also made much of the fact that company unions had 3,100 members in Harlan County while the United Mine Workers had only 1,500.
Whatever the membership figures may have been, it is true the Harlan operators worked hard to form company unions and most of them were successful in coercing at least some of the men to join. In addition to those already mentioned, a company union was set up at Louellen, with a man named Van Cupp as president. The High-Lo Association, at High-splint, was organized for the company by a fellow, imported from Illinois, named George Hudson. All but one of these phony organizations was short-lived, however.
The National Labor Relations Board soon stepped in and conducted hearings on company unionism in Harlan County. Evidence showed they were clearly under control of management and in violation of Federal law. A July 19 hearing at Pineville, Kentucky, brought out the fact that employees of the Straight Creek Coal Company were asked by company officials to join something called the Southern Miners Union. In a hearing at Yancy, Charles Guthrie admitted that his company brought in strip teasers from out of the County to entertain the employees attending company union meetings. He stated the show cost $100. With the company paying half and the Yancy Employees Association paying the other half. The operators often made headlines in their attempts to defend company unions, at NLRB hearings, but they lost anyhow. In one Labor Board Hearing, where Cleo K. Calvert was the defense attorney, Calvert came into the hearing room walking with his gold-headed cane. He needed it. He was weaving from side to side. Both he, and his court reporter, a middle-aged widow, was higher than a Georgia Pine. However, he made newspaper headline by accusing the Union of putting $500,000 in President Roosevelt's campaign in 1936 and by alleging that the Department of Justice and the National Labor Relations Board were now paying a political debt by harassing the Harlan operators. He also accused the Delano family, relatives of President Roosevelt, of owning controlling interest in the Kentenna Land Company (which owned coal lands in Harlan County leased to certain of the Harlan operators). Leonard Shore and Charles Ryan were attorneys for the Labor Board. After listening to Calvert's harangue for twenty minutes, Shore moved that the hearing be recessed until calvert sobered up, and it was so ordered by the trial examiner, Mr. J. G. Ewell.
All of these company unions amounted to about as much as a snowball in perdition. In almost every case, before the National Labor Relations Board got through with the hearings, the operator had admitted under oath that it had a hand in organizing the independent union as a deterrent to the organization by the Union Mine Workers of America. Except the company union at Benham, all were ordered to dissolve. In order to keep from being considered illegitimate, they affiliated with the Progressive Miners of Illinois. While the illegitimate child was given a name, it still continued to function as a company union.
U. S. Steel could see the handwriting on the wall. When District 19 filed the unfair labor practice charge against the United States Coal & Coke Company, Harry Moses came to Lynch and called my office, saying he wanted to get in touch with Matt Bunch. Bunch had worked for him, as a cutting machine operator, in Illinois when Moses had been a superintendent at the Bunsonville, Illinois, mine. When the two men got together, Moses asked Bunch to get in touch with Bill Turnblazer, saying he was ready to sign a contract. We met in the hotel in Middlesboro, Kentucky, and Moses signed a contract with the United Mine Workers for its membership at Lynch. He signed the same contract with the Union of Lynch Employees for the members that it had signed up. This was September 17, 1937. At that time both organizations had about the same number of members. However, as soon as the contracts had been signed, members of the Union of Lynch Employees started flocking to the United Mine Workers
until our membership was double that of the company union. Then Bill Hollins, of the company union sent word to me, through Mike Carroll, labor relations man for U. S. Steel, that he would like to liquidate the Union of Lynch Employees. He said he would recommend to his membership that they join the United Mine Workers. We reached an agreement with Hollins and he went to his local union and notified the men that they were dissolving the company union. He recommended that everybody join the United Mine Workers. When I left Harlan January 1, 1941 I took a transfer card from Lynch Local Union 7425. It had become the largest local union in the United Mine Workers of America, with approximately 3,400 members.
The operators' company unions drive and its eventual failure did not mean the complete repudiation of thuggery and murder. Activity in this field was merely quieter for a brief period of time. A symptom of this was the attitude of County Judge Morris Saylor, who began to court the UMWA after he had won the nomination for County Judge on the Republican ticket. This "new look" was not caused by any love for the union, however, but by dissension and murder within the ranks of the thugs themselves. The murdered man was the notorious Wash Irwin. His buddies feared that his loose tongue and heavy drinking would land all of them in the clink. He was "taken for a ride" in typical Harlan County fashion. A carload of deputies, with jugs, decided to ride to the top of Pine Mountain, where radio reception was better, to listen to the broadcast of a heavyweight championship fight. Irwin, who was in the front seat, was plugged through the right ear by one of the men in the back seat. Deputy Perry G. Noe was charged with the murder, and Judge Saylor discharged him as deputy sheriff. In addition to Noe, he also released Leonard Creech and Roy Metcalf. Two other deputies, Henry Metcalf and John Hickey, resigned to protest at this "injustice."
To replace the discharged deputies, Saylor appointed six men to the County patrol — William Clontz, Melton Youngblood, Robert Hodge, George Green, E. C. Mullins and Sam Brown. All except Brown were members of the United Mine Workers. The naming of five members of my organizing staff in the County patrol gave us additional protection, but did not disguise Saylor's true feelings. He kept on many deputy sheriffs who were operators' thugs, stating that some of them were good officers, whose services were an asset to Harlan County. In addition, he feared for his life, a fear so strong that he asked for protection of the State Police during his purge of the deputy sheriffs. A three-man detail headed by Clyde Jones was assigned by the State to guard Judge Saylor's office. By July 1937, organizing was progressing in Harlan County, progressing so well in fact that several abortive attempts were made to murder me. Someone paid two brothers, by the name of Huskey, living at Evarts, to assassinate me for $700. The boys took the money and went over to St. Charles, Virginia. After they loaded their cars with shotguns, rifles and pistols, they proceeded to get intoxicated. They were picked up by the State Police and given a year in the penitentiary for having an arsenal in their car. It is quite obvious that I was sitting in the lap of Lady Luck because while the Huskey boys did not know me, they would certainly have tried to carry out their mission if given the right opportunity. The year incarceration they received in the State of Virginia probably saved my life.
A little later in the year, we learned through the grapevine that another attempt was going to be made on my life, and the life of an organizer named George Gilbert. This time the payoff was to be $2,500. The job was to be done by Lee Fleenor. Fleenor had been convicted and sentenced to fifteen years in the penitentiary for killing a deputy sheriff named Bige Howard on the courthouse steps in 1934. However, he spent only a few months in the penitentiary and was then paroled. As soon as he got out of the penitentiary, he was appointed deputy sheriff. Prior to the killing of Bige Howard, he was credited with killing two men who were in a soup line on the outskirts of Harlan for no apparent reason. No one ever was indicted or tried for these killings although it was shown the victims were doing nothing more than standing in a line waiting for something to eat.
In July 1938 when Fleenor was on his way from a hearing in London, Kentucky, he shot and killed Charles Reno who had killed Fleenor's father and had served time in the penitentiary for doing so. When I got the information that Lee Fleenor would probably be the triggerman, I went to Frankfort to see Happy Chandler. Chandler said: "He should be in the penitentiary anyhow. Ever since he has been on probation or parole, they have used him as a deputy sheriff in Harlan County and he has continued his murderous ways. I will send the State Police down to pick him up and put him back in the penitentiary where he belongs." Fleenor was picked up at Tways where he was serving as a deputy sheriff or a watchman. When they picked him up, he was carrying two pearl handled .38 pistols in shoulder holsters. Joe Alien and Carl Scott were then hired to bump us off. These two men had seven killings as a part of their record. Alien had been convicted by the Harlan County Court and sentenced to life imprisonment for murder and had served one year in the Harlan jail while waiting a decision by the Kentucky Court of Appeals. The court granted him a new trial on a writ of error. The Commonwealth Attorney and Circuit Judge decided not to try him again and turned him loose. After Alien and Scott had been paid half of the bounty ($1,250) they went to Brookside, along with a section foreman named Sizemore, to enlist the help of Lee Hubbard. A quarrel ensued between the conspirators and Alien and Scott were killed with a blast of buckshot. $1,250 was found in Alien's pocket. The next morning Lee Hubbard gave himself up and pleaded self-defense. He was put under a $5,000 bond. At a preliminary hearing, Hubbard was turned loose by the court.
These were the murder attempts that I knew about. There may have been others.
It was during this period in the early summer of 1937, that I got a call from Elmer Hall, coal operator at Three Point, inviting Mrs. Titler and me to Three Points for a conference. Hall was one of the friendly minority members of the Harlan County Coal Operators Association, and he did not like the vicious policy of the Association. He abhorred violence but could not do anything about it. He was one of those who had tipped me off to the attempts on my life.
When we got to Three Point he told me that the coal operators and thugs were speculating as to whether I was brave or dumb. He said he thought I was too dumb to know the danger I was in else I would leave the County. Before we left Three Point, about ten o'clock p.m., he traded pistols with me. He traded me Bill Randolph's pistol, a .44 pearl-handled Colt, for a .38 Special. After we had traded, he gave the .38 special to Mrs. Titler. I did not know it at the time but I found out later that the .44 Colt, according to legend, had been used to kill five men. A superintendent at Three Point had shot and killed his wife and himself with it. This entitled the pistol to seven notches. I decided the gun carried a curse and decided to get rid of it. I gave it away and it eventually wound up in the hands of Hugh Jones who used it in an attempt to kill Merle Middleton. Instead of killing Merle Middleton, Jones killed Ernest Rose by mistake. Jones, a restaurant owner, and his father, John Jones, were charged with the crime. It was assumed that Hugh Jones, who carried a .38 pistol, had shot Rose with his father's .44 but John Jones was released after ballistic experts found Rose had not been shot with John Jones' .44. Hugh Jones was tried and acquitted.
After his acquittal, I asked him if he had killed Earnest Rose and he told me the following story:
"I had decided to kill Merle Middleton and I met Claude Benfield on the street carrying the Bill Randolph .44. I asked to borrow it and he agreed. It was snowing a little and I was following Merle Middleton but somehow I got off his trail and started following Rose, a man about the same build and dressed like Middleton. I shot Rose at the bus depot, and there I found I had shot the wrong man. I went to the State Police and offered to give myself up but was advised not to do so. A State Policeman, a close friend of mine, emptied the cartridges from the gun and threw them in the commode and kept the gun." The gun with a curse had killed for the eighth time. I think the incident upset Jones psychologically. He became restless and was killed two years later in a gunfight with a tavern keeper in Middlesboro, Kentucky. Chapter XIX
Earlier in this book I described "Harlan County justice" as defined by the LaFollette Civil Liberties Committee. It was pointed out that most coal miners lived in company towns and were forced to depend upon elected county officials for what little protection they received under the law. The manner in which these officials were elected during my stay there could be made into a college textbook with the title, "How to Steal Elections". Every necessary method was used. Both political parties were guilty and practices instituted by the Harlan coal operators forced their opposition to use similar unsavory methods. What follows is a partial record of an unbelievable era, but which is made up of incidents I know of personally and can prove.
For instance, at Mary Hellen in 1937, the same man cast four hundred twenty-two votes in one precinct. This was revealed when the election was contested and Judge Sanders E. Clay, a special judge brought in from the blue grass section to decide the contest, ordered a hearing. The proven testimony on the Mary Hellen incident was that the company clerk had cast the votes of everybody on the election roster the night before and put them in the ballot box, and that no election was held at Mary Hellen on election day because all the bonafide ballots were thrown away. The company clerk had an odd way of making an "x". A hook was put on the end of each "x" and all of the ballots were marked in this exact way. The election records also showed that voters had been voted alphabetically.
At other places in the County, voters were brought and "chain ballots" were run. Four organizers went to Molus to help with the election and found Sheriff Theodore Middleton back of the commissary running a chain ballot. This was done by giving a man a ballot already marked and having him put it in the ballot box. He then had to bring out his blank ballot to be marked by the Sheriff to give to the next voter. When the voter brought out the blank ballot and turned it over to the man running the chain ballot, he was given $2.00 for his vote. When the election contest came up, Clint Ball, running as Sheriff on the Democrat ticket, charged the Republican Party and Herb Cawood with corrupt practice. The Republican Party and the coal operators contested Cam Ball, who had been successful in winning the county judgeship on the Democrat ticket from Morris Saylor.
Cam Ball was an old settler who was born and raised in the mountains of eastern Kentucky and had hundreds of kinfolk in the county. He was a wealthy man who was highly respected. Judge Clay threw out the Republicans’ contest against Cam Ball. During the trial, witnesses were brought in to testify that Judge Ball had given them money to buy votes. Ball testified that he had never seen the two men who had been imported from High Splint. After the lunch recess, these witnesses came back and told Judge Clay that they wanted to change their testimony and that they had been paid $25.00 each by Jack Taylor, mine superintendent at High Splint, to come in and perjured themselves. To Judge Clay, who came from a relatively law-abiding part of Kentucky, this was a great shock. He told me that never in his life had he seen such corruption and such contempt for law and order. The Republican Party was found guilty of corrupt practice and Herb Cawood's election as High Sheriff was thrown out. County Judge Cam Ball appointed the defeated Democrat candidate, Clint Ball, to be Sheriff until the next regular election, which took place in November 1938.
This election was a recurrence of the first fiasco with the exception of the fact that we had a Sheriff in office that was enforcing the law and attempting to keep the voting reasonably straight. Both parties spent plenty of money in order to win the Sheriffs powerful job. The Democrats gave John W. Gross $300.00 and a case of whiskey to work the polls at Verda, where he was president of the local union. He drank a pint of whiskey, put the money in his pocket, put the case of whiskey under his bed, and slept all day. The next day he picked up a girl and went on a two-weeks vacation in Tennessee. When he came back, the local union fired him and put Floyd Catron in his place as president of Local Union 3892. Catron gave the local strong leadership and served several years. However, there was nothing even faintly humorous about a clash that took place during this election at Klondike, a little coal camp near High Splint. It began when Charlie Rose and Sherman Howard, both watchmen and operators' gun thugs, attempted to steal a ballot box. The ballot box was in the custody of two deputy sheriffs and the president of the UMWA local union at Clover Splint, who were taking it in a car to the Harlan Courthouse. All three men — good UMWA members — were killed like sitting ducks when Rose cut loose at them with a tommy gun. One of the deputies, however, somehow found time to fire one shot that killed Howard. Over this ballot box, which turned out to hold a Democratic majority of fifty votes, four men lost their lives.
Nothing was ever done about the murder of the three union men guarding the ballot box from Klondike. A token investigation was made but the Harlan County coal operators had retained control of the courts because their candidate for Sheriff was elected. There was no question among the people as to who controlled the Republican Party. The coal operators in Harlan County were responsible for the killing of these coal miners, and it was they who sent Charles Rose and Sherman Howard to steal the ballot boxes from a small precinct at the cost of their lives.
Yes, life was cheap in Harlan. Using the Klondike massacre as a yardstick, you could figure that one human life equaled twelve-and-a-half votes. The really important thing to the coal barons of Harlan was power and prestige, which they were unwilling to return to the people to whom the American Constitution said it, belonged by right. Another ballot box dispute that ended with murder occurred in 1933 before I came to Harlan. It happened during Theodore Middleton's primary campaign for Sheriff at Kenvir, the Post Office at Black Mountain. Theodore and his brother, Clarence, said they went to the home of Bill Parley where they caught Parlay and Robert Roark, Republican election officers at Kenvir, stuffing a ballot box. A first-hand story I heard later was that the two Middleton's surprised Roark and Parley stuffing the ballot box. Clarence Middleton then shot Roark, put his body in the car, and hauled it back to Harlan Courthouse where he dumped the corpse in the yard. Clarence then yelled to the incumbent Sheriff, John Henry Blair, who was opposing brother Theodore for Sheriff, "Come on out you dirty SOB's and I'll kill you all." Blair and his deputies watched discreetly but did not venture into the courtyard. Clarence Middleton was then considered to be the toughest man in Harlan County by everyone who knew him, which made him a very tough character indeed.
This incident was still hanging over Theodore Middleton when he was about to go out of office in 1938. He could still be tried for Roark's murder and astutely he judged it would be better to undergo trial while he still controlled the machinery of "justice" than to take a chance on a new administration. If acquitted, of course, he could not be tried again on the same charge, regardless of guilt. On December 2nd, a handpicked grand jury indicted the Sheriff for Roark's murder, a quick trial before another carefully selected jury was staged, and the expected "not guilty" verdict was handed down. The "judge" at Middleton's December 16th trial was J. B. Snyder, Attorney for the operators and also for Theodore Middleton. Judge Gilbert had disqualified himself because he was a candidate for office when Middleton was elected in 1933. The jury took less than five minutes to reach their verdict of acquittal.
In the November 1938 election the seventh precinct at Verda was run by Logan and Merle Middleton, Theodore's first cousins. They started stuffing the ballot box early in the morning and nobody was allowed to come into the polls except their father, Morgan Middleton, an honest, long-whiskered mountaineer who lived out on top of the mountain between Verda and Evarts. When he came down the two boys let their father into the polls and allowed him to vote. When he came out of the polling place, he remarked to somebody standing nearby vainly trying to get in to vote: "They sure must have voted heavy this morning already for the ballot box is full." The fact was that Morgan Middleton's was the only honest vote that was cast that day and it is quite possible that his vote was discarded if after he left his offspring decided he had voted "wrong." In the same election at Yancy, four election officers, two Republicans and two Democrats, refused to perform their duties after they had been appointed, but did not advise anyone in authority that they were not going to serve. They merely waited until the election was over, and then took the ballot box back empty. They were indicted and tried for violating the election laws but were freed by the courts.
In 1938 when Clint Ball was running for Sheriff, the coal operators put up a fabulous sum of money to buy votes at Lynch for his opponent. The Republicans put the money up to buy Negro votes in the hands of a diminutive colored fellow who always wore a derby hat and went by the nickname of "Cigar." Cigar was ordered to buy votes for $2.00 apiece. It was known that Negro miners at Lynch would not vote until they were paid. The Democrats, in order to keep the Negro Republicans in Lynch from voting, spread a rumor in the camp that "Cigar" had money enough to pay them $5.00 a vote and they should not vote until they got $5.00. "Cigar" didn't have enough money to pay them and refused to give them any more than $2.00. They went on strike and before they knew it, it was time to close the polls and none of them got to vote. And none of them got paid anything either. The three hundred votes that were not cast were all solid Republican votes.
Stealing votes in Harlan County was so commonplace that honest politicians, if any, were forced to resort to purloining in order to have a chance in an election, if both sides purloined the same amount of votes, then the honest votes became the balance of power. When Clinton Ball ran for election in 1938 for Sheriff on the Democratic ticket, he asked me to recommend a man to go to Blackstar to work at the polls. I recommended a minister of the Gospel. Clint gave the minister $500.00. He bought votes all day and had $120.00 left over. He returned the money to Clint who declared that it was the only case in history in Harlan County that election money was ever returned to the candidate. Votes sold for $2.00 each so the minister evidently bought 190 honest votes that was a good days work. In the town of Harlan they hired professional voters who went from precinct to precinct and voted several times under the names of absent voters. A poll clerk would give a confederate a list of names of registered voters who were absent or dead. The confederate, in turn, would distribute the names among the professional voters. They voted in each precinct under a different name. We had a Negro maid who asked to be off on Election Day in 1938. Permission was granted, and on returning to work the day after the election, she declared she had made $14.00. She had voted seven times at $2.00 per vote and she had been hauled from precinct to precinct in a limousine. This was known as the sneaky approach. The subtle approach was where the poll clerks voted all the absent voters.
From 1920 until about 1942, when the Federal government came into Harlan County and sent a number of election officers to the penitentiary, I am of the opinion that there never was an honest election held in Harlan County. It was not unusual to appoint as election officers two or three gunmen who refused to let a voter into the polls, but voted everybody on the voting list themselves. And prior to 1938, the voting list had not been purged in Harlan County for ten years, and in every election there were voting people who had been dead for as long as ten years. Even fictitious names were carried on the voting lists. Many of these were names of mine mules, pit cars or family pets. Our big city political bosses could have learned a few tricks in Harlan in those days.
An action taken by the Federal government on September 27, 1937, seemed to goad the operators and their thugs and killers to step up their acts of violence and senseless brutality. On that date a blanket indictment charging violation of the National Labor Relations Act was returned by a grand jury in Federal District Court at London, against twenty-two Harlan County coal companies, twenty-four company executives and twenty-three deputies or former deputies. A full account of the "conspiracy" trial is in the next chapter. One might believe that this would have made the Harlan Hillbilly syndicate more cautious. Exactly the contrary was true.
Things got particularly rough in the spring of 1938 when it was known that the trial would be held in May. Ben Unthank began a real war of nerves and sorely tested the courage of every union man in Harlan County. He would send two or three carloads of company-paid deputies to surround a local union hall where a meeting was being held, or to sit in parked cars along a nearby road, prominently displaying rifles, shotguns and pistols. Someone would then be sent into the meeting to spread the story that when a speaker or local union officer came out he would be killed.
It was during this time that Ed Beane and Jim Westmoreland were bottled up in a boarding house in Evarts by three carloads of thugs. They phoned to the headquarters in Harlan for help. All the organizers, including myself, were out at local union meetings. Mrs. Titler, who was a valuable asset to the organization staff in Harlan, attempted to get in touch with Sheriff Clint Ball who had just been appointed. He also was out of his office. The governor had fifty or more State Police in the County but they were all out on duty. So Mrs. Titler, who did not know the meaning of the word "fear", got a car, drove to Evarts, picked up Ed Beane and Jim Westmoreland and drove them through the picket lines set up by the thugs. Her actions in matters of this kind were on the reckless side and people who knew, that she was flirting with the undertaker, notified her. She merely laughed and said that she did not think even the thugs would kill a woman in broad daylight and that the records would show they never had.
About a month later, a similar incident happened at Wallins Creek when Melton Youngblood was addressing a large local union from Twila in the Masonic Hall. A phone call came to me in Harlan that three carloads of thugs, including Frank White, George Lee, Perry G. Noe,
Alien Bolen and others, were waiting outside the Masonic Hall for the meeting to break up, at which time they planned to assassinate Melton Youngblood. I got hold of Matt Bunch and a shotgun. While Matt drove his Ford I sat in the back seat with the shotgun, loaded with buckshot, sticking out the window. We drove into Wallins Creek and the three carloads of thugs took off "in high." We had left word in the State Police headquarters in Harlan that if any officers came in the office to send them to Wallins Creek. Five minutes after we landed and had everything under control, three carloads of State Police came into Wallins Creek but the thugs had flown. This was the first time we realized the thug’s hated buckshot.
About a week later a stone was thrown through my window with a note tied around it warning me to get out of town. By the time I got my shotgun and got out on the porch I saw the car two blocks away going down the street passing the Courthouse. A few days later, Mrs. Titler took Mrs. William Clontz and Mrs. Matt Bunch to Knoxville shopping. When they returned to Wallins Creek, and after letting Mrs. Clontzout of the car at her home, Mrs. Titler started crossing the railroad tracks and her right front tire and left rear tire blew out. After examining the tires, we found that all four had been slashed with a knife. A blowout at another place could have sent them over a high bank and all three women to their death. We never found out who slashed the tires but we had a sneaking suspicion it was somebody who didn't like us.
Ben Unthank was not the only one who was nervous about the upcoming conspiracy trial. The High Sheriff Theodore Middleton, called a meeting in the "whispering" room of his office and, according to a deputy who was present, issued orders to liquidate all witnesses who might be dangerous to the defendants. This meant that deputies, thugs, or retired thugs, who knew too much, had better not talk at all — or else. The heat was also on union men.
By June and July 1938, all organizers in Harlan were on the spot. Gun thug Bill Lewis attempted to kill George Gilbert, but Gilbert beat him to the draw. Lewis was wearing a bulletproof vest. The bullets from Gilbert's gun only knocked Lewis down. Gilbert was then forced to shoot Lewis through the shoulder. Gilbert was shot in the leg. Lewis swore out a warrant for Gilbert charging him with malicious wounding which carries a five to twenty-five year penitentiary sentence if convicted. Lewis was induced by a friend to withdraw the warrant in consideration of $200 and the case was dropped. This shooting started in Sally Howard's restaurant on Main Street in Harlan. Lewis declared he was the toughest man in town. He bragged that he had killed Lloyd Crouse and three others and he would kill Gilbert if Gilbert kept working for George Titler. Gilbert retorted that Lewis was not nearly as tough as he thought he was. Then Lewis went for his gun. Lewis wound up his career four years later in another blaze of gunfire. On April 2, 1941, during the opening days of a strike called by the union because Harlan operators refused to sign a contract, he was stationed behind a machine gun "emplacement" on the meat counter of a company store at Crummies Creek. Four UMWA pickets, who were tired and thirsty, walked into the store to buy a coke. Lewis cut loose with the machine gun and killed all four of them. The victims were Virgil Hampton, the brave organizer who began working with me in 1937 at Evarts; Oscar Goodlin, of Lynch, and Charles Ruth and Ed Tye, of Kenvir. Lewis wounded five other men with the same savage burst from his machine gun.
Fate finally caught up with Lewis in the form of a young mountaineer named William Deane. He walked up to Lewis in August 1941, when he was guarding ballot boxes in the Courthouse, and shot him dead. This took place after I left Harlan County and the only reason I can think of to account for this young fellow's action was that he just plain did not like Bill Lewis. When Deane was asked why he killed Lewis he said he was trying to win a medal.
These fellows would try anything. It was in July 1938 when Luke Hubbard, a peg-legged taxi driver, attempted to poison a group of organizers. He spiked a pint of whiskey with strychnine and offered them a drink. Ed Beane, George Gilbert, Jim Westmoreland and Virgil Hampton refused. Virgil Hampton's brother, Henry, who worked at Black Mountain, took a drink. It knocked him cold but he got quick medical attention and recovered. A G-man told me the whiskey contained enough strychnine to kill an elephant. Thank God our organizers weren't elephants. Earlier, on May 25, 1938, prior to the opening of the conspiracy trial, John Kmetz, International Board Member of UMWA District 1, Pennsylvania, • and Harmon Kelly, International Board Member of District 11, Indiana, came to Harlan. They were met at Pineville and escorted into the County by two carloads of armed union miners. Kmetz was cognizant of the lurking danger that threatened "furriners". Kelly was contemptuous of the precautions and accused us of putting on a show to scare him. They arrived at District Headquarters just in time to see a deputy sheriff kill a man in cold blood for resisting arrest. The next day Kelly reluctantly made a speech at Lynch surrounded by guards and when Kmetz and Kelly were escorted out of the County by two carloads of protection, Kelly said: "I am glad to be out of the County. It is dangerous to be in Harlan but more dangerous to attempt to leave." Kmetz seemed to enjoy the experience.
A colorful character that was friendly to us was Sally Howard. She ran a restaurant on Main Street, sold package whiskey and beer, and was the widow of the Bige Howard who was shot and killed on the Courthouse steps by Lee Fleenor. She hated thugs with a passion and was a friend of the union, and a good cook. She made biscuits as light as swan’s-down that would melt in your mouth. I ate her biscuits and fried chicken when I was in jail in 1939, and relished them.
Sally also hired several good-looking waitresses who drew miners like bees to honey. It was a good place to eat and a likely place to get shot. One of the waitresses in the summer, of 1938 while standing behind the counter was accidentally shot through the heart by a thug playing with his gun. The coroner declared it death by accident. Sue Nancy, a waitress in Sally's restaurant, dated Lee Hubbard and kept us advised, through Sally Howard, of the Sheriffs next move. She was later found shot to death along the highway. The murder was not even investigated by the authorities. In the fall of 1938, just before the election, my wife and I were invited to the home of Sheriff Clinton C. Ball for Sunday evening dinner. Ball lived three blocks from our house so we decided to walk. Things in Harlan town were tense and everybody was expecting a lot of assassinations just before the election. The tension was so thick you could feel it everywhere. When we got to the Sheriffs home, I knocked and when he opened the door, he greeted us with a gun in his hand. He asked us how we had gotten there and I told him we had walked. He told me that I should have better sense than to walk on the street of Harlan at night when there was a price on my head and his, too. After we had eaten a turkey dinner prepared by Mrs. Ball, the Sheriff would not let us walk home, a mere three blocks in the town of Harlan, for fear of our being killed, and hauled us home in his car.
A few days later, the election took place. It was a duplicate of the previous elections. The ballots were not counted nor estimated, they were weighed, as usual, and the operators' candidate for Sheriff, Herbert Cawood, won by about fifty pounds.
The new Sheriff, Herbert Cawood, ran one of the two funeral homes in Harlan. The Smith brothers owned the other. A true story involving the keen competition between the two undertaking firms may be typical of that lucrative business and is certainly typical of Cawood's attitude while he was Sheriff.
Two men got into a gunfight at the town of Cawood and killed each other. The Smith brothers arrived at the scene first and removed the bodies. A relative of one of the deceased men called the Sheriff to ask him why he did not come to Cawood to investigate the shooting. The Sheriff, obviously vexed because he had lost the fees for two funerals, replied: "To hell with the investigation. Let the man do the investigating who got the bodies." When he was not busy undertaking, Cawood did another chore — to pay off the coal operators by harassing the United Mine Workers. This was not easy because the union was entrenched in Harlan and the National Labor Relations Board had outlawed all but one of the company unions. But he tried. He sent to Illinois for some so called organizers for the Progressive Mine Workers union, a weak, puppet, dual organization that had a brief moment of glory when the leadership of the Illinois miners split in the late 1920's and early 1930's. These organizers were supposed to take over whatever structure was left of the company unions in an attempt to give them legal status. About half-a-dozen organizers for the "Proggies" came to Harlan but they did not venture into the coalfields. They spent their time lying around their rooms in the Lewallen Hotel, playing poker and fighting among themselves. This effort by Cawood was a miserable failure.
These incidents, however colorful, were a mere sideshow. The big drama was being staged in a Federal courtroom at London, Kentucky, where the Harlan hoodlums again became the objects of nation-wide scrutiny. CHAPTER XXI
The big courtroom drama of 1938 really began on September 27, 1937, when a blanket indictment charging violation of the National Labor Relations Act was returned by a grand jury in Federal District Court against twenty-two Harlan County coal companies, twenty-four executives of those companies, and twenty-three deputy sheriffs, or former deputies. The defendants were accused of having, since July, 1935, "unlawfully and feloniously conspired to intimidate employees of the aforesaid defendants in the free exercise and enjoyment of certain rights and privileges" guaranteed by the Federal Constitution, "to-wit, the right and privilege of the said employees to self-organization and to form and join and assist labor organization and to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing and to engage in concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining and other mutual aid and protection, and secured to the said employees" by the National Labor Relations Act.
U. S. Attorneys who developed the charge were Amos W. W. Woodcock, of Baltimore, and Special Assistant Attorney General George P. Jones, of Washington. The indictment was returned after a parade of more than one hundred witnesses, most of them Harlan County coal miners. This was the first criminal case prosecuted by the U. S. Government against persons charged with depriving workers of the rights guaranteed by the National Labor Relations Act, better known as the Wagner Act. The indictments were based not only on evidence submitted by witnesses, but also on investigations made by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the LaFollette Committees. Thus the stage was set for the great conspiracy trial that opened in May 1938. Before beginning to describe that fast-moving drama, perhaps it would be best to describe briefly the legal experts who were arrayed to do battle.
Chief prosecutor for the government was Brian McMahon, a thickset, black-haired Irishman who was then head of the Criminal Division of the Justice Department. He was famous for having successfully prosecuted several gangsters and was the same Brian McMahon who was later elected to the U. S. Senate from Connecticut. At the time of his death, during the Truman Administration, he was chairman of the Joint (House-Senate) Committee on Atomic Energy.
McMahon's first assistant was Welly K. Hopkins, a Texan who was chief of the Department's Trial Division. He later became Senior Counsel for the United Mine Workers (a post he held until 1966) and was chief legal adviser to the union during many of its legal fights in the 1940's and 1950's.
Other government assistants were Harry A. Schweinhaut, of Washington, D. C., (now a Federal judge), Walter Gallagher of New Haven, Connecticut, Richard Shanahan of Chicago, and John T. Metcalf, U. S. District Attorney of Lexington, Kentucky.
The newspapers headlined "defense has wily foxes who have come through many battles." The defendants were ably represented, that's for sure. Their battery of barristers was clever, eloquent, and most of them were experienced at doing legal battle with labor organizations. Charles I. Dawson, of Louisville, Kentucky, and Forney Johnston, of Birmingham, Alabama, headed the list of defense lawyers. They were general counsel for all defendants except Hugh Taylor, former deputy sheriff, who was arrested as a fugitive after the trial started. Dawson was a former Federal judge who resigned three years before the conspiracy trial to enter private practice. He had spent most of that period in court fighting New Deal legislation and had also acted as defense counsel for Harlan County coal operators in several NLRB cases. After the conspiracy trial he continued to practice law and was one of several men who led the coal industry's fight against the UMWA Welfare and Retirement Fund. He is now an immensely wealthy man, having struck oil on his Western Kentucky farm. He is also president of several insurance companies. Forney Johnston was a pint-sized dynamo whose primary job was chief counsel for the Alabama Power Company. He had also argued the first court case against the New Deal's Tennessee Valley Authority. He tangled with UMWA President John L. Lewis during an argument over promulgation of a code for the bituminous coal industry under provisions of the 1933 National Industry Recovery Act. During a heated debate Lewis roared that Johnson had become "inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity."
Cleon Calvert, of Pineville, Kentucky, was one of the more colorful lawyers lined up for the defense. He was the gentleman with the gold-headed cane who had disrupted an NLRB hearing earlier. He told a newspaper reporter before the trial opened that if necessary some "graduate witnesses" (professional perjurers) would be brought to court.
Other defense attorneys and firms included: Ray Lewis, who was appointed by the court to act for Hugh Taylor; Ray Lewis's father and law partner, William R. Lewis, former circuit judge; Reid Patterson, of Pineville; the law firm, Tye, Gillis & Siler, of Williamsburg, Kentucky; J. J. Greenlee, of Richmond, Kentucky; William Sampson, of Harlan; Judge Casper C. Williams, of Mt. Vernon, Kentucky; T. E. Mahan, of Williams-burg; B. M. Lee, of Harlan, and Charles Dayton, of Harlan. These represented various individual defendants. The judge was H. Church Ford, of the U. S. District Court for Eastern Kentucky. He holds this post today. He was fair and impartial all the way through a trial that can only be described as one of the most tortuous and difficult in the history of American jurisprudence. The case was opened on May 16 and lasted until July 30. Each day brought forth almost unbelievable evidence. There was testimony as to perjury and subornation of perjury by the defense. Witnesses were murdered during the course of the trial to seal their lips. The trial consumed fifty-seven days in eleven weeks. The record totaled more than 2,225,000 words. By the time the case was turned over to the jury on July 30, it had cost the government $350,000.00. On August 2 the jury reported to Judge Ford that it was unable to reach a verdict. It would seem that all of the time and money involved had been wasted, but this was not completely true because the Harlan County Coal operators had been unmasked to the American people. They did not like what they saw.
The trial opened in a dramatic way. Judge Ford ordered the U. S. Marshall to search everyone going into the courtroom for firearms in order to curb violence. It had been strongly rumored that gun thugs would try to intimidate witness in the court. After this, Charlie Dawson "staged" his opening argument for the defendants. He denied that they had any connection with the atrocities in Harlan County and repeatedly pointed out that the trial was a trial for conspiracy, not murder.
Dawson spoke with such heat and paced so vigorously before the jury box that on one occasion his sock garter came unfastened and he had to pause to fix it. He told the jury that after the Evarts massacre in 1931, "the whole county became inflamed against those outside labor agitators, a feeling that exists down to this very day. You'll probably hear a lot of testimony about alleged outrages against some of these labor organizers," he said, "but I don't care if the record is full of that sort of testimony. The Wagner Act guarantees no such rights to a bunch of union organizers. Keep in mind that this law only concerns employees of the company."
The government's first witness, FBI Agent George A. Stevens, testified that George S. Ward, secretary of the Harlan County Coal Operators Association, admitted he destroyed association records "in anticipation of a Federal investigation." Stevens also testified as to details of assessments paid by the operators to the Association, numbers of deputy sheriffs paid by the operators and Ward's activities as a lobbyist. This merely confirmed what the LaFollette Committee had discovered about the Harlan County Coal Operators Association and its role in fighting the UMWA. The defense fought every inch of the way to keep the testimony from getting into the record. Both Dawson and Johnston kept up a constant stream of objections, all based on the reason that the questions and answers showed no conspiracy. Judge Ford instructed the jury that the testimony was admissible as to Ward but was not to be considered as against other defendants.
The first break in the ranks of the coal operators occurred early in the trial when the Clover Splint Coal Company signed a contract with the UMWA changed its plea from "not guilty" to "nolo contendere" and put itself on the mercy of the court. A second break occurred when E. J. Asbury, superintendent of the Black Mountain Coal Company at Kenvir, did the same thing. He testified as a government witness on May 25. He told the court he had attended most meetings of the operators' association and that Ben Unthank, captain of the thug-killers, also attended the meetings. He said his company's assessment was $600.00 to $750.00 per month the previous year, and double the normal assessment because of the activity of the union.
"In these executive sessions of the Harlan County Coal Operators' Association, was the subject of the efforts of labor union organizers ever discussed?” asked Welly K. Hopkins, chief examiner for the Department of Justice.
"Yes", Asbury replied, "I remember on one occasion Elmer Hall, of Three Point Coal Company, protested against the use of association funds to fight the union."
"Did anyone reply to that?" Hopkins asked.
"Bob Tway told Elmer Hall that he was too thin-skinned."