The last big battle of 1939 in Harlan County was named for the little mining camp where it took place — Stanfill, nine miles southwest of the City of Harlan. The mine there was owned by the Mahan-Ellison Coal Company and was the same one where a mining machine had been dynamited a week before. This so-called Battle of Stanfill was initially described as an attempt by National guardsmen to defend themselves against an attack by UMWA pickets. The press agent for the Kentucky National Guard quickly and widely disseminated this version, but later eyewitness accounts differed from this considerably, to say the least. Two men died at Stanfill on July 12th. Both were Union pickets, killed with National guard weapons. The only weapons used in this one-sided battle belonged to the guardsmen. Those who died were Dock Caldwell, of Wilson-Berger, who was killed outright and Daniel Noe, of Elcomb, who was shot through the abdomen and died three days later. Three other UMWA members were wounded, Noble Bowman, of Chevrolet, John Kennedy, of Gulston, and Frank Laws, of Crummies. Two National guardsmen were also wounded, Captain John Hanberry, who started the fracas, and Private W. T. Mason. The truth about what happened is based on interviews with twenty or more eyewitnesses and my own personal participation in some of the events.
On July 12th, I had arranged for setting up picket lines at five mines that were working non-union. The Stanfill mine was one of these. This was a case where there was no trouble in getting sufficient pickets to picket the mines. Our big trouble was having too many. Everybody who was out of work in Harlan County wanted to go on the picket line and do his duty to preserve the freedom which had been brought him by the Union. All pickets were requested to leave their firearms and weapons at home. It was later learned that this request was carried out to the letter. Later, when the pickets were searched on the morning of July 12th at Stanfill after the riot, there was not one gun found on a mine worker picket.
The riot started after a group of pickets moved toward the mine entrance where a non-union motorman was running an electric mine locomotive back and forth, hooking up a trip of cars to go into the mine. One of the pickets, Dock Caldwell, pulled the motor trolley pole off the wire. Captain Hansberry was standing close by, was nervous, became panicked, pulled his gun and started shooting Dock Caldwell in the chest as fast as he could pull the trigger of his automatic pistol. Caldwell was mortally wounded and the other pickets became incensed at the cold-blooded murder. A picket grabbed a rifle from a National guardsman, Private Mason, and hit him over the head with it and then shot Hansberry. This was the only shot fired by a picket and it was fired with a National guard rifle. A dozen or more shots were fired into the pickets by the Guardsmen, wounding Dan Noe and several others. Others were cut around the hands and head with bayonets. The account given by the National Guard said that somebody had first shot Captain Hansberry and that after he was shot, he started firing. This, of course, was false. The next day General Carter and Colonel Roy Easley held a press conference at which they displayed a bunch of firearms, which they alleged had been taken from the pickets. Seven of the ten guns purported to have been taken from the pickets were army issue, 38 and 45 Colts, carried by the soldiers, which had been laid out on the table and photographed for the purpose of fooling the public and creating sentiment for the National guardsmen. The public was not taken in by this. Dozens of people who saw the picture of the display of firearms in the Knoxville News-Sentinel laughed at the boldness of the National Guard's attempt to fool the public with false propaganda.
Although I was not present at the riot itself, July 12th was a pretty busy day for me, too. At 6 a.m., two miners knocked at my front door, and told me that a gun battle had taken place at Stanfill. Both of these men were bleeding profusely and I immediately took them to the Harlan Hospital, which was only a block away. Then my wife and I left for Stanfill to see what could be done to help our people. I had no more than landed at Stanfill when I saw the National Guard troops lining up the pickets into a military formation to march them nine miles to Harlan and put them in jail. When I got out of my car at Stanfill, it was immediately ordered by Major Fred Staple that I be taken back to Harlan and put in jail with the rest of the "damn murderers." A burly sergeant with a nervous trigger finger put me in an army truck along with several others, and sat beside me with a 45 pistol pointed at my head the entire way into Harlan, talking real tough. I advised him that with his nervous finger that pistol might go off and he said he didn't care a damn. After I was put in the army truck, my wife got in our automobile and went back to Harlan. She picked up Mrs. John Doyle and the camera and went back toward Stanfill to take some pictures of the pickets being marched into Harlan. On her way into Harlan, she picked up two pickets who had been in the fracas at Stanfill and gave them a ride. As she crossed the railroad tracks below the mine, a pig belonging to Jack Angel ran across the road and was hit by her automobile and killed. Angel was a mine foreman and was in charge of the non-union miners at Stanfill on the morning of July 12th. Afterward, he threatened to sue me if I did not pay for the pig, so I gave him ten dollars to settle the case.
When Mrs. Titler returned to our home in Harlan, she was advised that Dan Noe was calling for his wife, who lived at Stanfill. She immediately started back to get Mrs. Noe to bring her in to the hospital so she could be with her wounded, soon-to-die husband. When she got more than halfway toward Stanfill, she met the National guard which had several hundred pickets lined up along the road. She stopped and got out of the car to take some pictures. A line sergeant saw her and attempted to take the camera away from her. She smacked him in the nose with it and bloodied his nose. The sergeant then took the camera away from her and smashed it. Apparently General Carter and his staff were not too well pleased with the way they were handling the police duty in Harlan County, because they issued orders to smash every camera that took a picture of anything that was going on. Mrs. Titler was arrested and roughly shoved into her car when she told a Guardsman that she was not physically able to walk into Harlan with the pickets.
When the National guardsmen got to the outskirts of Harlan, they immediately encountered a gallery of spectators along the street who were watching the "parade." The inexperienced guardsmen became confused and did not know how to handle the crowd. They knew little or nothing about their weapons so in trying to keep the crowd back, some of their rifles were accidentally discharged and many onlookers were wounded. UMWA organizer Martin Hurd was marching in the picket line when a disturbance took place at the corner of Main and Clover Streets. During the confusion he broke ranks and ran through several back yards and escaped. He stayed out of the County for a week, after which he returned and was not bothered. Neither was he charged with banding or confederating; neither was he forced to make bond.
Mrs. Titler and I were put in jail along with 221 others involved in the Stanfill affair. No bond was set for any of the defendants for three days, so the Harlan jail became the Titler family home for that period. Ben Middleton, the jailor, was a cousin of Theodore, but was friendly to the Union and a good friend of mine. He allowed Mrs. Titler and me to share a cell by ourselves. He also allowed us to put sheets on the bed, bring in a radio and make the place look homey. Four hours after we were placed in jail, two National guard enlisted men and two commissioned officers were slipped into the jail by gun thug Charlie Rose while Ben Middleton was out to lunch. Somebody had sent them in there for the express purpose of assassinating me in cold blood. They expected to find me alone in a cell where they could kill me without witnesses and claim self-defense. Instead, they found my wife with me, which undoubtedly saved my life. The two commissioned officers stayed outside the cell door and Rose let the other two men into the cell where they started pushing me around with the muzzles of their guns in the hope that I would resist and they could shoot me. Mrs. Titler took a hand in the fight and the soldiers were confused about how to proceed. One soldier pulled his gun and was going to shoot me, but six women in an adjacent cell, seeing the drawn guns, began screaming, which confused him further, so that again no shot was fired. By this time, five or ten minutes — which seemed like a century to me — had passed and Ben Middleton returned from lunch. He ran all four of the soldiers out of the jailhouse and fired Charles Rose, deputy jailor, for letting them in.
The soldiers, it was learned later, had been given a "fix" of cocaine or morphine before they were sent into the jail to murder me. One was a known drug addict from Barboursville. Finally, on July 15th County Judge Cam E. Ball called an examining trial on charges placed against 23 UMWA defendants after the Stanfill riot. All defendants except Mrs. Titler and me were placed under $1,000 bond. I was charged with sedition, forcible rebellion and armed attack on a National guardsman. A peace warrant against me was sought. My total bond was $21,000. Mrs. Titler, who was under the care of a physician, was the only defendant released after arraignment. UMWA Attorneys Golden and Lay signed her bond. However, immediately after her release she was rearrested on the courthouse steps by County Attorney Bert O. Howard, and a Deputy Sheriff and charged with aiding prisoners to escape, because she had driven two of the Stanfill pickets to Harlan on the day of the riot. Golden and Lay arranged bond for her on this second charge. Golden, Paul Reed and others arranged for Union men to escort her from the courthouse to a waiting car, which whisked her to Middlesboro, in Bell County. On the same day this hearing was held, a Union miner, Bill Roberts, was killed by a scab at the Stanfill mine, Willie Fee. It was ironic that Judge Ball set Fee's bond for a vicious murder at $5,000, while my bond was $21,000.
I stayed in the Harlan jail until bonds had been signed for all of the defendants. I signed the last bond — my own — on July 18th, got into a car and drove with my wife to Knoxville to sit in on negotiations for a new contract with the Harlan operators. When we arrived at the Farragut Hotel, Mrs. Tiller and I were met by Bill Turnblazer and escorted to a banquet at which we were the honored guests.
The operators were succumbing to pressure from the outside and the realization that "Happy" Chandler and the National guard were not enough to defeat the UMWA and the Federal Government. I participated in the Knoxville negotiations for three days at which all the terms and conditions of the contract were worked out that put the remaining five thousand UMWA members working for members of the Harlan County Coal Operators' Association under contract for two years. This agreement was strictly a compromise. We did not get the "union shop" and the operators did not get the "penalty clause."