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CHAPTER VII

The LaFollette Committee and Harlan County Justice in 1937

There were only five incorporated towns in Harlan County — Harlan, the county seat, Cumberland, Wallins Creek, Loyall, and Evarts. The largest of these did not have a population exceeding five thousand. There were about thirty company towns, including the following: Verda and Molus, the company towns owned by the Harlan Wallins Coal Corporation; Louellen, the company town of the Cornett-Lewis Coal Company; and Closplint, the company town owned by the Clover Splint Coal Company. At the eastern end of the county were the company towns of Benham and Lynch, which were occupied by miners who worked at the captive mines of the Wisconsin Steel Company and the United States Coal & Coke Company, the latter a subsidiary of United States Steel Corporation. Over forty-five thousand citizens of Harlan County lived in company towns.

In an incorporated town, the local government was in theory controlled by officials duly elected by the residents. In a company town, local govern­ment was administered by the employer as a part of his business. Social life and community activities, normally regarded by Americans as a mat­ter of individual choice, were permitted in company towns only at the whim of the employer. The right to have guests, to come and go without asking leave — even the use of Federal mails — were all concessions which were granted or denied in company towns according to policies adopted by the company management. Typical was Verda, the company town of the Harlan Wallins Coal Corporation, directed by Pearl Bassham, who maintained close control over all community activities. The road which led from the public highway to Verda was owned by the company and had on it a sign which read "Private Property — Keep Out." Even the post office at Verda was located in a building owned by the company and on company property. Bassham admitted to the LaFollette Committee that it would be possibly not only to prevent any person from entering the company town, but also from entering the company building where the United States Post Office was located.


Across the highway from the private town of Verda, a large tree towered over the road. Fifty feet high in its branches was a tree-house. This was no children's playground, however. It was a pillbox where the Harlan Wallins gun thugs stationed themselves, like guards on a penitentiary

wall, to watch the camp. From their vantage point, they could see anyone who entered or left the town. Stranger, beware!

The road leading to the company town of Louellen was barred by a locked gate. The key was available only at the company office. In explaining this barrier, "Uncle Bob" Lawson, general manager of the Cornett-Lewis Coal Company, which owned Louellen, told the Committee: "Now, if anybody comes in there and wants to go inside, they just ask — not a regular person that lives there — but they come over to the office and get the key and go where they want to and come back."

There was even a private jail in Louellen. It was in a section of the theatre building and, according to a former employe of the company, was used to "lock up United Mine Workers" and "men who became intoxi­cated."

I personally examined this jail which was not used by the company after May 1, 1937. It was in a large basement room with two small barred windows. There were no toilet facilities because the town of Louellen had no sewer system. Miners were confined in this hell-hole for two or three days at a time with little or nothing to eat and had to use the corner of the room as a privy. A miner caught associating with a union organizer would be thrown in this so-called jail, usually under a false charge of intoxication. He served whatever time the mine manager thought sufficient. The com­pany-paid deputy sheriff would take him before a company-elected Justice of the Peace. The helpless man would then be fined and the money to pay it was arbitrarily taken out of his pay.


In 1937 in Harlan County an employee with a grievance against his employer did not have any impartial authority within his community to hear his case. His only recourse was to appeal to county officials. The character of the few elected county officials was consequently of vital importance to the miners.

Five officials in Harlan County were primarily charged with enforce­ment of the law: the High Sheriff, the County Attorney, the County Judge, the Commonwealth Attorney, and the Circuit Court Judge. The Circuit Court of the Twenty-sixth Judicial District of the Commonwealth of Ken­tucky had jurisdiction over major cases, both criminal and civil, arising m Harlan and Bell Counties. The Court was attended by the Common­wealth Attorney, who directed the conduct of all criminal cases within the district. The Court Judge had a lesser jurisdiction than the Circuit Court Judge, attending only to local matters affecting the county govern­ment, or minor civil suits, or petty offenses. The position was open to non-attorneys. For instance, the incumbent from 1934 to 1938, Morris Sayler, was a merchant. He had absolutely no legal training. The County Attorney was ordinarily assigned to the duty of preparing cases for presentation to the grand jury under the direction of the Commonwealth Attorney.

The chief executive official of Harlan County was the High Sheriff. His duties were described to the Committee by Sheriff Theodore R. Middle-ton, who took office on January 1, 1934. According to Middleton, duties of the Sheriff of Harlan County included enforcement of law and order, protection of life and property, and to wait on the courts and serve the proccesses of the courts.

The Sheriff also collected state and county taxes, and was required to file bonds covering faithful performance of his duties and the funds which came into his possession through the collection of taxes. Prior to the adoption of the deputy-sheriff law on May 31, 1938, the Sheriff was authorized at his discretion to appoint deputies in such numbers and with such qualifications as he thought best, subject only to confirmation of the County Judge. For his services, the Sheriff was compensated through fees and commissions which he received in performing the functions of his office; a limit of five thousand dollars per year, plus expenses, was fixed by the State Constitution as the maximum amount which the Sheriff was permitted to retain, and it was his duty to turn back to the state all fees and commissions in excess of that amount.


From 1930 to 1934, the High Sheriff of Harlan County was John Henry Blair. Blair conducted himself in office in such a way as to convince the miners that he was acting in collusion with or employed by the coal operators. During his term. Harlan County was in the grip of deep de­pression, and thousands of miners were unemployed. Those who had jobs received a series of severe pay cuts. Privation and unemployment among the miners had inevitably created a tense atmosphere. The Com­mittee found that Sheriff Blair and his deputies "preserved order" through extra-legal and autocratic means. Sheriff Theodore R. Middleton, who succeeded John Henry Blair on January 1, 1934, conducted his campaign for election on a platform which promised to put an end to collusion between county officials and coal operators, and to extend equal protection of the law to miners as well as to their employers. In his campaign, he rallied behind him all the citizens of Harlan County who were opposed to lawless acts per­petrated by law enforcement officers while John Henry Blair was sheriff.
The Rev. Carl E. Vogel, pastor of the Cornett Memorial Methodist Church in the City of Harlan from September 1930 to September 1935, stated the issues of the campaign of 1933 as follows:

"The issues were very clean cut. The issue was the cleaning up of the situation in Harlan County relative to the collusion between the Harlan County Coal Operators Association and the officials."

He further stated that Sheriff Middleton, in his campaign had stressed that issue above all others.


The LaFollette Committee discovered that the background of Sheriff Theodore R. Middleton before he took office was not one calculated to inspire confidence. In 1920, after Army service from 1913 to 1919, and attainment of the temporary rank of Second Lieutenant of the Infantry, he applied for appointment as an officer in the Regular Army. His ap­plication was rejected by the examining board on the grounds that he had appeared as a witness in a trial of a soldier in France and as the report stated: "... contradictory statements made in two letters written by applicant and his testimony at trial of soldier, thoroughly discredit ap­plicant's reliability as a witness. Lacks veracity. Recommend he not be commissioned in the Regular Army. Very poor material." After he left the Army, Middleton operated a poolroom in Harlan County. In 1926 he served a five-month sentence in a Federal penitentiary after a con­viction for selling liquor (moonshine) in violation of the National Pro­hibition Act. After he left prison, he operated a restaurant in the City of Harlan until he was appointed to the police force of the city by his uncle who was then chief of police. His first-hand knowledge of the criminal mind was undoubtedly his main qualification for his new job. He suc­ceeded his uncle in this position which he held until his election to the of­fice of High Sheriff in 1934.

Middleton waged a good campaign for election. As a politician, he was a pro. He solicited the support of the miners in Harlan County who were members of the United Mine Workers of America. International Representative Lawrence "Peggy" Dwyer told the LaFollette Committee that Middleton had made the following pledge to the miners:

He swore to his God Almighty, in my presence and in the presence of others, if we would endorse and support him and he would be elected, he would give us, the miners, the same protection as the other citizens of Harlan County."


Middleton further promised that if he were elected Sheriff, he would not renew the appointments as deputy sheriffs of what he called "the gunmen" who had served under Sheriff John Henry Blair. Middleton was opposed by W. J. R. "Willie Bob" Howard, former County Judge, who was publicly supported by the coal operators. The election was bitterly contested, and in an effort to prevent stuffing of the ballot boxes, Mid­dleton and some of his supporters engaged in a series of gun battles with members of the opposing faction which resulted in the death of at least one man and the wounding of several others. These battles were stopped only by the calling out of the National Guard. The election ended with a vistory for Middleton and the so-called reform ticket.

As soon as he took office, Sheriff Middleton ignored the pledges he had made. After his election, he was obliged to file bonds for one hundred and sixty thousand dollars covering the performance of his official duties. Middleton turned to the coal operators who had signed the bonds for Sheriff John Henry Blair to obtain them as his own personal sureties.

Middleton's testimony to the Committee with respect to the under­writing of his administration by the coal operators is illuminating:

Senator LaFolIette: Now, Mr. Middleton, when you compare the sureties of your bond with these on Sheriff Blair's bond, you will find that six of the large coal operators of Harlan County who signed sheriff Blair's bond also signed this, and three of these men were members of the executive committee of the Harlan County Coal Operators Association. How could you make good on your campaign promises if you immediately put yourself under obligations to the same operators who were responsible for Sheriff Blair's administration?


Mr. Middleton: Well, I don't know. I guess there have been a lot of campaign promises that have not been fulfilled. Sheriff Middleton was a man of small means when he took office. According to his own estimate, his possessions on January 1, 1934, did not exceed ten thousand dollars in total value, and his annual income was less than three thousand dollars. Between January 1, 1934, and April 12, 1937, when he appeared as a witness before the LaFolIette Committee, Sheriff Middleton's personal fortunes took a sharp turn for the better. In the three-year period, his net worth had increased to at least $102,728. This increase in his assets was not due to his salary as sheriff, which was limited by the Kentucky Constitution to a maximum of $5,000 a year. His average annual income from other sources amounted to $6,500 a year. When pressed by the Committee for an explanation of his sudden acquisition of wealth, Sheriff Middleton merely replied, "I am just as puzzled about it as the Senator is." He then took refuge in claiming his constitutional privilege against self-incrimination, what has now become widely known as "taking the Fifth". He said:

"Senator, I believe at this point I will claim my constitutional right and respectfully decline to testify any further on my financial transactions, for fear they may involve me in a law suit with the Federal Government on my income tax. I am afraid my answers here to your questions might tend to incriminate me."

One of the factors which contributed to Mr. Middleton's sudden affluence was his use of State funds in private business transactions. The Sheriff maintained separate bank accounts in the Harlan National Bank for his personal account, the State tax account, the delinquent tax account, and the general account for the income and expenses of the sheriff’s office. Although the sheriff was supposed to maintain these special accounts separately, he testified that he intermingled the State funds with his personal funds. To facilitate this practice, he prepared a rubber stamp which carried four endorsements, all of which were placed on the back of checks which came to the sheriff's office, authorizing the deposit of the checks in any of the four accounts maintained by the Sheriff in the bank. The Sheriff admitted to the Committee that the funds were inter­changeable.


A cursory examination of the sheriffs bank account disclosed that he used at least $10,700 of tax money in connection with speculations on the stock market which were conducted through the firm of West-heimer & Co., Cincinnati, Ohio. The Sheriff did not attempt to deny that this was true.

While the Sheriff was happily counting his money, the miners who had supported him in his election continued on short rations. The principal source of complaint against the administration of Sheriff Middleton lay in the caliber of the men whom he appointed to serve as deputy sheriffs. The Sheriff was authorized to deputize mine guards who were appointed by the coal companies to act as peace officers within company towns. These deputies were armed, were authorized to make arrests and to exer­cise the police authority of the State generally throughout the county. Except for the Sheriff himself, located in Harlan town, the county seat, far removed from many of the mining camps, the citizens of Harlan County had no police protection except that afforded by the deputy sheriffs who were paid by their employers, the coal operators. Although wielding Public authority, the deputy sheriffs reflected the interests of their employers and not the public interest. They were company thugs — no more, no less. Therefore, it was of utmost importance to the miners in Harlan County that the High Sheriff exercise restraint and judgment in granting deputy sheriff commissions to guards employed by coal com­panies. The record of Theodore Middle ton showed a reckless abuse of this power.

The Sheriff himself needed only three deputies to operate his office. These were a chief clerk who kept the books of his office, a chief deputy who attended to the service of papers and to the removal of prisoners from the County Court to the jail or the State penitentiary, and a tax collector who supervised the collection of taxes. According to the testimony of his chief deputy, other deputy sheriffs "hung around" the office of the Sheriff and occasionally performed special services, but they were not regarded as regular employees of the Sheriff. For his own purposes, how­ever, it appears that the Sheriff charged the County with the salaries of some deputies he had appointed but were not regularly engaged in public duties. The State law permitted the Sheriff to deduct expenses of his office, in addition to $5,000 for his own remuneration, from the fees and com­missions which he collected in behalf of the State. Each year the Sheriff filed with the Harlan Fiscal Court a statement showing the expenses of his office including payments to some deputies whom he listed as having been paid from public funds. The amounts so listed were deductible as expenses from the public funds in his control. The lists filed by Sheriff Middleton showed 18 deputies on his pay roll in 1934, 8 in 1935, and 9 in 1936. Testimony to the Committee showed that these lists were grossly in error, if not entirely fictitious.


How the deputy sheriffs were paid is not clear. The Sheriff dis­claimed any responsibility in the matter.

A limited survey conducted by the committee disclosed that 181 of the 369 deputies appointed by the Sheriff between January 1, 1934 and March 1, 1937, had been employed as police officers by certain coal companies, and these records were corroborated by the Sheriff. In the case of two deputies, who were guarding the property of several coal companies in February, 1937, the Sheriff paid their salaries and was reimbursed by the coal companies on a pro rata basis. At least one deputy, Ben Unthank, was on the pay roll of the Harlan County Coal Operators' Association, an employers' association maintained by the coal companies. The data made available to the committee was too fragmentary to permit any dis­closure as to the actual number of the deputies who were on the pay rolls of the coal companies.

With reference to the caliber of the men who were deputized by Sheriff Middleton, the record leaves no room for doubt. Men convicted or indicted for homicide and other crimes were commissioned, armed with guns, and sent out in the county "to preserve the peace". Sheriff Middleton testified that no effort was made to set any standards which applicants for the position of deputy sheriff were required to meet. Commenting on the character of his deputies, he said, "I think it is fairly good, some of them. Some of them may not be so good."

What became of the "salaries" which were paid out is illustrated by the sad experience of Henry M. Lewis, chief deputy sheriff under Sheriff Middleton. According to Mr. Lewis, he and his two colleagues were paid at the rate of $110 each month in 1934. In 1935, all three appeared as being paid at the rate of $200 per month. The same rate con­tinued for 1936, except that Mr. Lewis' name did not appear on the list submitted to the court by the Sheriff. The Sheriff explained that this omission was an "oversight", which had passed unnoticed because he did not keep "a very elaborate system of bookkeeping". Mr. Lewis, however, did not keep the $200, but was required to "kick-back" $90 of it to the sheriff, leaving only $110 as his salary. Later he was "raised" to $125 per month.


Mr. Lewis. ". . . He said he needed some little money so as to make the check $200 and I gave him back $90 and after awhile I gave him back $75."

Senator Thomas. "How did you come to an agreement as to the difference between $90 and $75?"

Mr. Lewis. "He gave me a raise of $15; he told me he would raise me $15 a month.

Senator Thomas. "And he would take it out of the kick^back?" Mr. Lewis. "Yes."

Mr. Lewis testified further that it was his understanding that the other two salaried employees also turned in their "kick-backs" to Sheriff Middleton. It is possible that the "salaries" of the other deputies, who performed no regular services, followed the same course to Sheriff Mid-dleton's pocket. The Sheriff refused to testify on this subject because he said it would "involve me in a law suit with the Federal Government on my income tax."

In addition to the three deputies who were regularly employed in the sheriffs office and who were paid out of county funds, the Committee found that Sheriff Middleton freely granted other deputy sheriff com­missions.

Between January 1, 1934 and March 1, 1937, the Committee found 369 deputy sheriffs received commissions from Sheriff Middleton. This unusual figure was accepted by the Sheriff, who testified that "I imagine that is something near the number." It was not possible to establish the exact number of deputies because of the haphazard method with which the Sheriff kept his records. Some of the deputies appointed by the Sheriff were not even entered on the books of the county court as having been approved by the County Judge. Sheriff Middleton testified that he did not "make any distinction" with respect to their powers and duties between such deputies and those who had been duly confirmed.


At the time the Sheriff testified before the Committee on April 15, 1937, according to the records examined by the Committee, there were 163 deputies holding active commissions. This figure appeared to surprise the Sheriff, who said:

"I have relieved a bunch of deputy sheriffs and I don't think I ought to have over a hundred."

He admitted, however, "I am not positive of the exact number I have got."

A number of the Sheriffs own relatives were commissioned as deputy sheriffs. Of these, several were of such notoriously violent character that the circuit court judge on several occasions publicly casti­gated them. Slemp Middleton, brother of the Sheriff, served as a deputy sheriff in 1934 and in 1936. He was indicted six times by the grand jury on different charges. On September 17, 1934, in ordering one of the cases removed to a different county for trial, the Circuit Court Judge declared:

". . . The Defendant, Slemp Middleton, has been in a great deal of trouble in Harlan County, and stands indicted in the Harlan Circuit Court in several different cases, and because of his violence and lawless habits is now in the Harlan County jail on default in filing a peace bond. He is regarded as one of the most dangerous men in Harlan County, and the Court feels, in view of the great amount of criminal conduct that he has been connected with, that the motion of the Commonwealth's Attorney ought to be, and the same is hereby sustained, and this case is removed to the Boyde Co. Circuit Court, and assigned for trial in said Court ..." The Sheriff also appointed as deputy sheriffs other members of his family who had been involved in criminal conduct, including, among others,


his cousins John Merle, Charles and Milt Middleton. So violent were the members of the Middleton family that on September 17, 1934, the circuit court judge, in ordering the removal of the trial of John Middleton on an indictment for willful murder, gave the following grounds for his ruling:

". . . . because it is personally known to the Judge of this Judicial District that for several years last past, there has been more crime in Harlan County than any county in the State of Kentucky, that there has been almost a total disregard of the law, and of the life and liberty of the people, and there now exist more than 800 Commonwealth cases on the dockets of the Harlan Circuit Court, many of the charges being against the Middleton family, which is one of the largest families in Harlan County, and a great deal of intimidation of witnesses, and even killing of witnesses have taken place in this county, local jurymen are afraid to do their duty."

The criminal conduct on the part of the deputies appointed by Sheriff Middleton was not committed merely by those who were members of his own family. The grand jury of Harlan County on May 5, 1934, in its final report, urged that the Sheriff take steps to remove from office such deputy sheriffs as were charged with violating the laws which they were supposed to enforce. The report stated, in part:

"We recommend to this court and to the Sheriff of Harlan County, Mr. T. R. Middleton, that the following persons be discharged from their positions as Deputy Sheriffs of Harlan County: Henry C. Stepp, Milt Middleton, Charlie Middleton, Logan Middleton, Merle Middleton, Bill Lewis, Tom Trent, and Palmer Cox."

"Your Grand Jury reports that each of these men are under one or more indictments for felonies, and in the opinion of the Grand Jury are no longer suitable to serve as officers charged with the enforcement of the very laws they stand indicted for violating."


'It is apparent that in practically every homicide which has occurred in Harlan County since the first of the year, officers figure prominently. A good officer should have the respect and support of all the citizens, but when he violates the law, he should be given no more consideration than any other individual. We beg to state that until such time as these men have been cleared of the charges against them, they should not be allowed to serve as officers."

Sheriff Middleton testified that he had no recollection of the orders or the circuit court, nor did he recall that recommendations of the grand jury were officially brought to his attention. It is certain, at least, that he took no action to remedy the situation which had justifiably aroused the indignation of the citizens of Harlan County. Among the deputies whom Sheriff Middleton appointed from January 1, 1934, to March 1, 1937, 37 had served sentences in the State reformatory at Frankfort for one or more violations of State law; 4 had been sentenced for murder; 14 had been sentenced for manslaughter; 3 had been sentenced for murder; 14 had been sentenced for manslaughter; 3 had been sentenced for malicious shooting with intent to kill, and the others had served sentences for robbery, burglary, and grand larceny. Three deputies had been convicted for felonies and served time in the Federal penitentiary for violations of Federal law. In addition to these convictions, 64 deputies had been indicted one or more times by the grand jury of Harlan County mostly for crimes of violence. The Sheriff, after hearing the list of convictions and crimes charged against the deputies whom he had appointed to serve as peace officers, made no comment on the character of his appointments.

The oldest and largest families in Harlan County were the Howards and Middletons. In 1934 Theodore Middleton appointed as deputies 18 Howards, 18 Middletons, 9 Saylors, 8 Balls, 6 Joneses, 5 Turners, 5 Sargents, or 69 deputies from seven families.


The coal companies shared the responsibility with the Sheriff for employing men with criminal records to act as guardians of their property. Tom Trent, indicted by the Harlan grand Jury in 1934 for mayhem, malicious shooting and wounding, operating an automobile while drunk, and for being drunk in office, was employed as a peace officer in the company town of Benham by the Wisconsin Steel Company, a subsidiary of the International Harvester Company. Lee Fleener was employed as a deputy from August 26, 1933 to April 1, 1934, by the Clover Splint Coal Company. Newell G. Alford, secretary- treasurer and general manager, testified that Fleenor "left the employ of the company very suddenly when he was placed under arrest following a charge of murder in the courthouse." It seemed that Fleenor had settled a personal grudge against Bige Howard, another professional "peace officer", by shooting him down like a dog on the steps of the County Courthouse. Fleenor was sentenced to fifteen years in the State penitentiary on November 30, 1934, for this offense. Prior to his employment by the Clover Splint Coal Company, he had been indicted for murder in two cases and for malicious shooting in a third case in 1932. Mr. Alford said that the com­pany had no knowledge of these indictments by the Harlan County grand jury, although he said it made a practice of investigating the records of its deputy sheriffs.

Pearl Bassham testified that the Harlan Wallins Coal Corporation made little effort to investigate the records of the deputies whom it em­ployed. His company employed two deputies at its Verda mine from 1933 through the first half of 1936. These men were both Middletons, Merle and Charles, and both had long criminal records. In 1936, two more deputy sheriffs were added, Wash Irwin and Frank White. Wash Irwin also had a long criminal record. At another mine owned by the corporation in Harlan County, two other deputies were employed, Robert Eldridge and Jess Johnson, both of whom had criminal records. Mr. Bassham testified that the selection of the deputies whom he employed was the responsibility of the Sheriff. He said, "I did not have any purpose because they had had a criminal record in hiring them. Part of them were recommended to me by some sheriff or they were already deputy sheriffs when I hired them." But it seems to me that the only sure way to secure employment as a deputy sheriff in those days was to be a well-known jailbird.


This record appalled the LaFollette group, and in its report, the Committee wrote:

"It is apparent from the above discussion that during the period under investigation by the committee, there were a large number of deputy sheriffs in Harlan County, many of them desperate criminals, selected in a haphazard manner, and appointed with little formality. None of the deputies, except the three working in the office of the sheriff, were regularly employed on a public pay roll. The majority worked as company policemen in the different coal camps. Some worked as company police at large under the direction of Ben Unthank, a deputy on the pay roll of the Harlan County Coal Operators' Association. A large group, without any apparent regular source of income, were available to exercise the public authority delegated to them by the Sheriff on behalf of such persons as were willing to pay them. Such was the state of law enforcement' in Harlan County."
CHAPTER VIII

The LaFollette Committee Learns How the Harlan Operators Operated

In its investigation into civil liberties violations in Harlan County, Kentucky, the LaFollette Committee eventually discovered that the County was under the iron thumb of an organization called the Harlan County Coal Operators Association. The Committee said that the Association "has been an integral, though unofficial part of the government of Harlan County."

That is an understatement. The Association owned, operated and ruled the County as a private fief, which its members felt had been granted them by the Almighty in perpetuity with coal miners to slave in the pits for them just like the "vassals and stout varlets" who slaved in the mines of Medieval England.


The Association was formed in October 1916. The Committee stated: "One of its principal functions is to provide a means for taking collective action against labor organizations in Harlan County." Although phrased in ambiguous terms, the testimony of George S. Ward, secretary of the Association, revealed that the position of the Association was one of unqualified opposition to any attempt on the part of the miners in the County to organize.

Between 1927 and 1936, inclusive, there were thirty-eight local com­panies that were members of the Association at one time or another. These companies contributed a total of $438,795.42 to the Association during the ten-year period. In the years 1933 to 1937, twenty-six or twenty-seven companies were active members of the Association. The captive mines of the United States Steel Corporation and of the International Harvester Company, however, were not affiliated.

In 1935 the Harlan County Coal Operators Association had twenty-six paying members who contributed a total of $41,729.99. These in­dividual contributions were assessed on the basis of the amount of coal produced by each member company. Of these twenty-six members, one, the Black Mountain Corporation, operator of a captive mine, was owned by the Peabody Coal Company and contributed $4,531.37 in 1935 or 10.8 percent of the income of the Harlan County Coal Operators Association. There were sixteen other member companies of the Associa­tion under the control of non-resident interests. The Harlan Wallins Coal Company, which was controlled by certain financial interests in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed $6,552.68 to the Association in 1935, or 15 7 percent of its total income. These two companies, therefore, contributed 26.5 percent of the total income of the Association. The contributions of the seventeen absentee-owned mining companies in Harlan County in 1935 totaled $27,305.78 or 65.4 percent of the total income of the Association for the year. The mine locally-owned coal mining com­panies contributed a total of $14,424.21, or 34.6 percent of the total income. Obviously, the principal support of the Harlan County Coal Operators' Association came from absentee-owned mining companies, whose executives cared nothing about "a few" local shootings.


The Association was governed by an executive board composed of the president, vice president and eleven non-office holding members. Be­tween 1933 and 1934, membership on the executive board remained fairly constant. According to the testimony of Pearl Bassham, representa­tives of the largest contributors to the Association were elected to serve on the board. The membership of the board was as follows from 1933-37:

President, S. J. Dickerson __-—_____„_-—________„...______ Mary Helen Coal Corp.

Vice President, B. W. Whitfield,

(succeeded in 1936-37 by Charles Guthrie of Harlan Collieries) ..________.,______._..-_____..__--

Harlan Collieries Secretary, George S. Ward ___-_-_._____..—______.___ Association Secretary

Elmer D. Hall ______.__„__ ^__ Three Point Coal Co.

D. B. Cornett __-_-_-„, Cornett-Lewis Coal Co. R. C. Tway _____„„„_____„„_ R. C. Tway Coal Co.

Pearl Bassham ____________ Harlan Wallins Coal Corp.

E. J. Asbury —___.„__—__-__.„__-____.„.____.__._____.„.____. Black Mountain Corp.

R. W. Creech _____..__._._____„.._.___.._____....__.___.._.______..._____„_„ Creech Coal Co.

L. P. Johnson -__„____„ Crummies Creek Coal Co.

J. C. Stras -—_-__-___.____________________;______________ Kentucky Cardinal Coal Corp.

Elzo Guthrie (succeeded in 1936-37 by


A. F. Whitfield, Jr., of

Clover Fork Coal Co.) -_.._„_.__ Harlan Fuel Co. W. A. Ellison ._____„__„_____„ Mahan-Ellison Coal Corp. C. B. Burchfield ___„________ Black Star Coal Co.

To state it mildly, the Association maintained a close interest in Harlan County politics. Secretary George Ward denied this to the La­Follette Committee, but this pointless statement was undoubtedly made merely for the record. As a matter of fact, he had, while acting as secretary of the Association, held the office of High Sheriff, having been appointed to an interim term for one year (1926-7) by the County

Judge, Willie Bob Howard, who was his brother-in-law. In April, 1937, Mr. Ward served as chairman of the Republican Committee in Harlan County. The County Democratic chairman was the Association President, S. J. Dickenson. The Association had both parties sewed up tight. In addition to this, Lee Ward, George's brother, served as Chief Clerk, and after Henry M. Lewis resigned, as chief deputy under Sheriff Middleton.

Apart from its direct participation in public affairs in Harlan County, the Association was able to asset the authority which it held by virtue of the combined power and wealth which its membership controlled in the county.

The influence which the Harlan County Coal Operators' Association exerted on the county officials was enhanced by business connections between county officials and members of the Association. For example, Daniel Boone Smith, after he was elected Commonwealth Attorney in 1934, accepted monthly retainers amounting to $175 a month from the Harlan Wallins Coal Corporation, the R. C. Tway Coal Company and the Mary Helen Coal Corporation, all three companies being represented on the executive board of the Harlan County Coal Operators Association. Prior to his election, Smith had on "one or two occasions" been consulted by or had done work for two of the companies, but he described this business as "in the nature of isolated instances . . . and not of any major significance."


Pearl Bassham not only paid a monthly retainer to Smith, but he also permitted him to raffle his used-up used cars to the miners at the Harlan Wallins mine. Incidentally, this rattletrap raffle racket was in direct violation of a Kentucky law that Smith was supposed to enforce.

Another staunch member of the Association's political team was the Sheriff. Prominent Association members had "gone his bond" when he came into office, among them the busy Pearl Bassham. The latter also cut Sheriff Middleton in on the exorbitant profits realized at the Verda com­pany store. The Sheriff was one of the lucky four who made a twenty-four hundred dollar killing in one year on a fifteen hundred dollar invest­ment.

In March 1936, the Sheriff entered into another lucrative business transaction with his bosom buddy, Bassham. The latter arranged for the purchase of some coal lands in Harlan County for fifty-five thousand dol­lars, taking a one-third interest himself, with the other two-thirds split evenly between Middleton and County Judge Morris Saylor. He then arranged for the Harlan Wallins Coal Corporation to lease the land,

paying royalties of 6-1/2 or 6-3/4 cents per ton for coal extracted there­from, with a minimum annual royalty of five thousand dollars each to Sheriff Middleton and Judge Saylor. Bassham transferred his own third interest over to the Harlan Wallins Coal Corporation. The Sheriff did not pay cash for his third interest of $18,333.33. He borrowed $8,333.33. from the Bank of Harlan on a note secured by the Harlan Wallins Coal Corporation. Apparently the Sheriff paid the balance of ten thousand dollars out of his own funds. The transaction, therefore, netted the Sheriff at least a return of five thousand dollars in one year on a ten thousand dollar investment, less about $416 interest on his loan.

Another profitable business enterprise owned by the Sheriff was a dairy farm. His main customers were the commissaries of coal companies affiliated with the Harlan County Coal Operators' Association, including the Harlan Wallins Coal Corporation.


The County Judge, Morris Saylor, after he took office, likewise had profitable business opportunities, thanks to Bassham. He, like Sheriff Middleton, "owned" one-fourth of the Verda Supply Company, which paid 170 percent dividends a year. He also was in on the coal royalty deal.

The Harlan County Coal Operators Association undeniably was the most potent factor in the political life of Harlan County. It had the Sheriff in its pocket — the most power elected officer in the County. It also owned the County Judge, whose duty it was to confirm the appointments of deputy sheriffs. In addition the Commonwealth Attorney, Daniel Boone Smith, whose duty it was to prosecute violations of the criminal statutes, including crimes committed by deputy sheriffs, was on the payroll of three coal companies who were represented on the executive board of the Association. The political situation was thus taken care of, rather cheaply, too, when judged by today's standards. There remained only the task of selecting a person to ride herd on the army of desperadoes whom the sheriff had appointed as deputy sheriffs. The man chosen for this assignment was Ben Unthank, "field man" of the Harlan County Coal Operators' Association.

Unthank was a deputy sheriff, on the payroll of the Association. The Association maintained for his use a large war chest upon which he drew to pay for the espionage and terroristic activities which he initiated and directed. The details of the relationship between Unthank and the Association were obscured because the Association successfully blocked the Committee's investigation on this item. Secretary Ward admitted that all the records relating to the activities of the Association with regard to labor matters" had been destroyed. He said: "Well, just to be frank, I have anticipated an investigation for the last three or four years, and while


I was not ashamed of the record, I just did not feel like keeping a record that could be revealed to anybody that wanted to see it. . ."

Senator LaFollette said: "But, Mr. Ward, the only implication that can be drawn from the destruction of the records is, in any situation such as you have described, that the person responsible for their destruction has something that he wants to conceal, otherwise they would not be destroyed."

Mr. Ward merely shrugged and said: "Well, that is the situation, and the implication will just have to be drawn." Mr. Ward disclaimed any knowledge of Ben Unthank's activities, or of the persons whom he hired with the funds of the Association. The Committee obtained from the Association two cancelled checks for February, 1937, one drawn to cash for $1,252.69 and one to George Ward for $1,075.00. Mr. Ward testified that he turned the total amount of $2,327.69 over to Ben Unthank in cash for his "payroll". He said this was his usual practice.

Unthank never testified before the Committee. In spite of diligent efforts made to locate him, he remained in hiding until the inquiry into Harlan County had closed. Ward not only failed to assist the Committee in locating his top gunman, he testified that when Unthank reappeared, he would be paid the salary he had "earned" in the period he was dodging service by the Committee.

Mr. Ward did admit that Ben Unthank was employed by the Associa­tion to handle the "organization situation" created by efforts of the United Mine Workers to organize Harlan County coal miners. Mr. Ward also revealed that during periods when the union was conducting a more vigorous campaign than usual, it was the practice of the Association to double its dues. The extra money was needed to hire more gunmen and to "pacify" the restive miners.


The LaFollette Committee knew before the hearings that geography made union organization difficult. Isolated by mountains, in 1937 Harlan County was also isolated politically from the rest of the United States. Freedom existed only for the cynical gang that ran the County and bought its politicians. Miners were slaves. If they demanded the rights to which free men were entitled, they were bullet bait.



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