Biographical note


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Happy Chandler Muddies the Waters

Unfortunately for the UMWA, the Kentucky gubernatorial campaign in 1935 resulted in the election of Albert Benjamin Chandler. A portly, fast-talking, hymn-singing character, Chandler was widely known as "Happy," a nickname that wrongly describes his pseudo-pious personality. In 1935, he had promised union miners the moon. They wound up without even a piece of green cheese. Timko said that early in his administration, in spite of the fact that the UMWA had supported him during the cam­paign, "we have not gotten any real protection from the Governor as long as he has been in there." This remained true during his entire term of office. It did not take Chandler long to show his true stripe — the big white one down the middle of his back. Among the honored official guests at his inauguration was none other than High Sheriff Middleton of Harlan County, complete with deputies. Middleton still faced charges placed by outgoing Governor Laffoon for malfeasance in office and neglect of duty.
After Governor Chandler took office, the union temporarily withdrew from Harlan County. Its representatives did not even enter the county for the purpose of negotiating legitimate matters arising under the contract, which was in effect with the Black Mountain Corporation. E. J. Asbury, superintendent at Black Mountain, had to go to Bell County if he wanted to talk to union representatives.

But the UMWA had not given up. It tried a new technique by turning to the courts and newspapers to publicize the hell that was Harlan. In 1936, Judge Henry Warrum, the UMWA's chief counsel, arranged with John Young Brown, Speaker of the House of the Kentucky Legislature and former Congressman-at-Large from Kentucky, to organize a radio program to "let the public know what was going on in Harlan County." Brown, one of Kentucky's great orators, prepared a series of speeches using as his source material the record of hearings conducted by the investigating commission appointed by Governor Laffoon in the spring of 1935. He arranged for a series of speakers and delivered the first address himself over Radio Station WHAS, Louisville, on the subject of the "Feudal Lords of Harlan." Following the program, Harlan County authorities stated that speakers on the program who had dared to criticize conditions in Harlan County would be summoned to appear before the Harlan County grand jury. Brown received a telegram from Daniel Boone Smith, Commonwealth Attorney, directing him to appear before the grand jury. He received a similar summons from H. H. Fuson, County Attorney of Harlan County, who had succeeded Elmon Middleton fol­lowing his assassination. Fuson, it will be remembered, was the attorney who had been hired by the Harlan County Coal Operators Association to appear in defense of Ben Unthank and his four accomplices in the pro­ceedings brought against them in connection with the 1933 dynamiting of "Peggy" Dwyer's home. Brown testified before the LaFollette Committee that speakers on his program were afraid to appear before the Harlan County grand jury "... because once they get you in Harlan County — at least the general impression over the State is that they can do most any­thing they want to in Harlan County."

Fear of physical reprisal by Harlan County authorities caused the scheduled speakers on the program to beg off. Brown testified: "The effect of it was to destroy our program."
In the spring of 1936, James Westmoreland, who had been obliged to take up residence in Virginia because of a well-founded fear he would be killed by the deputy sheriffs, brought suit for damages against High Sheriff Middleton in Federal District Court for a false arrest in Cumberland in February 1935. In December 1936, the jury found in favor of James Westmoreland and rendered the verdict for damages in the amount of fifteen hundred dollars. Elated by the outcome of the trial, the union determined once more to organize Harlan County. The two lawyers who successfully represented the union in the Westmoreland damage suit were T. C. Townsend and Ben Moore. Moore later became Federal District Judge in West Virginia.
In preparation for the new drive, Bill Turnblazer addressed a letter to Sheriff Middleton on December 29, 1936, advising him that it was the intention of the United Mine Workers to hold meetings in Harlan County and requesting "that our people be given every degree of protection under the laws of your Commonwealth." The letter was returned with a notation upon the envelope, "Refused, not opened."

Turnblazer's unopened letter to the Sheriff said that the first UMWA organizing rally would be held in Evarts on January 3. Harlan County officials prevented that particular meeting by placing the County under quarantine from January 2 to February 6 because of an alleged meningitis epidemic. All public meetings were banned. UMWA organizers opened their drive on January 9 under orders not to hold meetings but rather to talk to individuals. A District convention at Middlesboro January 4-5 authorized the new drive to organize Harlan and placed District Vice President L. T. "Tick" Arnett in charge.

The operators again prepared for battle. The Association doubled its assessments in January 1937, as it had done during the organization drives in 1933 and 1935. Association Secretary George Ward explained the increase to the LaFollette Committee. He said two things were responsible for the increase — freight rates and the organization situation. He said the minutes of the Association provided for the one cent per ten assessment to continue until further notice.
The gang of deputies led by Unthank was again mobilized for action. At this time the Harlan Wallins section of Murder, Incorporated, was without a leader. Merle Middleton, "chief thug" of Harlan County while he was employed by Pearl Bassham, had left Harlan Wallins in February 1936 to manage a bus company that he largely controlled. When the union drive opened, an effort was made to persuade Merle Middleton to abandon his peaceful ways and again take over direction of the "thug gang" at a salary of five hundred dollars per month. He refused the offer and lucky Ben Unthank got the job. The talkative "Thug" Johnson later reported this little deal to the LaFollette Committee. This made Unthank, with a raise in salary and the large slush fund of the Association at his disposal, generalissimo of the anti-union forces in the county, leading not only his own band of deputies but also the "thug gang" formerly led by Merle Middleton and separately financed by the individual coal operators. He had become what big city mobsters would call "The Chief Enforcer."

On January 16, 1937, Governor Chandler, by executive order, dis­missed the charges against Sheriff Theodore Middleton, which had been instituted by his predecessor, Governor Laffoon, in July 1935, as a result of the investigation conducted by the Denhardt commission. The exe­cutive order stated: "The records in the said action had been lost or destroyed . . . and no records or charges can now be found in any of the offices of the State government".

Chandler also went out of his way to attempt to whitewash Laffoon's charges. He described Sheriff Middleton as "competent, ef­ficient and energetic", neglecting to add that these sterling qualities were all directed toward his true job, supervising the killing and beating up of union miners.

But Happy was not only guilty of an attempted whitewash. He was soon exposed by the LaFollette Committee as a plain, everyday type of liar. The papers detailing the Laffoon charges weren't lost at all. They were in the Statehouse in Frankfort in a locked drawer.
Alien R. Rosenburg, a LaFollette Committee investigator, told the true story. He testified he went to Frankfort, Kentucky, to secure records from the Adjutant General and Secretary of State's offices in the State Capitol. "In contacting the Secretary of State's office, I had occasion to inquire into the records of the charges that had been filed during Governor Laffoon's administration against Sheriff T. R. Middleton. In the latter part of March and the first of April, I got access to the records and the charges in the dismissal proceedings against Sheriff Middleton, Miss Ora Adams, assistant Secretary of State, furnished me with an executive journal containing the charges in the civil proceeding against Sheriff T. R. Middle-ton. There was also a record of the hearing held in the pursuance of these charges."
The Louisville Courier-Journal on April 28, 1937, carried an Associated Press dispatch, dated April 27, 1937, from Frankfort, Kentucky, which read: "The transcript of evidence taken during the Laffoon hearing was found locked in a desk drawer in the office of the Secretary of State today. Employees in the office said it had been available for some time."

The LaFollette Committee reported it had been unable to find out "how careful a search was made for the lost records". Happy undoubtedly carefully searched the ceiling of his office, and then issued his executive order.

Meanwhile, back in Kentucky's own Siberia, the man who had been complimented by the Governor as a "competent, efficient and energetic official", proceeded in his usual way to "maintain law and order" in Harlan County. He augmented the number of deputy sheriffs, until by April 15, 1937, there were 163 on active duty, only three of whom were paid from public funds. In January 1937, Sheriff Middleton also recalled Frank White from South Charleston, West Virginia, to resume active duty as deputy sheriff. White, the often-mentioned henchman of Ben Unthank, had unceremoniously left Harlan County in the fall of 1936 after being involved in the shooting and gassing of Chad Middleton, an uncle of the Sheriff, at Evarts. White was not prosecuted for his part in the attack. The killing was reported to have been the culmination of a personal feud between the two men. White and his playmates used tear gas to flush Chad out of hiding, and then riddled him with bullets. Kelly Fox, &• former deputy, had witnessed the murder. At the preliminary examination held in Judge Saylor's court, Fox was summoned to identify Frank White. When he took the stand, a member of White's gang stood at the entrance of the courtroom with his hand on the butt of his revolver. Fox failed to identify White; he was one of the wise old foxes. He did not want to leave the courtroom in a box.

Following Fox's ordeal, no witness stepped forward to identify White and no warrant was issued against him. White left the county two weeks after the shooting, fearing the personal vengeance of the Sheriff. He said he thought it would save trouble for himself and others. He fled to South Charleston, West Virginia, where he remained four months. When the union drive began in January 1937, the High Sheriff summoned him back to Harlan County. There would be no blood feud. Whate's highly spe­cialized talents were urgently needed.

On his return, White immediately was appointed deputy sheriff and placed on the payroll of the High Splint Coal Company at a hundred and sixty dollars per month.
Hugh Taylor, a deputy sheriff, stated that Sheriff Middleton gave him an explanation for bringing Frank White back to Harlan County. Taylor testified that Middleton told him "White was a machine-gun man and an amateur gas man, and that is the reason he got him back the other time when he left here and ran off. He had been working for the High Splint Coal Company with Ben Unthank and his gang."
Sheriff Middleton had the necessary equipment to utilize Frank White's talents. On September 21, 1934, he had purchased a Thompson submachine gun and two "Type L" magazines. He testified that "I felt like I wanted one, and I purchased one." But he said himself, or his deputies had never taken it out. He also had purchased a tear-gas riot gun and twelve tear-gas projectiles and six "Triple-Chaser" tear-gas grenades on September 23, 1935, during the Clover Splint strike. From whatever source it was obtained, a machine gun was part of Frank White's regular equipment after his return to Harlan County in January 1937. Taylor also testified that White regularly carried a machine gun and pistols in the back of his car.

Among the many deputies appointed by Sheriff Middleton after the beginning of the union drive were Robert Eldridge, appointed January 11, 1937, and Hugh Taylor, appointed January 13, 1937. Sheriff Middle-ton paid their salaries of a hundred and twenty-five dollars per month, but five coal companies that utilized their services repaid him in full. These two men were assigned to the company town of Shields, owned by the Berger Coal Company, and were given free board and lodging at a boarding house operated by the company for its deputies, popularly known as the Clubhouse.

Eldridge had worked from August 1933 to January 1936 for Pearl Bassham as a "peace officer" in the company town of Molus, owned by the Harlan Wallins Coal Corporation. His career was typical of Harlan County deputy sheriffs. On September 9, 1930, he had been convicted of voluntary manslaughter in Harlan County, and had been sentenced for a term of five years at hard labor, of which he served twenty-one months. On later occasions, he was also convicted of carrying concealed weapons and of assault and battery. Two indictments against him, one for assault and battery and one for malicious striking and wounding had been dis­missed on the motion of Commonwealth Attorney Daniel Boone Smith.
Taylor's background differed from that of Eldridge. For six years he had worked as a miner for the United States Coal & Coke Company, and later as a miner for the Bardo Mining Company and the Harlan Wallins Coal Corporation. In 1933 he joined the United Mine Workers of America and was promptly fired by Bardo, the reason given being that he was a member of the union. He also attributed his discharge by the Harlan Wallins Coal Corporation to discrimination against him because of his union membership. He supported Middleton in his campaign for Sheriff in 1933, and on January 6, 1934, the Sheriff appointed him deputy sheriff, and he obtained a job with the Harlan County Coal Operators' Association riding as a guard on coal trains. He then secured employment intermittently as a deputy sheriff, participating in some of the thug-gang activities. In September 1936, Taylor was indicted for the murder of a man named Robert Moore who, according to Taylor's testimony, had been drunk and had drawn a pistol in resisting arrest.

In spite of the extensive experience of his deputies, High Sheriff Middleton took precautions to instruct them specifically what they were to do. Taylor was to report to Eldridge at Shields where the coal companies would give him further orders. The High Sheriff personally directed him, according to Taylor, "To police the camp and move the organizers along" and particularly "to keep them from talking to the men".

Taylor said, "He told us to follow them around. I asked him what good it would be to follow them and he said See who they talk to — what men they talk to — and report the men to the company'."

Sheriff Middleton likewise armed his deputies so that they could carry out their duties effectively.

Taylor said, "He asked me how many guns I had. I told him I had one and he told me he would give me another one. He said 'carry two; carry them out where they could see them. The organizers hate the looks of two guns. Carry two where they can see them'. Hugh Taylor carried out his instructions to the letter. He cruised about the coal camps in his car, armed with his two revolvers and a 30-30 Marlin rifle.
Eldridge confirmed the testimony of Taylor with respect to their duties as deputy sheriffs at Shields.

Ben Unthank, in addition to his expanded activities as "chief thug", still continued his leadership of the army of deputies appointed by High Sheriff Middleton. Accompanied by his lieutenants, Unthank made regular tours of the coal camps and coordinated the efforts of the deputy sheriffs who were assigned to specific posts, promising them assistance when needed. Taylor described the visits as follows: "He would go up and down on occasions and stop. The first time I saw him stop there, after I went up there, he stopped and said he would see if he had my pay. He ran through his pay envelopes and did not have it, and he went on by, went on to town, I guess."

Taylor continued, "Unthank told us if we needed to do anything in the camp that we did not want to do ourselves, to call him and he would send somebody up there to do it. I understood if they wanted somebody whipped or kicked out of there, to call him."

It was into this lair that the union organizers entered. On January 11, 1937, "Tick" Arnett, in charge of the organization drive, decided to establish headquarters in Harlan Town and secured rooms in the New Harlan Hotel. In the hotel, Alien Bowlin, a deputy sheriff whom he had known as a boy in his hometown, Jellico, Tennessee, immediately approached Arnett. Arnett testified that Bowlin gave a friendly warning, saying: "These fellows up here will kill you, they will dynamite, they will shoot, they will burn you." Arnett asked, "What fellows? and Bowlin answered, "This outfit you call thugs up here." Bowlin then offered to work secretly for the organizers but his offer was not taken up.
For a few days nothing occurred to substantiate Bowlin's warnings. For a short while the organizers made their way about the county with relatively little difficulty, speaking to the miners. On January 15, 1937, Arnett met George Ward on the street in Harlan and stopped to greet him, congratulating him on the "nice treatment" the union organizers were receiving in Harlan County. According to Arnett, Ward said, "Well, we are not all bad." Arnett stated that if the peaceful conditions continued he would publish an advertisement publicly retracting the charges that had been made against the Association. Arnett reported that Ward enigma­tically replied, "You stay on awhile and you will find out."

The following day, January 16, 1937, Governor Chandler issued his executive order dismissing the charges against Sheriff Middleton. In an instant the situation in Harlan County was completely transformed. The deputies and thugs who had been relatively restrained in their conduct came out in the open and swarmed over the county. In effect, Happy had let the mad dogs out of their kennel. Arnett described the change as follows: "We had been followed continuously and hounded, and so forth, wherever we would go and made to move on in a quiet manner, and then immediately after the 16th, speaking in our language, they began to tighten up awful on us and it seems to me there were more of them than we had miners in Harlan County. We saw more of them than we did the miners. They just got thick everywhere and they would come up to our people and jump out of their cars and come around and pull their guns from their hips around to the front, and talk rough and mean to them, and tell them to get out, get going, get on the highway and keep moving, and so forth."

Disturbed by these occurrences, Arnett tried to confer with Sheriff Middleton, but his messages were not answered. An attorney who went to see the Sheriff on behalf of the union reported back that the Sheriff had said, "To hell with the damned United Mine Workers, they have got me indicted with everything in the calendar of crime and I ain't got any counsel for them." The union was never able to see the Sheriff. The Sheriff did not contradict this testimony, and admitted that he refused to accept letters sent to him by registered mail by the union. He merely commented: "Well, they never came to my office."
The day clerk of the New Harlan Hotel, Dan Breck, became con­cerned about rumors that were circulating in the town and warned Arnett that trouble was brewing. The rumors proved well founded. At three o'clock in the morning on January 23, 1937, dynamite explosions in front of the hotel rocked the building. Awakened by the detonations, the guests rushed out of their rooms and found themselves engulfed in clouds of tear gas that came through the hallways. Arnett described to the LaFollette Committee the panic that ensued: "Well, of course, in a couple of minutes we were all crying, and there was quite a lot of commotion and in some three or four minutes after this explosion there was commotion all over the hotel, and I decided if they were trying to decoy us out, they would kill everybody, and I ventured out into the hall and when I went into the hall women and children and cripples and everybody was coming down half dressed and screaming and crying. I had failed to dress at this time and I saw all of our people come out of their rooms except one. They turned this gas loose on the second floor of the hotel, and people were coming down the third and the fourth, and all of them trying to get down together at the same time.

Breck confirmed Mr. Arnett's testimony:

"At approximately 3 o'clock in the morning there was a terrific explosion somewhere in the neighborhood of the hotel. It woke up every­body but possibly two or three guests who were on the extreme back of the house, and at the same time I heard someone in the hall. I was on the fourth floor in the rear, on the side. Somebody yelled 'fire'. I jumped out of bed and grabbed some clothes and stuck my head out of the door and could not see down the hall for smoke that I found out had come from tear gas bombs. I still did not know but what the house was on fire, so I rushed on down the steps afraid of the elevator if there was a fire, and when I got to the third floor the gas just about choked me up. I could not see and I could hardly breathe. So I stepped into a room standing open which somebody had vacated and grabbed a towel and wet it and put it over my face and went down to the lobby. I was one of the last ones to get down to the lobby. There were some fifty people, I suppose, milling around the lobby, men and women and one or two children, all very excited. And about that time I noticed quite a bit of laughter, and I looked down and I had not completed my dressing, so I went on out. Some of the guests checked out immediately, a few of them went back to bed, but a great number of them left."

George M. Jenkins, the night clerk of the hotel, stated at three o'clock in the morning two men came running down the steps wearing masks on their faces. One of them drew a pistol and waved it in the direction of Jenkins. He remained at his desk as they went out the door and immediately afterward fumes of the tear gas came down and blinded him. He was unable to identify either of the men. The proprietor of the hotel, Victor H. Hooper, called the home of Sheriff Middleton but was unable to reach him. The sections of the containers of a tear gas bomb were found in front of the organizer's room. Arnett and his companions went outside the hotel and found that two of their cars had been completely destroyed by dynamite. He telephoned "Peggy" Dwyer at Pineville and at 5:45 a.m. Sheriff James Ridings of Bell County and one of his deputies came with an escort to take the union men safely out of Harlan County. Clinton Ball, Harlan County jailor, arrived about the same time.

The two masked men who set off the tear gas bombs were not apprehended. George Jenkins, the night clerk at the hotel, had examined the pieces of the tear gas bomb. He described them as being reddish brown in color, in small sections. From the description, it appears that the bombs were "triple chaser" grenades, manufactured by Federal Laboratories, Inc., which are painted red and separate into three pieces when exploded. Earlier I pointed out that Sheriff Middleton had purchased six "Triple Chaser" grenades on September 23, 1935, probably for use by Frank White. Middleton testified before the LaFollette Committee on April 26, 1937, that he no longer had these gas grenades in his possession. "I don't know whether they have been used," he said. "I haven't got any of them in my possession at this time." With a straight face he said he believed that shortly after he purchased them, his deputies had dis­charged the grenades on a hill to experiment with the use of gas.
The tear gas containers that had been taken from the New Harlan Hotel were turned over to Sheriff Middleton. On March 26, 1937, investi­gators of the LaFollette Committee subpoenaed the containers from the Sheriff for the purpose of securing the serial numbers that are stamped on the bottom of the containers by the manufacturers. The manufacturer kept a record of the serial numbers of the grenades that were sold to each customer. The High Sheriff told Committee investigates that the containers were in a safe in his office, but he refused to allow them an examination. On April 14, 1937, Sheriff Middleton testified in response to the subpoena that he no longer had the used tear gas containers in his possession, offering as an excuse, "I think they were supposed to have been delivered to the grand jury for their investigation and they were never returned to my office."

He later testified, "Some of the representatives of this committee came to see me about those gas bombs, and I thought I had them in my possession, but I later learned that they had been turned over to the grand jury for investigation.

However, the Commonwealth Attorney Daniel Boone Smith denied seeing the tear gas containers in the course of the grand jury inquiry into the gassing of the hotel. He expressed surprise that such evidence had existed: "I never saw them; and until I heard some evidence here, I assumed that they were a thing that disappeared when they went off. I thought they vanished. I didn't know that there was anything left."
Senator LaFollette pressed Sheriff Middleton for an explanation of why he had failed to secure the serial numbers from the tear gas containers while they were in his possession and why he had not availed himself of this clue to discover the names of the persons to whom the gas bombs had been sold by the manufacturers. Middleton explained his failure in this respect by claiming: "They were burned so badly that I could not tell whether there were any serial numbers on the grenades or not."
Expert opinion impeaches the testimony of the High Sheriff. Thomas F. Baughman, a special agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for over seventeen years and a firearms-identification expert, described for the LaFollette group the operation of the "triple chaser" grenade and exhibited sections of a bomb that he had exploded to serve as an illustration. The serial number on the bottom of the container was not obscured in any­way, nor were the sections of the container perceptibly distorted. The Committee concluded: "Mr. Baughman's testimony casts doubt on the credibility of Mr. Middleton's excuse.

The Committee also said: "Throughout the inquiry held by the Committee, the Sheriff maintained a sullen and hostile attitude, replying to questions with evasive answers. He refused to answer certain questions, which he conceded were pertinent on the grounds that by testifying, he would tend to incriminate himself under Federal law. This attitude on the part of a peace officer would be strange if it were not for the fact that Sheriff Middleton had had a court record.

"The Sheriff was grossly negligent in failing to conduct a proper investigation himself of the gassing of the New Harlan Hotel on January 23, 1937, and in permitting valuable evidence to disappear so as to prevent a proper investigation to be made by others. These circumstances, the evasive character of the Sheriffs testimony, and the tenuous nature of his excuse for failing to make a proper investigation of the crime do not clear him of the suspicion that he knew more about the incident than he cared to divulge."
On January 25, 1937, "Tick" Arnett and his assistants returned to Harlan Town and again applied at the New Harlan Hotel for rooms. The management of the hotel refused to permit them to register as guests. The manager, Victor H. Rooper, stated: "During the time they stayed at my hotel, the members of the United Mine Workers of America were at all times peaceful and desirable guests." His refusal to furnish them with rooms was solely due to loss of business arising from the “ . . . fears of violence and disturbances caused by those opposed to the organizing of the mine workers."

The organizers were forced to set up temporary headquarters at Pennington Gap, Virginia, near the Harlan County line. Shortly after they arrived there, Frank White and another thug came into the hotel where the organizers were staying. White, according to the testimony of Theodore Roosevelt Clarke, warned one of the union organizers that if they persisted in coming into Harlan County, they would be "bushwhacked." White, a "poor" witness, at least as far as the operators were concerned, went home after testifying briefly before the LaFollette Committee, but never returned. On April 26, 1937, Drs. Jones and Crouch sent a telegram to Senator LaFollette stating that White would be absent on April 26 and 27 "on account of serious illness of baby daughter." That was the last word from Frank White. The Dr. Jones who signed the wire was a crony of Frank White and was observed many times by United Mine Workers organizers accompanying White in his car when White was thugging. I do not know whether or not he ever carried a medical kit, but I do know he invariably toted a pistol.
In any event, A. B. Chandler's public endorsement of Theodore Middleton marked the beginning of a new era of violence in Harlan County. Union organizers had been chased out and there were still worse things to come.

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