Appalachia, Baldwin-Felts Agency, Bluefield, Cabell Testerman, Carleton Starr, Chambers Hardware Store, chief of police, Clara Berman, coal, crime, Harry Berman, history, Matewan, mayor, Mine Wars, Mingo County, Sid Hatfield, teacher, United Mine Workers of America, Welch, West Virginia, Williamson
On December 2, 1978, Harry Berman of Williamson, Mingo County, West Virginia, recalled the Matewan Massacre of May 19, 1920:
When do you remember that the union… What do you remember about the organization of the unions?
Well, that was in Matewan. I was at the age of about thirteen years old at that time. That was about 1915, I’d say. This was concerning the miners there, about a strike. They all got together and so they went on a strike, and the company has ordered the people that went on a strike. The company has ordered them to vacate their homes.
That was the company houses?
That was the comp-any houses. The miners at that time, they didn’t approve of it and so they began to gather around. So they got Baldwin-Felts men in there. There as about twelve of them from Bluefield, West Virginia. So they came in on that midnight train that comes through there about twelve.
The Baldwin-Felts gang was a gang that broke the unions. They traveled all over the state or throughout the coalfields breaking the unions.
Well, they were trying to break the union at that time, but these twelve men were sent in here from Bluefield and they came in on the twelve o’clock train and they went over to the hotel. They spent the night there and the next morning they got up and out and they vacated more houses for these men. This kindly upset the union men at that time. So anyway then when after all that was all done they all went back again to the hotel, and so they packed their bags. Unfortunately, what they done, they took their rifles, they took them apart, and they packed them on the inside of their bags and some of them packed them on the outside of their bags.
In other words, they were going to show that they were leaving in peace?
After vacating people from their company houses?
Yeah. That was about the time… Let’s see, the train comes through there, that Number 16, it comes through there about five o’clock in the evening. So they all came to the station at that time. When they all got to the station, all the union men–there must have been at least 100 of them–all gathered around them. You know, as they came to the station. Well, I was standing there in front of the door, in front of my father’s store there at that time, and watched all these people coming to the station. So, they all went the other way–that was Chambers Hardware at that time–they went toward Chambers Hardware. When they all got there, they all bunched together.
Was that the union men bunching together?
That was the union men that bunched together there around the Baldwin-Felts men, because I don’t think the Baldwin-Felts men suspected anything at all. If they did, they would have went there with their rifles, see.
In other words, you think they were surprised with an ambush?
Yeah, they were surprised. It took them by surprise.
The whole, as I understand it, the whole Baldwin gang was shot on the platform as they were getting ready to board the train?
Well, before the train came in. That was about maybe fifteen minutes before the train came in through there, see. So the mayor of the town was Testerman. He went along with them to the Baldwin-Felts men down in there and also with the union men and they all bunched around Chambers Hardware Store. Then the chief of police–he was also in the crowd, too. Just for the curiosity I went right along with them. Sid Hatfield, I knew him pretty well. So when he was standing there with Testerman, which is the mayor. Facing one another, I was standing about maybe two feet in the back of Sid Hatfield, and all at once there was a shot fired and I think he was the one who put a bullet through Testerman.
Yeah. The mayor. And then that was what started all this shooting. So the first thing I knew I got scared and I beat it back to the store again, see, and while I was going back to the store there was one man laying across the broadwalk. At that time there wasn’t any…
Boards for a sidewalk?
Yeah. The boards were made out of sidewalks. One was scattered there. One was laying here, one was over there. And the first thing you know, then they began to get out and try to get away from them, if they could, you know, see. But the first thing I knew, there must have been at least maybe about eight or ten of them laying around on the ground there.
Bullets went over your head. Remember the bullets that were shot over your head?
Oh, there was bullets everywhere at that time. I really do recall that. That’s a fact. Then after Sixteen came in, the union men, the conductor got off. Which he was a tough conductor, too, he was. They called him McCullock. A captain McCullock at that time. So he got off of the train and he wanted to know what it was all about. And then union men all went into the train. When all the passengers on the train came off you know, the union men went in there and they were searching the train because they figured that some of these detectives stopped Sixteen down there just on this side of the tunnel. To see if any did get on there. Because they said there was about…
In other words, they expected more of the gang to come in?
No. Some of these that did get away from the union men… They thought about two or three of them went down toward the tunnel to stop the train to get on. So that’s what they expected, you know.
The union breakers?
Yeah, the union breakers, and so when the train came in to the station they rushed into the train and they looked all through the compartments. Under the seats and everywhere and there wasn’t no union men on there.
Yeah. There wasn’t any detectives on there at all. In the meantime, I think there was about maybe one got away, from what I understand. He was hid in a coal pile. Mrs. Hoskins, a school teacher, hid him in a coal pile and she didn’t say anything about him at all. She must have felt sorry for him or something. And I think he got away. He really did… He got away, from what I understand. So that was it and so when Sixteen came in they put Testerman on the baggage car and before he got to Welch he died.
They killed him.
Yeah. Well, they killed him, naturally.
In other words, he left here alive but they killed him before he got to the hospital?
Yeah. He died in the baggage car. Testerman died in the baggage car.
But the chief of police’s family killed him because the chief of police had been shot?
No. The chief of police wasn’t shot. Let’s get it straight. The mayor is the one who got shot. The chief of police is the one who shot the mayor.