Baldwin–Felts Detective Agency
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Today, it is most remembered for its violent confrontations with labor union members as part of the Coal Wars in such places as the Pocahontas Coalfield region of West Virginia, the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike of 1912 in West Virginia, the Ludlow Massacre in 1914 and the Battle of Matewan in 1920. Members of the agency were also central actors in the events that led to the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921.
The agency was founded in the early 1890s by William Gibbony Baldwin as the Baldwin Detective Agency.
Baldwin, the senior member of the firm, was a native of Tazewell County, Virginia. An avid reader of detective novels in his youth, Baldwin was a small storekeeper in his early days. He then studied dentistry but left that profession to become a detective. He began his career in 1884 with the Eureka Detective Agency in Charleston, West Virginia. After founding the Baldwin Detective Agency, he then moved to Roanoke, Virginia, to oversee security operations in the Norfolk & Western Railway’s coalfield district, later being appointed chief special agent, a position he held until his retirement, in 1930.
Thomas Lafayette Felts was a native of Galax, Virginia, who was educated as a lawyer and was a member of the Virginia Bar Association. In 1900, he joined the Baldwin Detective Agency as a partner who could provide legal advice to the firm. In 1910, the name of the agency was changed to the Baldwin–Felts Detective Agency, and its headquarters were in Bluefield, West Virginia.
Originally, the company provided investigative services to railroads for train robberies and other crimes. Little is known about this chapter in the history of Baldwin–Felts, but it is known that the company provided guards for railway and mine payrolls and accompanied coal trains into the coalfields. The company investigated train wrecks, robberies, and thefts.
By the early 1900s, the agency had also undertaken detective work for both federal and state government agencies.
The agency became known for crime-busting after it successfully tracked down members of the Allen family wanted in a shootout in 1912 at the Carroll County Courthouse in Hillsville, Virginia, which left the judge, the sheriff, the prosecutor, a juror, and a witness dead or dying. Though two of the Allens fled the state, the Baldwin–Felts detectives, led by Thomas Felts, managed to locate and arrest all of the fugitives within six months.
By 1913, railroad crimes and associated banditry had decreased, and Baldwin–Felts turned to other fields, in particular private security forces for mining companies. At the time, public law enforcement and the maintenance of order in labor disputes were often left to company owners. Baldwin–Felts supplied guards and detectives, who were used by the mining industry to suppress strikes; to collect intelligence on unions; to prevent labor organizers from entering company grounds; and even to evict workers living in company-owned housing who had joined a union, gone on strike or failed to pay rent.
That work soon brought the agency into conflict with labor and unions. Baldwin–Felts is today best known for its violent confrontations with labor union members in such places as the Pocohantas Coal Field region, in West Virginia, the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike of 1912, in West Virginia, and in Ludlow, Colorado, in southern Colorado. To union members, Baldwin–Felts agents were hired thugs. A former attorney general of West Virginia, Howard B. Lee, who knew both Baldwin and Felts, recalled that the men were the "two most feared and hated men in the mountains."
Both Baldwin and Felts were also involved in banking, and Baldwin later served as president and member of the board of directors of several banks. Felts was later elected to two terms as a Virginia state senator.
Capture of Floyd Allen
The agency's most famous fugitive pursuit was the capture of Floyd Allen and his family, involved in a courtroom shootout in Carroll County, Hillsville, Virginia; five people died and seven were wounded, including Commonwealth Attorney William Foster, Sheriff Lewis F. Webb, and Judge Thornton Lemmon Massie. The event captured nationwide attention from March 13 to April 15, 1912.
At the time, Virginia law required the local sheriff to head the criminal investigation and pursue those suspected of committing the killings. No provision for succession after his death had been provided for in the law, and his deputies lost all their legal powers until the next election. Faced with the dilemma, Virginia Governor William Hodges Mann sent a telegram to the Baldwin–Felts agency to apprehend the fugitives:
Send troops to the County of Carroll at once. Mob violence, the court. Commonwealth's Attorney, Sheriff, some jurors and others shot on the conviction of Floyd Allen for a felony. Sheriff and Commonwealth's Attorney dead, court serious. Look after this now.
The detectives cut a wide swathe through Carroll County in their quest. The wounded Allen was arrested at his hotel by Felts personally. Most of the Allens and their relations were arrested by a posse of Baldwin–Felts detectives, who chased down the fugitives in a relentless search that was carried out regardless of weather conditions. Nevertheless, two of the men (Sidna Allen and Wesley Edwards) escaped to Des Moines, Iowa. An informant (Maude Iroller) tipped the agency as to the men's whereabouts, and the fugitives were arrested and brought back to Carroll County before the end of the year.
In 1913 to 1914, Baldwin–Felts agents were involved in another coal field struggle in Las Animas County, Colorado. In what was known as the Ludlow coal strike, agency detectives were employed in squads to harass striking workers, even using an armored car with a mounted machine gun (it was called the Death Special by the miners). During the strike, a particularly-violent confrontation erupted between private militia hired by mine owners and striking workers, now known as the Ludlow Massacre, resulted in around two dozen deaths.
Battle of Matewan
On May 19, 1920, 12 Baldwin-Felts agents, including Lee Felts, arrived in Matewan, West Virginia and met with Albert Felts, who was already in the area. Albert and Lee were the brothers of Thomas Felts, the co-owner and director of the agency. Albert had already been in the area and had tried to bribe Mayor Testerman with $500 to place machine guns on roofs in the town; Testerman refused. That afternoon Albert and Lee along with 11 other men set out to the Stone Mountain Coal Co. property. The first family they evicted was a woman and her children; the woman's husband was not home at the time. They forced them out at gunpoint and threw their belongings in the road under a light but steady rain. The miners who saw it were furious, and sent word to town.
As the agents walked to the train station to leave town, Police Chief Sid Hatfield and a group of deputized miners confronted them and told them they were under arrest. Albert Felts replied that in fact he had a warrant for Hatfield's arrest. Testerman was alerted, and he ran out into the street after a miner shouted that Sid had been arrested. Hatfield backed into the store and Testerman asked to see the warrant. After reviewing it, the mayor exclaimed, "This is a bogus warrant." With these words, a gunfight erupted and Hatfield shot Albert Felts. Testerman and Albert and Lee Felts were among the ten men killed (three from the town and seven from the agency). Albert and Lee Felts were buried in Galax, Virginia in what is now the Felts Memorial Cemetery. Their funeral was attended by over 3,000 people.
This gunfight became known as the Matewan Massacre, and its symbolic significance was enormous for the miners. The seemingly invincible Baldwin-Felts had been beaten. Sid Hatfield became an immediate legend and hero to the union miners, and a symbol of hope that the oppression of coal operators and their hired guns could be overthrown. Throughout the summer and into the fall of 1920 the union gained strength in Mingo County, as did the resistance of the coal operators. Low-intensity warfare was waged up and down the Tug River. In late June state police under the command of Captain Brockus raided the Lick Creek tent colony near Williamson. Miners were said to have fired on Brockus and Martin's men from the colony, and in response the state police shot and arrested miners, ripped the canvas tents to shreds and scattered the mining families' belongings. Both sides were bolstering their arms, and Sid Hatfield continued to be a problem, especially when he converted Testerman's jewelry store into a gun shop.
On January 26, 1921, the trial of Hatfield for killing Albert Felts began. It was in the national spotlight and brought much attention to the miners' cause. Hatfield's stature and mythical status grew as the trial proceeded. He posed and talked to reporters, fanning the flames of his own legend. All men were acquitted in the end, but overall the union was facing significant setbacks. Eighty percent of mines had reopened with the importation of replacements and the signing of yellow-dog contracts by ex-strikers returning to the mines. In mid-May 1921 union miners launched a full-scale assault on non-union mines. In a short time the conflict had consumed the entire Tug River Valley. This "Three Days Battle" was finally ended by a flag of truce and the implementation of martial law. From the beginning, the miners perceived the enforcement of martial law as one-sided. Hundreds of miners were arrested; the smallest of infractions could mean imprisonment, while those on the side of "law and order" were seen as immune. The miners responded with guerrilla tactics and violence.
In the midst of this tense situation, Hatfield traveled to McDowell County on 1 August 1921 to stand trial on charges of dynamiting a coal tipple. Along with him traveled a good friend, Ed Chambers, and their wives. As they walked up the courthouse stairs, unarmed and flanked by their wives, a group of Baldwin-Felts agents standing at the top of the stairs opened fire. Hatfield was killed instantly. Chambers was bullet-riddled and rolled to the bottom of the stairs. Despite Sally Chambers' protests, one of the agents ran down the stairs and shot Chambers once more,-point blank in the back of the head. Hatfield's and Chambers' bodies were returned to Matewan, and word of the slayings spread through the mountains.
The miners were angry at the way Hatfield had been slain, and that it appeared the assassins would escape punishment. They began to pour out of the mountains and take up arms.
Baldwin died in 1936, at 75; Felts died a year later, at 69. In 1937, four months before his death, Felts had formally dissolved the Baldwin–Felts Detective Agency. By then, strikebreaking work had declined. State and federal legislation outlawing the use of private detectives for the purpose of spying on or harassing workers, along with shifting public opinion, had made such detectives less useful to management in labor disputes.
After the agency closed its doors, most of the company's files were destroyed or lost. The largest collection of extant files is housed at the Eastern Regional Coal Archives, in Bluefield, West Virginia.
- Union violence
- Coal Wars
- Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike of 1912
- Ludlow Massacre
- Battle of Matewan
- Pinkerton National Detective Agency
- Velke III, John, The True Story of the Baldwin–Felts Detective Agency, ISBN 0-9664336-1-0, ISBN 978-0-9664336-1-6 (2004)
- Lee, Howard B., Bloodletting in Appalachia: The Story of West Virginia's Four Major Mine Wars and Other Thrilling Incidents Of Its Coal Fields, Morgantown: West Virginia University Press (1969), p. 53
- Williamson, Seth, The Roanoker Magazine Allen Clan Hillsville Courthouse Shootout[permanent dead link], Roanoker Magazine (November 1982) Leisure Publishing Inc., retrieved 2006-08-24
- Savage 1990, p. 16.
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- Savage 1990, p. 21.
- Velke III, John, The True Story of the Baldwin–Felts Detective Agency, ISBN 0-9664336-1-0, ISBN 978-0-9664336-1-6 (2004)
- Savage 1990, p. 26.
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- Savage, Lon (1990). Thunder in the Mountains: The West Virginia Mine War, 1920–21. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press. ISBN 978-0-8229-3634-3.
- Velke, Baldwin-Felts Detectives, Inc. (1997). This is Velke's first book on the agency.
- Estep, Francis F. "Paint and Cabin Creek Murders." In The Goldenseal Book of the West Virginia Mine Wars. Ken Sullivan, ed. Charleston, WV: Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, 1991. ISBN 0-929521-57-9
- Kilkeary, Desmond. "The Hatfields and the Baldwin–Felts." Chaparral. May 2005.
- McDaniel, Brenda. "Gun Thugs and Heroes." The Roanoker Magazine. July/August 1979.
- Smith, Robert Michael. From Blackjacks to Briefcases: A History of Commercialized Strikebreaking and Unionbusting in the United States. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-8214-1465-8
- Corbin, David Alan, Editor. The West Virginia Mine Wars: An Anthology. Martinsburg, WV: Appalachian Editions, 1990. ISBN 0-9627486-0-9
- Weiss, Robert P. "Private Detectives Agencies and Labour Discipline in the United States, 1855–1946." The Historical Journal. 29:1 (1965).
- Hadsell, Richard M. and William E. Coffey. "From Law and Order to Class Warfare: Baldwin–Felts Detectives in the Southern West Virginia Coal Fields." West Virginia History 40:3 (Spring 1979): 268–286.
- Sherwood, Topper. "The Dust Settles: Felts Papers Offer More on Matewan." Goldenseal (Summer 1991): 39–44.