The Hatfields and McCoys are the go-to story about feuds — whether or not you know all the details of the story, you’ve most certainly heard of them. Both sides engaging in a tit-for-tat exchange of actions until many needlessly died. But the Hatfield that actually had a much larger role in American history has been crippled by his famous family lineage.
Sid Hatfield, came from humble beginning — one of 12 children of a tenant farmer. Hatfield worked as a farmer, a miner and a blacksmith, but it was his appointment as Police Chief of Matewan, West Virginia by Mayor Cabell Cornelis Testerman that secured his place in American history.
Hatfield was a unique blend of morality and ethics. He supported the rights of miners and their efforts to organize –and just like Mayor Testerman even rejected bribes from coal company-employed detectives to allow machines guns to be placed inside the village to enforce evictions of miners from coal-company owned houses. Yet, two weeks after Testerman is shot and killed (some say by Hatfield) in a gun battle, Hatfield marries Testerman’s widow.
The story begins in Matewan, West Virginia when miners who had joined the union were fired and then forced out of company-owned housing by the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency.
The problem, though, is Hatfield intends to arrest some of the detectives enforcing the eviction. Hatfield has warrants from the Mingo County sheriff for the arrests of Albert and Lee Felts, but the Felts brothers claim they have a warrant for Hatfield’s arrest. When the Felts hand the warrant to Mayor Testerman — as the men stand on the porch of the Chambers Hardware Store in Matewan — Testerman calls the warrant a fraud and then all hell breaks loose. Although, who fired the first shot is unconfirmed, the clash which lasted just 20 minutes — took the lives of 10 men, including Mayor Testerman and the two Felts men — and started the ball rolling to the largest armed uprising on American soil since the Civil War.
After the violence, the state placed the town under martial law — which Hatfield complied with — but animosity between miners and coal operators intensified. Adding to the tensions were several court cases including ones against Hatfield. He was indicted for murder in the deaths of the Felts brothers, but was later was acquitted (although key witnesses died or left town).
Hatfield would not survive for long. It would be the murder of an unarmed Hatfield’s on the courthouse steps just a few months later that would be the final straw that would culminate in the Battle of Blair Mountain.
On August 1, 1921, Hatfield, his wife, and a friend Ed Chambers with his wife were walking up to the courthouse in Welch, West Virgina, where Hatfield and Chambers were facing charges of destroying property of the coal operators. Hatfield was accused of dynamiting a coal tipple. On the way into the courthouse they were ambushed and shot by a group of Baldwin–Felts detectives. Hatfield died almost instantly with 3 or 4 bullet wounds to the chest. Chambers was mortally wounded and was killed when a detective shot him in the back of the head. None of the detectives were found guilty of any crime instead claiming self-defense (they claimed Hatfield and Chambers were armed).
The slaying catapulted Hatfield — who died in his mid-20s — to the status of martyr. More than 2,000 miners attended his funeral. They laid down their tools for an hour in his honor and within days drew up arms to avenge his death in what would become known as the Battle of Blair Mountain.
To learn more about the Battle of Blair Mountain read [Amazon links]:
- The Battle of Blair Mountain: The Story of America’s Largest Labor Uprising
- Thunder In the Mountains: The West Virginia Mine War, 1920-21
- or watch: Matewan
>> Read about civil rights and safety in the American workplace in my article Historical moments that changed America’s work environment.