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Matewan Before the Massacre

Politics, Coal, and the Roots of Conflict in a West Central West Virginia Mining Community

Rebecca J. Bailey

Publication Year: 2008

On May 19, 1920, gunshots rang through the streets of Matewan, West Virginia, in an event soon known as the “Matewan Massacre.” Most historians of West Virginia and Appalachia see this event as the beginning of a long series of tribulations known as the second Mine Wars. But was it instead the culmination of an even longer series of proceedings that unfolded in Mingo County, dating back at least to the Civil War? Matewan Before the Massacre provides the first comprehensive history of the area, beginning in the late eighteenth century continuing up to the Massacre. It covers the relevant economic history, including the development of the coal mine industry and the struggles over land ownership; labor history, including early efforts of unionization; transportation history, including the role of the N&W Railroad; political history, including the role of political factions in the county’s two major communities—Matewan and Williamson; and the impact of the state’s governors and legislatures on Mingo County.

Published by: West Virginia University Press

Series: West Virginia and Appalachia

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. iii-v


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pp. vi

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pp. vii-ix

ONE VERY BAD DAY while in graduate school, I sat on the side steps of Woodburn Hall in Morgantown West Virginia, feeling so low that when a student I called “Big John” walked up and asked, “Ms. Bailey, you look like somebody’s died, what’s wrong?” I looked up at him and said “John, have you ever felt so bad about yourself, you wonder why you’re using up somebody...

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pp. 1-87

WEDNESDAY, MAY 19, 1920, dawned dreary and- overcast. Though rain drizzled from the clouds intermittently throughout the day, the small town of Matewan in Mingo County, West Virginia, teemed with miners, as union relief funds were being distributed. In the midst of the activity, at 11:47 a.m., a party of Baldwin-Felts agents disembarked from train #29, having come to Matewan to enforce...

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1. “BLEEDING MINGO”: 1895–19111

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pp. 19-87

ON OCTOBER 20, 1898, Henry Clay Ragland, the disgruntled editor of the Logan Banner, declared that Mingo County had been carved from Logan County three years earlier by a “Republican Statehouse conspiracy.” The close association between the state’s Republican Party and the rail and coal interests that developed southern West Virginia led most historians to accept Ragland’s complaint for nearly 100 years. By the 1970s, a conceptual paradigm not uncommon...

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pp. 88-123

MINGO COUNTY POLITICS between 1912 and 1919 followed the trend that had begun in 1895. Every election was bitterly contested with charges and countercharges of graft, illegal voting, and wholesale election fraud and theft. In West Virginia during the Progressive Era, reform party movements were led more often by “disgruntled outs trying to get back in” than by genuine...

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pp. 124-162

TWENTY YEARS AFTER ITS OPENING, the Thacker coalfield, now referred to as the Williamson-Thacker coalfield, appeared to be just another of southern West Virginia’s expanding coalfields. However, superficial commonalities between it and its larger neighbors to the east and newer neighbors to the north and south masked the ways in which the Williamson-Thacker coalfield had fallen and would fall...

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pp. 163-208

FOR MOST OF THE PERIOD between 1917 and 1919, World War I dominated the social atmosphere of Mingo County. Civic organizations and public activities focused almost completely on supporting the war effort. However, government-sanctioned compulsory patriotism exacerbated existing social strains, such as the county’s ongoing struggles with criminal behavior, sporadic acts of violence, and public health crises. Although state and federal...

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pp. 209-253

DURING THE EARLY MONTHS of 1920, a series of local, state, and national events began a slow implosion that resulted in tragedy on the streets of Matewan on May 19. The external causes of the terrible tragedy included the uncertain economic state of the coal and rail industries as federal wartime regulation finally ended; the escalation of tension between the UMWA and southern West Virginia’s...

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pp. 254-266

IN 1978, Henry D. Shapiro’s Appalachia On Our Mind challenged scholars to consider “what problem [the study of Appalachian history] solves and whose interests—intellectual as well as practical—it thereby serves.” Drawing inspiration from this parting thrust of Shapiro’s ground-breaking monograph, Matewan Before the Massacre has sought to explore the “back story” of the events of...


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pp. 267-288


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pp. 289-292

E-ISBN-13: 9781935978039
E-ISBN-10: 1935978039
Print-ISBN-13: 9781933202280
Print-ISBN-10: 1933202289

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2008

Series Title: West Virginia and Appalachia