A dozen armed men wearing dark suits stepped off the noon train in Matewan, West Virginia, on Wednesday, May 19, 1920. Residents knew this was trouble. Out-of-work coal miners, in town to pick up union relief checks, watched warily. Teachers at the local grade school dismissed students early to get them home and off the streets. 

The armed men, employees of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, ate lunch at a local hotel, then grabbed their rifles, packed themselves into three automobiles and chugged up the road to a place called Warm Hollow. There they began evicting coal miners’ families — carrying out furniture and other belongings and piling them onto the unpaved street. Rain added to the day’s gloom. For the crowd looking on, the lesson was clear: This is what happens when you join a union. 

The Stone Mountain Coal Co. owned the houses and the property and used its money to influence elected officials and lawmen. If you were a coal miner and didn’t like the company’s rules or wages, or the prices at the company store, or the bleak and filthy conditions in which your children were raised, if you were alarmed at the number of coal miners killed at work … well, too bad. You were expected to be grateful and keep your trap shut.

When miners did speak up, coal companies called the Baldwin-Felts men. The enforcers.

Matewan’s 27-year-old police Chief Sid Hatfield and Mayor Cabell Testerman confronted agent Albert Felts in Warm Hollow. Earlier, Felts had offered to pay Testerman $200 if he would allow the agents to put three machine guns on the roofs of stores in town. Testerman turned him down. This certainly annoyed Felts, who was accustomed to getting his way.

Now, Felts drew a gun on Hatfield and told him he was on private property. The two argued. Still, the evictions continued, six in all. Frustrated, Hatfield and Testerman returned to Matewan and deputized several miners.

Felts and his crew finished their evictions, returned to town around 3:30 p.m. and ate dinner at the same hotel. Then they packed up their long guns and headed to the railroad station to catch a train back to the agency’s headquarters in Bluefield, West Virginia. Near the station, at the entrance to the doorway of Chambers Hardware Store, Hatfield and 15 to 20 deputized miners confronted the agents.

Again, Hatfield and Felts argued. Hatfield was then standing in the doorway, facing out toward the street. Mayor Testerman arrived, made his way to the front of the crowd and joined in the argument with Felts and his agents.

This collection of men in and around the hardware store were edgy, desperate, angry, some no doubt filled with fear. At one point, laughter rippled through the crowd — someone had cracked a joke comparing an arrest warrant to gingerbread. Then, an explosion of violence. Bessie Hamilton, a clerk on duty at the railroad station, said it sounded like one big roar.


The entrance to Chambers Hardware Store is now the back entrance to the Chit and Chat coffee shop in Matewan. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

For decades, few people in Matewan discussed what happened in town that day. Perhaps it was too violent, or too painful. Maybe some considered it shameful. That’s changed.

Matewan these days embraces its history. Residents revel in the role their town of 400 played in America’s ongoing battle between working people and powerful, wealthy business interests intent on controlling employees’ lives. A local gift shop sells T-shirts boldly proclaiming, “Matewan Massacre, Birthplace of the Middle Class.”

If that’s the case, the exact place of birth is that old Chambers Hardware Store doorway, which is now the back entrance to a coffee shop called the Chit and Chat. The shop has a cool 1950s vibe, with a jukebox and a statue of young Elvis Presley. You enter from Mate Street out front. Nobody uses the back entrance any more. That area possesses all the charm of an alley in Downtown Pittsburgh, 300 miles north. Flies buzz around a dumpster. An electric light dangles by a few wires.

The only signs that something significant happened here 104 years ago are the bullet holes in the brick walls.


Sid Hatfield, Matewan police chief. (West Virginia Mine Wars Museum)

People would argue for decades over who fired first, Sid Hatfield or Albert Felts. No one questions the first casualties. Within moments, Felts toppled backward onto the muddy street, blood from a head wound spraying onto the chaps of a man standing nearby. Mayor Testerman, clutching his abdomen, staggered a few feet, and then he, too, collapsed in the street. Agents scattered, some firing weapons over their shoulders as they ran. Miners in doorways and windows took aim and blasted away.

Lee Felts, seeing his brother fall, drew his pistol. In the chaos and panic, he and a miner named Art Williams fired their weapons at each other until both ran out of bullets. Neither was hit until Reece Chambers, owner of the hardware store, fired his rifle and killed Felts.

A school teacher named Martha Hoskins heard the gunfire and rushed to the kitchen window in her Matewan home to see what was happening. A bullet crashed through the pane, scattering shards of glass into the room. She and her two grandchildren sought shelter in a clothes closet.

Wounded, agent A.J. Boorher began lurching and dragging himself to safety. A miner who’d just been evicted from his house grabbed a pistol, ran after Boorher and shot him at such close range that blood spattered onto the gun barrel.

Two Baldwin-Felts agents were twins — the Anderson brothers. They jumped a fence and dashed into a house, where they ran into a group of armed miners. One shot Walter Anderson in the back. With blood gushing from an exit wound in his chest, he and his brother Tim fled to another house and then escaped by leaping onto the last car of a departing train.

“There goes two of the dogs,” they heard someone say.

A wounded agent named J.W. Ferguson ran several blocks in an attempt to escape, then a town employee helped him onto the back porch of Mary Duty’s home. Ferguson begged her for a place to lie down. Shocked, Duty said no and fled inside. Ferguson sank into a reed rocking chair, his hand covering a gaping wound in his abdomen. Within moments, miners found him and fired, one of the bullets hitting the reed chair, others striking nearby. Ferguson lunged toward a fence in an attempt to escape.

Agent Oscar Bennett was in the railroad station in search of cigarettes when the shooting started. He looked out the window and saw a man walk up to Albert Felts and another detective, both lying dead in the street, and fire pistol rounds into each one. Bennett remained at the station, mixing with passengers, then boarded a Bluefield-bound train. He sat next to a woman with a baby, and when miners boarded the train in search of escaping Baldwin-Felts men, Bennett hid his weapon under the baby’s diaper. 

After 10 minutes or so, the shooting stopped. Six bodies lay in the street outside the hardware store. Testerman was placed on a cot, his wife by his side. He’d not survive the day.

Mary Duty emerged from her home to find a bullet hole in her reed chair, now stained with Ferguson’s blood. The agent’s bullet-mangled body was sprawled in the alley beside her home.

Bodies of the dead detectives remained in the street for hours. “The feeling of the Matewan townspeople was so intensely antagonistic toward the dead guards that no one would touch them,” one newspaper reporter wrote.

Eventually, men tossed the bodies into the baggage car of a train bound for Williamson, the county seat. A station agent there saw the body of Albert Felts. He’d been shot in the face. Agent C.B. Cunningham, who had once manned a machine gun during an attack on striking miners in Ludlow, Colorado, was barely recognizable. Half his head was blown off.

In all, the shootings claimed the lives of 10 people — seven agents, two miners and the town’s mayor.

After dark, armed miners continued to roam Matewan’s streets. Around midnight, detective C.B. Hilderbrand quietly emerged from a sugar barrel, where he’d hidden for nearly six hours. Hildebrand lit a cigarette and walked out of town whistling to avoid suspicion. 


Matewan defendants in Williamson, West Virginia, during the trial. Sid Hatfield stands second from right. Ed Chambers kneels second from left. (West Virginia & Regional History Center)

Sid Hatfield became a hero to the miners. He’d stood up to Baldwin-Felts agency, whose men had terrorized coal towns for years. Newspaper reporters arrived in Matewan to write about and photograph Hatfield, and the United Mine Workers of America sent a film crew to create a short movie called “Smilin’ Sid.” Hatfield testfied at a Washington, D.C., Senate hearing focused on the events in Matewan. And he married Testerman’s widow, Jessie, which raised a few eyebrows. Hatfield maintained that he’d promised the mayor he’d take care of her.

A jury in Williamson acquitted Hatfield and 18 others charged in the deaths of the Baldwin-Felts men. For the coal operators, that wouldn’t do, so authorities in company-friendly McDowell County indicted Hatfield and his friend Ed Chambers on conspiracy charges. Ed Chambers, son of hardware store owner Reece Chambers, had taken part in the Matewan shootings. The two men, accompanied by their wives, traveled to the McDowell County seat of Welch for a court hearing on the morning of Aug. 1, 1921.

People packed the sidewalks to watch as the now famous Sid and Jessie Hatfield, along with Ed and Sally Chambers, made their way to the courthouse, which sits on a hill in the center of town. Most likely, the two couples failed to notice a clutch of men standing near the courthouse door. 

Among those men was Charles Lively, who had once passed himself off as a supporter of the miners and their efforts to organize the West Virginia coal fields. Lively had opened a restaurant in Matewan and made it available as a meeting place for the union. All along, Lively fed information to the coal company and collected pay from the Baldwin-Felts agency. He revealed his role as a spy while testifying at the trial of those charged in the Matewan shootings.

The Hatfields and Chamberses began climbing a series of the steps leading to the courthouse door. At a landing halfway to the top, Hatfield recognized a few friends. He raised his hand and said, “Hello, boys.”

At that moment, Lively and the other men gathered near the courthouse entrance drew pistols and fired. One bullet struck Sid Hatfield in the arm, another tore into his chest. He spun around and fell backward as bullets continued to strike his body. He slid and rolled down, coming to a stop on the third step from the sidewalk.

Bullets slammed into Ed Chambers’ neck, chest, arms and back. Chambers fell to the landing. Lively rushed to him, put a pistol to the side of Chambers’ head and fired. Sally Chambers pummeled Lively with a parasol and screamed, “Don’t shoot him anymore.”


The burial of Sid Hatfield and Ed Chambers on Aug. 4, 2021. (West Virginia Mine Wars Museum)

Two days later, more than 2,000 people crowded into Matewan to mourn and bury Sid Hatfield and Ed Chambers. Bearers carried the two caskets through town and then, at the Tug Fork River, mounted a footbridge, which sagged under the weight. Once across the river and in Kentucky, the procession climbed to a hilltop cemetery, only to be greeted by torrential rain. Soaked, widows Jessie Hatfield and Sally Chambers sat forlornly by their husbands’ caskets as the crowd quickly thinned.


Charles Lively, spy for coal operators and the Baldwin-Felts agency. (The West Virginia Encyclopedia)

Charles Lively and the other gunmen faced no consequences for killing Hatfield and Chambers. Lively, in fact, earned a reputation as one of the most violent anti-union agents in the coal fields. He’d previously killed a union miner in Colorado.

Lively’s violent tendencies continued. While working as a deputy sheriff and then a prohibition agent in McDowell County, he served time for pistol-whipping a man during an arrest and was found guilty of assaulting a grand jury witness. In 1925, authorities arrested Lively for possessing a pint of whiskey.

He proved an unfaithful husband and an abusive father of nine children. In 1937, he served a year of hard labor after shooting his 16-year-old son, Gordon, in the neck. Gordon later shot Lively and was himself imprisoned. In the 1940s and 50s, Lively managed a hotel and then an apartment building in Roanoke, Virginia. He died at his Huntington, West Virginia, home in 1962. The death was ruled suicide by a gunshot wound to the head.


Three weeks after Hatfield’s burial, miners enraged over his murder embarked on a march bound for Mingo County. The miners’ goals: end the governor’s declaration of martial law and organize the county.  

The march culminated in a pitched battle at Blair Mountain in Logan County. More than 10,000 armed miners faced off against 3,000 law officers and coal company gunmen. It ended with the arrival of federal troops on Sept. 2. Many of the miners, themselves military veterans, refused to fire on American soldiers. Fearful of arrest, the miners concealed their weapons in the woods and journeyed back to their homes. Thus ended the largest labor uprising in American history.


Sid Hatfield’s grave marker in a Kentucky cemetery overlooking Matewan. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Matewan’s story remained largely hidden until 1987, when filmmaker John Sayles released his movie “Matewan,” based on the 1920 shootings. Soon, people who’d seen the film started showing up in town and asking questions. Now the story is told in detail at the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, located in an old bank building on Mate Street. A portion of the “Smilin’ Sid” video plays on a loop there. Hatfield laughs, showing off his gold-capped teeth, and displays his two pistols. Two-gun Sid, some newspapers called him. He seems unworried about the powerful forces he’d challenged. Maybe it was an act.

The reality for Hatfield is etched on his tombstone in a Kentucky cemetery, which looks out over distant mountains. “Defender of the rights of working people,” it reads, and then adds that he was killed for his efforts. The middle class would not fully emerge for another two decades. Nursing it in infancy was a brutal business.

Sources: “Matewan Before the Massacre: Politics, Coal, and the Roots of Conflict in a West Virginia Mining Community,” by Rebecca J. Bailey, West Virginia University Press, 2008; “Thunder in the Mountains: The West Virginia Mine War 1920-21,” by Lon Savage, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1990; “The Devil in Here in These Mountains: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom,” By James Green, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2015; “The Nine Lives of Charles E. Lively: The Deadliest Man in the West Virginia-Colorado Coal Mine Wars,” by R.G. Yoho, Fox Run Publishing, 2020; The Bluefield Daily Telegraph newspaper, various editions in 1920-21; In addition, the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum was very helpful in building the narrative, providing context and suggesting books.

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at smellon@unionprogress.com.

Steve Mellon

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at smellon@unionprogress.com.