When Frank Keeney was on trial in Morgan County
On an April day in 1923, Frank Keeney sat in the Morgan County Courtroom and heard his lawyer ask that the case against him be dismissed.
Keeney, the president of the state’s United Mine Workers, was on trial for the murder of a deputy sheriff in August, 1921, during the biggest coal war that West Virginia had ever seen.
Along with other union officials, Keeney was also charged with treason against the state and with conspiracy in a violent series of events that ended with what The Morgan Messenger called “the famous Battle of Blair Mountain.”
Keeney was 41 when he stood before Circuit Judge J. M. Woods in the Berkeley Springs courtroom. A medium-sized man in a dark business suit, he looked more like a shopkeeper than an outlaw.
Keeney had scrambled to the top of United Mine Workers District 17 the hard way. After his father had died, he’d gone into the coal mines at age 9 for fifty cents a day. He was a miner for 25 years before becoming union head of the southern West Virginia coal fields.
Keeney knew his politicians as well as he knew his miners. In 1919, he helped Governor John J. Cornwell, from Hampshire County, cool down an armed miners’ march into Logan County. He stood next to the unarmed, unguarded governor on the speaker’s platform. He was reputed to have stepped on the head of a miner who was sneaking around with a pistol.
Two years later, however, not even Keeney could control the protesting miners.
Hundreds of miles away from the battleground, Morgan County residents began reading of the troubles in the Spring of 1921.
By then, striking miners had been evicted from company houses in Mingo County. Hundreds were living in tent colonies along Lick Creek. The tents provided easy targets for Baldwin-Felts “detectives” who were hired by coal operators.
In retaliation, the miners burned coal company property and shot back. Hillside snipers fired into mines that remained open. Eventually, martial law was declared in Mingo County.
N.S.D. Pendleton, who edited The News in Berkeley Springs, began reprinting reports from Charleston about the miners’ lawlessness. Pendleton, a Democrat like many of the coal field political leaders, complained about high coal prices and favored cutting prices. This would have meant even cheaper wages in the midst of the turmoil.
Pendleton disagreed with S. S. Buzzerd, Republican editor of The Morgan Messenger, over establishment of the West Virginia State Police. Buzzerd favored and Pendleton opposed a state police force. The 1920-1921 mine war became the first real test of the state police who were called upon to maintain order.
Whatever their differences, both newspaper editors labelled the miners as “outlaws” after Trooper Charles Rackley of Martinsburg was killed in June, 1921 while searching strikers’ tents for weapons.
Buzzerd, an ardent Prohibitionist, was also angered by reports that the miners were making moonshine to earn ready cash. Closer home that spring, three whiskey stills were discovered in Magnolia.
But, far from the scene, neither Buzzerd nor Pendleton knew exactly how to handle the coal war as it heated up in the Summer of ’21.
Newspapers began reporting that miners were mobilizing with the goal of marching from Mingo, Kanawha and other unionized counties into Logan County.
Don Chafin, the sheriff of Logan County, captained the most anti-union ship in the Mountain State. Strangers to Logan were stopped and questioned. Union miners were escorted to the county line, if they were lucky.
To run his department, Chafin was subsidized by mine owners, allowing
him to hire dozens of depu-ties and buy a small arsenal.
Determined to topple Chafin and unionize Logan County, the miners planned a new march.
Foreseeing that it would turn out badly, Mother Jones, the legendary labor organizer, tried to stop them. She waved a telegram that she said promised help from President Warren Harding. When state union boss Keeney demanded to see it, Jones stuffed the paper in her pocket. She soon left West Virginia, never to return.
Governor E.F. Morgan asked President Harding to send in federal troopers to reinforce the State Police and Logan County Sheriff’s deputies. All sides met at Blair Mountain on September 1.
On September 8, The Messenger reported that the “war” was over. Buzzerd editorialized: “Very few men were killed during the march. Such acts only do the miners harm and bring the state into disrepute.”
Indeed, some have argued that the random violence, the stills and the coal-company-owned politicians helped to create the hillbilly stereotypes that all West Virginians continue to live with.
When Buzzerd wrote that he hoped “the leading insurrectionists” would be brought to justice, he had no idea that Frank Keeney would end up in a Berkeley Springs courtroom.
Keeney, along with union secretary Fred Mooney and 446 others, was indicted by a special Logan County Grand Jury on September 24. The indictments were written by two coal company lawyers who were hired as special prosecutors by Sheriff Chafin. They were dubbed the Coal Dust Twins by the miners.
Keeney and Mooney surrendered in Mingo County. In addition to treason and conspiracy, they were charged with the murder of John Gore, one of Chafin’s deputies at Blair Mountain.
The arrested miners were kept in the crowded Logan County Jail. Often their crime was listed simply as “R.N.,” which stood for Redneck. The marchers had worn red neckerchiefs.
Eventually, the attorneys agreed to try the cases in Charles Town, Jefferson County, as far from Blair Mountain coal country as you get and still be in West Virginia.
In April, 1922, as Keeney rode to Charles Town with 1,000 miners and witnesses on a train called “The Red Special,” he had no idea about the roundabout route of justice ahead of him.
Nor could S. S. Buzzerd have guessed that he would soon be calling for a fair trial for Keeney and attacking Don Chafin, the High Sheriff of Logan.
(To be continued)