The McDowell County Courthouse became nationally famous when it served as the setting of a notorious double murder, which took place on the courthouse steps in the middle of the day. These brazen murders became one of the catalysts for the violent culmination of the West Virginia mine wars at the Battle of Blair Mountain.
During the later years of the West Virginia mine wars (1920-1921), labor unrest centered in the southern region of the state, specifically in the counties of McDowell, Mingo, and Logan. While McDowell County wasn’t the site of violent labor uprisings, the county was drawn into the conflicts as operators and local law enforcement used any means possible to suppress the strike in neighboring Mingo County. When the jails in Mingo became overfilled with strikers and union organizers arrested during the organization drives, some of those arrested were moved to the McDowell County jailhouse.
After the deadly shootout in Matewan in 1920, Matewan Sheriff Sid Hatfield and Deputy Sheriff Ed Chambers were brought to trial for their roles in the affair. Hatfield had been acquitted on murder charges stemming from the incident in a trial held at the Mingo County Courthouse. The verdict was unsurprising, given that Sheriff Hatfield was very popular among miners because he had been one himself and was sympathetic to their plight. His stance against the private security firm hired by the coal mine operators, the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, and his role in the shootout that resulted in the deaths of several mine guards only increased his popularity. While he was able to beat the murder charge, he still had several charges pending, one for blowing up a tipple (where coal was loaded onto freight cars) in the coal town of Mohawk. That trial was scheduled to happen at the McDowell County Courthouse in the town of Welch. Hatfield’s codefendant was twenty-two-year-old Ed Chambers, his friend and former deputy.
Fearing that they would be denied justice in McDowell, a county dominated by the coal operators, Hatfield’s and Chambers’ lawyer petitioned for a change of venue, which was granted. As a formality, the defendants had to appear at the courthouse to receive the judge’s orders. On August 1, 1921, while walking on the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse with their wives, C. E. Lively and another Baldwin-Felts agent shot Hatfield and Chambers to death in full view of witnesses.
During the strike in Mingo, C. E. Lively, a miner and informant for the coal mine operators, went so far as to move to Matewan and establish a café to enhance his ability to spy on the miners’ attempts at unionizing. He specifically befriended Hatfield in order to access more information and even testified against him at his murder trial. The brazenness of the murder at McDowell County Courthouse, coupled with Hatfield’s popularity among the miners, became a rallying cry for the strikers and served as one more catalyst leading to the culmination of the mine wars at the Battle of Blair Mountain.
The McDowell County Courthouse is listed in the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). The NRHP is the official list of the nation's historic places worthy of preservation. Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Register of Historic Places is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America's historic and archeological resources.
View the National Register nomination for the Courthouse: McDowell County Courthouse.
Discover more resources on the West Virginia Mine Wars and related topics here: Resources on the West Virginia Mine Wars.