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Chapter 19 - Guards and Gunmen

In the fall of 1912 I went to Eksdale, West Virginia. A strike had been going on in that section of the coal country for some time. A weary lull had come in the strike and I decided to do something to rouse the strikers and the public.

I called six trusty American men to me, told them to go up along the creeks on either side of which mining camps are located, and to notify all the miners that I wanted them in Charleston at one o’clock Tuesday afternoon; they must not bring any clubs or guns with them.

Tuesday afternoon, at a prearranged place, I met the boys in Charleston. The camps had turned out in full. I told the lads to follow me, and they did, through the streets of Charleston with a banner that said, “Nero fiddled while Rome burned.” “Nero” was the governor who fiddled with the moneyed interests while the state was going to ruin. Another banner was addressed to a certain gunman whom the workers particularly hated because of his excessive brutality. It said, “If G – is not out of town by six o’clock he will be hanging to a telegraph pole!”

The reason that he did not hang was because he was out of town before six.

We gathered on the state house grounds. I went into the governor’s office and requested him politely to come out, as there were a lot Virginia’s first families giving a lawn party outside, and they wanted him to talk to them. I could see that he wanted to come out but he was timid.

“Mother,” he said, “I can’t come with you but I am not as bad as you may think.”

“Come,” I said, pulling him by his coattail. He shook his head. He looked like a scared child and I felt sorry for him; a man without the courage of his emotions; a good, weak man who could not measure up to a position that took great strength of mind, a character of granite.

From a platform on the statehouse steps I read a document that we had drawn up, requesting the governor to do away with the murderous Baldwin Felts guards and gunmen. We asked him to reestablish America and American traditions in West Virginia. I called a committee to take the document into the statehouse and place it reverently on the governor’s table. I then spoke to the crowd and in conclusion said, “Go home now. Keep away from the saloons. Save your money. You’re going to need it.”

“What will we need it for, Mother?” some one shouted.

“For guns,” said I. “Go home and read the immortal Washington’s words to the colonists. He told those who were struggling for liberty against those who would not heed or hear “to buy guns.”

They left the meeting peacefully and bought every gun in the hardware stores of Charleston. They took down the old hammerlocks from their cabin walls. Like the Minute Men of New England, they marched up the creeks to their homes with the grimness of the soldiers of the revolution.

The next morning alarms were ringing. The United States senate called attention to the civil war that was taking place but 350 miles from the capital. The sleepy eye of the national government looked upon West Virginia. A senatorial investigation was immediately ordered to inquire into the blight that was eating out the heart of the coal industry. Once again the public was given a chance to hear the stifled cry of the miners in their eternal struggle.

Next page: Chapter 20 - Governor Hunt