W.G. Baldwin and T.L. Felts were respected businessmen on the homefront, but to struggling coal miners and desperate outlaws their names are synonymous with scum.
In the spring of 1912 at the height of one of the bloodiest coal mine wars in West Virginia history, a sweet-looking, grand-motherly little old lady by the name of Mary (better known as “Mother”) Jones mounted the capitol steps in Charleston and made the following pronouncement:
“Unless (Gov. William E. Glasscock) rids Paint Creek and Cabin Creek of these goddamned Baldwin-Felts mine guard thugs, there is going to be one hell of a lot of bloodletting in these hills.”
The mine guard thugs the feisty, salty-tongued old union activist was referring to were agents of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency of Roanoke, Va., one of the most famous and infamous, depending upon which side you were on, detective agencies in the United States during the early part of this century.
Coal miners, union organizers, train robbers, murderers, thieves, German spies, smugglers, the Allen gang—desperadoes of all descriptions knew and despised the Baldwin-Felts detectives.
Over the span of 30 years the Baldwin-Felts firm built a reputation for being ruthless, vengeful and very effective at whatever they did, whether the job called for evicting a group of striking coal miners from their company-owned houses or tracking down a desperate band of outlaws.
But that was out in the field. On the home front, the agency’s two owners, William G. Baldwin and Thomas L. Felts, were known as fine upstanding citizens, doers of great charitable deeds, respectable businessmen. Both were involved in banking. Felts even served two terms as a state senator.
William Gibboney Baldwin, born May 26, 1860, in Tazewell County, began his crime-busting career with the Eureka Detective Agency in Charleston, W. Va., around 1884. After a brief stay there, he came to Roanoke to oversee protective activities in the Norfolk & Western Railroad’s coalfield district. He was later appointed chief special agent to head up the entire line’s protective division, and he maintained that position until his retirement in 1930.
Around 1900 Baldwin formed a partnership with Thomas L. Felts, a Carroll County native, who had received his training as a law officer along the lawless border districts of Southwest Virginia, Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia when the railroads were forging their way into the wild and undeveloped mountain regions. The partnership was the beginning of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency. It would have offices in both Roanoke and Bluefield, W.Va., and it would contract its services to the N&W as well as a number of other railroads, including the Southern Pacific, Cincinnati & Ohio, Richmond Fredericksburg and Potomac, and the Morgan Steamship Lines of Louisiana. That was before the N&W’s protective division was made a regular department of the railroad in the 1930’s.
The first work of the agency was protecting railroad property, keeping order on trains, guarding payrolls and investigating wrecks, robberies and thefts, but the firm gradually became involved in general criminal work and protection of property.
The contract arrangement Baldwin work-ed out between his company and the railroad was ideal because it gave him freedom to chase all kinds of outlaws, not just those whose crimes related to the railroad. And Baldwin loved a good manhunt.
(Baldwin’s position with the railroad was looked upon as anything but insecure since his brother-in-law, W.J. Jenks, was N&W general manager and later vice president.)
The chase that won Baldwin-Felts the most notoriety was the Allen shootout in the Carroll County Courthouse at Hillsville in 1912.
The trouble began on March 14, at the trial of Floyd Allen, charged with interfering with the officer who had earlier arrested his nephews, Sidna and Wesley Edwards. Floyd Allen maintaned the officer had gone beyond legal bounds by crossing into North Carolina and arresting the boys without requisition papers from the governor of Virginia. The two brothers had been charged with fighting on a church yard and disturbing public worship. Wesley was sentenced to 60 days in jail and Sidna Edwards was given 30 days. Both sentences were served in full, but when Uncle Floyd’s trial came up, he was found guilty and sentenced to one year in the state penitentiary in Richmond.
The judge hearing the case ordered the sheriff to take charge of the prisoner, and at that Allen reportedly stood up and declared he wasn’t going anywhere, at which point a shot rang out in the crowded courtroom. It was never determined who fired the first shot. but soon the courtroom was alive with bullets and smoke, noise and confusion. When the shooting ended, the sheriff, the judge, the Commonwealth’s attorney and a juror lay dead and another juror was dying.
The Get Away
Floyd Allen was wounded in the back and could not leave town, but his kinsmen involved in the shootout managed to escape into the rugged Carroll County mountains. Only a son, Victor, stayed behind to care for Floyd, and both were arrested at a boarding house the next day.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the state the startling news of the shootout was making its way across the wires. The Baldwin-Felts detectives were asked to dispatch a posse to Hillsville as soon as one could be organized.
The detectives left Roanoke on March 14 on a special train for Galax and traveled all night in trains and hacks. On arriving within three miles of Hillsville, they found that Crooked Creek was so high they were unable to ford it with vehicles, so they walked to Hillsville, arriving at 7 o’clock on the morning of March 15.
One detective, Edwin Chancellor Payne, who a year later wrote a book about the shootout called The Hillsville Tragedy Story of the Allen Clan, was stationed in the coalfields of West Virginia near Beckley when he received a message from T.L. Felts asking him to join the posse in Hillsville. Payne had to walk nine miles in a blinding snowstorm with six inches of snow on the ground to the nearest railroad station, then when he arrived in Hillsville, he was greeted by a old, driving rain.
Upon arriving in Hillsville, Felts took charge immediately and went to the rooming house and arrested Floyd Allen and his son Victor.
Payne recounted the arrest:
“At about nine o’clock, Floyd Allen was placed on a cot for removal to the jail. While he was being carried from the hotel to the jail, one of the officers noticed that the cover under which the prisoner was lying was being shaken and on partially removing it discovered that Allen
was cutting his throat with an old, dull knife. The knife was taken from him and the gash he had inflicted was given medical attention.”
The weather continued vile during most of the time the posse was searching for the Allen gang. After the initial excitement wore off, it became obvious to the posse that the odds were on the side of the Allens. The roads throughout the county were almost impassable because of the foul weather, the Aliens were thoroughly knowledgeable of the area and its hiding places and they were known to be well-armed with plenty of ammunition. And to add wretchedness to woe, much of the trailing and riding had to be done at night.
The posse made several raids on houses where the Aliens were reported hiding, but to no avail. Disappointments were many for the detectives, and the days wore on.
Payne wrote: “On March 22nd, we received information that Sidna Allen(Floyd’s brother) and Wesley Edwards were at Dick Gwinn’s widow’s house on. .. Willis Gap Road. At 2:30 a.m. on the 23 rd we started with a guide and ‘felt’ our way for some miles on foot through pouring rain and sleet to the edge of the Gwynn clearing. We stood there until 5:30 a.m. in the down-pouring rain, huddled together in a bunch trying to keep warm.
“I had fallen into a sink hole and had cut my left knee badly, and I was suffering severely from the injury, but we stood there in the rain until it finally soaked through our ‘Slickers’ and hats, but when daylight came we ‘rushed’ the four buildings (three cabins and a still house) and surrounded them.
“We made a careful search, examining the lofts and other possible hiding places, but discovered nothing. Sorely disappointed, we worked our way back to headquarters, arriving at about ten o’clock.”
Of another miserable search, Payne wrote, “Tying our horses to our wrists with the hitching straps, we buttoned up our ‘Slickers’ and lay down in the standing water which covered the entire flat and took a two hours’ nap.”
It is fair to say the hunters suffered far greater hardships than the hunted. When captured, Claud Allen(another of Floyd’s sons) had with him a .38 hammerless Smith and Wesson, a .38 caliber Colt “with plenty of cartridges... about a half bushel of bread and meat and a half gallon jar of water… $83.65 and a good gold watch,” according to Payne. Allen also had “a bed in the laurel roots made of several quilts and also had a ‘Slicker.’” It is doubtful any of the desperadoes had to lie down in standing water to catch a two-hour nap.
But eventually, despite the hardships, all but two of the fugitives were captured. Only Sidna Alien, 46, and his nephew, 20-year-old Wesley Edwards, remained at large. By April 14. a month after the posse first arrived in Hillsville, they were still searching for the missing pair, but by the end of the month, the detectives were convinced that Allen and Edwards had left the area, and the search was called off. Only a few Baldwin-Felts men remained in Carroll County. Some of those who stayed behind were undercover detectives posing as farm hands in order to gather information.
Indeed, Sidna Allen and Wesley Edwards had left the area. Without being noticed, they had passed through Mount Airy, Pilot Mountain, Winston-Salem and Salisbury, N.C., and on to Asheville. An abundance of wanted posters bearing their likenesses convinced them to flee North Carolina. They headed west, arriving in Des Moines, Iowa, in late April.
In Des Moines, they found rooms and jobs, assumed new names and kept a low profile until Edwards’ Carroll County girlfriend, Maude Iroller, led the Baldwin-Felts detectives to their door.
As in most incidents involving the Baldwin-Felts detectives, there are several versions of just how Miss Iroller led the detectives to her fiance and his uncle. One has her being followed to Des Moines by W. G. Baldwin and another detective, Oscar Monday. In another version, a detective posing as a laborer near her home wins Miss Iroller’s confidence and she gives the man her fiance’s address, thinking he wants to help the fugitives. But the story Sidna Allen believed was that Maude sold them out.
In his memoirs, Sidna Allen wrote, “For a few hundred dollars she (Maude Iroller) had betrayed both me and the man she promised to marry. 1 was told by the detectives that she sold Wesley for $500.”
Telling the prisoners they had been sold out may have been merely a way the detectives found to demoralize the pair, but Allen also wrote that soon after Miss Iroller returned to Virginia she married another man.
Regardless of how the detectives came to follow Maude Iroller to the fugitives, the fact is they were apprehended, and on Sept. 15, 1912, six months after the shootout, Baldwin, two of his men, the fugitives and Miss Iroller all boarded a train and arrived back in Roanoke around noon on Sept. 16. They went directly to the Baldwin-Felts office and then were taken to jail in an automobile guarded by Detectives Baldwin, H.H. Lucas and Oscar Monday.
Sidna Allen was sentenced to 35 years in prison. Wesley Edwards drew 27 years. After 14 years in the penitentiary, during which time he paid off all his debts and proved himself to be a model prisoner. Allen was pardoned by Gov. Harry F. Byrd on April 29, 1926. Floyd Alien, whose trial had started the incident was executed along with his son Claud.
At about the same time the Allen search was going on, the Baldwin forces also were taking part in the violent coal mine wars in both West Virginia and Colorado.
Baldwin-Felts initially became involved in the labor struggles racking the coalfields by collecting evidence about acts of violence and later by gathering information about union organizations. Baldwin-Felts detectives served both as mine guards and as spies who, posing as coal miners, infiltrated the unions, recorded their activities and reported them to the mine operators.
According to the mine operators, it was the purpose of the mine guards to preserve law and order in the coal camps at a time when there were no state police and county sheriffs were unable to police the many mining camps that dotted the West Virginia hollows.
Howard B. Lee, West Virginia attorney general from 1925 to 1933 and author of the 1969 book Bloodletting in Appalachia, had another description of the mine guards’ function. “In reality,” he wrote “they were fearless mountain gunmen, many with criminal records, whose chief duties were to keep the miners intimidated, to beat up, arrest, jail and even kill if necessary any worker or visitor suspected of union activities around the camps.”
Usually, if a suspected union sympathizer did manage to escape with his life, he lost his job, was blacklisted and therefore unable to find work in any other coal mine in the area.
It is easy then to see how the mine guards or Baldwin Thugs as they were called —became the objects of hate and scorn among struggling coal miners who at the time were making as little as $600 a year.
It was a time when everything surrounding the miner was owned by the company —his house, the land, often the schools, the stores, the theater if there was one, even the doctor was paid by the company. Therefore, the mine owners were in a position to exert extreme pressures on miners who showed any interest in joining a union.
Many strikers were evicted from their homes, intimidated, brutalized and some were killed at the hands of the Baldwin-Felts mine guards.
“Repugnant to the Spirit”
The first major struggle of the coal mine wars which raged in West Virginia between 1912 and 1921 occurred in 1912 when miners struck on Paint Creek in Fayette and Kanawha counties and on Cabin Creek in Kanawha County. Two Baldwin-Felts detectives serving as mine guards at Mucklow on Paint Creek were killed and one was wounded. At Cabin Creek railway tracks were torn up and railroad men dispatched to repair them were driven off. Trains bearing strikebreakers, many from Baldwin-Felts, to Cabin Creek were fired upon and a number of mine guards and miners were killed.
Once in the area, the strikebreakers, led by Albert and Lee Felts (T.L.’s brothers) began what Howard Lee described as “a campaign of assault, intimidation and terrorism without parallel in the history of American industrial struggle.” They evicted all the strikers from the company-owned houses, piled their meager household belongings into freight cars, hauled them to the edge of the company’s property and dumped them beside the railroad tracks. Other mine guards armed with high-powered rifles drove families of strikers down the hollows and off the company property like so many head of cattle.
At the height of the trouble Baldwin-Felts had some 300 men stationed in the area where 1,500 National Guardsmen also were in service. When martial law was declared during the first week of the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek battle, 1,900 rifles, several hundred revolvers, six machine guns and 225,000 rounds of ammunition were seized or surrendered to the militia. Most of the weapons belonged to coal operators and mine guards.
A commission appointed by West Virginia Gov. William E. Glasscock to investigate the mine situation in 1912 filed the following recommendations regarding mine guards:
“We find the system employed was vicious, strife-promoting and un-American. No man worthy of the name likes to be guarded by another armed with blackjacks. revolvers and Winchesters while earning his daily bread. It is repugnant to the spirit of the laboring man and we believe the opinion of the American people. We are therefore unanimously of the opinion that the mine guard system as presently constituted should be abolished.”
Despite the report, the mine guard system continued in West Virginia and was not completely abolished until 1934 when the coal operators in a labor contract with the then legal United Mine Workers of America, agreed to do away with the mine guard system.
As an example of how hated the mine guards were, union crusader Mother Jones is said to have picked up the bloody coat of an ambushed Baldwin-Felts detective and hoisting it above her head declared, “This is the first time I ever saw a goddamned mine guard’s coat decorated to suit me.” where similar hostilities were taking place between organizing coal miners and mine operators.
Baldwin-Felts had had men in Colorado since July 1910 when the Northern Coal and Coke Co. of Colorado engaged their services as mine guards and strikebreakers. The delegation in Colorado included the elite of the agency as well as gunmen it hired for $3 a day. Immediately upon arrival to the western mining camps, they were sworn in as county sheriffs deputies.
A new wrinkle in the Baldwin-Felts operations in Colorado was a monstrous thing called the “Death Special,” an armor-ed car designed by Albert Felts and mounted with two machine guns.
Of the mine guards, George S. McGovern and Leonard F. Guttridge in their book. The Great Coalfield War (Houghton Mifflin, 1972), an account of the Colorado mine wars, wrote: “One supposes them to have been a hard lot, the sinister riffraff they were said to be, although the mean look of the old-time motion picture heavies that some of them wore was doubtless affected to intimidate. Certainly, more than half a century later in 1971, the mere mention of Baldwin-Felts thugs to some of the forgotten band of veterans of the West Virginia and Colorado coalfield wars was all that it required to make gnarled flesh crawl and wasted limbs tremble in a fit of consuming rage.”
Local old-timers who remember hearing stories about the Baldwin-Felts detectives are not well-versed on their strikebreaking activities, but they do recall tales of the Baldwins chasing the Aliens and various train robbers, and almost invariably they mention the Hatfield and McCoyfeud. But, alas, The Roanoker could find no evidence that the Baldwins took any part in the famous Appalachian feud.
It is likely that the confusion stems from the Baldwin-Felts role in the murder of Sid Hatfield, who had been adopted by a branch of the Hatfield family and was chief of police in Matewan, W.Va., in 1920 when 13 Baldwin-Felts men were sent to evict striking miners from company houses there.
The evictions had been carried out and the agents were at the railroad station waiting for a train back to Bluefield when they were fired upon by Sid Hatfield and several other men. Killed were Albert and Lee Felts, who had led the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek assault; Matewan Mayor C.C. Testerman, whom Albert Felts was talking to when the shooting began; two miners, and five other Baldwin-Felts detectives. Six agents escaped by swimming the Tug River or running through an N&W tunnel to safety.
T.L. Felts was aboard N&W train No. 4 to Matewan when it picked up the seven dead detectives, including his two brothers. The conductor reportedly locked Felts in a compartment for fear he would “get out of bounds.” Felts later claimed his brother Albert’s body had been mutilated with bullets as he lay wounded on the ground and that $1,000 and several personal effects were taken from Albert’s pockets.
A howling, jeering, moonshine-drinking mob is said to have robbed the corpses and danced around the victims of the Matewan Massacre.
Of the 19 people indicted in the shooting, only seven were tried, but despite eyewitness accounts of the shooting and testimony of plans for the shooting from C.E. Lively, an undercover Baldwin-Felts detective, none were convicted.
On the night of their acquittal, Hatfield and the other defendants were kept in the jail for their own safety, for as a state policeman who was called in on security duty for the trial later recalled, “We thought that if they were cleared of the charge, the Baldwin-Felts would be down there waiting to kill them all.”
As it turned out, a short time after the trial, Sid Hatfield was gunned down on the steps of the McDowell County (W.Va.) courthouse in Welch by C.E. Lively, the agent who testified at Hatfield’s trial that the ambush had been planned.
Hatfield and Ed Chambers were in Welch to be tried for shooting up the McDowell one of his best-known paintings, “Stag at Sharkey’s.”
As Hatfield, Chambers and their wives were ascending the courthouse steps, both Hatfield and Chambers were shot. Lively and William Salters, another Baldwin-Felts agent, and Deputy Sheriff Buster Pence were indicted. They pleaded self-defense, claiming Hatfield shot first, and were acquitted.
(An interesting side note to this case involves Mrs. Sid Hatfield, who married Hatfield shortly after her first husband, C.C. Testerman, the mayor of Matewan, was killed in the Matewan Massacre. The Widow Hatfield later married a state policeman.)
One of the most sensational cases Baldwin-Fclts ever worked involved Henry Williams, a young black man accused of assaulting a white woman, Mrs. George Shields, and her infant daughter in their Kirk Avenue home on Jan. 30, 1904.
After robbing Mrs. Shields of two gold watches and a coat and vest, burning the Shields baby with a poker and beating Mrs. Shields on the head with a hatchet, cutting her throat and leaving her for dead, Williams fled Roanoke.
Soon the detective agency was alerted that a man matching Williams’ description had been seen trying to sell two gold watches in Gilliam, W.Va. He was later arrested by A.H. Baldwin (W.G.’s brother) and J.O.D. Copenhaver, but it was W.G. Baldwin who got a full confession from Williams.
From his Roanoke jail cell just before his trial, Williams told reporters that t-he detectives had given him whiskey and got him drunk to obtain the confession.
After his arrest, Williams was taken straight to Richmond for safe keeping before his trial. A Richmond newspaper explained why: “At Roanoke an infuriated mob gathered and waited long at the station with the hope that the party would stop there. If it had, Williams would have been torn to pieces. But the train sailed by at a 40-mile-per-hour clip, and all Mr. Baldwin did was to waive (sic) one of the watches out of the window and drop one or two letters to be mailed.”
Williams was accompanied to Richmond by a posse consisting of W.G. Baldwin, Albert H. Baldwin, Dan 0. Baldwin (another Baldwin brother), Thomas L. Felts, Lee Felts, J.O.D. Copenhaver and James O’Conner.
W.G. Baldwin told a crowd in Richmond that night, “I was not working for reward. My men may want some of the money (there was a $ 1,000 reward for the capture of Mrs. Shields’ assailant), but as for myself, I shall not touch a cent of it. I was working to capture a miserable dog of a Negro who had attacked a white woman.”
If security was tight passing through Roanoke, it was incredibly so on the trip back to Roanoke for the trial. The governor ordered a militia of 800 men from Farmville, Danville, Charlottesville, Alexandria and Lynchburg to escort Williams from Richmond to Roanoke.
Raymond Barnes recorded in his History of the City of Roanoke, “When the train arrived at 8 a.m., 800 glistening bayonets in the hands of determined men signified that despite the righteous wrath of Roanokers, no one, including self-confessed Henry Williams, was to be punished without a fair trial.”
But the trial was a sham. Williams’ court appointed attorneys offered no defense testimony and asked no questions of any of the state’s witnesses. In fact, the only thing they did ask was that the defendant be given a fair trial. It was reported that the judge in the case already had his sentencing comments written out before the trial ended.
Not surprisingly, Williams was found guilty and hanged on Friday, March 18, 1904.
While the Baldwin-Felts agency undeniably earned its sorry reputation in the coalfields, the two chiefs, Baldwin and Felts, remained heroes at home.
William Baldwin was not just a railroad dick but a respected lawman, and as a member of the International Association of the Chiefs of Police, he was sent to Europe around 1904 to study and observe fingerprinting techniques. He visited Scotland Yard and the headquarters of the Paris police.
During World War I, the agency’s talents were given freely to the United States Government for the protection of industries and apprehension of German spies and others considered enemies to the United States.
Felts also endeared himself to the home folks during World War I by providing relief to families in the Galax area who had a representative in the battle lines in France. During the hard winter of 1917-18, Felts ordered car loads of coal and furnished it to those families without charge.
Both Baldwin and Felts were successful in other endeavors. Baldwin was for a number of years president of Martha Washington Candy Co., which shipped to several Southern and Northeastern states from its headquarters at 316 Jefferson St., above Kingoffs and below the detective agency.
He also was president of Evergreen Burial Corp., a director of Colonial American National Bank, Liberty Trust Co., Columbia Savings and Loan and Federal Savings and Loan, all businesses operating in Roanoke at the time. He was a charter member of the Roanoke Elks Lodge and active member of several other fraternal organizations.
Baldwin was first married to Katherine English. They had two children, William and Ernest G. Baldwin. He and Katherine lived apart for some time before her death, after which he married Jane Dinwiddie, who was general manager of his candy company. They lived in the Jefferson partments on Jefferson Street.
Earl Grubbs, sprightly octogenarian who lives with his wife in a well-furnished townhouse on Sherwood Avenue in Southwest Roanoke, was secretary to Baldwin from 1919 until Baldwin retired as chief special agent in 1930. He recalls a side of Baldwin the outlaws and the coal miners never knew.
Grubbs remembers Baldwin’s kindness and his joviality. He loved parties, Grubbs recalls, and he had large gatherings of friends and employees at his country home, “Shadowland” near Troutville.
“He could serve hams and chickens to beat the band,” Grubbs says. And the outdoor swimming pool at “Shadowland” was a great treat to all who were invited.
Grubbs confides with a sly grin that another form of liquid refreshment was served at “Shadowland” during Prohibition.
Usually when the Baldwin-Felts agents confiscated moonshine smuggled into Roanoke by train, they would turn it over to the authorities, but Grubbs says, “Once in a while it would be brandy, which was a good drink, and we didn’t always turn that over, and sometimes it found its way out there (to ‘Shadowland’).”
The Baldwin Grubbs knew was a man who invited the whole Salvation Army out to his summer home to eat twice a year, a man who handed out handfuls of gold pieces to his employees at Christmastime.
Did Grubbs know the men he worked with were being called thugs? Never, says Grubbs. “A lot of our men were gentlemen. They weren’t brutal unless they had to be. If the person arrested put up a fight, then the arresting officer might have to use a billy to protect himself.” But the same is true of policemen today, he says.
Felts also is remembered for his generosity and his contributions to education. He
was a leader in getting the Galax High School built and he was a trustee of Lynchburg College to which he contributed a life scholarship in the form of an endowment.
In 1909 Felts organized the First National Bank of Galax and was president until his death in 1937. He also was a member of the board of directors of Mountain Trust Bank of Roanoke and president of Twin County Motor Co. in Galax. His great love was Cliffside Farms, the largest farm in Carroll County, where he raised hundreds of cattle. Felts was married to Elizabeth Houseman, and they had one son, Gordon.
The end of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency came soon after the deaths of the partners Baldwin in 1936 at age 75 and Felts a year later at age 69. Times had changed.
The N&W had formed its own protective division and absorbed many of the Baldwin- Felts agents. The General Assembly had passed a law prohibiting detective agencies from secretly infiltrating businesses for the purpose of spying on workers. Those two events effectively put an end to most of the Baldwin-Felts work.
The agency was dissolved in the late 1930’s and its files destroyed. The collection of weapons confiscated from some of the South’s most notorious criminals over a period of 30 years and displayed in the agency’s museum room was scattered among various employees and friends.
The case was closed.
Originally published in the July, 1979 issue of The Roanoker