Stories Of Baldwin-Felts Agency - McDowell County - 1950

Talk to any of the coalfield residents of the late 1920s and early 1930s, especially those directly connected with the ming industry, and at least half of them will begin spinning yarns about the "Baldwin-Felts" men. Most are largely fiction. Some are possibly true. As controversial an agency as ever existed, the organization does have a place in this history of southern West Virginia mining. Both partners of the firm died some 20 years ago. W.G. Baldwin, senior member in the firm, was a native of Tazewell County. In his youth he read a lot of detective books. Later he studied some dentistry but left his profession to start the detective agency. He died in 1936. Thomas L. Felts studied law and passed the Virginia Bar. He lived in Galax and became special agent for the Norfolk & Western Railway, later drifting into the detective business. A one-time member of the Bluefield City Council, he died in 1937. First concern of the Baldwin-Felts Agency was protection of the railway and mine payrolls and the following of N&W trains into the coalfields. Later the agency took on work of the governments, state and federal. It handled a serious case for the Federal government when Theodore Roosevelt was president. This was of such a secretive nature that the case has not even yet been disclosed. Finally the agency was engaged in labor work in Virginia, Kentucky and other southern states. Their work was highly controversial and much disliked by the miners but was supported by friends of the operators. But no one can claim that they were not efficient in their organization. Kyle McCormick, director of the West Virginia Department of Archives and History, knew both men, especially Felts whom he knew quite well. He says that they had the most "complete espionage system ever on North American soil." The agency had some offices in Bluefield where it kept a virtual museum of crime. Mr. McCormick recalls that one exhibit was a pair of glasses with a bullet hole through one of the lenses. The owner had died. The agency met tragedy when seven members of its staff were killed by townspeople in a bloody battle at Matewan in Mingo County on May 21, 1920. Subsequently this led to an incident which reached its climax on the courthouse steps in Welch. The incident resulted in the fatal shooting of two men and is a story in itself. Baldwin-Felts men, it is reliably reported, were on duty in the McDowell County area for some time.

(The foregoing is from a newspaper clipping from The Welch Daily News from 1950. It was given to me by Helen Stanley in June 2003.-Sebert Toney, Jr.)


McDowell County