The nagging memory of a terrible crime lured me back to Glen Alum, W. Va., scene of the famous 1914 payroll robbery. Eleven men were killed in a robbery which startled the whole nation. The story which spread over the news wires reported blood hounds, desperadoes, posses, law officers, a mountain chase and a shoot-out.
This bloodletting tragedy occurred in the Hatfield-McCoy region of the West Virginia coal fields at the time Greenway Hatfield was sheriff of Mingo County. Greenway was the nephew of "Devil" Anse Hatfield, who started the family feud back in 1863 when he killed Harmon McCoy.
I lived in Glen Alum as a child and was five-years-old when the robbery and murders took place. My memories of the coal camp were still vivid on my recent visit even though some 50 years had elapsed. I could still remember the three-story yellow house where I lived with my mother and father. I had not forgotten the white wooden fence around the yard because of strict orders to stay within its confines. Beyond the fence, the hills rose straight up, or at least is seemed that way to me then. There "Reddy", our milk cow who did not like children, did her grazing, and there among the many rocks and weeds were countless snakes. My mother called the place a "rattlesnake den".
I remember the converted school room in the back of our house where Mother taught her only child along with several neighborhood children. I could see in my mind's eye the railroad track which ran from the company store through the middle of the mining camp and on beyond to the Glen Alum Station located on the main line of the Norfolk & Western Railroad. This spur track was Glen Alum's only access to the outside world. A creek flowed through the valley too. Sometimes it was on one side of the track, and occasionally it meandered under a low trestle to the other side of the track. I could still visualize the look-alike houses perched precariously on the mountain side overlooking the camp. There the Hungarian and Italian miners lived with their large families.
And I remembered the tipple from which soft coal was loaded on railroad cars. These coal cars moved over the spur track to the main line. From that point the coal was sent to the Bluefield railroad yards where it was weighed at the "big round house" before being shipped to various parts of the country.
I thought of all these things as my cousin Nancy and I followed our highway map one sunny day in the summer of 1969 on a return visit to my childhood home -- Glen Alum. U.S. 52 leads through rough country past abandoned coal shafts and deserted homes. We were surprised to learn at Roderfield that the only access to Glen Alum was over the mountain.
We left the pavement to follow a narrow gravel road. As we climbed the mountain curve after curve, the dense foliage on each side grew ever thicker. We found the silence and desolation oppressive and pushed down the locks of our car doors. On reaching a fork at the top of the mountain, we chose the road which seemed to drop off more suddenly. This led us to a house at the foot of the mountain. A young woman came out onto her porch with two small children tugging at her skirt, and a baby feeding at her breast. We asked her how to reach Glen Alum.
"This here's part of it. You're standing on it," was her reply.
Rank weeds were growing between the rails of the spur track in front of her house. She told us that the tracks were to be removed soon. Brightening, the woman asked if we knew about the murders. She spoke as though the 1914 killings had happened the previous week.
"The men were murdered right thar. Right over thar." She pointed to the trestle across the creek in front of her house.
She wondered if we would like to see the main part of the abandoned coal camp, and told us to go back to the fork at the top of the mountain. The other road would lead us there. This we did. When we stopped our car at the clearing which was in the center of what had once been the busy hub of the coal camp, we looked around. We were alone. No bird, animal or insect broke the silence, and yet we had the eerie sensation that eyes were peering at us through the heavy undergrowth. The battered hulk of the company store still remained stark and silent. Dr. Amick's house was almost smothered in weeds. My former home was reduced to two tall chimneys.
The remains of the Company Store, 1969
If it had not been for Dr. Amick my father would have been murdered. As business manager of the coal company my father had charge of the commissary. It was also his responsibility to bring the weekly payroll in money bags to the company office from the railroad junction. The miners' payroll came in by train from a bank at Lynchburg, Va.
The bookkeeper and the operator of the gasoline powered speeder or handcar usually accompanied my father on these weekly trips. Just before the speeder took off on this particular August morning in 1914, Dr. Amick, the company doctor appeared. He had been called to the station to care for a patient and asked for a ride. Only three passengers could ride comfortably on the handcar. Since Dr. Amick could handle the payroll after he made his house call, my father decided not to go. This decision saved his life.
The $7,000 cash payroll was received at the station by Dr. Amick; F.D. Johnson, bookkeeper; and Joseph Shielor, company electrician. They started back up the hollow to deliver the money to the coal company office. As the handcar came to a low trestle where it crossed the winding creek, the men saw a log sticking up between the ties. When they got off the car to clear the tracks, they were ambushed. The money was stolen and the dead men left lying beside the railroad track. The three men must have been killed instantly because when found their hands were still on the pistols in their holsters. The robbers fled into the woods.
By afternoon everyone in Mingo County had heard of the robbery and murders. Sheriff Hatfield formed a posse. It took the Norfolk and Western Railway only forty-five minutes to dispatch a special train of men from neighboring towns to help round up the culprits. Law officers of every kind -- constables, agents from the Baldwin Felts Detective Company, and other deputized men -- came in on the special train. They joined Sheriff Hatfield's forces and were determined to get the killers dead or alive.
Terror gripped the mining community. No one knew who had planned the robbery. Everyone suspected local people; and suspicion and distrust filled the camp. Conversations were brief. My parents took me to their room to sleep. My father's gun lay beside his bed.
It was two days before the deputies ran onto a good clue. The robbers had fled to the Cold Spring Fork of Ben Creek. They had been spotted at dawn the second day after the crime when they shot and wounded Sanford Hatfield and Ed Mounts. Right after that about fifty men formed a cordon around the area where the bandits had hidden. The killers were hiding behind a large fallen oak tree, and were holed up in a jungle of underbrush. Justice of the Peace Belcher had brought his two bloodhounds. The dogs' checklines were long and it was hard to hold them back. As they approached the robbers' lair, Belcher was shot down along with one of his dogs. The shooting kept up all during the night. Sticks of dynamite were used, but they were thrown back out of the hideout as quickly as they were thrown in. Finally Sheriff Hatfield gave the order to charge the bandits. When the deputies moved in they found five small Italians, riddled by the posse's bullets. They were not known and were suspected to be Black Handers, a group connected with the Mafia. The five dead men were dragged out by their feet. They were carried by train to Williamson where they were buried in potter's field still unidentified. All of the payroll money was found except for $20 which was presumed lost. The stolen money had been divided evenly and tied up in five red bandannas.
"We had better be going." Nancy broke the silence. I had been standing for a long time looking at the bleak ruins. The Glen Alum of my childhood was no more. In its stead was a ghost town.
Contributed by: Robert Perry, son of Beth Ward Perry, who adds: "This article was written (and is ©) by my mother, Beth Ward Perry (1909-1993), about 1971 and it was published at that time in the West Virginia Illustrated magazine. Her parents had first lived in Arlington, near Northfork. They were in Glen Alum from 1913-1917 when they moved to Bluefield."