This article was written by Beth Ward Perry who lived in Glen Alum from 1913 to
1917. The article appears on the McDowell
County web page.
Return To Glen Alum
by Beth Ward Perry
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
"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."
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