THE FOLLOWING ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE WEST VIRGINIA ILLUSTRATED MAGAZINE IN THE MAY-JUNE 1971 ISSUE. MRS. MILDRED WALLS AND HER SON ROLAND CALLED ME ON OCTOBER 28, 2002. THEY HAD BEEN TOLD OF THE GLEN ALUM SITE ON THE INTERNET AND WANTED TO SEND ME THE ARTICLE TO POST ON THE SITE.
WEST VIRGINIA'S GREATEST MANHUNT by Emick Ray Walls
Not long ago it was aptly stated that enough men participated in the final battle of West Virginia's greatest manhunt to have whipped Castro at the Bay of Pigs. I personally agree. Castro would do well if he never encounters a force so resolutely determined to avenge a blood-thirsty killing.
This Mingo County manhunt, involving two bloodhounds and a posse eventually expanding to more than 500 men, made headlines in newspapers across the nation in 1914. The final battle lasted some 40 hours. Historians have agreed generally that the bloodletting of this shooting fray is on a par with that of the famous Hatfield-McCoy feud of a few years earlier. Before the smoke had cleared eleven men were killed and two wounded. And, incidentally, this writer is able to give an eye-witness account of much of the action.
My father's farm was situated so close to the final battle climaxing this manhunt that those of us not participating in the action could hear the din of battle; and as soon as the last man was killed, my father rushed home from the scene and informed Mother that she could visit the battleground for a look. Mother took me, a small boy with a good memory, with her.
Although I fought with the First Infantry Division in Normandy, France, in World War II, I can truthfully state that I never saw a mess more gory than the one in Shanty Hollow, just over a low ridge from our house. Even thought more than half of a century has passed since I walked over the blood-smeared battleground, I am always reminded of it each time I smell withering foliage because the large hazelnut thicket in which the criminals had barricaded themselves was all shot off inches above ground and the stench of the mess has always lingered in my memory.
It was around noon on Friday, August 15, l914, when George May and a posse of seven men crossed the creek below our farm and headed up Shanty Hollow in "bloody" Mingo County. The two blood hounds were straining at their leashes, almost pulling Burrel and Belcher, the two detectives leading them.
George was alarmed when he saw where the dogs were heading. He glanced back at the file of grimfaced men following him and shook his head. Except for the two detectives, George and all the other men were natives of this locality and they felt that they were running into an ambush; for Shanty Hollow was a pathless jungle of dense thickets, deep ravines and a mass of huge vine-covered rocks.
Since George May felt that he was responsible for the safety of this small posse (he was not a lawman), he tried to warn Detectives Burrel and Belcher of the danger lurking ahead. He suggested that the dogs be held back while two scouts moved forward, but his words fell on deaf ears. The two detectives ignored George; they urged their dogs on - up the dry creek bed of Shanty Hollow. And within less than one hour Burrell and Belcher both lay dead, their dogs still alive but chained to the dead men's wrists.
Burrel and Belcher had met a hail of fire coming from a dense hazelnut thicket at the forks of the ravine near the head of Shanty Hollow. They had pushed bravely and determinedly around a jutting spur when a volley of fire suddenly belched forth from the thicket on a rocky flat between the forks - a thicket that even a bear would have shunned. Both these brave men were dead when they fell.
One amazing aspect of this story is the fact that the criminals choosing the thicket for their final stand were able to hold out more than 40 hours against the withering fire from the guns of about 500 posse men. However, the feat of the culprits doesn't appear so incredible after we take a closer look at their natural fort.
The thicket, too dense to see into, covered the brow of a sloping spur for about thirty yards in depth and width. Near the center stood a large oak tree, and a rock weighing several tons was just above the tree. As the posse faced the thicket from downstream, there was a huge log running up and down the hill only a few feet from the rock and tree, the log being on the left side. This log, rock, and tree formed a rough triangle; and exactly in the center of the triangle was a deep sinkhole, large enough and deep enough to conceal and protect two men from small arms fire. To summarize, these criminals were fortunate in finding a natural barricade. Apparently, hunger had forced them to stop here to crack and eat some of the ripe hazelnuts. Obviously they had not known that they had stopped here for their last meal- that all of them were to die here in a battle beginning around one o'clock Friday evening and lasting until daylight the following Sunday morning.
The beginning of this blood bath in Shanty Hollow was triggered on the previous Thursday.
When Eastbound Train No. 2 pulled into Glen Alum station Thursday morning, August 14, 1914, it was about on time. The station agent was so busy unloading sacks of mail for the coal mining community up Glen Alum Hollow that he scarcely saw a group of motley dressed strangers get off the train and start walking hurriedly up the branch line railway toward the coal camp, located about four miles up the hollow. There was nothing unusual about these strangers to attract attention; they were garbed like the usual job hunters, and two of them were carrying a heavy trunk.
Also busy at the Glen Alum station was a teamster fro the coal company and he was engaged in loading his four-wheel, mule-drawn railway vehicle with supplies for the store up the hollow. He, too, saw the group of strangers but paid no particular attention to them; in fact, neither he nor the station agent knew how many were in the group, which quickly left the station and disappeared up the branch line railway.
About an hour later a railway speed car powered by gasoline was dispatched up Glen Alum Hollow carrying a payroll of $7000 and a few bags of first class mail to the Glen Alum Coal Company mine office. The payroll was in the custody of F> D> Johnson, bookkeeper, and the car was operated by Joseph Shelor, an electrician. A passenger on the car was Dr. W. D. Amick, a physician who'd been called out on an emergency case at the mining camp. The speed car left on schedule about nine in the morning but it failed to arrive at its destination.
Alarmed over the car's failure to arrive, an official of the mine office phoned the station agent and was informed that the speed car had left on schedule. But thinking the car probably had motor trouble, the official took no action until the teamster, who'd left the Glen Alum station behind the speed car with his slow mule-drawn load, came running into the mine office and reported a tragedy.
A mile or so up the hollow the teamster and his load had been blocked by the speed car, still on the track. All passengers on the car had been shot; two were dead and the third person was dying when the teamster pulled up and stopped. The teamster was so frightened and excited that he had run all the way from the murder scene to the mine office - forgetting to ride his mule, which he left behind with its load.
There happened to be a railway engine near the mine office when the teamster made his report. Several men sized their guns and got the train's engineer to run them down to the ill-fated speed car. Arriving there, they found the car stopped near a log, placed on the tracks ahead of it. All passengers were dead, slumped in gore, their bodies having been riddled with bullets. The payroll was missing as well as a few sacks of first class mail. It was then around noon and nothing could be done except to notify Greenway Hatfield, Sheriff of Mingo County, at Williamson some 30 miles away.
Although two bloodhounds with their trainers arrived from Welch on a westbound train early in the afternoon, the gathering posse of volunteers still had to wait until Sheriff Hatfield arrived on an east bound train later in the evening. And when the sheriff finally arrived, he found a small army of men waiting, all volunteers who'd stopped working to join the manhunt. Hatfield himself had brought along several deputies and additional posse men from Williamson.
The sheriff was grim and silent as he quickly went over the scene of the holdup. It was obvious to him that the log had been placed on the tracks to stop the car at a dense thicket where the killers had been concealed. Apparently Joe Shelor, thinking the log had been placed on the tracks as some childish prank, had got off the car to remove the log. The killers had then gone into action.
The sheriff walked back into the thicket beside the tracks and looked quickly over the trampled mess. Strewn over the area were several apple cores and several empty cartridge shells fired by the three weapons of different calibers--a 12 gauge shotgun, a .45 pistol and a rifle of the .25-20 class. Hatfield gathered some of these shells and handed them to a deputy for safe keeping. Then he glanced at an empty trunk in the thicket; it was the long, flat type. "At least three killers--and maybe a half dozen," the sheriff said. "They carried their guns and ammunition in that trunk," he added.
The sheriff wasted no time; the posse was growing impatient. He quickly held an inquest over the blood-smeared bodies and ordered them removed. Then he looked about at the letters of first class mail, torn open and scattered in disarray. The robbers had blundered by marking their route of flight with these torn letters, obviously ripped open hurriedly in search of additional money. And after ascertaining the amount of loot taken, Sheriff Hatfield gave orders for the dogs to be put on the scent.
It was twilight when the two bloodhounds crossed the creek at the scene of holdup and headed downstream - south along the east bank of the creek and toward the Glen Alum station. The trail led almost to the mouth of Glen Alum Hollow, then turned abruptly eastward, following generally the N&W Railway but keeping well back in the craggy mountains.
Progress was slow for the posse; the killers, avoiding all roads and trails, had kept to the rugged mountains; and it had required about three hours for the posse to reach the vicinity of Wharncliff, a distance of only four miles from the scene of the holdup. As the posse neared Wharncliff, ill-luck struck again. A severe thunderstorm unleashed a heavy downpour of rain. The scent was lost in the storm.
Since the dogs were unable to find the lost scent, Sheriff Hatfield dispatched several small groups of men to guard all trails and roads leading out of the area. The dogs and their trainers were left at Wharncliff while the posse split several ways searching for clues that would lead again to the lost scent. But no clue was found until about eight o'clock the next morning.
George May, a citizen of Ben Creek, and five companions had been assigned to guard a ridge trail in the Spring Branch area, about three miles north of Wharncliff. George, in charge of the group, was walking the ridge at eight on Friday morning (the day following the holdup) when he happened to find an empty money bag, dropped carelessly on the trail beside a log. George immediately sent for the bloodhounds.
When the dogs arrived around eleven that morning with their trainers, Burrel and Belcher, George was disappointed. He'd hoped to get several men to reinforce his little band. However, the sheriff and the remainder of the posse were at that time scattered over many miles of the area and searching frantically for a clue to the lost scent. But despite his lack of reinforcements, George May and his posse of only eight men and two blood hounds struck the fresh scent.. The Chase was on.
The trail led farther north along the ridge, putting a wider gap between the criminals and their only possible escape route - the N&W Railway. After a mile or so, the scent led abruptly west, down a rugged mountain side through laurel and rhododendron thickets until the posse came out at the creek directly opposite the mouth of Shanty Hollow. From this pint, we return to the scene of ambush.
When Detectives Burrel and Belcher fell near the forks of Shanty Hollow, the six survivors of the posse darted behind the cover of large rocks and trees, excepting George May who ran into the cover of a deep ravine to the left of the dead detectives. George then crawled up to the crest of a bushy gully and peered over at the thicket concealing the killers.
The thicket was deathly still and foreboding. Not a shrub was moving; and the only sounds breaking the quiet atmosphere were the intermittent howling of the two bloodhounds and the dull buzzing of a rattlesnake, somewhere between George and the thicket. Taking up the prone position, George cocked his Winchester and waited.
His patience soon paid off. After several minutes, George saw movement beyond the big log in the thicket; faint though the movement had been, George kept his eyes on the spot and his rifle ready. Presently he saw what he figured was the outline of a man, rising slowly to a standing position to peer out of the thicket. George aimed carefully and squeezed the trigger. A robber threw up his hands, then pitched headlong down the hill and lay quiet.
This action instantly triggered a shooting fray between survivors in the thicket and the posse. While bullets whined and ricocheted off rocks, George tried to estimate the number of killers opposing him (up to this time their number was unknown). He distinctly heard three weapons of different calibers firing from the thicket; yet the was sure that he'd already killed one of the gunmen. "Might be a half a dozen of them," George muttered to himself. The robbers then made it so hot for George that he was forced to abandon his position and crawl away to another.
The shooting continued, spasmodically, with only brief moments of respite. During the quiet moments only the mournful wails of the bloodhounds could be heard; they were unhurt and still held fast by the chains attached to the wrists of the dead detectives. Yet, not one shot was fired at these bloodhounds, which were in plain view of the thicket and easy targets. It was obvious that the dogs had been spared for decoy purposes, and these backwoodsmen of George's posse were not about to fall for that trick. "No man could have rescued those dogs in daylight and remained alive," George told this writer.
Meanwhile, the shooting in Shanty Hollow roared on. While shots echoed among the hills, the noisy din was a message to nearly 200 posse men scattered throughout the area and hunting for the criminals who'd committed the brutal crime of the day previous. And soon after the first shots were heard, all trails and roads began leading to Shanty Hollow.
By this time it was becoming generally known, by grapevine, that Glen Alum Coal Company had posted a liberal reward for the killers, dead or alive. The reward, however, was just something extra: justice was the word of the day. Work stopped dead in all surrounding communities as men exchanged tools for guns. Even War Eagle Coal Company, located seven miles east of Glen Alum, was forced to cease operation because their miners simply quit work, shouldered their guns and started marching. All sawmills shut down while farmers put away their teams. By late Saturday evening Shanty Hollow was literally swarming with armed men, and the thicket concealing the robbers was completely surrounded.
As soon as the thick shadows of Friday night had fallen over Shanty Hollow, a brave Hungarian coal miner of Glen Alum - a man known to George May only as "Steve" - crawled to the crying bloodhounds, unleashed them from the wrists of their dead trainers and brought them back to a safe place in a ravine. The alert killers were aware of Steve's action; they opened up on him with all their weapons. Fortunately, Steve lost only his left thumb - shot off by a rifle bullet. If the gutsy Hungarian failed to impress his comrades with his courageous deed, he certainly drew their admiration the next day. He caught a live rattlesnake in his hat and played with it amazing all who saw the act.
So, all through Friday night the fighting in Shanty Hollow raged - furiously - with men on both sides exchanging fire almost continuously. Would the killers ever expend their ammunition? They seemed to have plenty; they fired at every unusual sound, at each flare of a match, or whenever they saw a glowing cigarette. Yet, despite all this shooting, there were no further casualties on Friday night; that is, as far as anyone knew.
Soon after the first shots reverberated from Shanty Hollow early Friday evening, my father seized his pearl-handled .45 six shooter and went to join the fight. Since our farm was located just over a ridge from the head of Shanty Hollow, my mother started pacing the floor nervously, stopping only long enough to go to a rear window and peer in the direction of the shooting. At first, we small children huddled together like frightened kittens, expecting every moment that the robbers would come charging down the hill toward our house. But we soon became accustomed to the noise, which reminded me of a Fourth of July celebration.
Father did not return home until late the next morning (Saturday). He grabbed a quick bite to eat, and while he was eating he told us about the rescue of the dogs. Then he told us sadly that Landon Tiller, a red-haired coal miner of Glen Alum, had been killed by the robbers.
Early that morning Tiller had attempted to crawl down the hill behind the thicket concealing the robbers when the killers had spotted him. Tiller had attempted then to rise up and rush for the cover of a large poplar tree, but the killers had felled him with a single shot. His body had pitched down the hill in an open spot and no person would be able to get to him as long as a robber survived in the thicket. Father finished eating; he gave Mother instructions to prepare to feed at least 100 men late that evening and then left.
Mother was fortunate in getting two neighboring women to come and help her prepare the food, of which we had plenty on our farm. They quickly went to work. By using large boilers and tubs, they cooked more than enough food to feed 100 men. The women were interrupted in their work only when groups of armed men, still pouring in from all directions, stopped by our place long enough to inquire about the best route to the battle. But the food was ready on schedule.
When the hungry group of men arrived at our place about five that evening, Father was leading them. He had them sit down on the lawn in front of our home while the boilers and tubs of food were carried out to them. There were more than 100 of them, and I remember that the women had a problem with the serving. There were not enough dishes for all the men and some had to wait their turn.
But, as a small boy, I best remember that these men all had shiny guns and I had a field day walking out among them and looking at their fascinating weapons. However, the men were in no jolly mood; I heard little or no laughing as they talked in low, serious tones. I was all ears when I heard a man, apparently a leader, say to my mother: "We are going to throw in dynamite tonight; we're tired of being shot at by men we cannot see."
Although the men had eaten like famished wolves, we had food left over. And after stuffing their pockets with apples, this group of solemn men left as quietly as they had come, my father with them.
That night I was reminded of the man's words to my mother. Our house began to shake from the concussions of dynamite, each blast rattling our window panes. "Those robbers can't stand that long!" Mother said triumphantly. But the robbers did stand it. The dynamiting scheme soon began to backfire on the posse. The criminals would seize the spewing missiles before they could explode and toss them back at the posse! However, it will later be seen that the dynamite id inflict casualties on the defending killers.
All day Saturday the fighting continued to rage and roar in Shanty Hollow as reinforcements poured in from all directions. But where was the County Sheriff? Since he hadn't arrived yet, the posse had become a mob. The fight had become a free for all, and, on the part of some, it had become a day to avenge a series of bloodthirsty killings. Highly respected men had lost their lives needlessly when a mere holdup would have accomplished for the killers the same objective - a sum of $7,000. But the vicious and ruthless killers had put all their faith in guns. So, the vengeful mob in Shanty Hollow was in no mood to take orders from anyone not even from lawmen and detectives. "Kill the rascals any way you can" was the battle cry. There was yelling and cursing; there was screaming and shooting - much of it coming from men with uncontrollable tempers.
Finally, Sheriff Hatfield arrived on the scene late Saturday evening. According to my father, Hatfield had gone several miles east of Wharncliff in his efforts to find the lost trail of the culprits and he'd been so far from the roar of battle that he hadn't heard the initial shooting.
Anyway, Hatfield made a quick estimate of the situation and counted the casualties. At this time six men were dead, including the victims of the speed car. Two men had been wounded - Steve, the Hungarian and Ed Mounts of Ben Creek, the latter shot in the knee. The sheriff, using his deputies, dispatched the following orders to the posse surrounding the thicket:
(1) All shooting, including dynamiting, would stop exactly at midnight. Not one shot was to be fired by members of the posse after midnight.
(2) At daylight, as soon as the posse could see what they were doing, the sheriff would fire a single shot from his pistol. This shot would be a signal for the posse to rush the thicket from all sides.
The sheriff admitted that a few men might get hurt by rushing the thicket, but the plan seemed to be the only alternative to avoid many more casualties in a prolonged shoot-out.
So, the sheriff's orders were obeyed - at least for several hours after midnight. But one member of the posse (whose identity we'll never know) violated the sheriff's orders; either he forgot or he did it deliberately.
At four 0'clock Sunday morning, when the dark hollow was as still as death and many of the posse were sleeping, a robber in the thicket suddenly flapped his hands against his hips and crowed loudly like a rooster. To those of the posse who were awake at the time, it seemed as if the killer had jumped up onto the big log to do his crowing for they thought they heard him jump down again.
Meanwhile, some lone marksman above the thicket, someone who could see like an owl, waited patiently for an hour or so after the crowing. And just as soon as dawn began to light up the forest, a solitary rifle shot roared out, spitting fire from above the thicket. This shot was followed by a dull thud in the thicket like a falling body.
Naturally, the waiting and anxious posse thought the shot was the sheriff's signal, and about 500 men arose yelling and charged the thicket in a mad rush.
They found five robbers, all dead except a freshly killed young fellow of about 20 years, unconscious and breathing his last breath. This young robber had done the crowing, and he'd been shot dead-center between his eyes. Whether his crowing like a rooster had been a taunt to the posse, or whether he had possessed an unusual sense of humor, we'll never know for sure. But many people admired his cool nerve, because he's remained with his dead companions throughout the last night and he'd fired all available weapons in succession and had fooled the posse into believing that more than one robber survived in the thicket. Why hadn't this last surviving young robber attempted to surrender? No one will ever know.
The four remaining culprits had been dead so long that rigor mortis held their bodies in grotesque shapes. One man's arm had been blown off at the shoulder by dynamite; one's head had been blown off; and a live rattlesnake lay coiled at another's head. Someone shot the snake.
All bandits, excepting one, had died within the small enclosure of their natural barricade. The fifth body was apparently that of the first man to die, and he was found lying headlong down the hill just below the position of the final stand. This man, lying beside the big log, was believed to be the first one to die from George May's gun. "I told the posse how this man would be found lying, long before the thicket was rushed," George told this writer.
The robbers were identified only as Italians, thought by many to have been members of the then Blackhand Gang. They carried no identification whatsoever - nothing to determine their origin. Although many people came to gaze silently at the dead outlaws, no person recalled having seen them before. No one claimed their bodies.
It was early Sunday morning when Father rushed home and announced that the battle had ended. After briefly telling us the story of the finish, he informed Mother that it was then safe for her to visit the scene for a look. Of course I was eager to go with her and she took me along.
Arriving at the mouth of Shanty Hollow, I saw more armed men than I was ever to see again for many years. They were just milling about near a wagon with a team of mules hitched to it and two bloodhounds leashed to one wheel. On the grass beside the wagon were the bodies of three posse men - Burrel, Belcher and Tiller - all laid out according to custom. In a heap nearby lay the mangled bodies of four of the Italians, all as nude as the day they were born. Their clothing had been stripped off to make dragging easier.
Within a few moments after my arrival, I saw two men coming with the last of the dead Italians, dragging him by a wire around his neck. They stopped beyond the creek, picked him up by his hands and feet and carried him across the stream. He was the youth who'd crowed before death, and his shock of long black hair was dangling straight down from his head. They carried him to his dead companions and dumped him onto the pile.
My attention was then attracted by a compact crowd of men under a beech tree on the opposite side of the creek. I went over there and found that the group was gathered around the wounded Ed Mounts who lay groaning in pain on the grass. I remember that I felt very sorry for this man with the swollen knee. There were no doctors in this crowd. But I didn't stay long with the wounded man; they were getting ready to load the dead into the wagon and I wanted to watch.
First, they loaded the outlaws. Two large men simply picked each one up by the hands and feet, counted to three, then tossed the body up into the wagon as though loading logs. But the remaining dead were picked up very carefully and lifted up into the wagon. All were then covered over with bed sheets.
Of all the sights I saw in Shanty Hollow that day, I'll never forget the two big bloodhounds. As soon as their dead trainers had been loaded into the wagon the dogs began to cry their heads off. Those intelligent dogs simply would not be quiet until someone came over, unleashed them from the wagon wheel and lifted them up into the wagon to see again their dead trainers and to lick their cold hands. But the dogs would be satisfied only for a few minutes; then they would start wailing again.
After a short while, Mother and I went up to the battleground. We found abut 100 people there, still digging among the rocks of the thicket for the stolen money. I saw the last batch of money when it was found by my older brother, Herbert, who clawed it from under the big log in the thicket. "Look what I've found!" he yelled, holding up a blue bandanna, bulging and tied by the corners. A detective reached over and snatched the money away from him. The loot had been split five ways, all tied up in bandannas and buried on the spot where the robbers died. Only one dollar of the money was missing, and it was believed that the outlaws had spent it for apples along their route of flight.
When Mother and I returned to the mouth of Shanty Hollow, the crowd had thinned to a few and the wagon with the dead was gone. The unidentified Italians were taken to Williamson and all were buried in one large nameless grave.
The reward money? It was never paid to anyone. More than 50 claims were made to the Glen Alum Coal Company, each claimant stating that he had killed one or more of the robbers. Under such circumstances it would have been difficult for the coal company to pay a just reward. "I did not press my claim," George May told this writer. "I was happy to come out of that shooting scrape alive and to see that justice triumphed."
Only two years ago (1968) this writer, accompanied by his wife and oldest son, visited the old battleground in Shanty Hollow. The timber nearly all had been cut; the big log of the thicket was gone - probably burned up in a forest fire - and the big oak tree had long ago been cut and sawed by a lumberman who'd damaged his band saw so badly on the bullets in the tree that his mill was idle for a week. Only the bullet scarred rock remains in Shanty Hollow, the only monument left to the blood bath.
Although the site at the mouth of Shanty Hollow is an ideal location for a home, no person has ever built there. Even Shanty Hollow itself has lost its original name. Today the natives on Ben Creek refer to the place as THE TALLY HOLLOW (Tally - short for Italian)-- "There're ghosts in old Tally Hollow, " they say.