Few records of the Glen Alum [WV] payroll robbery exist, but in 1959 the late O.H. Booton, retired ‘Daily News’ staff writer, wrote to Charlotte Sanders from Macon, Ga., recalling the August 1914 incident he covered in person. Booton spent 42 years as a newsman in Mingo County. Here is his story of the robbery:
After the passage of years and as I have no notes or other data I must rely entirely on memory to recount the details of one of Mingo County’s biggest crime stories. I was an on-the -spot reporter, probably the only one, and an entire page did not afford sufficient space for my story in my own newspaper (at that time), the ‘Mingo Republican.’
The Glen Alum payroll, from a Lynchburg, Va. bank, arrived as usual on Train No. 15 at Glen Alum station on the main line. There it was taken into custody by Dr. W. D. Amick, company physician, F. D. Johnson, bookkeeper, and Joseph Shielor, company electrician. They were to serve as guards on the trip by a gasoline-powered speeder over the spur of track from the Glen Alum depot to the coal company offices several miles up Glen Alum Creek.
The three men and the payroll, approximately $7,000, never reached their destination. At some point between the depot and the coal company offices, Dr. Amick and his companions encountered a barricade of logs or railroad ties on the spur track. When they stopped the speeder to clear the track their bodies were riddled with bullets. The bandits wantonly killed first and then seized the payroll.
By mid-afternoon, news of the atrocious crime reached the late Greenway Hatfield, then Mingo County sheriff and fearless nephew of the famous old mountaineer, “Devil Anse” Hatfield, over the N&W’s telegraph wire. Sheriff Hatfield quickly assembled his deputies and also called on private citizens to form a sizeable posse. They left for the scene on a special train provided by the N&W Railway, 45 minutes after word of the crime had reached Williamson.
Law officers of all kinds, Baldwin-Felts operatives, N&W special agents, town police and constables from Williamson to Bluefield joined in what was to become the biggest manhunt in local history.
Search for the bandits, which commenced Friday in the second week of August, was to come to a dramatic end Sunday morning. Naturally, the first conclusion was that the crime had been perpetrated by local talent.
Dawn of the second day revealed to Sheriff Hatfield and his men that the bandits had crossed the mountains to Ben Creek. There was plenty of “sign” near the home of Jim “Redbush” Hatfield. There were numerous footprints showing where the bandits descended a steep slope to land on the soft bank of Ben Creek. From this point the bandits made their way to the Cold Spring Fork of Ben Creek, a maneuver that had human witnesses.
The morning had dawned as usual for Sanford Hatfield, a well-known resident of the section. He and several companions were walking a path that followed the meanderings of the Cold Spring Fork when the bandits opened fire on them. Hatfield was quite painfully wounded but recovered. (Others with him were Ed Mounts, who was felled with a bullet through his right leg; Mitch Patrick; Alex Patrick and George May. An erroneous report said both Hatfield and Mounts were killed but time proved they had only been wounded).
With this incident, the posse, now numbering 50 or more, closed in and the bandits holed up, discontinuing further flight, probably because they were hopelessly lost. This stalemate endured until the forenoon of Sunday. This was the situation as revealed when the work of the posse was completed:
Covering the story from Williamson proved impossible because of the lack of contact with the posse and the many wild rumors that could not be verified. So on Sunday morning I boarded No. 4, the east bound through train. With me was a youthful Western Union telegraph operator attached to the Williamson office.
We got off at War Eagle where Joey Sipple, armed with a Winchester, guided us by a short cut to the Cold Spring Fork. The gun battle, maintained throughout Saturday night, was still in progress. The weapon of one of the bandits made a peculiar “zing” when discharged. Even a novice could distinguish it.
About mid-morning came the denouement. The park-like place studded with trees was well populated when the shouted order given by Sheriff Hatfield was misunderstood. The order was to charge the bandits’ stronghold but those in the park-like place thought it was a warning that “they are coming out.” Instantly there was panic and a wild stampede. Some 20 to 30 men, ordinarily courageous, dashed for the only escape route, the path along the creek bank, and they sought sanctuary in a schoolhouse several miles distant. I don’t know how it happened but it was not a matter of courage.
I guess I didn’t run because Joey Sipple didn’t. The young telegraph operator stayed because I did. We three were the sole occupants of the spot. The image of Joey Sipple has remained vividly with me to this day. I can still see him, eyes darting hither and yon, with all the acumen native to a mountaineer. His rifle was at the ready and I’m sure he could have beaten television’s “Rifleman” to the draw. Also, the trees were comforting. They were big enough to hide behind.
The order to charge was obeyed finally and the advancing law men discovered that the stronghold of the bandits was a fallen tree. They also discovered that the bandits were not natives, as had been suspected, but swarthy, almost black, undersized Italians. When the law men reached the lair of the bandits they found that only one of the five had survived the night. The bodies of all of them were riddled with bullets. Who killed the living bandit was never definitely established, nor were other facts about the brutal crime.
The bodies of the bandits were brought by train to Williamson and were “laid out” in pine coffins in the morgue of the late M.T. Ball, a pioneer mortician. Thousands of curious persons viewed the bodies.
The final death toll stood at 11 – Dr. Amick, Johnson and Shielor, who were ambushed as they took the payroll to the mine; the five bandits; William Burwell, Squire Belcher and Landon Tiller, members of the posse. Burwell and Belcher had been killed almost directly down the mountain side from the robbers’ ambush. Tiller was shot through the neck as he sat on the ground with his back against a tree, resting while working his way around to a point where he would be above the bandits. Tiller, owner of some bloodhounds, contracted fatal pneumonia from his wound.
I didn’t stay for a count of the recaptured payroll. It was all there except one $20 bill, presumably lost. The loot had been divided by the bandits. Sheriff Hatfield’s posse can be described as fluid. Some left Williamson with him and remained to the end. Two of these originals were Col. A.A.”Tony” Gaujot and William “Red Bill” Damron.
Others were Wallace Chafin, chief deputy under Sheriff Hatfield; John B. Maynard, then a Matewan resident and a constable; Rush Slater, Hatfield’s chief field deputy, who was in charge of the posse that finally hemmed in the bandits, and others. Col. Gaujot threw a charge of dynamite into the robber’s nest in an effort to dislodge them.
The quintet of swarthy, undersized bandits could not have been long away from their native country. It is doubtful if any could speak English. Behind the plot was some master mind, somebody who knew the payroll would arrive on a day certain and on a particular train. In underworld parlance the job was “cased.”
Either overlooked by the master mind or disobedience of orders or confusion by the quintet was the get-away. If there was a plan it went awry. The bandits chose the route that offered the least chance of escape or perchance they were force into it by unforeseen circumstances. Remaining in the mountains and crossing them creek to creek was time consuming and their progress was slow.
There may have been time before discovery of the crime for them to have reached Glen Alum station and the main line of the N&W. Holing up behind the fallen tree was another mistake. Had they kept on and crossed the mountains they would have been on Gilbert Creek with easy access to the Guyan River.
In the months that followed, efforts were made to identify the bandits. Coal company officials did not want other incidents of the kind. An investigation conducted by a well known detective agency was fruitless. At least it was so reported.