Please welcome guest blogger Ron Dees, author of the Wythe Notes blog. “After 35 years of beating my head against the brick wall that is Washington, DC, as a lobbyist turned chef,” says Ron, “I dragged the long-suffering Anne to the wilds of Appalachia. Wythe Notes is my attempt to get in touch with my ‘Inner Wytheness.’”
On the evening of Sunday, March 20, 1927, Robert Chapman “Chap” Osborne, a prohibition officer for the Tazewell County Sheriff’s Office, pulled over a vehicle suspected of transporting illegal alcohol near the town of Richlands, VA. The 46 year-old Tazewell native had been a county prohibition officer for 5 years.
As a young man, Osborne worked at the Iron Furnace in Big Stone Gap, in Wise County, VA, where he had lived for the last 12 years. According to the Southwest Journal newspaper, in November 1907 Osborne was involved in an argument with two brothers, Ike and Jim Belcher, who claimed Osborne was purposefully breaking off iron bars too fast for them to load.
The heated exchange of words escalated and the Belchers attacked Osborne. The fight was quickly broken up by other workmen. Hearing of the fight, Prentiss Belcher, Ike and Jim’s brother and Osborne’s uncle by marriage, ran to the scene holding an iron bar in his hand. Seeing that fight was over, Prentiss stuck the bar in the ground and stood by.
At this time, Marshal Belcher, Osborne’s father-in-law and the older brother of the other Belchers, arrived at the scene. Marshall Belcher was the police officer at the Furnace. He ordered Ike and Jim and Osborne to appear at the Mayor’s office at 3 o’clock that afternoon to answer to the charge of fighting. Osborne requested that Prentiss Belcher also be charged for threatening him with the iron bar.
Prentiss Belcher shouted, “If I have to go, I’ll go for something!”
At this point, witnesses stated that Belcher advanced towards Osborne with his hand in his pocket. Though Marshal Belcher stood between the two men, Chap Osborne pulled a .41 caliber derringer from his pocket and shot Prentiss Belcher in the upper right breast, killing him almost instantly. A search of Prentiss Belcher’s body failed to find a weapon.
Osborne was arrested and taken to jail. The next day, he was given a preliminary trial by the Mayor and Squire A.M. Lee. He was bound over to the Grand Jury and taken to the county jail in Wise. Little is known of what followed, other than that Osborne apparently was not charged by the Grand Jury. He returned to work at the Furnace, where he later lost an arm in an accident. By 1908, Osborne was working in law enforcement. In 1922, he joined the Tazewell County Sheriff’s Office as the prohibition officer.
In 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment and its enabling statute, the National Prohibition Act, was passed. Popularly known as the Volsted Act after Rep. Andrew Volsted, who introduced the legislation and shepherded its passage, it prohibited the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors in the United States. Volsted, the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, was not the author of the bill itself. It was conceived and written by Wayne Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon League.
1919 was a turbulent year in America. Fighting in World War I, “the War to End All Wars,” had just concluded the previous November. The formal end did not take place until June 28, 1919, with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. 2.8 million men had been drafted to serve in the war, though not that many saw actual conflict.
Nevertheless, the doughboys returned home to a country torn by numerous race riots, labor unrest, widespread strikes, including the infamous Boston Police Strike, and a sex scandal that rocked the Navy and led to a rebuke of then Assistant Naval Secretary and future president Franklin Roosevelt by Congress.
Demobilization and the lifting of war time price controls led to inflation, high unemployment, and fierce competition for what few jobs existed. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia further inflamed the national hysteria with fears of a Red takeover in the States. Racial hostilities were such that by the middle of September, 47 black men had been lynched and six had been burned alive. For the first time ever, blacks banded together and started fighting back.
It was in this environment that groups like the Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union were able to force the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment. They were able to persuade Congress that alcohol was the fuel that fed the flames of unrest.
By the mid-1920s, the criminal gangs that began during Prohibition were entrenching themselves in the major cities of the East and Midwest. Al Capone and Bugs Moran were duking it out for control of Chicago. In New York, Owney “The Killer” Madden used bootlegging profits to open the famous Cotton Club, a whites-only establishment that featured black acts. Madden later managed the boxing careers of world champions Primo Carnera and Max Baer.
In Southwest Virginia and other parts of Appalachia, the moonshine industry fairly exploded. Since 1870, when President Rutherford B. Hayes attempted to impose a federal tax on whiskey, an ongoing war had existed between Federal, state, and local law enforcement and the independent mountaineers who produced the illicit distillation. Gunfights between the two groups were fairly common.
Chap Osborne had a reputation as a tough lawman who was known to shoot first and ask questions later. On that Sunday evening in 1927, the one-armed deputy approached the vehicle he had just stopped with his gun drawn. Shots rang out from the suspects, and Osborne died from a single gunshot wound to the head. A suspect was later arrested, but ironically, just as Osborne had been 20 years earlier, he was found not guilty.
On Saturday, May 13, 2006, in a candlelight vigil, the name ROBERT CHAPMAN OSBORNE was added to the Officer Down Memorial Wall at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, DC.