Category Archives: Uncategorized

Lengthiest murder trial in WV history begins

Posted by | January 28, 2016

When non-union miners in Mingo County, WV went on strike for the right to join the United Mine Workers in the spring of 1920, mine guards from the Baldwin-Felts detective agency evicted miners from their company-owned houses. After twelve Baldwin-Felts men arrived in Matewan, chief of police Sid Hatfield encouraged townspeople to arm themselves. The situation exploded into a gunfight in which seven detectives and four townspeople were killed, including Matewan’s mayor, Cable Testerman.

Matewan WVOne week after the shootings, Hatfield and Testerman’s widow, Jessie, were caught in a Huntington hotel and charged with “improper relations.” Having already bought a license, the couple was married upon their release from jail the next day.

The trial of Sid Hatfield and twenty-two other defendants for the murder of one of the detectives, Albert Felts, began on January 28, 1921. Some forty armed Baldwin-Felts agents lined the streets of Williamson that morning to influence the pro-union jury. At trial time, the affair with Mrs. Testerman speak well for Hatfield’s character.

Sid HatfieldBut the evidence failed to bring convictions against him and the other men accused of the killings in Matewan. The 20-some defendents were acquitted of the charges in what was the lengthiest murder trial in the state’s history.

Realizing the impossibility of gaining a conviction in southern West Virginia, Baldwin-Felts gunmen prevented Sid Hatfield from standing trial in an unrelated case in McDowell County later that year. A few months after the verdict, several Baldwin-Felts agents shot and killed Hatfield and another defendant, Ed Chambers, on the courthouse steps in Welch. This sparked an armed march on southern West Virginia by union miners, which ended with the Battle of Blair Mountain.

Again, despite numerous eyewitness accounts, accused murderers went free. Baldwin-Felts agents C. E. Lively, “Buster” Pence, and Bill Salter were acquitted of the Hatfield and Chambers murders on the grounds of self defense, although neither victim was armed.



Men used to bring their saddles into the church

Posted by | January 27, 2016

jan loveday dickensPlease welcome guest author Jan Loveday Dickens. Jan is an artist and educator who celebrates her Appalachian roots. Her interest in local history was first sparked by a high school English assignment to research her community’s past and culture back in the late 1970s when the Foxfire series was so popular.

Jan’s efforts expanded to genealogy, which she has pursued since that time, honing her research skills as she continued her education with a bachelor of fine arts degree and a master’s in teaching. She eventually began to share her adventures online via her Passed and Presence blog, which is “dedicated to the memory of those who have passed before us and to the presence of those who bless us today.”

Jan’s career at various colleges and universities that embrace their own Appalachian foundations provided her access to academic programs and lectures that spurred greater curiosity, insights, and reflection. Her experience includes involvement in promotion of the arts, revitalization of downtown areas, the preservation of historic places, and publication of various articles and books, such as a history of Milligan College. She more recently returned to the classroom in her hometown, where she teaches art and history and was the recipient of the 2014 award for Outstanding Teaching of the Humanities for Tennessee.


Everyone loves a mystery. Sometimes solving a history mystery is a serendipitous event!

This drawing of Mt. Harmony Baptist Church was based on Luther's description and drawn by his son, Dr. D. F. Johnson, retired University of Northern Colorado art professor.

This drawing of Mt. Harmony Baptist Church was based on Luther’s description and drawn by his son, Dr. D. F. Johnson, retired University of Northern Colorado art professor.

While researching my East Tennessee church’s past, I came across a couple of photocopied pages referencing titles of material that appeared to include information from the late 1800s about my church.

I did an online search for the mentioned author and the titles, only to find that no physical or digital copy I could get my hands on seemed to exist. The material was written by Luther Ray Johnson (1880-1960), who had grown up in my community.

He had then become a preacher as a young adult and moved to Kansas. The titles were referenced by his son, D. F., in a book of family history that alluded to larger collections of details about my community. But what and where were they?

I began by looking in the McClung Historical Collection of our Knox County public library system, but even the professionals there could not help me find the mysterious volumes. I also called libraries, archives, and historical societies in Kansas, to no avail.

When I finally found a Kansas phone listing for a D.F. Johnson, I was doing the math as I dialed the number, knowing the man I was looking for would be quite advanced in age. I called the number off and on for months, but I had no option to leave a message, and no one ever answered. When I eventually got a “discontinued service” alert, I was deflated, but I shifted my search to other names of people in Kansas who might be related. Please note the very common last name: Johnson!

Imagine my elation when I finally connected with the correct Dr. Johnson’s son! Yes, he told me his father was still living independently and was mentally sharp at the age of 94. With my subsequent phone call to Dr. Johnson began a friendship I treasure.

He was happy to hear from someone in his father’s beloved hill country, a place that had held a cherished mystique for the family because of his father’s often-told adventures there. He explained that the two referenced volumes of his father’s [copyrighted] memoirs were hardbound and on a shelf in his bookcase, but he was happy to share them with me.

The next thing I knew, he had entrusted them to me through the mail, and I was in temporary possession of more than 600 typewritten pages of wonderful stories that were often related to familiar families and places in my community! I was quite anxious until I could safely return them, but I first obtained his permission to have them copied for local collections.

His father’s words took me to a time in my area of Appalachia when basic education was a luxury, hard physical labor was the norm for country folks, and things like steamboats, bicycles, and trains held a novel allure. He also spoke of homemade rabbit traps, drafty log cabins, typical gardening techniques, challenging farm chores, quaint medicinal cures, and simple elements of faith, all included within stories of everyday experiences, complete with names and specific locations.

Luther Ray Johnson, the author of the memoirs.

Luther Ray Johnson, the author of the memoirs.

I live less than two miles from the farm where his family lived, so because of his stories I began to see my surrounding landscape through new eyes.

The river spot where two young boys were tempted by the majestic spray from a steamboat’s churning wheel that filled their boat and drowned them, is just behind my house.

The gravel pike on which Luther and his father drove their horse and wagon to take vegetables to the market is today a paved road I travel almost daily. The location of the ferry they used now has a bridge I have always taken for granted.

His tale of fearing an encounter with the “ghost mule” of his era’s folklore led me to a friend’s family farm, known only to the old-timers as Mule Hollow. Now we know why.

And what of the church where Luther and I have both been members? Though the oldest church records have only a few names and dates and are totally void of information for decades, Mr. Johnson’s memoirs are a treasure trove of details!

He writes, “The rural church in my early days was extremely democratic. Often the church building suffered for want of a housekeeper: someone to sweep its floor, dust its furniture, lock its door, ring its bell, make its fires, and look after things generally so that worship might be conducted ‘in decency and in order.’

“Since there was no person in charge of these duties, often the sanctuary was unpresentable on meeting days…. Men used to bring their saddles into the church and pile them down in the rear to prevent molestation by mischievous boys. One might go from the service to find a stirrup cut off from his saddle, or the saddle loosed and turned around on the horse, or the stirrups locked together under the horse.

He might even find a great gash cut in the saddle. Now and then there would be a theft of a good saddle. Sometimes the horse would be turned loose, and he would be found at home waiting to get into the stable. Or a man might go out to find the wheels of his buggy reversed or staggered; but of course he could not take the buggy into the church.”

He continues, “Boys sometimes stood at the church windows in summer and smoked cigarettes and purposely blew the smoke into the room to annoy the people. Boys would sit a while in church and then get up and go out to the disturbance of the services. They spat on the floor and walls of the building until there were ugly streaks and spots on the walls and sickening puddles on the floor. In the wet weather great clots of mud were carried in and scuffed off on the floor, and when these dried, they were crushed into dust making a terrible condition.

“Boys whittled on the pews, cut their names on the backs of the benches or whittled on sticks while the preacher delivered his message. Whittling and chewing tobacco was a common pastime even at church.

“This was not confined to the unregenerate youth, but even old men, maybe deacons, would engage in this dawdle as they sat on the rail fence waiting for Sunday school to be out and for the bell to ring for ‘church’ – whittling, chewing tobacco and telling jokes or talking generally about everything and everybody, maybe never referring to the church or its activity at all.

“Then when the big bell sounded its solemn tones, these men would click the blades of their knives, slowly come down from the fence, and saunter into the church for the preaching.” He even witnessed preachers who would rinse their mouths with water, spit on the floor in the presence of the people, preach for an hour, and return the following month without consequence!

As in many country churches, its door was never locked and sometimes it stood open during the week. Occasionally, youngsters would step in and ring the bell for fun, just to make the community wonder what was happening! In winter, logs were never ready for the stove and had to be fetched from the woods while the women sat and shivered.

Luther recounted an incident when two dogs fought for a spot near the stove during the service, until his father carried the main offender by the legs like a rabbit to the door and slung it out into the yard where it landed with a thud and a yelp! The other dog comfortably remained in his warm spot, the preacher continued his sermon despite lingering snickers, and a fellow (whom his father once had caused to be arrested for disturbing public worship) threatened to call the law. He said the event was talked about for years.

Swan Pond Creek runs lower left corner to upper right corner, past the Mt. Harmony Church, as shown in this 1895 map.

Swan Pond Creek runs lower left corner to upper right corner, past the Mt. Harmony Church, as shown in this 1895 map.


Another story told of the day a member was retrieved from the service by a neighbor, leaving the wife to ride home with friends in their wagon, only to find the two men grieving over the couple’s log home, which was in ashes. I realized that my parents had bought our farm from the same family’s descendants! I learned about the appearances, personalities, and habits of our early pastors, some for whom I had previously had only initials and a last name. His words also gave me an inside look at the aspects of regular services and revival meetings and led me to the swimming hole in the nearby creek, where baptisms were held.

It was a different time in our Appalachian community, and his memoirs helped to put flesh on the bones of our church’s portrait! What would we know about it if Luther hadn’t continued to love and long for the mountains he had left behind?

So… keep telling the stories. Collect them. Write them down. Celebrate them, for they are stepping stones to the past and a part of our own foundations!




We cannot believe Christ would use tobacco in any form

Posted by | January 26, 2016

“A discourse on The Use of Tobacco was delivered by evangelist M.S. Lemons and discussed by others. After due consideration this assembly agrees to stand, with one accord, in opposition to the use of tobacco in any form. It is offensive to those who do not use it; weakens and impairs the nervous system; is a near relative to drunkenness; bad influence and example to the young; useless expense, the money for which ought to be used to clothe the poor, spread the gospel or make the homes of our country more comfortable; and last we believe its use to be contrary to the teaching of Scripture, and as Christ is our example we cannot believe that He would use it in any form or under any circumstances.

19th century smokers“We further recommend and advise that the ministers and deacons of each church make special effort to use their influence against its use, deal tenderly and lovingly with those in the church who use it, but insist with an affectionate spirit that its use be discontinued as much as possible.

“We also advise the deacons to secure a report at the close of each year, of the number that have been induced to discontinue the habit and delivered from a desire for it, also the number that still continue its use, and carry such report to the general assembly.”

From the Minutes of Annual Assembly of the Churches of East Tennessee, North Georgia, and Western North Carolina, held January 26 & 27, 1906, at Camp Creek, N.C.

Source: Digital Library of Appalachia/Lee University : William G. Squires Library and Dixon Pentecostal Research Center



We shook hands with them all, including two held for murder

Posted by | January 25, 2016

“The administration of justice in the isolated areas still surprises the visitor with its differences from the ways of the town. Despite a few modern touches, a cuspidor or two missing, or the presence of some young lawyers fresh from the state university, a mountain trial is in spirit much the same as when I first visited the Cumberlands thirty years ago, and court was opened with an old fiddler’s contest. A court session is still the great event of the year.

“It is the informality, like so many other phases of mountain life, which instantly charms the visitor.

“I was in a mountain court one afternoon, sitting on the bench with the judge as he prepared to swear in the annual Grand Jury.

“The jurist turned to the tobacco-munching farmers arranged solemnly before him on a double row of chairs. ‘Before I swear you in, I want to ask you,’ he said. ‘Is there anybody sitting here that’s under indictment for anything? I don’t want nobody on my jury that’s under indictment.’

“There was a long silence. Than on the back row a lanky farmer arose, and shifted uneasily. ‘Guess they got me up in federal court over at Maysville for moonshining, Judge.’

The judge shook his head in regret. ‘You got to get off the Grand Jury, then, Jeff. I ain’t going to have nobody on my jury that’s under indictment.’

Appalachian County JudgeCounty Judge Boyd Boggs, 1942, Lawrence County, KY.

“One of the most popular figures in the hills today is known as Judge Honey, a philosopher always more concerned with the right and wrong of a case than with the harsh technicality of the law. Whoever it may be that appears before him for sentence, whether solemn old man or impudent young woman, the judge always addresses the prisoner as ‘honey.’

‘Honey, I hate to do this to you,’ he declares. ‘But I’ve got to sentence you to sixty days, honey.’ It seems to make the punishment easier to bear.

“A mountain jail has the same homey quality. The jailer has been a neighbor and often a friend of most of his charges; the usual grimness of a prison is altogether lacking. In one mountain town the county jailer, a most amiable soul, took my wife and myself on a tour, carefully introducing us to each of his forty-seven prisoners. We shook hands with them all, including two held for murder.

“So easygoing is the administration of justice, I have more than once heard a sheriff ask a mountaineer from some distant creek to inform a neighbor that he was under arrest and tell him to be sure to come to jail as soon as possible. And he could be certain the arrested man would obey, just as surely as if the sheriff went to his cabin and himself applied a pair of handcuffs.

“The mountaineer has great reverence for his own local authorities. He has none for laws made by people he has never seen in far-off Washington.”

Children of Noah: Glimpses of Unknown America

By Ben Lucien Burman
Publ. by Julian Messner, Inc. 1951


Sipping free whiskey and acting like they’re in hog heaven

Posted by | January 22, 2016

Daddy got caught the first time in about 1916 or ’17. The law was paying informers to tell on people. They put his bail bond at fifty dollars. That was on a Friday, and we didn’t have any money, so the next morning Mama gets me to hitch up the mule and we loaded up the wagon with what whiskey we had left. Back then, Saturday was the big trade day downtown and the streets would be so busy you could hardly walk.

“We tied the wagon in front of the courthouse and just sat there all day, selling whiskey. Everybody knew what Mama was doing, so a lot of people who didn’t even drink would stop and buy some. “For medicine,” they would say.

“On up in the morning a deputy came by and asked her what she thought she was doing.

“I’m gettin’ my man out of jail,” she replied. Back then no one messed with Mama. “Anything else you want to know?” she asked the deputy.

“No ma’am,” the deputy replied sheepishly, “but I reckon I’ll take a gallon if you got any left, my croup has been acting up lately.”

They got their dad out of jail that day, but he didn’t stay free long. When his trial came up, he was sentenced to 12 months on the county farm. “Pickin’ peas,” he called it.

“I was a pretty good size boy by then and with Daddy in jail it was up to me to run the business,” the younger Brasemore recalls. “Before he got caught, Daddy had hid the worm (copper condensation coil) and I got a neighbor to build me a pot.

“It wasn’t but just a couple of weeks ‘til I was back in business. When I run off my first batch they said the sheriff thought my father had escaped.”

“Nobody makes whiskey that good,” the sheriff said, “except for old man Brasemore!”

“I hadn’t forgotten about the cur dog that had informed on Daddy, though. Giles was his name. Him and the deputy that arrested Daddy were big drinking buddies. This deputy lived out next to Chase Nursery and every Sunday like clockwork, those two would pitch a big drunk.

“Some of my cousins helped me and we took this old worn-out still, it only had a ten-gallon pot, and we set it up out back of his house in a brush patch. First thing Sunday morning we loaded it with mash and started cooking. If you have ever been around a still, you know you can’t hide the smell, and sure enough, on up in the morning the deputy gets a strong whiff and decides to investigate.

“Well, here we are, me and my cousins are hiding in the brush, and the deputy and Giles are stretched out in front of the still sipping free whiskey and acting like they are in hog heaven.

“Next thing you know, there’s this big ruckus and when the deputy opened his eyes, there was the sheriff pointing this big pistol at him,” he relates.

“You and Giles are under arrest for making whiskey,” the sheriff said.

Seems as if someone had sent the sheriff a note.

“Like I said, while Daddy was in jail I was running the business. One of the first things I did, after I got a little ahead, was to buy me a truck. Daddy wouldn’t have nothing to do with automobiles, he had worked with a mule all of his life. Well I was bound and determined to impress him, so the day he was to get out I took the truck and loaded it down with as much whiskey as I could put on it. It hadn’t been picked up in a while and we had a sizable load.

“Daddy was sitting on the front porch when I pulled up…”

“Things didn’t work out the way I figured and the truck broke down a couple of miles from the house. I got the mule, hitched it to the truck and began to pull it on home.

“Daddy was sitting on the front porch when I pulled up in front of the house. He took a long look at that truck I had bought and then took an even longer look at his mule that was pulling it. Finally, after spitting out a long stream of tobacco juice, he asked me, ‘Well, what else can it do?’

“He never did like that truck. Every time I got stuck in mud or whatever, he was always there to tell me that with a mule it would not have happened.”

Excerpt from “Making Whiskey,” by Tom Carney, Old Huntsville Magazine, 1992; profile of moonshiner Jim Brasemore, Madison County, AL

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