When Frank Keeney was on trial in Morgan County
Frank Keeney expected to be tried for murder in Jefferson County, not Morgan County, but the climate turned against him there.
Keeney, the president of the United Mine Workers of West Virginia, was indicted for the murder of a sheriff’s deputy, treason and conspiracy in connection with the Battle of Blair Mountain in late August and early September, 1921.
Also charged with assorted crimes were other union officials and hundreds of miners who’d taken part in a march to Blair Mountain and a shooting battle with Logan County deputies, mine guards and federal troops that were called in to halt the violence.
Keeney’s trial was moved far from the Logan coal fields to Charles Town in search of an impartial jury in April, 1922.
The wheels of justice ground slowly. The trial hadn’t really gotten under way when Circuit Judge John Marshall Woods decided the Jefferson County jury pool had been poisoned.
Union attorneys believed several Jefferson County preachers were paid to sway their congregations to the mine owners’ side, according to Bloodletting in Appalachia by Howard Lee, West Virginia attorney general from 1925 to 1933.
Trial moved here
Keeney’s lawyers asked Judge Woods to move the trial to Morgan County, the other county in his jurisdiction. In late November, 1922, the judge agreed.
Morgan Messenger editor S.S. Buzzerd promised in an editorial: “Morgan County is able to administer justice without prejudice stirred up by outside interests and there is no doubt that Mr. Keeney will receive a fair and impartial trial.”
The Charleston Gazette reported that few Morgan Countians knew the details of the 1920-21 coal war and would be fair jurors.
Aside from basic news reports about the Battle of Blair Mountain, The Morgan Messenger reprinted several editorial opinions from around the country, many of them critical of southern West Virginia politics and the mine owners.
One of these was from New York Globe which suggested the miners were simply rebelling against coal bosses who were “the law in many regions.”
This was a reference to Sheriff Don Chafin and his Logan County deputy force, which was largely funded by mine owners.
The News of Berkeley Springs, edited by N.S. D. Pendleton, walked a tighter line, possibly because Pendleton, like Chafin and many of the southern West Virginia officials, was a loyal Democrat.
There was truth in a Buffalo News editorial that said: “State government is on trial with the miners.”
An explosive block
In December, 1923, the attorneys met with Judge Woods and Circuit Clerk W. H. Webster at the Morgan County Courthouse to work out the local details. Six weeks of testimony were expected, with nearly 200 witnesses and hundreds of out-of-town press and observers.
Keeney, his lawyers and 50 miners moved into the Dunn Hotel, which stood at the corner of Fairfax and Mercer streets, where the Sheriff’s Department is today.
The prosecution and mine owners stayed down the block at the Washington Hotel, where BB&T Bank stands today.
The courtroom was packed when Frank Keeney was arraigned on February 19, 1923.
On the bench was Judge Woods, a tall well-built many in his fifties. Lewis Buzzerd, son of S.S. and later Messenger editor, described Woods as “well versed in the law and well qualified.”
Chief defense attorney was Thomas Townsend of Charleston. He was assisted by union counsel Harold Houston and lawyers from Charles Town and Martinsburg.
The defense was partly funded by the national United Mine Workers, though president John L. Lewis was angry with Keeney and the West Virginians for acting on their own during the mine wars.
Prosecutors were C. W. Osenton and A.M. Belcher, dubbed the “Coal Dust Twins” because they were coal company lawyers. Their local assistant was J. Hammond Siler, whose office was across Washington Street from the courthouse, where William Harmison’s law office is today.
The jury, drawn mostly from a panel of county farmers, was to live on the third floor of the Berkeley Springs Opera House, across Fairfax Street from today’s Sheriff’s Department.
So, coal bosses, coal miners, attorneys for both sides, jurors and the courthouse itself were all within a block of each other. For the next two months, Berkeley Springs would be a strange place.
No sooner had Keeney been arraigned in February than Mrs. Warren Harding came to town to take the water for her kidney troubles. She was a living reminder that President Harding had sent federal troops against the miners at Blair Mountain.
In early March, a main prosecution witness was arrested at the Washington Hotel for bigamy. State and national newspapers had been reporting on the trial and the pleasant atmosphere of Berkeley Springs, so his wife (or wives) had no trouble finding him.
In the midst of it all, wages at both the sand mine and the local knitting mill were increased.
Buzzerd vs. Chafin
If all this wasn’t odd enough, Messenger editor S.S. Buzzerd began a fierce editorial campaign against Don Chafin, the 36-year-old Logan County sheriff, the man the miners had fought to overthrow.
Right beside a report of Keeney’s first day in court, The Messenger ran a resolution from the Knights of Pythias condemning Chafin for refusing to allow an official of the fraternal order to speak in Logan County.
Buzzerd himself presided when the Berkeley Springs lodge passed the resolution.
Never pro-union, Buzzerd nonetheless had learned enough about Chafin’s police state that he could sympathize with the miners’ complaints. Probably didn’t hurt that the miners’ headquarters at the Dunn Hotel was just across Mercer Street from The Messenger office so Buzzerd no doubt rubbed shoulders with the men daily.
Chafin, it turned out, had strong-armed more than one Knights of Pythias member. In a publicized incident, his deputies beat lodge official J. L. Heiser for refusing to answer questions during a visit to Logan. Heiser also happened to be chief clerk in the State Department of Mines.
Then, too, Chafin was known to have jailed Republican poll workers on Election Day. He’d been investigated by both the governor’s office and the U.S. Senate and was found to have a net worth of $350,000 in 1921, though he had never earned more than $3,500 a year.
Chafin typically labeled his enemies as “rednecks” and Bolsheviks, just he had the miners.
Pendleton and The News kept pretty mum about Chafin’s character, but Buzzerd kept up his attacks week after week in The Messenger.
It’s hard to second guess 88 years later, but the 54-year-old Buzzerd obviously couldn’t abide a dictator like Chafin, even if he didn’t really endorse the miners’ revolt.
How it ended
As all this rattled on, the trial bogged down in legal maneuvers. Each side claimed the other was muscling witnesses. Defense attorneys made motion after motion for dismissal.
Keeney probably could have mounted a reasonable defense. More than once, he’d tried to stop miner’s marches and he wasn’t even at Blair Mountain when the deputies were killed during shooting exchanges.
In late April, 1923, Judge Woods ordered the Keeney Trial moved again, this time to Greenbrier County, another non-coal community.
In June, the judge dismissed the case altogether. Over the next two years, nearly every case against the miners was dropped and pardons were issued for those who’d been convicted.
Before long, Sheriff Don Chafin was indicted for running a moonshine ring and was sentenced to two years in prison and fined $10,000. After losing power in Logan County, he moved to a penthouse atop a Huntington bank. He left an estate worth more than $1 million when he died in 1954.
Frank Keeney and most of the District 17 union leaders were pushed out of office by John L. Lewis, who continued as national United Mine Workers head for decades. Lewis sometimes came to Berkeley Springs to meet Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt.
S.S. Buzzerd was editor of The Morgan Messenger, the newspaper he founded in 1893, until his death at age 90 in 1959. In the 1930s, he bought The News, the paper once edited by N.S.D. Pendleton.
Logan County mines were unionized in 1935 after U.S. Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act.