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(A copyrighted publication of West Virginia Archives and History)

Volume 50 A Temptation to Lawlessness:
Peonage in West Virginia, 1903-1908

By Kenneth R. Bailey

Volume 50 (1991), pp. 25-45

In the years following the Civil War, the United States entered into a period of great expansion and development. The development of the country depended primarily on attracting sufficient workers to fill the thousands of new jobs in the West and in the East as demands were made for increased production of food, rails and engines for the railroads and a myriad of other items. To meet the increased demand for labor, the United States welcomed millions of new settlers from abroad.

Although it is an eastern state, West Virginia did not receive many of the immigrants coming to the United States prior to and immediately after the Civil War. In 1864, the West Virginia legislature authorized appointment of an immigration commissioner to attract settlers. The first immigrants sought were to be farmers in the state's eastern and central highlands, where conditions were suitable to agriculture. Later, the immigration authorities turned their attention to finding laborers for the newly developing lumber and mining industries.

In order to attract laborers to West Virginia the state government encouraged the immigration commissioner to advertise in the port cities of New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia. In addition, individual companies frequently contracted with "labor agents" who promised to deliver workers from the port cities to West Virginia for a pre-agreed price per worker. Southern blacks were also attracted to the state by labor agents employed by rail and coal companies.1

Both the labor agents in the eastern port cities and those sent to the South painted the advantages of working and living in West Virginia in glowing terms.2 Compared to other industrial areas, working and living conditions for most blacks and immigrants drawn to the state were, in fact, not bad. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, all industrial workers in the United States labored long and hard. Hours of labor and wages for coal miners and railroad workers in West Virginia were not greatly different from those of workers in other industries. A major difference in working conditions was the danger associated with coal mining and the vast number of roof falls and explosions that maimed and killed miners.3

A number of blacks, escaping the slavery and discrimination of the South, and European immigrants, fleeing feudal serfdom and political impotence, encountered similar conditions in southern West Virginia. These contract laborers were sometimes forced into "peonage."

While the term "slavery" evokes connotations familiar to practically everyone, "peonage" is more difficult to conceptualize.4 Federal District Judge Benjamin F. Keller, in instructing a grand jury, defined it as "a status or condition of compulsory service, based upon the indebtedness of the peon to the master. The basal face is indebtedness." The judge also informed the jury that to indict anyone on a charge of peonage, force must have been used to enter an individual into a state of peonage or to return an individual to such a state if he or she had escaped from it.5

The definition of peonage bedeviled judges in several states and the absence of a common meaning made it difficult to indict individuals for violating the federal antiÄpeonage statute. Assistant Attorney General Charles W. Russell suggested to Attorney General Charles J. Bonaparte that the term "peonage" be dropped, since some defenders believed the statute did not forbid holding an individual to work off a debt, but only forbade "technical legal slavery, chattel slavery, established by or dependent upon law. . . ."6

Regardless of the definition and legal problems in indicting and prosecuting individuals under the antiÄpeonage statutes of the United States, holding an individual against his/her will until a debt could be repaid by labor was fairly widespread in West Virginia in the early 1900s. Pete Daniels in his study of peonage as it applied to blacks in the South found that "though thousands of immigrants fell prey to peonage, immigrant peonage apparently lasted only several years and was not typical of the practice." Instead, "blacks bore the major burden of Southern peonage. . . ."7 Undoubtedly, Daniels was correct in assuming that blacks, by their sheer numbers, continued economic dependence on white planters, Jim Crow laws, and recent escape from de jure slavery would suffer the most from economic conditions that could thrust them into peonage. However, West Virginia's experience with peonage indicates that it was neither shortÄlived nor exclusive to blacks. Reports of peonage in West Virginia can be found as early as l891 and as late as World War I. Some of the reports are difficult, if not impossible to substantiate, while others resulted in federal indictments and trials.

In West Virginia and many other states, the indebtedness which led to a state of peonage for immigrants and blacks began when labor contractors, acting for companies or on their own behalf, advanced transportation costs to prospective workers.8 This advance, known as bringing the men "on transportation," was frequently the first in a series of "advances" the men received. Food, clothing and tools were provided to the workers on their arrival at the work sites, and credits for the cost of these items were entered in books at the company store or commissary.

It is not known when peonage first occurred in West Virginia. However, on March 11, 1891, the AustroÄHungarian Consul at Richmond, Virginia, wrote to Governor A. B. Fleming that he had been sent newspaper clippings from New York papers alleging that Bohemians were being held against their will at Purcell's Camp, a railroad construction camp near Elkhorn, McDowell County, and that the story had been brought out of West Virginia by two men who had escaped. An investigation ordered by the governor failed to substantiate the charges. In 1894, Governor William A. MacCorkle was asked to investigate the living conditions of some three hundred fifty Italians who had gone to work in Randolph County. An investigation into this incident also failed to show that the men had been held in peonage.9

Although alleged to have existed prior to 1903, substantial proof of peonage was delayed until an investigation into conditions in West Virginia by the Society for the Protection of Italian Immigrants. The primary investigator for the society was Gino C. Speranza, a bilingual New York attorney. Speranza's trip to West Virginia, in April and May 1903, was prompted by a large number of complaints from Italian laborers to the society alleging "maltreatment" at the hands of companies developing the state's lumber and coal resources.10 Governor A. B. White had received similar complaints and before Speranza's visit, ordered the State Commissioner of Labor, Isaac V. Barton, to investigate charges of cruelty and unlawful detention at Kayford, Kanawha County. The latter charges were made by the Italian and German consuls at Cincinnati and the law firm of Berry and Minor of Washington, D.C., representing the Swiss legation.11

On February 26 Commissioner Barton went to Kayford to conduct the investigation. Barton reported to the Governor that the "responsibility for the misunderstanding" lay with the labor agent, J. Herz, who had recruited the laborers. According to Barton, the B. V. Boxley Company had contracted with Herz to provide laborers at two dollars each upon arrival at the camp. In his zeal, Herz misrepresented conditions in West Virginia and failed to inform the men of the hard labor they would have to perform. Upon arrival some men were ill and unprepared for work, and wanted to leave. However, the company had already provided for their transportation and advanced them bedding and food on credit. According to Barton the trouble began when some men wanted to leave "and giving notice of this fact they were told they could not go until they had worked out their indebtedness to the company." When the men tried to leave with their possessions, the Boxley Company used force to detain them until they worked off their debt. "In this they found they had made a mistake and afterward released them."12

Barton, after ascertaining what he believed to be the facts in the forced detention of the workers, continued to examine the camp. His investigation revealed the charges of cruelty and neglect were unwarranted. The men's quarters were warm and dry and no one forced to work when ill. When any of the men became ill, they were cared for by Dr. C. L. Hopkins of Kayford. Barton concluded that the Boxleys were unjustly accused of ill-treating the men. Although they claimed Virginia as home, the Boxleys had worked in West Virginia for twenty-three years and this was the first complaint against them. He concluded they should be exonerated of the charges.13

Barton's report is somewhat questionable when compared to Speranza's later report and when one considers the Governor's decision to send Barton to investigate may have been partly stimulated by reports that Italian immigrants had been held in peonage at another camp run by the Boxleys. In early February, the Charleston Daily Mail reported the Italian consul in New York had written to Governor White that immigrants were being held at Acme on Cabin Creek, not far from Kayford.14

After a few weeks at work, some men wished to return to New York and asked that the promised transportation be provided. The contractors, it was alleged, ignored their requests and used armed guards to force the men, both sick and well, to work. The men smuggled a letter out of camp to the Italian consul in New York. The consul wrote to Governor White, who asked Kanawha County Prosecuting Attorney Samuel B. Avis to investigate the conditions at the camp.15

Avis sent County Detective Howard C. Smith, Constable George T. Grass and an interpreter to investigate the charges. According to the newspaper, Boxley told Smith that conditions were not bad at the camp, but he did admit to "bluffing" the Italians by putting guards over them. He claimed he had paid their way from New York and "wanted them to work sufficient to reciprocate this indebtedness." Smith found conditions as alleged by the Italians. He discovered sufficient evidence of mistreatment to arrest four guards for assault and ordered the Boxley brothers to appear before Justice of the Peace Joel Cottrell on February 18 to answer to a charge of detaining laborers against their will.16 Compared to the conditions reported by Smith and Grass, Barton's report appears to gloss over the facts. When brought into comparison with the later report compiled by Speranza and his assistant, it becomes even more suspect.

Speranza took affidavits from Italian workers at Kayford who claimed mistreatment at the hands of guards hired by the Boxleys. He went to Charleston to see Governor White. On May 7, 1903, White acknowledged Speranza's request for an appointment, and saw him the next day.17

Speranza related to White all that he and his assistant had found at Kayford. According to Speranza, White stated "that the conviction of those responsible for such unlawful acts is practically impossible by the local authorities."18 While Labor Commissioner Barton was willing to lay the blame for the incidents at Kayford on the labor contractor, White placed equal blame on the local authorities for not prosecuting those who committed acts of violence against the laborers. In a later letter to Speranza, White lamented the inability of state authorities to force county and local officials to perform their duties.19

Even though he had received little help from Governor White, Speranza decided to investigate additional allegations of peonage in Raleigh County. The conditions there were worse than those he had found at Kayford. A group of Italian laborers brought to Raleigh County in 1903 to work on a railroad project had become dissatisfied with their work and pay and attempted to leave. They made their way to Beckley, where their employer, a man named Harmon, charged them with violation of the "Boarding House Law." TwentyÄthree of the men were arrested for violating the law and locked overnight in the Grand Jury room at the Raleigh County Courthouse. The next morning, Harmon appeared at the courthouse and, when the men refused to return voluntarily to his camp, proceeded to tie six together with ropes. He marched them out into the street and upon their refusal to go willingly, he tied them to his mule to pull them out of town. Even though policemen were present, no one helped the men until the justice of the peace appeared and cut them loose.20

The justice of the peace attempted to convince the men to return with Harmon to his camp to work out the cost of their board and transportation. He took no action against the contractor. The prosecuting attorney, whose office, according to Speranza, was only fifty feet from the spot where this incident took place, failed to place charges against the contractor. He promised to "submit this small matter to the next Grand Jury," only after evidence was submitted by Speranza and the society several months later, and then failed to do so.21 Following his return to Charleston, Speranza once again wrote Governor White asking for assistance in rectifying the crimes committed against the Italians in Kanawha and Raleigh counties. He also wrote to the state Attorney General for information on the "Boarding House Law." Governor White, responding to Speranza on May 18, reiterated his earlier contention that the state was helpless in forcing the local authorities to perform their duty and indicting those accused of wrongdoing. He also pointed out that he was unaware of any law under which Harmon could be arrested and prosecuted, as Speranza requested.22

West Virginia Attorney General Romeo H. Freer, replying to Speranza on the same date, supported Governor White's contention that he was powerless to intervene in the peonage charges. He explained the "Boarding House Law" as found in Chapter 145, Section 32 of the 1899 Code of West Virginia. The law permitted the owner or keeper of a boarding house to obtain a criminal warrant for the arrest of a person who

". . . shall at any hotel, inn, eating, lodging or boarding house or restaurant, receive, or cause to be furnished, any food or accommodation, with intent to defraud the owner, or keeper of such place, or any person who shall obtain credit at any of these places by the use of any false pretences, or device, . . . shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor and fined not less than twentyÄfive dollars nor more than one hundred dollars, and at the discretion of the Court or Justice trying the case, be confined in the county jail not less than ten nor more than thirty days."23

Freer explained that original jurisdiction for the crimes alleged to have been committed against the Italian immigrants rested with the justices of the peace and the circuit courts. If local officers failed to perform their duties, then the appropriate agencies would have to impeach and remove them from office. The county court had jurisdiction over the actions of each justice, and the circuit court had authority to remove prosecuting attorneys from office. To bolster his opinion, Freer cited Article 9, Section 4 of the Constitution of West Virginia and Article 4, Section 6 and Chapter 7, Section 7 of the Code of West Virginia.24

Speranza accepted the rebuffs from Governor White and Attorney General Freer, and did not castigate the West Virginia state officials or the state in general. Instead, his report on his visit to the state tended to exonerate the state officials for their inability to resolve legally the situation and justified some of the actions against the immigrants.

"It is a reasonable presumption that no employer of labor seeks to make his men dissatisfied. Irrespective of sentimental considerations, but as a purely business proposition, a malcontent makes a poor worker. It is a fair presumption, therefore, that contractors in West Virginia do not wish to make a specialty of abusing their men; but the scarce supply and the necessity of finishing time work, as also the quality of some of the men dumped into the State, have driven some of them to methods which, if known, could not have the support of public sentiment."25

Speranza attributed the "temptation to lawlessness" to the physical terrain of the state. The remote location of many of the camps tempted operators to disregard any law but their own. Speranza was most critical of the labor contractors who preyed on their fellow countrymen by misrepresenting the facts about laboring in West Virginia.26

Speranza also whitewashed the report submitted by Labor Commissioner Barton to the Governor. He wrote that while Governor White was trying to help matters by sending Barton to investigate conditions at Kayford and Acme, the investigation was not valid because Barton took no interpreters with him. Barton's findings, according to Speranza, were inaccurate because he was in the hands of an incompetent interpreter.27

It is difficult to determine White's true feelings about the crimes which he admitted were being committed in Raleigh and Kanawha counties. He convinced Speranza that he was powerless to do more. He compared his efforts to prevent peonage to similar actions against lynching. He had asked the state legislature to grant him extraordinary powers to deal with lynchings, since local authorities seemed unable to prevent them. His efforts were ignored by the 1901 and 1903 legislatures. In nearly all his correspondence relating to the peonage cases, White lamented his inability to take control of the local situations. He wrote to all county prosecuting attorneys in August 1903, urging them to take steps to prevent abuses of labor. His letter, however, was extremely mild, expressing regret that persons from outside the state were required to urge prosecution of law breakers. He justified his request on the diminishing labor supply, which he blamed on reports of bad conditions in the state.28

The official state position on peonage cannot be determined from White's statements, Freer's lack of assistance, and Speranza's positive attitude toward the governor. A review of later incidents of peonage and the court cases they generated is more revealing.

In 1907 the issue if peonage resurfaced in West Virginia. Governor William M. O. Dawson was informed by Secretary of State Elihu Root that reports of peonage had been received by the Italian ambassador in Washington, D.C. Dawson immediately employed Kanawha County Detective Howard Smith to investigate. Smith, accompanied by Deputy United States Marshal Dan Cunningham and an interpreter, went to Raleigh County, investigated the charges, and made a full report to the governor.29

According to the investigation, the Raleigh Lumber Company employed twentyÄsix men and a boy from Sparte, Frank and Company, New York City labor contractors, to work on a railroad project. The company's contract showed the men had agreed to work at one rate of pay, while the men claimed they had been promised another. According to Smith, the men may have been misled by the labor contractor, since many of them did not speak English and all were illiterate. When the workers became dissatisfied with their pay and tried to leave, they were arrested on a warrant issued by a justice of the peace in Raleigh County. The warrant charged them with intent to defraud the lumber company for the amount of their transportation. Five men were able to pay the twelve dollar transportation cost claimed by the company, and they and the boy were released. The others were returned to the lumber camp and given funds by the company to send messages to friends and relatives for money to return to New York. They failed to obtain the money and went back to work voluntarily.30

When Smith and Cunningham arrived in Raleigh County on January 3, 1907, the Italians learned the purpose of their investigation. They immediately quit work and announced their intent to leave. After consulting with the governor, Smith took the laborers to Charleston where they were examined by a physician, and given minor treatment. The Italian embassy sent a representative who arranged the men's return to New York and New Jersey on January 7.31

In his investigation Smith concluded that the lumber company acted in good faith to obtain the money it had advanced to the workers. He noted the facilities for housing the men were reasonable and adequate and the commissary was "stocked with provisions suitable for Italian laborers and the same that is usually furnished." He further concluded the lumber company informed the laborers they had to repay the cost of transportation by working off the debt.32

Meanwhile, Governor Dawson received a complaint of alleged peonage in Wyoming County. Dan Cunningham was detached from the investigation in Raleigh County to look into the matter. Cunningham found the William Ritter Lumber Company imported workers to build an extensive lumber yard in Wyoming County. The men, secured from Bureau Number 7 of the Southern Immigration Labor Company of New York City, had arrived in Wyoming County on December 1, 1906. The laborers consisted of a mix of nationalities and races and were known only by numbers, not by names.33

Cunningham thoroughly investigated the charges against the company. He learned one of the workers tried to escape, was captured, beaten, and returned to the camp at Estell, Wyoming County, by railroad detective Elias Hatfield. He concluded the company had forcibly detained and "compelled" the men to work until they repaid the cost of their transportation.34

Governor Dawson summarized the findings of the investigations in Raleigh and Wyoming counties in a special report to the 1907 legislature. He first lamented the state of lawlessness in West Virginia, noting he had previously decried it and asserted "one of the most dangerous evils of the day is the nonÄenforcement of the laws, and the consequent disregard of and contempt for law." He failed, however, to make serious suggestions for improving the situation and, instead, made known his enthnocentric and nativist sentiments. He examined the state's great need for labor but criticized the labor agencies that provided workers. He thought this recruitment system produced "an undesirable class of labor."

"These laborers are of different nationalities; unable to speak our language and unable to protect themselves; many are brutal and vicious; and, their manhood and spirit crushed by centuries of oppression in the foreign lands, they confuse liberty with license. But they are human beings. Our duty, the instincts of humanity, justice, our own safety as a people, and our good name, all demand they be treated justly, and that if the law has been violated that the offenders be adequately punished, and if there be need of further legislation it be promptly furnished."35

Dawson quoted a coal operator's letter suggesting the state of West Virginia should offer "inducements" to "suitable" immigrants from the British Isles, Sweden, Norway, and Poland to counterbalance the number of Italian immigrants. Dawson told the legislature that the man's letter deserved consideration. He pointed out that the state had no immigration bureau and hence no means to "bring about the betterment desired." Dawson's message concluded with a request for general improvements in the mines, better safety, wages, control of mine guards, and other matters, none of which addressed the issue of peonage.36

The legislature ignored Dawson's recommendations with the exception of recreating the Bureau of Immigration.37 However, the publicity about the allegations of peonage caught the attention of federal authorities who had recently begun prosecuting peonage cases in the South. "Presumably, the federal government, during the latter part of the nineteenth century, had by indifference, permitted peonage to develop. State laws had the effect of encouraging the evil practice and in some cases official connivance effected a condition of peonage."38 The federal government's interest in prosecuting companies and individuals for violating the federal statutes on peonage evolved slowly. The first prosecutions were geared primarily toward those who held blacks in peonage in the South. Cases involving immigrants occurred more frequently after 1906.39

Allegations of peonage in West Virginia, on the other hand, had almost always involved immigrants. Allegations made in 1891 and 1894 claimed that Bohemians in the first instance, and Italians in the second, were being held against their will. The 1903 incident involving Italians was investigated more thoroughly than these, but still failed to result in state or federal indictments or prosecution of any peonage cases. State and local authorities did not take positive action against peonage again until 1907.

The written statements of Governor Dawson, coal operators, and editorials in the local papers shed some light on the continued failure to protect workers brought into the state. The writings show a definite ethnic bias against immigrants from eastern and southern Europe. Writers frequently lamented the "poor class" of workers recruited from the "slums and dives" of New York and blamed them for the labor problems encountered by railroad, lumber, and coal companies.40 An article in the Raleigh Herald on August 1, 1907 stated:

"By substituting Welsh, German or Scotch for the Italians in the mines and forests of West Virginia, Mr. Paul [the West Virginia Chief Mine Inspector] thinks that the final solving of the impending problem will be effected through the fact that these people will locate in West Virginia, and by spending the money they earn here add to the development of the State and make the future of its citizenship secure."41

Unlike the situation in 1903 when Speranza visited West Virginia, the United States Attorney General's Office in 1907 was better prepared to handle peonage cases. In January, Secretary of State Elihu Root sent Attorney General Philander Knox copies of correspondence on alleged incidents of peonage against Italians in West Virginia. Knox immediately forwarded the correspondence to Elliott Northcott, Assistant District Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia. Northcott asked that Dan Cunningham and one other detective be assigned to investigate the allegations. The attorney general agreed and permission was given for Cunningham and a treasury agent to join the case.42

The fact that Northcott asked for another investigation is interesting and his reasons are not revealed in his letters to the attorney general. The documents that Cunningham and Smith provided to Governor Dawson were available by January 9, 1907. Northcott had to have been aware of the earlier investigation, even though it was instigated by the state. It is possible he believed the facts, as unearthed by the initial investigation, were insufficient to obtain a conviction.43

Following the second investigation, Elliott Northcott began preparation of his case for presentation to the grand jury. In May 1907, Northcott requested that Deputy Attorney General Charles W. Russell be present when allegations that the peonage statutes had been violated were brought before the grand jury and at the trial, if indictments were returned. Northcott informed Russell of his difficulty in returning witnesses to West Virginia from New York and New Jersey because they lacked money for train fare. His request for funds to pay the train fare for the witnesses received quick approval from the attorney general. Special assistant United States Attorney for New York Mary Quackenbos, noted for her thorough investigations into peonage in New York and Florida, subpoenaed the witnesses needed in West Virginia.44

Charles Russell, a West Virginia native, had experience fighting peonage in Florida, Georgia, and other southern states. He became a deputy attorney general in 1905 and, in 1906, was appointed to head Justice Department efforts to fight peonage. According to a report in the Charleston Gazette, Russell had "wide fame as a prosecutor of peonage cases, and his fearless handling of this sort of criminal proceedings in the southern states is only a matter of recent date."45

Elliott Northcott asked that Russell assist in presenting the evidence in the case to the grand jury. It could be that, since he had no experience in peonage cases, he considered Russell capable of doing a better job. It is more likely, however, that Northcott wished to avoid the responsibility of presenting evidence against powerful and wellÄknown business figures in West Virginia. A conflict of interest may have also affected Northcott's enthusiasm for prosecuting the case. Presiding trial Judge Benjamin F. Keller, of the Southern District of West Virginia, made public his business interests in the Ritter Lumber Company and requested removal from the case. With this knowledge, Charles Russell also requested the attorney general to replace Keller. At the request of Attorney General Knox, Judge Nathan Goff of the Fourth Judicial Circuit asked Judge Alston G. Dayton of the Northern District of West Virginia to replace Keller.46

While Keller's conflict of interest is obvious, there were more subtle conflicts which were not as apparent. Many of the officers of the federal court, political figures, state officials, the federal marshals and those accused of peonage had close personal, political and economic ties. The links between these individuals have been investigated by John A. Williams in his monograph West Virginia and the Captains of Industry. Williams points out that both Keller and Dayton owed their positions to the influence of senators Stephen B. Elkins and Nathan B. Scott, leaders of the Republican party in West Virginia. Elliott Northcott and Dan Cunningham also obtained their jobs through Republican patronage and in later years Northcott was chairman of the State Republican Committee. Williams claims that these associations gave great power to those who had a vested interest in the outcome of litigation in the federal courts. For example, Judge John Jay Jackson's 1902 injunction against the coal miners of the Fairmont region, was the result of the collaboration among Senator Elkins, Judge Keller, Judge Nathan B. Goff, and the United States District Attorney for the Northern District, Reese Blizzard.47

There are numerous examples of the ties between industry and the federal courts. Assistant District Attorney H. D. Rummell, a Republican appointee, represented coal interests while serving as Northcott's deputy. In addition, most of the individuals were Masons and some were Shriners. Because this membership was usually mentioned in biographical data of the early 1900s, it indicates how much importance the members and the public gave to this type of association. Finally, most of the principals in this peonage case and others were linked through membership in the Methodist, Episcopal and Presbyterian churches.48

Potential influence by the defendants notwithstanding, the grand jury took little time to return indictments against the Ritter and Raleigh lumber companies, the Thacker Coal and Coke Company in Mingo County, and several of their employees on charges of peonage. The trial date was set for July 10, 1907. The connection between the Ritter and Raleigh lumber companies is clear since Ritter bought the latter in January 1907. It is not clear if any connection existed between the Ritter and Thacker operations and the concurrent indictments may be a coincidence since the Thacker company was not tried until the November term of court.49

The Ritter and Raleigh lumber companies' trials officially began on July 12. A preÄtrial plea of guilty by the Ritter and Raleigh companies had been accepted by the prosecuting attorneys in return for dropping all other indictments against employees of the companies and against Elias Hatfield, who worked for the Virginian Railway. The agreement further stipulated that Judge Dayton would hear testimony to determine the fine on the guilty plea.50

William M. Ritter was called as a defense witness and questioned by his counsel, Taylor Vinson. Under the tutelage of Vinson, Ritter praised his superintendents and managers and discounted the stories of mistreatment of the laborers working for those supervisors. Ritter was then questioned as to the reason for the guilty plea.

Q. "Mr. Ritter, your company has filed a plea of `guilty' here on the charge of peonage committed at Maben. Will you state to the Court why you were willing that your company as such should put that plea in?"

A. "It was thought advisable for the purpose of the protection of the men that were indicted under the charge of peonage -- the protection of our employees."

Q. "That was the main consideration for assuming that burden by your company was it not?"

A. "Yes, sir."51

Following this examination, Ritter was questioned by Judge Dayton concerning the number of employees the company had in the state and the extent of its business interests. Ritter informed him that the company employed from twelve- to fourteen-hundred people in West Virginia and at one plant, Maben, could process over eighteen million board feet of lumber per year.52

On cross-examination, Russell tried to obtain more information on the extent of the company's business in the state and its capitalization. Vinson objected and the judge disallowed the questions. Apparently, Russell was trying to shed some light on the business connections of the Ritter Company and was rebuffed. Vinson was willing to provide the judge with the information but did not want it made public. Judge Dayton considered the matter irrelevant and after hearing from a few more witnesses, abruptly ended the trial stating he had heard enough from both sides and saw no reason to continue.53

The fines and punishment meted out by Judge Dayton illustrate the basis for his decision in this case and in those he would decide against unions and union men in the future. Dayton first noted his belief that guilty parties ought to be punished and that the punishment be a deterrent to others contemplating similar crimes. However, he said that to err is human and "many times offences [sic] are committed, not through improper motives, not with malice and with evil hearts, but through mistaken ideas and conceptions of their rights and of what the law is."54

He "absolutely and unqualifiedly" approved the action by the government's attorneys to allow a plea of guilty to be entered in the case. Dayton was particularly pleased with the plea because it allowed him to dismiss the charges of "conspiracy" against the defendants, including the lumber companies, because he believed there was insufficient evidence to convict on that charge.

". . . I do not believe that there was any preconceived, preconcerted plan or conspiracy on the part of the officers to get possession of these men and compel them to work there for a debt which they advanced. There are two or three reasons why this is so. In the first place, the transaction was of no long standing; and it is inconceivable, looking these men in the face -- looking Ritter in the face -- looking Wolfe in the face -- it is inconceivable to me I say, to believe that these men, for the paltry sums of money involved, went to New York and got these men, paid their transportation and got them into their debt, for the purpose of violating the law."55

Dayton went on to say that the indictments could be reduced from twenty to ten because several of them seemed to be duplications. In light of the penalty per conviction, this interpretation was quite beneficial to the Ritter Company. The judge also excused the seriousness of the crime, noting that probably not one person in ten thousand was aware of the peonage statute which was passed in 1867 and for which there had never been a prosecution in West Virginia. The judge conveniently ignored the nationwide publicity the trials in the South had attracted and the fact that these matters were common knowledge in West Virginia, as well as the publicity surrounding the peonage allegations in 1903. Those who had been held in peonage themselves received the judge's castigation. "I take into consideration the further fact that these people, the prosecuting witnesses, do not stand from a moral standpoint in the strongest light." While Dayton recognized the evil of peonage, which could be equated with slavery, he ". . . [did] not have any sympathy with these fellows who did not go down there and keep their contracts and live up to their honest debts; but at the same time, this law, tender of the liberty of the people, makes this company technically a violator of the law. . . ."56

Considering his extremely partial comments on the case, it was not surprising that Judge Dayton administered the minimum penalty under the law, one thousand dollars per conviction. He saved Ritter another ten thousand dollars by reducing the number of indictments from twenty to ten. Total court costs were $13,015.50, when witness fees and other costs were added to the fine. Following the conclusion of the Ritter case, Judge Dayton heard testimony and then fined the Raleigh Lumber Company one thousand dollars for its guilty plea on one count of peonage.57

Dayton's decision received mixed reviews. Benjamin Keller wrote Dayton to "congratulate" him on the rapid and satisfactory disposition of the "soÄcalled peonage cases." He went on to note that after reading Dayton's remarks in the newspapers, he would have taken the same view. Charles Russell had little, overtly, to say on the matter. In his report to the attorney general, he avoided criticizing Dayton directly. Instead, he gave a synopsis of the case against the Ritter and Raleigh companies. He noted the question of ignorance of the peonage law was used as a defense by the superintendent of the Ritter Lumber Company. The superintendent admitted holding the workers, but justified his action as upholding the "absconding debtor law," the boarding house law, of which he had knowledge. Without making further comment, Russell merely cited a recent court case which discounted ignorance as a defense.58 The inference that any jurist should have been able to discount a plea of ignorance of the law was clear.

The Thacker Coal and Coke Company case was heard in November 1907, before Judge Keller. In that instance, the company was absolved of guilt by the guilty plea of one of its guards. David Howell, a "police officer" of the company pled guilty and was fined one thousand dollars. Keller dropped all other charges against Howell, James Collins and others, saying that the government's case was "very weak."59

Charles Russell might have been justified in claiming victory in securing guilty pleas against the Ritter and Thacker companies. He undoubtedly knew, however, how fortunate he was to prevail in this case. He pointed out in his report to the attorney general in December 1907, that "peonage and similar evils have been proven to be prevalent by the numerous indictments and less frequent convictions."60 It was difficult to get convictions from juries on these matters. State laws, such as West Virginia's boarding house law, vagrancy and absconding debtor statutes in other states, were frequently upheld by local juries who were biased against the laborers accused of attempting to avoid what the jury considered to be a legally incurred debt. Russell's next foray into the murky waters of peonage in West Virginia had an entirely different result.

On November 2, 1907, the United States Immigration Service in Philadelphia received a letter from James Hawkins, who claimed to have information about immigrants brought to the United States in violation of the alien contract laws. Hawkins alluded to a group of aliens who were temporarily detained in Philadelphia a few weeks before and offered to provide details. George E. Baldwin, an Immigrant Inspector for the Immigration Commission, was assigned to investigate.61

Hawkins claimed he was recruited in Shildon, England, by Mike Barron [spelled variously as O'Barren, Baren, etc. in different accounts], who represented the White Oak Coal Company in Scarbro, Fayette County. Barron offered to pay Hawkins's way to America in return for his labor, and the cost of the passage would be deducted from his salary. Hawkins was promised from four to five dollars per day to mine coal. He was not a miner but was promised work as a hostler at the mines. Upon arrival in Scarbro he first worked at a sawmill, and when sent to work at a mine, he refused and escaped. He related that three of his friends were still in West Virginia and two had been returned to work at gunpoint.62

Baldwin investigated Hawkins's charges and discovered that the men were given fictitious names for the ship's manifest and a story to tell immigration officials to ease their way into the United States. Charges of similar fraudulent entries into the United States had been made by John Mitchell and Samuel Gompers in a complaint to the United States Immigration Commission about the activities of John Nugent, the Immigration Commissioner for West Virginia. Although technically a "state official," Nugent's wages and expenses were paid by two major coal companies. Those companies benefited greatly from his efforts, each obtaining large numbers of foreign laborers. Baldwin checked the manifest for the S. S. Baltic on which Hawkins and his friends had been brought to America and discovered that John Nugent was also one of the passengers. According to Baldwin, "subsequent events have proven beyond the shadow of doubt that he was aware of this movement, if not directly responsible for its promulgation."63

Baldwin's investigation convinced him there was peonage in many of the coal mines in West Virginia and that the evidence indicated violation of the labor contract laws. If Hawkins's affidavit was acceptable as evidence that he was in the United States under a contract made previous to his departure from England, such a contract was in violation of the attorney general's 1907 opinion on the use of labor contracts to attract immigrants to the United States. Baldwin also reported that the mine inspectors blamed many mine accidents and deaths on the luring of untrained persons to the mines. Agents who used this practice, according to the mine inspectors, knew fully the consequences of their actions, but were immune from prosecution because "they are State officials."64

On December 14, 1907, Secretary of Commerce Oscar Straus sent copies of Baldwin's investigations to Attorney General Charles J. Bonaparte. Straus noted that his investigators had not obtained conclusive evidence of peonage or violations of the alien contract law. However, "there exists an apparently general plan of coercion and peonage on the part of the mine proprietors who employed the imported laborers." He suggested that Bonaparte provide the facts to the United States attorney in the area where the alleged violations took place for further inquiry.65

If the investigation had been left to Elliott Northcott and H. D. Rummell, it would probably have never taken place. However, the attorney general ordered Dan Cunningham to investigate the charges of peonage in Fayette County and after receiving his report, Northcott again asked for help from Charles Russell in presenting the evidence to the grand jury. The grand jury met in Huntington in April and quickly returned indictments in the case. On April 11, 1908, Samuel Dixon, John Wilson, M. L. Parker, and Albert C. Felts were indicted for violating Section 5526 RUS, the peonage statute, and Section 5540 RUS, conspiracy to hold persons in peonage. In addition, Fred and William Dixon and a man identified as Harris were indicted for the same violations in separate incidents. The judge, B. F. Keller, decided to try the case in Charleston on June 2 and ordered, with no explanation, that no jurors be drawn from Raleigh, Fayette or Kanawha counties.66

The trial began in Charleston on June 2, 1908, and was different from the 1907 trial in that these defendants pled not guilty to all charges. Dixon, a wealthy and powerful coal operator, was represented by Mollohan, McClintic and Mathews of Charleston and C. W. Dillon of Fayetteville. Prosecuted by Charles W. Russell and Elliott Northcott, the case generated some interesting commentary and fireworks. An editorial in The Charleston Gazette noted that "There is a battle royal in the federal court between Uncle Sam of Washington and Uncle Sam of Fayette County."67

The prosecution presented witnesses who testified that they had been recruited in England to come to the United States by Mike Barron, an agent for the White Oak Coal Company. When they attempted to leave Scarbro, they were forcibly detained by Dixon, Felts, Wilson and Parker. The witnesses claimed they were being held until they repaid the cost of their transportation. Dixon testified that he did not know Barron and never paid anyone's way to America. He said he had arrested the men because they owed board bills, and when he discovered several did not, he released them. He held the men to insure that boarding house operators, frequently the widows of coal miners, were not defrauded. Dixon's superintendent at Scarbro, John Wilson, also testified that he had not paid any transportation cost and continued that denial even when shown a monthly statement the company had provided to one of the men charging him for transportation.68

In closing, Russell noted that peonage was growing in the country and "it was the duty of the good citizens to stop it in its incipiency [sic]." Northcott argued that Dixon and others used the board bill as an excuse to hold the men until they repaid their transportation. Defense counsel Mathews countered that Dixon had held the men for board only, and when he discovered that some had no bills outstanding, those men were released.69

The jury took only twenty-three minutes to acquit Dixon of all charges. After the verdict, the government dropped all charges against the other defendants. The federal authorities gave the government witnesses transportation to England, Illinois, or other locations of their choice.70

There can be little doubt that peonage existed in the lumber camps and coal mines of West Virginia in the period from 1903 to 1908. The guilty pleas in the Ritter and Thacker cases must satisfy even the most conservative critic of its existence in those instances. Even though there was no indictment or prosecution in 1903, the mass of evidence gathered by Speranza and Cunningham also points to common, if not wideÄspread, use of force to hold workers until they had paid off their transportation debts. Even Dixon's acquittal does not mean that peonage had not been practiced. It means his attorneys were successful in attacking the government's case and in employing a strategy, with Keller's cooperation, of removing all jurors from the counties in which peonage had been practiced in 1903 and 1907.

The governors, White and Dawson, did not offer strong leadership in attempts to prevent the practice or to punish those who were accused of it. White could make a case for his inability to prosecute if the local authorities would not handle allegations of peonage, since he did not have a state police force on which to call. It is difficult to believe, however, that he could not have ordered an investigation and used his political influence on the local authorities to act. Dawson, on the other hand, cooperated in setting up conditions which spawned peonage by appointing Nugent immigration commissioner. Nugent, in turn, received financial backing from coal companies to recruit immigrant labor.

There are two major factors in West Virginia's experience with peonage. The first is the state industrialists' desire to attract large numbers of laborers who could be paid the lowest possible wage. This desire was shared by state officials who took steps to attract and keep laborers in West Virginia. Federal officials in the state cooperated by assisting employers in enforcing contracts with workers rather than aggressively enforcing the peonage statutes. These federal and state officials acted in a manner consistent with industrialists' wishes because they were so closely aligned economically, politically, and socially.

The other major factor was an attitude shared by the industrialists, political figures, newspaper editors and many others that foreign contract labor was made up of, in Governor Dawson's words, "an undesirable class of labor." These nativistic attitudes, added to ethnocentric feelings about workers from southerern and eastern Europe, caused those who should have been more concerned about enforced labor to gloss over the problem.

Without the intervention of Charles Russell and other federal officials from outside the state, peonage could have existed much longer. If the United States attorney general had not made the effort to force prosecutions, there would have been no diminishing its growth. Local and state officials, even those involved in the federal court system would have, because of their ethnocentrism, financial, political and social associations, continued to ignore the crimes being committed.


1. For a more detailed discussion on the movement of blacks and immigrants to West Virginia see the author's "A Judicious Mixture: Negroes and Immigrants in the West Virginia Mines, 1880Ä1917," West Virginia History 34(1973): 141Ä61; and for immigration to the South see Pete Daniels, The Shadow of Slavery: Peonage in the South, 1901-1969 (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1972), 82.

2. Howard B. Lee, Bloodletting in Appalachia (Parsons: McClain, 1969), 6; Walter R. Thurmond, The Logan Coal Field of West Virginia (Morgantown: West Virginia Univ. Press, 1964), 60.

3. For discussions of coal mining and wages see David Corbin, Life, Work and Rebellion in the Coal Fields: The Southern West Virginia Miners, 1880Ä1922 (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1981), 30Ä33. Corbin attributes the bloody strikes of 1912Ä13 and 1921 to the growth of a class consciousness among the West Virginia miners. Even he, however, notes that the miners' grievances were directed more against the social and political control of coal companies than wages and living conditions.

4. Daniels, The Shadow of Slavery, 11Ä16. Daniels traces the development of the federal peonage statute and court tests of that statute.

5. "Peonage Cases Most Important at Present Term," Charleston Gazette, 5 June 1907.

6. United States, Annual Report of the Attorney General of the United States, 87, 60th Congress, lst Sess. (Washington: GPO, 1907), 207.

7. Daniels, The Shadow of Slavery, 108.

8. Ibid., 82; Arthur E. Suffern, Conciliation and Arbitration in the Coal Industry of America (Boston: HoughtonÄMifflin, 1915), 73.

9. Bailey, "A Judicious Mixture," 146.

10. Gino C. Speranza, "Forced Labor in West Virginia," Outlook 74(June 1903): 407Ä10.

11. "Commissioner I. V. Barton," Charleston Daily Mail, 7 Mar 1903.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. "Intimidation is Charged," Ibid., 7 Feb 1903.

15. "Chapter of Cruelty Told," Ibid., 16 Feb 1903.

16. Ibid.

17. Unpublished manuscript titled "Getting Evidence in the Labor Camps of West Virginia," no date, included in the microfilm copy of Gino Speranza Papers owned by Fredrick Armstrong, Archives and History, The Cultural Center, Charleston, WV, hereafter referred to as Speranza microfilm; White to Gino C. Speranza, 7 May 1903, A. B. White Papers, West Virginia and Regional History Collection, West Virginia Univ., hereafter referred to as White Papers.

18. Exhibit 9, 9 May 1903, Speranza microfilm.

19. White to Speranza, 18 May 1903, White Papers.

20. Speranza, "Forced Labor," 407Ä08.

21. Ibid.

22. White to Speranza, 18 May 1903, White Papers.

23. Exhibit 23, 18 May 1903, Speranza microfilm.

24. Ibid.; see also West Virginia, Acts of the Legislature, 1899 (Charleston: Tribune, 1899), 164Ä66.

25. "Wrongs Upon Italians in West Virginia," United Mine Workers Journal, 18 June 1903.

26. Ibid.

27. "Italian Immigrants are Brutally Treated," Charleston Daily Gazette, 9 May 1903.

28. West Virginia, Public Addresses of Albert Blakeslee White (Charleston: Tribune, 1905), 240Ä41.

29. West Virginia, Special Message of Governor Dawson Concerning Cases of Peonage and Labor Conditions to the Legislature of 1907 (Charleston: Tribune, 1907), 3-35.

30. Ibid., 7.

31. Ibid.

32. Ibid.

33. Ibid., 21. The numbering of workers was evidently a common practice and many immigrants wore their numbers on metal tags around their necks or pinned to their shirt fronts. Roy B. Clarkson, Tumult on the Mountains (Parsons: McClain, 1964), 80.

34. Virgil Carrington Jones, The Hatfields and the McCoys (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1948), 225. Hatfield was one of the younger sons of Captain Anderson Hatfield of the HatfieldÄMcCoy feud fame. He was hired by John Kee, a future United States congressman, to work as a detective for the Virginian Railroad; Special Message, 22.

35. Special Message, 32.

36. Ibid., 32Ä35.

37. Donald O. Blagg, "William Mercer Owens Dawson, Life and Times," unpublished MS (1960) in West Virginia State Archives, The Cultural Center, Charleston, WV.

38. Henry H. Shapiro, "Involuntary Servitude: The Need for a More Flexible Approach," Rutgers Law Review 19(1964): 74.

39. Daniels, The Shadow of Slavery, 82.

40. "The Story of the Acme Fight," Charleston Daily Mail, 24 Apr 1903; George F. Baldwin to Immigration Commissioner, 7 Nov 1907, Record Group 60, Dept. of Justice, National Archives, Washington, DC (hereafter cited as RG60), Box 379, Folder 97058Ä97257; for a view of immigration in 1891 see editorial, "The Question of Immigration," New York Times 2 Feb 1891. The editor wrote that the Italians and Russians coming to the United States were "not desirable persons."

41. "20,000 Miners Needed," Raleigh Herald, 1 Aug 1907.

42. Elihu Root to Attorney General Knox, 17 Jan 1907; Elliott Northcott to Attorney General, 11 Feb 1907, and Attorney General to Elliott Northcott, 2 Mar 1907, all in RG 60, Box 379, Folder 97058-97257.

43. Transcript of United States vs. W. M. Ritter Lumber Company, 148, RG 60, loose, unmarked folder.

44. Northcott to Attorney General, 25 May 1907; Northcott to Charles W. Russell, 25 May 1907; Attorney General to F. H. Tyree [US Marshal for West Virginia and Cunningham's supervisor], 28 May 1907; Mary Quackenbos to Attorney General, 27 May 1907, all in RG 60, Box 379, Folder 97058Ä97257; Daniels, The Shadow of Slavery, 83.

45. Daniels, The Shadow of Slavery, 83Ä84; "Jury Finds True Bills Against Lumber Company," Charleston Gazette, 9 June 1907.

46. "Are Indicted for Peonage," Labor Argus, 13 June 1907; Russell to Attorney General, 9 June 1907, RG 60, Box 379, folder 97058Ä97257; Court order signed by Judge Goff, 10 June 1907, A. G. Dayton Papers, Box 93, Folder 5, West Virginia and Regional History Collection, West Virginia Univ., hereafter referred to as Dayton Papers.

47. John Alexander Williams, West Virginia and the Captains of Industry (Morgantown: West Virginia Univ. Press, 1976), 144Ä 47.

48. Thomas C. Miller and Hu Maxwell, History of West Virginia and Its People (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1913), 84; Phil Conley, ed., The West Virginia Encyclopedia (Charleston: West Virginia Publishing Company, 1927), 209, 643, 1002. There is no intent by this author to criticize membership in fraternal lodges. 49. United States, Law Order Book 2, 501Ä02, United States District Court, Southern District of West Virginia, Sidney L. Christie Federal Building, Huntington, WV, hereafter referred to as WVSDC; Mary Keller Bowman, Reference Book of Wyoming County History (Parsons: McClain, 1965), 244; "Peonage Case before Federal Court All Day," Charleston Gazette, 23 Nov 1907.

50. Law Order Book 2, 518, WVSDC.

51. United States vs. Ritter, 244Ä45.

52. Ibid.

53. Ibid., 252-53, 383.

54. Ibid., 384.

55. Ibid., 385.

56. Ibid., 391Ä92.

57. United States, Criminal Docket Book 2, 13, WVSDC; United States vs. Ritter, 503.

58. Keller to Dayton, 20 July 1907, Dayton Papers, Box 17s, Folder 6; United States, Annual Report of the Attorney General of the United States, 87, 60th Congress, 1st Sess. (Washington: GPO, 1907), 212Ä13.

59. "Government Accepts Guilty Plea," Charleston Gazette, 22 Nov 1907.

60. United States, Report of the Attorney General, 1907, 212.

61. Baldwin to CommissionerÄGeneral of Immigration and Naturalization, 6 Dec 1907, RG 60, Box 379, Folder 51864.

62. Ibid.

63. T. H. Flynn to Samuel Gompers, 29 Sept 1907; John Mitchell to Gompers, 11 Oct 1907, Reel 12, Microfilm of John Mitchell Papers, Vining Library, West Virginia Institute of Technology, Montgomery, WV; Baldwin to CommissionerÄGeneral, 6 Dec 1907. Otis Rice, West Virginia, A History (Lexington: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1985), 189.

64. Baldwin to CommissionerÄGeneral, 6 Dec 1907, RG 60, Box 379.

65. Straus to Attorney General, 14 Dec 1907, RG 60, Box 379, folder 97058Ä97257.

66. F. H. Tyree to Attorney General, 7 Mar 1908, and Northcott to Attorney General, 2 Apr 1908, RG 60, folder 97058Ä97257; Law Order Book 2, 24, 29-30, WVSDC.

67. Law Order Book 2, 29, WVSDC; "Peonage Cases Called Today in Federal Court," 2 June; and 4 June 1908, in Charleston Gazette.

68. "Peonage Cases Now on Trial in Federal Court," 3 June; 4 June; and "Events Move With Rapidity in Peonage Case," 5 June 1908, all in Charleston Gazette.

69. Ibid., 5 June 1908.

70. Law Order Book 2, 16, WVSDC; Elliott Northcott to the Attorney General, 10 July 1908, RG 60, Box 10798, Folder 50Ä117.

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