The legendary Don Chafin


Dwight Williamson - Guest Columnist



Chafin


While great detail will be given in a future edition of this newspaper regarding the history of legendary Logan County Sheriff Don Chafin and the very house in which he lived, for today’s purposes, I would like to relate a story that few people living nowadays have ever been aware of — a cold blooded murder in which Chafin was arrested, tried, and declared not guilty.

Though Chafin is widely known for his exploits while serving as the most famous sheriff in West Virginia, and his involvement at the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, Chafin actually wore many political hats in his lifetime before being convicted of moonshining in 1924, after a former deputy, who happened to be Devil Anse Hatfield’s son (Tennis Hatfield), testified against him. Chafin was sentenced to an Atlanta, Georgia prison for two years in 1925. After returning from prison, Chafin realized his political strength had been incredibly weakened and moved to Huntington in 1936 where he lived as a millionaire until 1954, when he died at age 67. A victim of several heart attacks, the man once known as the “Czar of Logan County,” reportedly succumbed from complications following surgery. However, an incident that occurred on a sultry 1917 Saturday night in July at a Mud Fork community now known as Hedgeview could have — and perhaps should have — kept Chafin from ever becoming the powerful person he was. Chafin, whose father was sheriff of the county from 1894 until 1898, also had an uncle (John), who was county clerk for years, and another uncle (James) who served as county clerk in Mingo County, after it was formed from Logan. In addition, he was a cousin to former Logan Judge J.B. Wilkinson, who built the home that now serves as Honaker Funeral Home on Main Street. Leviacy Hatfield, the proud wife of Devil Anse, was Don Chafin’s second cousin. Keeping all these facts in mind, one can understand how a man with such influences could get away with murder; especially if your brother-in-law (Frank Hurst) was the sheriff. Interestingly enough, Chafin would in 1920 purchase the house, now know as the Chafin House, from Hurst for $27,500. It still today stands on Main Street in Logan. Here is the story of the shooting and trial as reported in the Logan Democrat, a former rival newspaper of The Logan Banner.

“Frank Kazee, 26-years-old, was shot and instantly killed last Saturday night on Mud Fork about three and a half miles from Logan by a bullet fired from a pistol in the hands of Don Chafin, deputy county clerk, according to a verdict of a jury impaneled by Coroner Bryant Sunday morning which heard the evidence.”

The story went on to say that around midnight on a Saturday two vehicles, which were referred to as “machines” by the newspaper writer, were traveling up the creek in the vicinity of the home of J.B. Ellis when the “machine” carrying Chafin, Harold McCormick, Jim Wagner, Lummie Widener and Julius Curry passed the “machine” in which Abe Kirk, Cage Kirk and Kazee were riding. Kazee was in the back seat. Although not reported, it is believed that words were exchanged in what could be called one of Logan County’s first cases of road rage. The report said Chafin’s machine stopped about twenty yards from the place where the other vehicle had chosen to turn around. Chafin approached the vehicle and demanded to know who the passengers were. Abe Kirk is said to have answered: “You know us, Don.” To this, Frank Kazee is said to have added: “Sure, Don, you know us.” Chafin backed up a few yards, and then approached the vehicle again. Chafin reportedly opened the side door and is said to have fired the shot which killed Kazee. Chafin “returned to his machine and drove back to town.”

The two Kirks also started for town and rode for some time before they looked back to speak to Kazee. When he did not answer, they discovered him dead. The story said the Kirks had previously thought that Chafin had fired the pistol “just to have a little sport.”

Following his posting of a $5000 bond the next day, Chafin is said to have been “visibly affected by the tragedy.” He said he had no recollection whatever of the previous night. And he added that he had no memory of shooting the boy and that such a thing was “entirely out of his mind.”

Chafin saw the boy’s father and reportedly tried to comfort him as best he could. He ordered the undertaker to “spare no expense in giving the youth a burial.” “I never felt so bad in my life,” declared Chafin to a reporter. The Kazee boy was a good friend of mine and I can’t remember shooting him at all. I would not think of doing such a thing. I cannot be convinced yet that I killed him. When the officers came for me and told me that I had shot him, I could not believe them. It seemed so foolish to think that I would do anything like that. The whole events of Saturday night are absolutely a blank to me. I have no recollection of anything taking place that night.”

Chafin’s words, having been spoken like a true politician, set the stage for his trial that came about three months later in October.

The headline for October 18th read: “Don Chafin Is Acquitted of Murder Charge By Jury”. The story said the jury had been out for nearly four hours before reaching its decision. Special appointed Prosecutor Meeks of Huntington made the statement to the court that “a material witness for the state, Cage Kirk, was being held out of jurisdiction of the court” and he implicated two deputy sheriffs of the county in the implied abduction. However, Meeks refused to divulge the source of his information, the newspaper reported. Chafin’s attorney then requested that two special deputy sheriffs be appointed to take charge of the jury so that “no reflections should be cast upon Sheriff Hurst,” who was Chafin’s brother-in-law.

The newspaper report said that during testimony Chafin had offered to tell the prosecutor who it was that sent Cage Kirk away, but he was “not asked nor permitted to do so”. John Marcum, Chafin’s defense attorney, later told the jury that it was Chafin’s “political enemies” who were responsible for sending Cage Kirk out of the jurisdiction of the court. He also confused the jury more by asserting that a “fund raised by the same source” was responsible for the appearance in the case of attorney Lance Marcum, as assistant to Prosecutor Meeks.

Without Cage Kirk, his brother, Abe Kirk, was the only real witness for the prosecution. He told of the defendant and Julius Curry “leaving the machine in which they were riding and coming up to the machine which he was driving, and of the words that passed there.” Kirk said he heard gunfire and saw the flash which came from Don Chafin, but did not see any weapon, and could not swear who shot Kazee, who was sitting alone in the back seat. He also stated that he did not know at the time that Kazee had been shot nor did he know that he had been killed until later.

The key witnesses for the defense were Chafin and Julius Curry. Curry testified that Chafin did not shoot Kazee and that the gunfire came from behind both of them, and that he saw no gun flash. Chafin, testifying on his own behalf, denied having fired the gun that killed Kazee, and swore that on the night of the murder he had no weapon with him. He substantiated the testimony of other witnesses that he and the murdered man had been friendly.

So it was that on a hot summer night in Logan County in the year of 1917 a bunch of joy riding young men, who were probably all drinking the liquor of their choices, and having access to early vehicles which were few in the county, were out on a typical Saturday night drive. Chafin did not appreciate words being exchanged by occupants of the car he had just passed. Chafin’s drinking would come into play in later life, when he reportedly got drunk and entered a UMWA establishment making idle threats. It was there he was shot in the chest by an official who hated him anyway.

The trial itself was nothing but a stage for actors in the play. The one witness who could positively identify Don Chafin as the killer was taken out of town by Sheriff Hurst’s deputies, while the special assistant Prosecutor named was related to the defense attorney. Toss in a few “ringers” on the jury, and Chafin’s future was secured. The man, who at age 21, had previously been elected assessor of Logan County in 1908, would become sheriff in 1912. At the close of his term, in 1916, he was appointed county clerk, and in 1920 was again elected sheriff. The Battle of Blair Mountain would happen the very next year. Fact is, had Chafin been found guilty, as he should have been, there may never have been a “Blair Mountain”, and oh, how Logan County’s history would be altered.

As the late great Paul Harvey would say: “And now you know the rest of the story.”

BITS and PIECES

Football has finally arrived, but there seems not to have been an off-season due to the constant publicity we’ve had about the Tom Brady football fiasco…..the amount of money and wasted time on this matter is to me simply absurd…..inflate, deflate: who really cares?…..just play football……former Chapmanville coach Ted Ellis told me a recent story about the old days of softball in the county brought a lot of memories back to him…..Ted, of course, also played softball back in the day for the squad known as Browning’s Furniture of Chapmanville…..while speaking of Chapmanville, I must mention that in the article I wrote about the old softball days, I somehow failed to mention Chapmanville’s Steve Mazon, who played outfield for the Chafin Coal team…..Steve later had half of his foot taken off following a mining accident, but today amazingly is one of the best golfers in Logan County…..another player I forgot about because he only played one weekend with the Chafin team is Pete Codispoti…..Pete, a brother to my compadre Leonard, was a star baseball player for Logan High School back in 1971……asked to join the Chafin team for a weekend tournament in Summersville in the early 1980’s, Pete was pleased to go as our leftfielder……perhaps, if he had not stolen his daddy’s wine and got half the team, especially himself, drunk on the way to the first game, that routine fly ball would not have landed on top of his head instead of his glove…..I’m just glad I wasn’t in the vehicle he was traveling in…..Pete resides in Tennessee these days, but his heart is still in West Virginia…..still on the subject of softball, Magistrate Codispoti and myself recently paid former Chafin Coal slugger Johnny (Seed) Adams a visit while on our lunch hour…..Seed, who has lost a leg due to diabetes, and who is legally blind for the same reason, has also endured two strokes, but his mind remains sharp as a tack…..now 65-years-old, at one time he was the most feared softball hitter around these parts…..he also was the Jack Dempsey of his time because he did not lose many fights…..Seed Adams is a resident of The Towers at Chapmanville, which, by the way, will soon be getting free meals served by PRIDE of Logan County…..residents there may want to thank fellow resident Betty Weekley for her efforts in this matter…..still on the subject of softball, I’ve got to mention that another player who made his mark playing both slow-pitch and the fast-pitch game was Teddy Conley…..I’m told that when it came to the fast-pitch game, he always looked for the changeup…..Logan businessman and former player Don Browning simply described Conley as a “changeup”…..the recent death of a friend of mine came as a surprise…..Ralph “Eddie” Curry, who I believe loved fishing better than anybody I know, died suddenly at his Mud Fork home…..one could not help but like Eddie…..his grieving mother, Helen Curry, is a fine person as well…..sadness also goes out to the family of Howard Wooten…..the founder of Wooten Insurance in Logan, Howard was a big sports enthusiast and great family man…..I always thought of him more as a friend, rather than my insurance agent…..also in our thoughts is the family of Madison Creek’s Allen Ryan….the father of Shawn Evans, (Magistrate Codispoti’s secretary), and former Magistrate Court Martial James “Bo” Ryan, has been suffering from Alzheimer’s for several years, and heart-felt thoughts go to the family…..I ponder the future of the Man High School golf team since the Triadelphia Country Club has been abandoned?……will the team possibly be competing at Oceana, or the Twisted Gun course at Gilbert?…..either way, that’s a good journey just to practice…..it is a good bet that President Obama’s visit to Alaska will mean more grief for the coal industry when he returns with his report of global warming…..everything is being blamed on the coal industry, which isn’t right…..granted, leaders should have seen this coming a long time ago, but people in Appalachia are a tough independent breed that will survive in one way or another…..meanwhile, our government leaders should remember that West Virginia, especially Logan County, has provided the military might — thru men and coal production — that made this country what it is a today…..over 100,000 Americans have died mining coal, and 100,000 more died from black lung disease…..West Virginia has made many millionaires from our hills and mountains…..this country as a whole owes our great state tremendously…..Logan businessman Chester Stapleton and his wife have been contemplating opening up a 1930’s style “speak easy” at his Stratton Street location…..Chester owns the Holland Building on Stratton Street that was built in 1910…..Mamie Thurman fans may recall the upstairs was where Mamie and local business people liked to do their thing; the place was referred to in the trial as the “Key Club”…..well, Chester has the key nowadays…..DID YOU KNOW that in 1917 the town of Logan was totally darkened in a nationwide effort by President Woodrow Wilson to save coal for the war efforts…..it was reported that by turning off all electricity in the country for one night saved 200 million tons of coal that was badly needed by factories to produce steel for ships, planes, etc……are you listening, Mr. President?…..QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Strangely, I must say most officeholders and people who run for public office are there to get all the money and power and glory that goes with it.” — Logan Circuit Judge C.C. Chambers in a Banner article of 1937 chastising local office holders …..FINAL NOTE — People would be surprised to know that in the cemetery in Logan that has been called the City Cemetery or the Aracoma Cemetery, but has no definitive name, lays the remains of a person who in 1896 owned 500,000 acres of property, which included parts of Logan, Mingo, McDowell, and Wyoming counties. The kicker is that part of this acreage also included portions of Pike County, Ky., and Buchannan County, Va. Just one more reason to have the graveyard placed on the National Historic Register, where then funds could be sought. This cemetery needs preserved. As for the property owner’s name—clue: He has the largest monument in the cemetery.

Chafin
http://loganbanner.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/web1_DonChafin-BW.jpgChafin

Dwight Williamson

Guest Columnist

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