At the height of the Great Depression in 1931 Logan County was in terribly poor economic condition. After over a decade of plentiful work in and around the numerous coal mines of the area, the bottom had fallen out for the industry and everyone suffered for it. When some miners did get to work, it was for just one or two days per week. Most miners did not get to work at all.
Times were made even more difficult for county government, which like today, counted on the taxes generated by the coal industry. However, back then there was no federal government welfare funding and therefore counties were left with the responsibilities of taking care of the very poor children and aged individuals, many of whom were simply abandoned by families who could not afford to take care of them.
The County Court, which is now titled the Logan County Commission, was nearly $900,000 in debt and cuts had to be made, including the closing of the county’s only detention home located at Stollings where it had been the practice to house aged persons and children.
A special meeting was called and the county’s leading businessmen and notable elected officials were on hand to try and come up with an economic solution. It was determined that if county government was to continue to function at all, then certain “non-essential” employees would be eliminated and, second, that salaries of other county employees would be reduced. It was also determined that funds from the county road fund, which preceded the State Road Commission, be transferred to the general county fund. As a last resort, according to a February 1931 Logan Banner report, an association of taxpayers would be formed to raise the necessary funds.
Even though the coming together of these respected “minds” of the time helped to alleviate most of the problems local government was facing, many people were forced to suffer. The following is just one of several true stories from the Depression Era.
The Logan Banner reported that “what was generally believed to have been an outgrowth of the closing of the county’s welfare department, which occurred Feb. 1, 1931 by the county court,” led a despondent woman from the Rita area to try and drown her two small children, as well as her self in the Guyandotte River.
The plans of the woman went awry, it was reported, when the elder of the two girls became suspicious of her mother’s intentions as the pair was being led toward the river. The nine-year-old broke loose and fled, calling for her younger sister to run also. The girl managed to get away from her mother and the two children ran toward the county road with their mother in pursuit.
The chase attracted the attention of persons on the roadway to whom the girls ran for protection. They were told by the girls who clung to them desperately that their mother intended to drown them. The woman, however, denied she intended to drown her children and contended that she was going to take them to the river with the intention of giving each of them “a good scrubbing.” She had no water in her “miserable” dwelling, the woman said, and the river was the only place she could give them the washing they had long needed.
The mother and children were taken to Logan where the mother was jailed and the girls were temporarily placed in the custody of Miss Mabel Sutherland, a former welfare worker for the county.
Upon investigation by Sheriff Joe Hatfield’ office, it was found that the woman was an epileptic and had been deserted by her husband a short time before the incident involving her children. The superintendent of the Buffalo-Chilton Coal Company had been aiding the distraught family somewhat since the husband had left. Still, the mother and her two girls were found to be woefully undernourished, and it became the belief that the children’s story was true that their mother had decided to end it all by drowning herself and taking her daughters with her.
When the public was made aware of the situation, clothes and an ample food supply was raised for the woman and her daughters, but the children remained in the care of Miss Sutherland, who went back to her county welfare job after funding was found to re-open the Stollings detention center, which reportedly was located across the creek just above what is now Topps Supper Club.
While various types of suffering went on in Logan County in 1931, in the very same month the county court met to deal with its financial crisis, the West Virginia legislature was hearing a report from the State Attorney General’s office in which he described Logan as a “gunman’s paradise” and caused to be introduced in the House a bill aimed at restricting the carrying of deadly weapons by anyone but duly authorized officers of the law.
In submitting the bill, Attorney General Lee explained that Logan County’s “pernicious system of protecting gun-carrying ex-convicts, criminals and thugs was a disgrace to the state.” The bill passed after considerable squabbling by a 48-38 vote in the House.
What should be pointed out is that Lee stayed in Logan for a considerable time because of a cold blooded killing of the Logan Chief of Police officer at the Smokehouse restaurant (a story that will be told later). After realizing that the county’s police officers and constables were all operating as a corrupt machine that would not allow justice to happen, Lee visited the Governor and managed to scare Sheriff Joe Hatfield, son of Devil Anse, into ridding his evil ways.
The stories of Joe Hatfield and his even more sinister womanizing brother, Tennis, who was elected Logan sheriff before his brother, will be told in a later edition of this newspaper.
In the meantime, also in the 1931 West Virginia legislature, the group voted to abandon hanging as the means of execution of major criminals. The electric chair was submitted to replace hanging.
A spokesperson who had attended executions at the Moundsville prison made the following comment to the legislature:
“I personally believe that hanging is much more suitable as a means of execution than the electric chair. At any rate, the noose is easier on the spectators, for by this method one avoids the odor of burning flesh and hair, which has haunted the dreams of spectators for many a day afterward.”
Of course, the death penalty no longer exists in wild and wonderful West, by gosh, Virginia.
Dwight Williamson is a contributing writer and a former reporter for The Logan Banner. He currently serves as a Logan County Magistrate.