I, upon occasions, have had the pleasure of meeting people, some of whom I know, and others I do not, who tell me they enjoy my writings in this newspaper. However, I also am not naïve enough to believe that everyone enjoys reading about local history, or necessarily anything else I write. But for those who do read my weekly ramblings, you should know that for the past several weeks I have been writing about the time period just after legendary sheriff Don Chafin’s final term in office and when two of Devil Anse Hatfield’s sons seized power (1924-1932) after Tennis Hatfield’s testimony in Federal court helped convict the former “King” of Logan County for violations of the Prohibition Law.
For many years, Loganites enjoyed the solitude of the hills. Without any real roads and before the railroad reached Logan, mountain people were self-sufficient, and became masters of their own domain. Outsiders were looked upon with caution and could not enter any hollow without soon being realized. The making of corn liquor had been a tradition that was brought to these hills by the earliest of settlers, some of which were masters of the art of distilling the liquor referred to as “moonshine”—because it generally was made by the light of the moon in some dark hollow near a fresh stream of water. For most of the these sturdy mountaineers, it was the only way they could earn real money, other than the digging of ginseng, which was a seasonal thing.
When in 1919 the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution created the prohibiting of the “manufacturing, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquor,” mountain people were able to use their expertise to make and sell the illegal alcohol at a higher price than ever, but often to a perilous price to them. With the Federal government sending men into the mountains to track down and destroy the stills of the Appalachian folk, it wasn’t long before officials realized that local people would need to be hired to properly do the job. Many locals took the opportunity to make “legal” money by becoming prohibition officers, but many would later regret it when their homes were burned and lives were lost. The following story relates to just how important it was to control the making of illegal liquor, and how it led to corruption of all types. These stories, as you shall see, are not limited to the boundaries of Logan County.
At a required annual Magistrate training recently in Charleston, I took my seat at a table beside Magistrate Steve Massie of Raleigh County. I remember meeting Steve some years back and of him telling me how he was elected as a Republican in the heavily Democratic county of Raleigh. It seems Massie caught the attention of the local television station there during his campaign by placing all of his political signs upside down—not exactly the norm. This free publicity obviously helped him to gain the unheralded judicial position which he still holds.
No sooner had I sat down than the Raleigh magistrate asked, “Since you’re from Logan County, have you ever heard of the Chauncey Hollow murders?” Aware of the murders back in 1927, Steve and I shared bits and pieces to the story that is directly related to the characters in the time period in which I am currently writing about—the notorious Hatfield’s. Steve’s connection to the story is that one of the men (Bird Nelson)—accused of the brutal murders of a Harts Creek man, Ed Hensley, his son, and another boy, — was Steve Massie’s great-grandfather. Turns out, Magistrate Massie’s family originally is from Logan and Lincoln counties; a small world indeed. Here’s the story as told in various newspapers of the past and from stories handed down through Steve Massies’s family.
According to Magistrate Massie, Ed Hensley, state prohibition officer, was shot and killed, not only because he was too close to various illegal stills in Chauncey Hollow, but also because he was planning on becoming a political candidate against the then sheriff of Logan County, Tennis Hatfield. Hatfield was not only good friends with the men who were accused of the killings, but it is believed that he funded that liquor operation, as well as many others. The liquor—like so much more produced throughout the county—was sold in various establishments around the county and especially in downtown Logan. The illegal spirits were part of a time period in Appalachia when Chicago’s Al Capone ruled his underworld in Illinois, and the Hatfield’s ruled their’s in Logan County.
According to several newspaper accounts of Mid-August of 1927, Ed Hensley, 50, his 18-year-old son, Don, and another 18-year-old, Ernest Marcum, all of Harts Creek, were shot and killed in an ambush in Chauncey Hollow near Omar when they got too close to moonshine stills operated by the men who did the killing. Another young man, Howard Tomblin, 17, was shot as he was running away. Other members of the ill-fated party were Stonewall Hensley, Pearl Hensley, Monroe Hensley, Peter Carter and Cecil Bryant, all of whom escaped. Reportedly, all of the men were part of a ginseng party that was 39 miles south (through the hills) of their Harts Creek homes. Though Ed Hensley was a prohibition officer, newspaper accounts said the victims were just looking to dig ginseng.
Millard Porter, who said he accompanied the accused murderers the night of the shootings, supposedly crept away from the moonshiners’ camp following the killings and then contacted Sheriff Tennis Hatfield and reported he was willing to give information concerning the shootings, according to The Logan Banner account published 10 years later in 1937 when Governor Kump reduced a life sentence to 18 years for Isom Curry, 45, described by The Banner “as the only man ever sentenced in connection with the notorious Chauncey Hollow massacre of 1927.”
In an August 19, 1927 Charleston Gazette account, it was reported that Porter had told Sheriff Hatfield that the Nelson’s and Curry told him of their plans to make it through the hills to either the Virginia or Kentucky borders. Therefore, a state police posse sent from Charleston hoped to intercept the fleeing men. Meanwhile, it was reported that Sheriff Hatfield would lead another posse through the mountains near Island Creek in search of the men, who he knew personally.
Porter, who over the years would give conflicting testimonies concerning the killings, originally said that he had gone to Bird Nelson’s home to buy moonshine, and soon afterwards heard the Nelson’s and Curry speak of the activities of the “ginsengers.” He said the men knew Hensley to be a prohibition agent and feared he would locate their stills and “comeback with the Marshalls.” Porter said he agreed to go with the men to “run them off.” He added that he was unarmed, though Mit Nelson was armed with a rifle, and Isom Curry and Bird Nelson with pistols. He continued by saying that they got within 45 feet from the ginseng party, while Bird Nelson was about five or six feet from one of the boys, who was “eating out of a pan.” Mitt hollered for the men to throw up their hands and Ed Hensley answered, “I’m an officer of the law and drew his gun,” Porter said. “Isom shot the big man and Bird shot the boy who was eating out of the pan.” All three victims were shot in their heads, according to The Charleston Gazette.
Three years after the murders, Porter changed his story by relating that “The moonshiners called to the men to put up their hands, then shot the three of them as they obeyed.”
It is interesting to note that Magistrate Massie’s family story is that Bird Nelson (his great-grandfather) hid in a nearby cave for about two years before finding a way to England, where his family originated. Massie said his great-grandpa eventually came back to Logan County and thereafter, presents were mysteriously found at the back door of his family each year around Christmastime. “My great-grandmother re-married again, but I was always told that it was part of the cover-up,” Massie explained.
If one applies a “magnifying glass” to the stories of the Chauncey Hollow Murders—then here is the possible, if not likely, scenario. Although it is puzzling as to why the Harts Creekers were so far away from home looking for ginseng when the valuable root certainly could be found elsewhere, it is clear from newspaper accounts there were three stills located near the Island Creek site; a location just a few miles from Sheriff’s Hatfield’s old home place.
It is likely that Porter and the Sheriff made up the story about the assailants saying they were going to the Virginia or Kentucky borders. By so doing, it would have kept the state police from coming directly into Island Creek territory, while the Sheriff’s posse supposedly was combing the local hills. The Hatfield’s always tried to keep the state police out of their territory. Meanwhile, the outlaws were allowed to hide and escape.
Sherman Nelson, father of two of the hunted men, was found not guilty in a trial for the triple murders, while in 1930 Judge Naaman Jackson dismissed all charges against the men who had been in hiding for three years. Thirteen other murder indictments were included in the Judge’s dismissals. A lack of witnesses and “technical errors” were cited for the dismissals. The only person imprisoned for the murders was Isom Curry, and his life sentence was reduced to 18 years after he had already served 10.
Most interesting of all, is the fact that it was announced in the Charleston Daily Mail that Amos Sullivan had been appointed as a special officer to probe the murder cases. Sullivan previously was charged in the attempted wrecking of the Madison newspaper (Coal Valley News), along with two other Logan County deputies, and was shot during the raid. Sullivan hid out in Kentucky, but when arrested there as a fugitive, he was illegally brought back to Logan by assistant Prosecuting Attorney, Ira P. Hager, and a Logan deputy. Sullivan was then allowed to escape, but later turned himself in to Boone County authorities.
Sullivan then testified against Logan deputy Henry Napier in the newspaper incident and caused former Sheriff Tennis Hatfield to be indicted as an accessory to the fact when he swore that Hatfield paid him $500 to destroy the Boone newspaper, whose views reportedly opposed the Republicans. Napier was tried four times with resulting deadlocked juries before finally pleading guilty in a change of venue trial in Greenbrier County. Hatfield’s charges would later be dropped in Boone County. However, the son of a legendary mountain figure who stood watch over his son from his view in the cemetery near his former home place on Island Creek, soon would have even greater problems to deal with.
Drawing back to the present time, allow me to tell you that Raleigh County Magistrate Steve Massie just smiled when he was told a story about the Chauncey murders was planned. “Don’t make my grandpa look too bad,” said Massie, a faint grin upon his face.
(Additional stories in regard to the powerful Hatfield’s will be forthcoming in additional publications of this newspaper.)
Dwight Williamson is a contributing writer and a former reporter for The Logan Banner. He currently serves as a Logan County Magistrate.