Baldwin–Felts Detective Agency

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The Baldwin–Felts Detective Agency was a private detective agency in the United States.

Today it is most remembered for its violent confrontations with labor union members in such places as the Pocahantas Coal Field region of West Virginia, the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike of 1912 in West Virginia, and in Ludlow, Colorado leading up to the Ludlow Massacre. Further members of the agency were central actors in the events that lead to the Battle of Blair Mountain.

Formation of the agency

The agency was founded in the early 1890s by William Gibbony Baldwin as the Baldwin Detective Agency.

Baldwin, the senior member of the firm, was a native of Tazewell County, Virginia. An avid reader of detective novels in his youth, Baldwin was a small storekeeper in his early days. He then studied dentistry, but left that profession in order to become a detective. He began his career in 1884 with the Eureka Detective Agency in Charleston, West Virginia. After founding the Baldwin Detective Agency, he then moved to Roanoke, Virginia, to oversee security operations in the Norfolk & Western Railway’s coalfield district, later being appointed chief special agent (a position he held until his retirement in 1930).

Thomas Lafayette Felts was a native of Galax, Virginia, who was educated as a lawyer and was a member of the Virginia Bar Association. In 1900, he joined the Baldwin Detective Agency as a partner who could provide legal advice to the firm. In 1910, the name of the agency was changed to the Baldwin–Felts Detective Agency, headquartered in Bluefield, West Virginia.

Originally, the company provided investigative services to railroads for train robberies and other crimes.[1] Little is known about this chapter in the history of Baldwin–Felts, but it is known that the company provided guards for railway and mine payrolls, as well as to accompany coal trains into the coalfields. The company investigated train wrecks, robberies and thefts. By the early 1900s, the agency had also undertaken detective work for both federal and state government agencies.

The agency became known for crime-busting after it successfully tracked down members of the Allen family wanted in a shootout in 1912 at the Carroll County Courthouse in Hillsville, Virginia, that left the judge, the sheriff, the prosecutor, a juror and a witness dead or dying. Though two of the Allens fled the state, the Baldwin–Felts detectives (led by Thomas Felts) managed to locate and arrest all of the fugitives within six months.

By 1913, railroad crimes and associated banditry had decreased and Baldwin–Felts turned to other fields, in particular private security forces for mining companies. At the time, public law enforcement and the maintenance of order in labor-management disputes was often left to company owners. Baldwin–Felts supplied guards and detectives that were used by the mining industry to suppress strikes, to collect intelligence on unions, to prevent labor organizers from entering company grounds and even to evict workers living in company-owned housing who had joined a union, gone on strike or failed to pay rent. This work soon brought the agency into conflict with labor and unions. Baldwin–Felts is today best known for its violent confrontations with labor union members in such places as the Pocohantas Coal Field region of West Virginia, the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike of 1912 in West Virginia, and in Ludlow, Colorado in southern Colorado. Among union members, Baldwin–Felts agents were regarded as hired thugs. A former attorney general of West Virginia, Howard B. Lee, who knew both Baldwin and Felts, recalled that the men were the "two most feared and hated men in the mountains."[2]

Both Baldwin and Felts were also involved in banking and Baldwin later served as president and member of the board of directors of several banks. Felts was later elected to two terms as a Virginia state senator.

Matewan Massacre

Seven Baldwin–Felts detectives, including Thomas Felts' brothers Albert and Lee, were killed in Matewan on May 19, 1920, during a shootout known as either the Matewan Massacre or the Battle of Matewan.[3] Three townspeople were also killed, including Matewan Mayor Cabell Testerman. Albert and Lee Felts were buried in Galax, Virginia after the battle in what is now the Felts Memorial Cemetery. Their funeral was attended by over 3,000 people.[4] Following the events in Matewan, Baldwin–Felts gunmen, including undercover agent C. E. Lively (Charles Everett Lively), assassinated Matewan Police Chief Sid Hatfield and his friend Ed Chambers on the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse in Welch, West Virginia, retribution for the killing of Albert and Lee Felts. Lively (1887–1962) and the others claimed self-defense and were acquitted.

Other activities

The agency's most famous fugitive pursuit was the capture of Floyd Allen and his family who were involved in a courtroom shootout in Hillsville, Virginia in Carroll County during which five people died and seven were wounded, including the Commonwealth's Attorney (prosecutor), William Foster, the Sheriff, Lewis F. Webb, and the presiding judge, Thornton Lemmon Massie. The event captured nationwide attention from March 13–April 15, 1912, when the ocean liner RMS Titanic sank.

At the time, Virginia law required the local Sheriff to head the criminal investigation and pursue those suspected of committing the killings. In the case of the Sheriff's death, no provision for succession had been provided for in the law, and the Sheriff's deputies lost all their legal powers until the next election. Faced with this dilemma, Virginia Governor William Hodges Mann sent a telegram to the Baldwin–Felts agency to apprehend the fugitives:

Send troops to the County of Carroll at once. Mob violence, the court. Commonwealth's Attorney, Sheriff, some jurors and others shot on the conviction of Floyd Allen for a felony. Sheriff and Commonwealth's Attorney dead, court serious. Look after this now.[5]

The detectives cut a wide swathe through Carroll County, Virginia in their quest. A wounded Floyd Allen was personally arrested at his hotel by Thomas L. Felts. Most of the Allens and their relations were arrested by a posse of Baldwin–Felts detectives who chased down the fugitives in a relentless search, carried out regardless of weather conditions. Nevertheless, two of the men—Sidna Allen and Wesley Edwards—escaped to Des Moines, Iowa. An informant—Maude Iroller—tipped the agency as to the men's whereabouts, and the fugitives were arrested and brought back to Carroll County before the end of the year.

In 1913–1914, Baldwin–Felts agents were involved in another coal field struggle in Las Animas County in Colorado, known as the Ludlow, Colorado coal strike. Agency detectives were employed in squads to harass striking workers, even using an armored car with a mounted machine gun (called the Death Special by the miners). During the strike, a particularly violent confrontation erupted between private militia hired by mine owners and striking workers, now known as the Ludlow Massacre.

Fate of the agency

Baldwin died in 1936 at age 75 and Felts a year later at age 69. In 1937, four months before his death, Thomas Felts formally dissolved the Baldwin–Felts Detective Agency. By that time, strikebreaking work had declined. State and federal legislation outlawing the use of private detectives for the purpose of spying on or harassing workers, along with shifting public opinion, had made such detectives less useful to management in labor disputes. After the agency closed its doors, most of the company's files were destroyed or lost. The largest collection of extant files is housed at the Eastern Regional Coal Archives in Bluefield, West Virginia.

See also


  1. Velke III, John, The True Story of the Baldwin–Felts Detective Agency, ISBN 0-9664336-1-0, ISBN 978-0-9664336-1-6 (2004)
  2. Lee, Howard B., Bloodletting in Appalachia: The Story of West Virginia's Four Major Mine Wars and Other Thrilling Incidents Of Its Coal Fields, Morgantown: West Virginia University Press (1969), p. 53
  3. The Roanoker Magazine...Coalmining War in 1912: Gun Thugs and Heroes
  4. Velke III, John, The True Story of the Baldwin–Felts Detective Agency, ISBN 0-9664336-1-0, ISBN 978-0-9664336-1-6 (2004)
  5. Williamson, Seth, The Roanoker Magazine Allen Clan Hillsville Courthouse Shootout, Roanoker Magazine (November 1982) Leisure Publishing Inc., retrieved 2006-08-24
  • Velke, Baldwin-Felts Detectives, Inc. (1997). This is Velke's first book on the agency.
  • Estep, Francis F. "Paint and Cabin Creek Murders." In The Goldenseal Book of the West Virginia Mine Wars. Ken Sullivan, ed. Charleston, WV: Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, 1991. ISBN 0-929521-57-9
  • Kilkeary, Desmond. "The Hatfields and the Baldwin–Felts." Chaparral. May 2005.
  • McDaniel, Brenda. "Gun Thugs and Heroes." The Roanoker Magazine. July/August 1979.
  • Smith, Robert Michael. From Blackjacks to Briefcases: A History of Commercialized Strikebreaking and Unionbusting in the United States. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-8214-1465-8
  • Weiss, Robert P. "Private Detectives Agencies and Labour Discipline in the United States, 1855–1946." The Historical Journal. 29:1 (1965).
  • Hadsell, Richard M. and William E. Coffey. "From Law and Order to Class Warfare: Baldwin–Felts Detectives in the Southern West Virginia Coal Fields." West Virginia History 40:3 (Spring 1979): 268–286.
  • Savage, Lon. "Thunder In the Mountains: The West Virginia Mine War, 1920-21", University of Pittsburgh Press (September 6, 1990), 216 pages
  • Sherwood, Topper. "The Dust Settles: Felts Papers Offer More on Matewan." Goldenseal (Summer 1991): 39–44.