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William Holly Griffith
West Virginia Desperado

By Herbert R. Cogar

William Holly Griffith
Reward poster, 1915.

The town of Gassaway, Braxton County, appeared placid in late April 1915. Only 10 years had passed since it was founded by railroad tycoon Henry Gassaway Davis. There were new churches, stores, hotels, and boarding houses. A year before, the new Coal & Coke Railroad depot had been christened and had quickly become the centerpiece of the community.

Situated in a deep horseshoe bend in the Elk River, it was no accident that Davis decided to build his newest railroad town in Braxton County, near the geographical center of the state. It was here that heavy locomotives, required to negotiate the mountainous terrain to the east, could be turned around, allowing smaller, more economical engines the task of pulling cars southwest along the river to Charleston. Gassaway had become an important place, and it had attracted a growing population.

For the time being, the future was bright. Spring had arrived. Gardens were being prepared. In the upcoming months, plans would be made for the annual Fourth of July parade with every storefront bedecked in red, white, and blue bunting.

Thirty-five miles from Gassaway, at a little place called Groundhog, near Creston, in Wirt County, William Holly Griffith lived with his young wife and baby daughter. Holly, as he preferred to be called, was a strapping young man of 22, slightly over six feet in height, and weighing more than 180 pounds, with brown eyes and dark hair. Though lacking any meaningful education, he was certainly affable with a decided affinity for the game of poker. When his chosen vocation as a painter proved to be less than lucrative, young Holly had determined to take the much easier route of a gambler and all-around con artist.

In February 1915, Griffith had swindled a man in Wirt County then later wrote a bad check for an automobile in Ritchie County, culminating in his arrest and escape from custody. By the time he made his way back to his home, the first victim had obtained a warrant for his arrest, which was delivered to Wirt County Constable Jefferson Goff for execution.

On Sunday, March 28, 1915, at about 10:30 p.m., Constable Goff arrived at the Griffith house and pounded on the door to announce his presence. Lulu Griffith answered and claimed that her husband was away. Undeterred, the constable forced his way inside where he was confronted by Holly. A violent struggle ensued, resulting in Goff’s sustaining a mortal gunshot wound, to which he succumbed on April 8. By then, Griffith, now wanted for murder, had fled to his father’s house in Clarksburg.

Griffith would eventually travel by train from Clarksburg to Sutton, where, with a forged $500 check, he opened an account at the Home National Bank under the assumed name of F.S. Rose. He wrote worthless checks to several area businesses before his scheme was finally discovered in late April.

In the evening hours of April 29, Griffith, accompanied by a man who would later be identified as Jesse J. Ferguson, arrived by train in Gassaway. The two men went to the John Cart boarding house on River Street, where Griffith had stayed several days during a previous visit to town. Cart’s son-in-law, Daniel K. Comer, showed him to a room.

Some days earlier, a local dry-goods store had taken one of Griffith’s checks for a purchase in the amount of $36. Discovering the check was worthless and learning that “Rose” had previously stayed at the Cart boarding house, the proprietor asked Dan Comer to let him know if the man came back. Comer did so, and the store owner promptly reported the matter to chief of police G. Ord Thompson.

Chief Thompson had only been on duty for a short time that bright, clear Friday morning when, at about 8:45, he stopped by the Cart boarding house and located young Dan Comer, whom he knew would recognize F.S. Rose if he saw him. Thompson deputized Comer so that he could accompany him and, though he didn’t think it would be necessary, to help him make the arrest. Comer asked Thompson if he should take a gun along with him, to which the policeman replied, “I’ve got a gun, and that’s enough.” It wouldn’t be.

The two men made their way down Elk Street, where at about 9:00 a.m., they found the object of their search at E.M. Layman’s Grocery, accompanied by Ferguson. As the two men leaned across the store’s display counter, Chief Thompson and Dan Comer stepped in.

Details of what happened next are a bit murky, but one thing is for certain. All hell broke loose.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.