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Second to None
Eighty Years of the West Virginia State Police

By Ben Crookshanks

State Police using hound dogs
Hound dogs and horses were natural weapons in the fight against crime in the early years of the state police. Photograph courtesy WVSP, date unknown.

The West Virginia State Police celebrate their 80th anniversary this year. Created in 1919 as the West Virginia Department of Public Safety, it is the fourth oldest police force of its kind in the United States.

After World War I, there was a great deal of unrest and uncertainty worldwide. Here in West Virginia, many felt that crime had gotten out of hand. Moonshining, bootlegging, gambling, and other crimes went unabated in remote rural areas. There was also an alarming rise in violence and intimidation aimed at ethnic minorities and the foreign born, who had entered the state's mining and industrial areas during the recent boom years.

Meanwhile, the United Mine Workers were pushing to organize West Virginia's coal miners. Coal operators had taken to hiring Baldwin-Felts Detectives, who often employed strongarm tactics to intimidate striking miners. This led to a number of bloody confrontations. The worst of these was the Cabin Creek-Paint Creek strike which began in April 1912 [see The GOLDENSEAL Book of the West Virginia Mine Wars; "Part Two: Paint Creek and Cabin Creek, 1912-13"]. Violence escalated to the point Governor Glasscock was forced to call out the national guard and, on September 2, 1912, declared martial law for the first time in West Virginia history. Before it was over, he would issue two more proclamations of martial law. Peace was finally restored on January 12, 1913, although some of the guard companies remained on occupation duty for another year. This left a bad taste in the mouth of labor.

During the war years, things were relatively peaceful in the coalfields. After the war, most of the miners in the southern coalfields were still non-union, a situation which Governor John Cornwell viewed as a simmering pot which could boil over at any minute. Compounding the problem was the fact that many deputy sheriffs were on coal company payrolls.

If things weren't bad enough, statewide Prohibition went into effect in 1914, and national Prohibition was on its way to becoming a reality in 1919. Something had to be done.

Governor Cornwell introduced his plan for a state police system to the regular session of the legislature in 1919. The bill was defeated. Cornwell's advisors told him to drop it and move on. He didn't heed their advice. Cornwell felt that without a state police system he would not be able to adequately protect people and property. On March 11, 1919, he called the legislature back into special session. The fight over House Bill Number 4 became one of the most bitterly contested legislative battles the state ever saw. This fight, as one writer put it, expended "...more oratory than probably any other issue unless it was woman's suffrage."

You can read the rest of this article in the Spring 1999 issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.