Peonage in West Virginia

Special Message of Governor Dawson Concerning Cases of Peonage and Labor Conditions
to the Legislature of 1907
. Charleston: The Tribune Printing Co., 1907.



To the Honorable Members of the Senate and the House of Delegates:

I conceive it to be my duty to lay before you the facts of the investigations of two cases of alleged peonage in this State. This I do independently of the fact that there have been other cases of the same kind which have been brought to the attention of the Governor in the last few years. These things give the State a very bad name, as they are seized on by sensational newspapers.

On Saturday evening, the 29th of last month, about six o'clock in the evening, I received a telegram from the Honorable Elihu Root, Secretary of State of the United States, as follows:

(No. 1) WASHINGTON, D. C., December 29, 1906.

HON. WM. M. O. DAWSON, Governor of West Virginia, Charleston, W. Va.:

It is represented to the department by the Italian Ambassador at this capital, that there are at Raleigh, W. Va., with the Raleigh Lumber Company, fifteen Italian laborers of a party previously consisting of twenty-one who left New York on November 29th last, under an engagement for railroad work; that on their arrival there on November 30th, these laborers found the work was not that for which they had been hired and were fit, but was mining work of a dangerous character and of which they had no experience whatever; that they protested and wished to leave, but in the night they were stopped by armed men of the company, their foreman manacled and others subjected to such brutal threats that three or four among the youngest and most delicate fainted away; that some money, one hundred and sixty-four dollars in all, being then scraped together the company recovered the amount of expenses incurred for transportation; five or six of the men, the weakest, were sent back to Hoboken, where they are now, one of them made ill by the fright and rough experience he had undergone; that the others were held by force, put under surveilance [sic], locked up for six days in a car on a bread and water diet; that one of these is also ill; that their letters and telegrams were intercepted, and it was only by stealth and subterfuge that they were able to communicate indirectly with their friends and relatives and call for help. The department transmits the foregoing statement to you for your information in order that you many institute an investigation with the view to the liberation of the men still remaining under detention by the company, and for the appropriate measures which you may deem it advisable to undertake for the punishment of the offenders. The department would be pleased to be advised of any action taken by you in order that an appropriate reply may be made to the communication of the Italian Ambassador.

[Signed] ELIHU ROOT.

On the following Monday, the 31st, I sent a telegram to Secretary Root, stating that I would have the matter promptly investigated. After consultation with the Attorney General I employed Mr. Howard Smith, a detective, to go to Raleigh county and see about the alleged troubles, which Mr. Smith did in company with an interpreter and Mr. Dan W. Cunningham, another detective. . . .

. . .

Mr. Smith arrived here on the night of the 4th with these men, and made the following report to me:

(No. 7)


To His Excellency, WILLIAM M. O. DAWSON,
Governor of West Virginia,
Charleston, W. Va

SIR: - I have the honor to herewith hand a report of the investigation made by me at your command of the 3rd inst., of a charge of peonage made by certain Italian laborers on a line of railroad being constructed by the Raleigh Lumber Company. As a part of my report is attached a statement made by the Italians through their interpreter which is marked exhibit "A"; a statement from Harry Allen relative to the account of these laborers with the Lumber Company, marked exhibit "B"; an affidavit made by L. C. Lilly, constable, marked exhibit "C", and a statement made by J. W. Hunt, Justice of the Peace, marked exhibit "D"; all of which are asked to be read and considered as part of this report.

The plant and works of the Raleigh Lumber Company is situated at and near the town of Raleigh on the Piney Branch of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway Company in Raleigh County, West Virginia. This company, as its name indicates, is engaged in the manufacture and sale of lumber and it is now building a railroad to further its operations. It is in the grading of this railroad out of which the complaint has arisen. In company with Mr. D. W. Cunningham and an interpreter, I arrived at Raleigh on the 3d inst., and immediately began my investigation in person. It appears that twenty-six men and a boy were employed by this company to do certain work on this railroad through an employment agency namely, Sparte, Frank & Company, No. 210 E. 10th Street, New York City, N. Y., and that a contract was entered into by these laborers and this company before they left New York by which they were to do grade work for the company at $1.50 to $1.65 per day and that the Lumber Company would furnish transportation from the city of New York to the locality of the railroad. This contract was exhibited to me. It appears that when these laborers arrived at Raleigh on the 30th of November, 1906, they contended they had been promised, by the labor agency at New York, that they were to receive from $1.65 to $1.75 per day and that the work was to consist in laying steel on the railroad. Here is a question of fact arising between the employers and the employees as to the price and character of the work which it is hard for me to determine. I am inclined to believe that the lumber company, having in its possession the contract, acted in good faith in this particular and relied by the contract in writing. The laborers appeared to be rather ignorant and illiterate, and they may have been misled in these particulars by the employment agency in New York. At any rate they became dissatisfied and refused to work. Nineteen of their number and the boy left Raleigh on the same afternoon of their arrival and walked to Prince, a station on the main line of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway, arriving there about day-break the next morning where they were arrested by J. C. Lilly, a constable of Raleigh county, who had with him as deputies and assistants Charles Krise, John Hatcher and David Sullivan, upon a warrant issued by J. W. Hunt, a Justice of the Peace of that county. The complaint upon which the warrant was issued was sworn to by Charles Krise, who is an employee of the lumber company, charging these laborers with intent to defraud the lumber company. Upon being arrested, five of the number paid to Mr. Krise, for the company, $12.00 each, the amount claimed by the lumber company as that furnished them for transportation. Thereupon the warrant was withdrawn as to these five who paid, and as to the boy, and they were released.

Before their arrest and while they were at Prince these laborers gave to one Joe Rezzonico, an Italian who resided at Prince, $4.00 to send a telegram to New York, presumably to get money to pay for transportation back to New York. I am of the opinion that this telegram was never sent, because I made an examination of the records kept by the telegraph company at Prince and found no such message. It seemed to be the opinion of the laborers themselves that this message was not sent. See exhibit "A" filed with this report. The laborers who would not or could not repay to the lumber company the money expended for transportation from New York were taken back to Raleigh in charge of the constable under the warrant issued by the Justice of the Peace. They remained at Raleigh in charge of the constable from the 1st to the 5th of December (see exhibit "A"), and during this time endeavored by messages to New York to obtain money for their transportation back to New York and to pay the claim of the lumber company. These messages were sent at the expense of the lumber company. It appears that all that the lumber company was seeking was the repayment to them of the transportation which they had furnished under the contract. Failing to receive the money from New York, these laborers, it appears, agreed to go to work. They were taken to the camp in charge of the constable and turned over to a foreman for the company. These men then went to work and remained there until our arrival on the 3d of January. From my investigation I came to the conclusion that the treatment afforded them in the way of provisions was as good as is usually furnished in such work, with the exception of the bread, which I considered bad. Upon our arrival with the interpreter and upon their ascertaining who we were and our business, they immediately quit work and insisted that they would leave with us. We endeavored to get them to remain at their work until the investigation was complete, but they flatly refused to do so. When we insisted that they should stay at work, at least until the investigation was completed, some of them appeared to get very angry and would kneel down and violently pat the ground and make other demonstrations which I did not understand. We were unable to pacify them. They contended through their interpreter that if they remained after we left they might be badly mistreated. They left their camp, leaving their baggage, such as trunks, valises, blankets, etc., and followed us to Raleigh, a distance of six miles, with nothing except the clothing that they wore. After taking the statements which are herewith filed, and making further investigations, I deemed it best to inform Your Excellency of the situation, and in conformity with the advice of Your Excellency I deemed it best to bring the laborers away with me, and did so, bringing them to Charleston, W. Va., where provisions were made for their sustenance and good treatment. Some of these men were complaining of being sick and I called a physician, Dr. Davis, to see them on January 4th, who prescribed for five of them. They remained in this city, at a good Italian boarding house, until the evening of January 7th, when they left for Hoboken, N. J., in company with one of their nationality who came after them. The work which these laborers were doing on the grade was not different from that which is usually done by such laborers in grade work, and the camps or shanties furnished them were similar to other camps and shanties occupied by the other laborers employed by the company. I considered these camps or shanties as reasonably comfortable. They were as good as any railroad camps I have ever seen. The company's commissary, where the men received provisions, appeared to be well stocked with provisions suitable for Italian laborers and the same that is usually furnished.

I beg to state to Your Excellency that I have concluded, from my investigation, that the lumber company was acting in good faith to obtain the amount of money which they had advanced for transportation under their contract. I further believe that these laborers were given to understand that they either had to pay the amount in money or in labor, and that they were given to understand, in an unqualified way, that they would not be released from this debt until they had worked sufficiently to pay it, together with the cost of the proceedings against them.

I have the honor to remain, Sir, very respectfully,


. . .


On the 2nd instant, while I had the Raleigh county case under investigation, I was informed, by letters, of an alleged similar case in Wyoming county, and deeming it of sufficient importance to do so, I engaged Mr. Dan W. Cunningham, a detective, to go to that county and make an investigation and report. This was done. Mr. Cunningham made a report, which, with its exhibits, is as follows:


Charleston, W. Va., January 6, 1907.

Governor of West Virginia.
Charleston, West Virginia.

Your Excellency: - Pursuant to your request of January 2nd, that I make an investigation of conditions suggesting peonage in Wyoming county, I have the honor to submit a report based on a personal investigation at Estell, Wyoming county, West Virginia, on the 4th and 5th instant.

The request for this investigation was made to ascertain whether or not reports in which it was alleged that laborers were held in peonage were true, and as most of these reports emanated from the vicinity of Estell, I considered that a good vantage ground from which to gather the necessary information.

Estell is situated at Mayburn, a station on the Deepwater railway, and at this point the Wm. Ritter Lumber Company has under construction, and nearly completed, one of, and possibly the largest, lumber plants in the State. The principal work at present is the erection of their great lumber mill and building the town, camp houses and a private railroad. (This road will open up, at its completion, the best timber tract in the entire state.)

I learned by this investigation that this company has brought many men, at different times, on transportation from New York and other cities. That is to say, the laborers are gathered at a rendezvous in one of these cities, and a representative of the Immigration Bureau transports the men to their destination, and the company to whom they were consigned, pays for such transportation, and depend upon future work of the laborer to reimburse them for the money thus expended.

As to the method adopted by the Wm. Ritter Lumber Co. to secure this repayment to them the amount of the laborer's transportation, I respectfully call your attention to the affidavit of S. M. Wolfe, the Superintendent of the company (Exhibit "A" herewith), in which he described the manner in which these laborers are held pending such repayment.

I also desire to call you attention to the affidavit of William Tolliver (marked Exhibit "B" herewith), in which he states that he has acted as guard over these laborers, and as an officer, receiving his authority therefor from S. M. Wolfe, the Superintendent of the company. He further states that a laborer, whose name I could not learn, but whose number on the time-keeper's book is 288, was brought to Estell on December 1st, 1906, acompanied [sic] by about forty-six other laborers, to work for this company. These men were brought from New York, from Bureau No. 7 of the Southern Immigration Company. No. 288 becoming dissatisfied with conditions as he found them, left the employ of the company without repaying them for the transportation charges incurred by his travel to Estell. He was overtaken near Prince station, in Fayette county, nearly forty miles from Estell, by Elias Hatfield, and after being wounded in an alleged "scrap," was returned to the said company and delivered to Guard William Tolliver.

This is only one of the many instances of the cruelty exercised by guards, or rather the only report substantiated as yet.

I visited the Italian camps in company with an interpreter and found the people, all of whom are employed by the Ritter Lumber Company, to be well satisfied and comfortably situated. (See Exhibits "C" and "D" herewith).

Mr. Harvey Derne, one of the firm of the Wm. Ritter & Co., who lives at Panther, W. Va., and S. M. Wolfe, the Superintendent of the company, treated me with all courtesy in the matter, and seemed perfectly willing to disclose all facts in the case. However, when I endeavored to ascertain the name of the man, No. 288, I was informed that neither his name nor that of his companion laborers who were received from the No. 7 Southern Immigration Bureau on December 1st, 1906, were a matter of record, they being known only by number. This taken into consideration with the facts in the case, and with the information that this consignment of men caused more trouble than any others, leads me to believe that the names were purposely withheld. I was further informed that these men were recruited from the slums and dives of New York by the Southern Immigration Bureau.

Your attention is invited to the affidavit of Michael O'Brien (Exhibit "E" herewith), in which he states that he is one of the laborers that arrived on December 1st on such transportation from New York. He also testifies as to the treatment of Laborer No. 288 at the hands of Elias Hatfield.

Many of the men brought to this State by the Wm. Ritter Lumber Company, on the above mentioned "transportation," are compelled, by force of otherwise, to work until the amount of the expense attached to their being brought from New York, or other places, has been repaid to the company. If a man escapes the vigilant guards he is pursued and captured without due process of law, returned and compelled to work again under guard. (Again see Exhibit "B", as to guards, etc.). The investigation indicated that the laborers brought to these and other places are of mixed races and different nationalities.

Hoping that the above will serve to enlighten you upon the matter, I have, sir, the honor to be,

Very respectfuly [sic] yours,
[Signed] D. W. CUNNINGHAM, Deputy U. S. Marshal.

. . .

(No. 17)


HON. WM. M. O. DAWSON, Charleston, W. Va.

Dear Sir: - By your request of December 31st, 1906, that I make an investigation pertaining to the murder of two Italians in Fayette county, West Virginia, I have the honor to submit a report based on a personal investigation, which is as follows:

I found that Dominick Masuleo and Frank Lepor were shot to death by one W. D. Auxier, walking boss for the Dunn's Construction Company, on a private railroad known as the White Oak Railroad. The two Italians were shot to death three miles south of Wriston, Fayette county, West Virginia, on May 23d, 1906.

After arriving at Wriston, W. Va., I failed to find any of the Italians who were present on May 23d, 1906, when their two companions, Dominick Masuleo and Frank Lepor, were killed. Wm. Black (merchant) and others told me they thought all of the Italians who were present at the shooting had left the works, and also the county.

Wriston is situated on Lower Loup Creek, in Kanawha district, Fayette county, W. Va. The White Oak Railroad at this point runs parallel with the great Deepwater or Wabash System, and not more than one hundred yards apart. The investigation showed that Dominick Masuleo had his little son with him, not then thirteen years old. That Dominick Masuleo and his son owed a small sum, about $1.50, on the amount due on their transportation to the Dunn's Construction Company. This amount Dominick Masuleo decided to pay and he and his son leave the company. A dispute arose over the fare of the son, and W. D. Auxier argued that the boy should pay full fare. Masuleo told Auxier that that was not the agreement; some words were then passed, and the shooting commenced. Auxier shot Masuleo in front and through the heart; he also shot Frank Lepor in front and through the heart. Lepor was shot twice. The evidence showed that W. D. Auxier left the Dunn's Construction Company as soon as the shooting was done, and went to his home in Paintsville, Johnson county, Kentucky. (See deposition, Exhibit B). Later Auxier returned to Fayette county and had a preliminary trial before J. P. Staton, Justice of the Peace, at Glen Jean, W. Va., (see Exhibit B). The evidence showed that the two Italians were unarmed, which is contrary to the story of Auxier that Masuleo and Lepor were advancing toward him with knives (see Exhibit B). The evidence also showed at the trial that Auxier had in company with him three of the men who were working for the Dunn's Construction Company. None of the sixteen or twenty Italians who were working on the grade with Masuleo and Lepor were there to testify at the preliminary trial, not even the son of Masuleo being present, (see Exhibits A and B).

The little son of Masuleo was heart-broken over the murder of his father, as it left him in a friendless condition, he not being able to speak English. On the day of the inquest Squire Staton gave the boy $7.00 to aid him in getting to his home.

Very respectfully,

uty United States Marshal.

. . .

The foregoing are all the documents and facts in my possession concerning these three matters.

(1) The Raleigh County Peonage Case,
(2) The Wyoming County Peonage Case, and
(3) The Killing of Two Italians in Fayette County.

They are such as ought to be brought to the attention of the Legislature, and I lay them before you in discharge of my duty.

They show a deplorable condition. They emphasize the assertion in my regular message to you, that one of the most dangerous evils of the day is the non-enforcement of the laws, and the consequent disregard of and contempt for law.

There is great demand for laborers in this state. To supply this lumber companies, coal companies, and like industries, apply to concerns in the East who are in the business of furnishing laborers. These "labor agencies" are paid a stipulated price (two dollars, I am told) for each laborer furnished. It is not strange that an undesirable class of labor is procured by this means. These laborers are of different nationalities; unable to speak our language and unable to protect themselves; many are brutal and vicious; and, their manhood and spirit crushed by centuries of oppression in the foreign lands, they confuse liberty with license. But they are human beings. Our duty, the instincts of humanity, justice, our own safety as a people, and our good name, all demand they be treated justly, and that if the law has been violated that the offenders be adequately punished, and if there be need of further legislation it be promptly furnished.

The undesirable conditions as regards immigration into this state has been brought to my attention in various ways. One of the most prominent coal operators in this state, the 6th inst., wrote me as follows:

The coal industry, and I might say almost every other industry in the State of West Virginia, is being at the present handicapped for labor. I do not know that anything can be done by the next Legislature to induce desirable labor to settle within our borders, but I understand the State of South Carolina pays the passage of suitable immigrants as an inducement to have them settle within that state. This is rather a new departure, I have no doubt, for any Governor to undertake, but I would suggest that you give this matter some thought, and if you think there is any way that the State of West Virginia could be gotten to offer inducements to desirable immigrants to locate within the state, I think it should be done. Just how the State of South Carolina arranges the payment of the passage money I am unable to say. However, it occurs to me you would be interested in getting the better class of immigrants into West Virginia, such as the Polish, Swedes, Norwegians and the residents of the British Isles. Unless something is done along this line, we will be swamped by a large influx of immigrants from southern Italy, who are brought into the state by contractors for the construction of railroads and when the job is completed the contractors move off, while a large percentage of their laborers remain in the state and become fixed residents. Personally, I think something should be done towards inducing desirable immigration to this state, and I would be glad if you would look into the matter with a view towards outlining some plan that will bring about the desired results.

This letter deserves consideration. We have no immigration bureau - no means to bring about the betterment desired.

(P. S. - I just see in the periodical "American Industries," a full discussion of the South Carolina law by Solicitor Charles Earl, of the Department of Commerce and Labor of the United States.)

Consideration of this matter brings up the labor question - old but ever new. From many letters of complaint received by me and from information gained otherwise, I fear that labor conditions in this state are not good. The condition is the result partly of the contract-labor system and the long contest between the operators and the labor organizations in the coal mining regions. As is nearly always the case in contests, both sides, perhaps, are blameworthy. Subject always to regulation by law demanded by the general welfare, before which rights of persons and of property must yield to just restraint and modification, capital and labor both have the right to organize for its protection and benefit; capital has the right to conduct its business, to hire whom it pleases, pay what it pleases, and make such contracts as it pleases. The workingman has the right to work for whom he pleases, and on such terms and conditions that he thinks best; the right to join the union or to refuse to join it, and he ought not to be prohibited from joining nor coerced to join.

As to the Raleigh county case, it appears that under contract with the lumber company, which was building a railroad, a New York "labor agency" furnished the lumber company 26 men, the lumber company agreeing to pay them $1.50 to $1.65 per day, and advanced money to pay their railroad fare from New York. When these men came to Raleigh county they became dissatisfied and started to return. They were summarily arrested and deprived of their liberty. Probably they were deceived by the labor agency, either as to the kind of labor they were to perform, or as to the compensation they were to receive, or as to both. On paying back to the lumber company the amount of their transportation a part of the men were as summarily released from arrest as they were arrested. The men were all charged with fraud. Those who did not or could not pay the money back, were imprisoned; afterwards they went to work in peonage. The whole proceeding shows an attempt to collect a simple debt by duress, which is unlawful.

The Wyoming county case shows that these contract-laborers are held in peonage, guarded by armed men, until they have paid back the transportation money, and if they escape they are unlawfully arrested and brought back by no gentle means, and sometimes by vicious, cruel, lawless men employed as guards.

The Fayette county case speaks for itself. It looks like a cruel, heartless and wanton murder of two men by one of these "guards."

The use of guards in this state is not restricted to cases like these we are considering. They are used also at some collieries to protect the property of the owners, to prevent trespassing, and especially to prohibit labor agitators and organizers of the miners' union from gaining access to the miners. Every man, of course, has the right to protect his property and his premises from trespassers. If I trespass upon your property you have the right to eject me; but it is your duty to warn me first, and in no event to use more force to put me off than is necessary; you have no right to assault me and beat me or to kill me. Many outrages have been committed by these guards, many of whom appear to be vicious and dare-devil men who seem to aim to add to their viciousness by bulldozing and terrorizing people. It is submitted in all candor that it is not to the best interest of the owners of these collieries to employ such lawless men or to justify the outrageous acts committed by them. A few months ago I was compelled to parole from the penitentiary - I had much doubt whether I ought not to have given an unconditional pardon - a young man who killed one of these guards, in a case that had many, if not all, of the elements of self-defense. The employers of these guards make the mistake, it would seem, of upholding them in such unlawful acts. As I pointed out in my regular message, men of property cannot afford to disregard the law or to wink at its violation. A violation of law is equally such whether the victim by the most prominent citizen of the state or the most ignorant foreign laborer; it will not do to have one law for one class and another law for another class; there is but one law for all classes, and the enforcement of the law should be impartial as to all men, regardless of standing or condition, except that if any favors are shown they should be to the weak and ignorant.

As I have said, the labor conditions in this State are not what they ought to be. These bad conditions are almost wholly confined to the mining industry of the State. So far as the authority of the State Labor Commissioner extends to inspect the conditions of labor in factories and the like, the conditions seem to be good, as you will learn from his report. But he does not inspect the condition in coal mines. In some of these, in certain parts of the State, the miners are oppressed and wronged. They are compelled, under some circumstances, to work in ill-ventilated and otherwise unfit mines. They are cheated in the payment of compensation for their labor. They work on condition that they receive so much per ton for the coal mined by them; the coal is not weighed but is calculated by the mine car; these cars (at least at some collieries) are rated at a capacity of two and one-half tons, whereas they often have a capacity of four tons, and in some cases even up to six tons; but the miner is paid for only two and one-half tons, and for all above that he mines he gets no pay whatever. This is robbery of the poor and oppression of the weak. At some of the stores conducted by collieries the miners are charged extortionate prices for merchandise. For instance, they are charged sixty cents for a small powder flask, such as is used by miners, which are sold at wholesale at seventy-five cents a dozen, and usually retail at ten cents each. This is likewise robbery of the poor and oppression of the weak. At some of these mines accidents are not reported as the law requires, because the operators fear that the knowledge that accidents have happened will prevent the securing of labor; whereas, the suppression of the facts has the opposite result, for the happening of the accident will become known and the facts will be exaggerated and laborers will shun such mines.

Be it remembered that these conditions are not general, and they do not obtain at anything like a majority of the mines; but they do obtain at a sufficient number to cast a cloud over the whole mining industry of the State, and they do injury to the mining interest. The great majority of the mines, which pay honestly for the coal mined, are subject to unfair competition with the mines where over-sized cars are used, which by this fraud get their coal mined at much less than is paid at the other mines.

I know from personal observation and otherwise that at some of the stores conducted by coal companies merchandise is sold to the miners at even a less price than the same articles are sold by the neighboring independent merchants. A large majority of the mines of the State are kept in first class condition, and we have mines in this State in which the conditions, I dare say, are not surpassed in goodness by any mines in the United States.

In view of all these things, I respectfully suggest to the Legislature that thorough investigation of the conditions throughout the state should be made, that light may be thrown in on these dark places, and that the exact state of facts may be learned, so that whatever remedies can be prescribed by the law may be prescribed intelligently - will a full knowledge of all the conditions.

Very respectfully,

Charleston, W. Va., January 17, 1907.


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