I Saw It Happen

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Senate Report, 76th Cong., 1st Sess. "Violations of Free Speech and Rights of Labor."

The War Against Labor in the Thirties

[1935–37]

I Murder in Harlan County

The murder of Bennett Musick occurred at about 8:30 p. m. in the evening of February 9, 1937. Mrs. Musick and her three sons were sitting about the fireplace and her daughter was busy at household tasks when a shower of bullets tore through the walls of the house. Mrs. Musick, the boy’s mother, described what took place:

"Well, I could not tell how many shots, it was so excitable and unexpected. The first shot that I heard, I was reading the paper next to the baby boy who had just come back from Evarts and brought the day’s paper and handed it to me, and I was reading the paper, and the first shot, I thought just for a second it was something exploded in the grate. I was setting in front of the grate, and I looked down, and by that time there was another one, and at that time of course, I did not remember seeing Bennett go out of the room at that particular time. It was a week before it come to me that I never did think I saw him leave, but in a week I remembered seing him just kind of crawl to go into the bedroom, and he must have fell. This boy that is 14 was setting on the studio couch at the end that came around to the door to go into the bedroom, and he said Bennett just rose out of his chair and went in the front room, and just fell into the bedroom, but he had turned. He was lying right around a trunk just to the left of the door. He crawled around and his feet were past the door."

After the shooting had stopped. Mrs. Musick called the roll of her family:

"We hushed for 2 or 3 seconds, or 2 or 3 minutes maybe, then the shooting stopped, and I thought—well, I said, "Are any of you shot?" And the baby boy said, "I am shot in the arm," and Pauline said, "I am not shot," and Virgil went behind the door, the 14 year old boy got behind the door, and two bullets went in just above his head. He just scattered down behind the door that stood open just a little, and I took Bennett by the shoulder."

It was then that Mrs. Musick discovered that Bennett was dead.

"I shook Bennett, and he was dead. We did not have a light in the room, and Pauline and I just drug him to the door where that light shined in from the living room and seen he was dead."

A revulsion of sentiment swept Harlan County as a result of the cold-blooded murder of Bennett Musick by the night riders of Ben Unthank. Voices were raised in protest, even among the deputies. Henry M. Lewis, chief deputy under High Sheriff Theodore R. Middleton, tendered his resignation on February 20, 1937. He explained his action by saying:

"Well, there were things going on all over the county that I did not approve of."

He amplified this statement:

"Well, lots of things had happened that I did not know how they happened or who done it. You take killing the Musick boy in Harlan County was a bad piece of work by somebody. I don’t know who did it, or anything about it. It was about as bad a crowd as ever happened to be in our county. That house being shot up in the night and that boy killed, that was a had piece of business. . . ."

[After the Musick killing, Frank White, active in the ambushing of labor organizers, warned Hugh Taylor, one of his confederates, not to talk about the affair, and threatened that if he went "down" for the killing "somebody would go right down with me, too."]

On February 20, 1937, Frank White made good his threat. That evening Hugh Taylor was in a saloon with David Sullenberger, whose father operated the Clubhouse at Shields, where the Berger Coal Co. deputies stayed. Wash Irwin noticed him and said, according to Taylor: "You don’t belong here," he says, "you better go back down to Shields." Taylor and Sullenberger left the saloon and drove back in the direction of Shields. They were overtaken by a car driven by Frank White, who had with him Wash Irwin and a third man. White sounded his horn, and Taylor drew his car to a halt to see what he wanted. White approached Taylor, who was at the driver’s seat, and Irwin and his companion came up on the other side. After a brief greeting, White and Irwin suddenly drew their pistols and fired point blank at Taylor and Sullenberger, hitting them five times, though not fatally. Taylor described what took place as follows:

"The car came up behind me. His car came up behind me and he blowed his horn for me to stop. I told the boys I better stop and see what he wants. I stopped and Frank got out. I saw him getting out. I waited for him to come up there. He says, "Where are you going?" I says, "I am going to bed." I cast my eyes to the side and I saw somebody else walk out from the car; I saw Wash Irwin and somebody else right alongside of him, and Wash Irwin had a pistol; it looked to me like a bright-looking automatic; and Frank says, "You will like hell." He stuck the pistol alongside of my head, and when he stuck the pistol alongside of my head I grabbed the pistol with my left hand and jerked it up, and when I jerked the pistol up he fired on me."

Senator LA FOLLETTE: Were you hit?

Mr. TAYLOR: Yes.

Senator LA FOLLETTE: Where?

Mr. TAYLOR: I was hit in the fingers, the last finger right here (indicating); it hit that finger there and went through here (indicating) and came right out through here (indicating).

Senator LA FOLLETTE: That is the left hand?

Mr. TAYLOR: That is the left hand. That is the hand I grabbed it with.

Taylor then reached for the pistol with his right hand, and White fired through the knuckles, breaking the hand. Taylor was left helpless. He managed to struggle out of the car and ran for the side of the road. He testified further:

"The door of the car came open; I don’t know how I could get it opened, but I got it opened, I don’t know how, but, anyway, the door came open, and I had two 45’s, and I reached for them, but I could not do nothing with them; I could do nothing with my hands to get them, and then I turned to ran, and when I broke into a run he shot me. I started to go on a run, and just as I started to there he shot me through the hip, out through the groin here (indicating), and that run me down."

As he lay helpless on the ground, White and Irwin drew dose to deliver a final blow. But they decided it was not necessary.

Mr. TAYLOR: Then I laid down. They came to examine me. I laid there flat dead. Wash Irwin got to me there. My right hand was spurting blood; the artery was cut, and the thought struck me that I could not run, I could not get away, and I held my arm up to my breast, and I held it up so that blood got on my breast so it would look like I was shot through the chest somewhere, so he would not shoot me again. I laid there, letting the blood come down on my chest, and they turned me over and examined me. He says, "He is as dead as he will ever be." Frank White said, "Let the damn son-of-a-bitch lie there. He will quit talking." Then he took my two pistols. I was afraid to wiggle my head, so I lay down there and every once in a while he would reach over there and see the blood spurting, and then he came back down again and turned me over and examined me again, and he said, "He is as dead as he will ever be."

I lay like a possum again, and he looked at me and examined me again, and then he took my flashlight, my blackjack, my fountain pen, and stuck them in his pockets and went on.

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Chicago: "The War Against Labor in the Thirties: Murder in Harlan County," I Saw It Happen in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Co., 1951), Original Sources, accessed November 29, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=RSS4XE9U4IHWTJG.

MLA: . "The War Against Labor in the Thirties: Murder in Harlan County." I Saw It Happen, in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, edited by Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris, Harrisburg, Pa., Stackpole Co., 1951, Original Sources. 29 Nov. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=RSS4XE9U4IHWTJG.

Harvard: , 'The War Against Labor in the Thirties: Murder in Harlan County' in I Saw It Happen. cited in 1951, History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. , Stackpole Co., Harrisburg, Pa.. Original Sources, retrieved 29 November 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=RSS4XE9U4IHWTJG.