West Virginia’s 13th governor, William Ellsworth Glasscock (December 13, 1862-April 12, 1925) is most remembered for his role in the Mine Wars. During his term (1909–13), the state also received national publicity for an affair involving the appointment of U.S. senators, and there were important governmental reforms.
Glasscock was born on a farm in Monongalia County and educated in the public schools and at West Virginia University. He became a teacher and later a lawyer, being admitted to the bar in 1903. He became a superintendent of schools in 1887 and the clerk of the county circuit court in 1890. In 1905, at the recommendation of U.S. Sen. Stephen B. Elkins, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Glasscock internal revenue collector for the District of West Virginia. Glasscock resigned to run for governor as a Republican in 1908. He was elected by a majority of 12,133 votes over Democrat Louis Bennett.
During Glasscock’s administration, the legislature established an agency for road construction, a nonpartisan board to control public institutions, a Public Service Commission, a tuberculosis sanitarium, and the office of commissioner of agriculture. It enacted a workmen’s compensation law and empowered the federal government to acquire state land for forest reserves. Medical examinations were required for pupils in public schools.
Two years after Glasscock took office, the Democrats gained control of the House of Delegates and a 15-15 split in the Senate. U.S. senators were appointed at that time by state legislatures. This gave Democrats the power to name the next U.S. senator, for the matter would be settled in a Democrat-controlled joint session even if a Republican were chosen by the evenly divided state Senate. Republican U.S. Sen. Nathan Goff ’s term would expire the following year. Then Elkins, the other Republican senator, died January 4, 1911, just after the legislature convened. Suddenly, the legislature was poised to name two Democratic senators.
To avoid those appointments, Republican state senators hid in Glasscock’s office, preventing a quorum in the upper house. Without a vote, no U.S. senator could be chosen. When the sergeant-at-arms sought to capture at least one Republican to force a vote, allies slipped them onto a train to Cincinnati, where they lodged in a hotel.
The national press publicized the standoff. The parties compromised: the Democrats chose two U.S. senators and the Republicans organized the West Virginia Senate, allowing them leadership of the upper house.
The Mine Wars erupted in April 1912, when miners struck over several key issues, including recognition of the union, abolition of the mine guard system, and the right to a checkweighman. Kanawha Valley coal companies refused to bargain. They armed their mine guards, many from the notorious Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency in Bluefield, with shotguns, rifles, and machine guns. The miners were scarcely less well-armed, and a bloody shooting war ensued.
Glasscock’s response was denounced on constitutional grounds, but the West Virginia Supreme Court upheld his actions. When armed miners clashed with the companies’ guards, he sent militia troops to preserve order. At one time the entire state force was on Paint Creek in the area of the Fayette-Kanawha border. In September, Glasscock declared the strike district under martial law; 1,200 state militia were rushed to the territory. Operators and strikers were ordered to surrender arms and ammunition. Congregating of miners was prohibited. A measure of peace was restored, but the conflict continued beyond Glasscock’s term.
Speaking before the West Virginia capitol in August 1912, labor organizer Mary Harris ‘‘Mother’’ Jones denounced Governor Glasscock for the continued presence of armed mine guards. ‘‘I say that if the governor won’t make them go then we will make them go,’’ she declared. ‘‘We have come to the chief executive, we have asked him, and he couldn’t do anything.’’ Glasscock had left Charleston the day before the rally. Jones denounced him as a ‘‘dirty coward.’’
Disturbances quieted by mid-October. The governor lifted martial law. The militia withdrew. Hostilities resumed the following month, and Glasscock issued his second martial law proclamation. The militia withdrew again in January. Glasscock issued a third proclamation in February, near the end of his term, and troops were again rushed to the strike area. His successor, Governor Henry Hatfield, dictated terms of peace, forced both sides to accept them, and brought the strike to an end in 1913.
The jailing of civilians including Mother Jones by military courts under the martial law proclamation was the most controversial act of Glasscock’s administration. Glasscock was upheld by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals in the case Mays and Nance v. Brown, although state Attorney General Howard B. Lee later characterized the episode as a ‘‘rape of the constitution.’’
After his term as governor, Glasscock practiced law in Morgantown and took little part in public affairs. Friends said he never fully recovered from the strain of high office on his health. He died at his home and was buried in Oak Grove Cemetery in Morgantown.
Read Gov. Glasscock’s inaugural address.
This Article was written by Glade Little
Last Revised on October 26, 2012
Morgan, John G. West Virginia Governors, 1863-1980. Charleston: Charleston Newspapers, 1980.
Lee, Howard B. Bloodletting in Appalachia. Morgantown: West Virginia University, 1969.
Comstock, Jim, ed. West Virginia Heritage Encyclopedia vol. 9. Richwood: Jim Comstock, 1976.