The 14th governor of West Virginia, Henry Drury Hatfield (September 15, 1875-October 23, 1962) was born in the heart of Hatfield country on Mate Creek, near Matewan in what is today Mingo County.
A nephew of feudist Anderson ‘‘Devil Anse’’ Hatfield, young Henry Hatfield attended a one-room school in McDowell County. He was away at college while the Hatfield-McCoy Feud was under way, graduating from Franklin College in Ohio at age 15 and going on to medical school at what is now the University of Louisville. Hatfield received a second medical degree, with a specialization in surgery, from New York University in 1904.
Hatfield began the practice of medicine in the southern coalfields, becoming a coal-camp physician for the Pocahontas Coal Company in McDowell County. Appalled by the lack of medical facilities in the coal camps, he, along with State Sen. James Bevins, secured funding to establish three miners hospitals for the southern part of the state. At age 24, Hatfield was appointed to the board of directors for the hospital in Welch. For the next 13 years he served in that capacity.
In 1906, Hatfield, running on the Republican ticket, was elected to the McDowell County court, the local governing body which was the precursor to today’s county commission, and served as its president for the next two years. In 1908, he took his seat in the West Virginia Senate. Although not successful in the passage of legislation, he introduced an array of measures to outlaw itinerant medicine salesmen, tighten dispensation of drugs, institute a board of examiners for nurses and physicians, and collect vital statistics on communicable diseases. ‘‘I have always believed, that the health of the citizens must be the first concern of the statesman,’’ Hatfield remarked.
In the 1910 election the voters of West Virginia returned an evenly divided number of Republicans and Democrats to the state senate. Both parties demanded the leadership. After protracted conflict during which Republican senators hid in Governor W. E. Glasscock’s office and then fled to Cincinnati to deny a voting quorum, Republican Hatfield’s name was put forth by Democrats as an acceptable compromise candidate. He was thus elected president of the West Virginia Senate in 1911.
In 1912 at age 37, Henry Hatfield was elected governor, to that date West Virginia’s youngest governor ever. In that office he was able to secure passage of important legislation that had eluded him as state senator. Among the progressive measures that passed while Hatfield was governor were a Public Service Commission, a workers’ compensation program, direct election of U. S. Senators, women’s suffrage, a primary election bill, a corrupt practice act, a mine inspection bill, and restrictions on the mine guard or “company thug” system of private policing in the coalfields.
Among the measures that Hatfield secured none was more important to him than the workers’ compensation law. Hatfield had urged passage of this act while president of the state senate, and after that session adjourned he traveled to Germany to visit the Ruhr Valley coalfields. There he studied the compensation measure that Germany had passed, and he later modeled the West Virginia bill on the German system. On February 21, 1913, workers’ compensation passed the West Virginia Legislature. The program provided a uniform system of compensation to injured workers, while relieving employers of liability in individual cases. Workers’ compensation paid funeral expenses for workers killed on the job while providing a stipend for widows and children; in case of partial or permanent disability the employee was paid a certain percentage of his salary. The system was financed by a tax on the employer and employee. Workers’ compensation continued as a public program in West Virginia until privatized in 2006 during the administration of Gov. Joe Manchin.
When Hatfield became governor West Virginia was embroiled in a prolonged and violent strike in the coalfields of Paint and Cabin creeks. Martial law had been declared by his predecessor, and many miners had been tried and sentenced by military tribunals. On the day after his inaugural address, Dr. Hatfield left the governor’s mansion and traveled to the strike region to spend the day treating wounded miners and the colorful labor agitator, Mary Harris ‘‘Mother’’ Jones. He granted a general pardon to Mother Jones and the miners who had been sentenced by military courts and appointed a board of arbitration to end the strike. He himself chaired the board. On April 28, 1913, both sides in the strike accepted what was known as the “Hatfield Contract,” and peace returned temporarily to the West Virginia coalfields.
After his term as governor, Hatfield in 1917 entered the army medical corps as a captain and later major. He served as a chief surgeon during World War I. When the armistice was signed Hatfield returned to the private practice of medicine. In 1928, he again entered politics. He ran for the U. S. Senate, defeating the incumbent Democrat, Matthew Mansfield Neely, in the Hoover landslide that swept Republicans into office that fall. During his single term in the U. S. Senate, he was successful in establishing a veterans hospital in Huntington. As the political mood shifted with the coming of the Great Depression, Hatfield was defeated in 1934 by the young Democrat Rush Holt. Upon leaving the U. S. Senate Hatfield returned to West Virginia, back to the practice of medicine and to the enjoyment of his extensive farming operations in Cabell and Wayne counties.
Henry Drury Hatfield died at his home in Huntington at the age of 87, leaving an estate valued at $3.6 million.
Read Gov. Hatfield’s inaugural address.
This Article was written by Carolyn M. Karr
Last Revised on May 16, 2016
Karr, Carolyn. A Political Biography of Henry Hatfield. West Virginia History, (Oct. 1966, Jan. 1967).
Burckel, Nicholas C. "Progressive Governors in the Border States: Reform Governors of Missouri, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Maryland." Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, 1971.
Penn, Neil S. "Henry D. Hatfield and Reform Politics." Ph.D diss., Emory University, 1977.
Cite This Article
Karr, Carolyn M. "Henry D. Hatfield." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 16 May 2016. Web. 27 October 2016.