The 14th governor of West Virginia, Henry Drury Hatfield (September 15, 1875-October 23, 1962) was born on Mate Creek, near Matewan in what is today Mingo County. A nephew of feudist Anderson ‘‘Devil Anse’’ Hatfield, the young Hatfield attended a one-room school in McDowell County. He entered medical school at the University of Louisville and graduated with a medical degree at the age of 21. After graduation he returned to the 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 1911 election the voters of West Virginia returned an evenly divided number of Republicans and Democrats to the 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, Hatfield’s name was put forth by Democrats as an acceptable compromise candidate. He was elected president of the West Virginia Senate.
In 1912, Hatfield was elected governor, the state’s youngest to that date. In that office he was able to secure passage of important legislation. Among the measures that passed while he was governor were a Public Service Commission, a workmen’s 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 system.
Among the measures that Hatfield secured none was more important to him than the workmen’s 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 that system. On February 21, 1913, workmen’s 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. Workmen’s compensation paid funeral expenses of the deceased and a stipend to the widow 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.
When Hatfield became governor the state 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 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 the ‘‘Hatfield contract.’’
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 against Matthew Mansfield Neely. During his single term in the Senate, he was successful in establishing a veterans hospital in Huntington. Hatfield was defeated in 1934 by young Rush Holt. He returned to West Virginia and back to the practice of medicine. Henry Drury Hatfield died at his home in Huntington at the age of 87.
Read Gov. Hatfield’s inaugural address.
This Article was written by Carolyn M. Karr
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.