By Dwight Williamson
While great detail will be given in a future edition of this newspaper regarding the history of legendary Logan County Sheriff Don Chafin and the very house in which he lived, for today’s purposes, I would like to relate a story that few people living nowadays have ever been aware of — a cold blooded murder in which Chafin was arrested, tried, and declared not guilty.
Though Chafin is widely known for his exploits while serving as the most famous sheriff in West Virginia, and his involvement at the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, Chafin actually wore many political hats in his lifetime before being convicted of moonshining in 1924, after a former deputy, who happened to be Devil Anse Hatfield’s son (Tennis Hatfield), testified against him. Chafin was sentenced to an Atlanta, Georgia prison for two years in 1925. After returning from prison, Chafin realized his political strength had been incredibly weakened and moved to Huntington in 1936 where he lived as a millionaire until 1954, when he died at age 67. A victim of several heart attacks, the man once known as the “Czar of Logan County,” reportedly succumbed from complications following surgery. However, an incident that occurred on a sultry 1917 Saturday night in July at a Mud Fork community now known as Hedgeview could have — and perhaps should have — kept Chafin from ever becoming the powerful person he was. Chafin, whose father was sheriff of the county from 1894 until 1898, also had an uncle (John), who was county clerk for years, and another uncle (James) who served as county clerk in Mingo County, after it was formed from Logan. In addition, he was a cousin to former Logan Judge J.B. Wilkinson, who built the home that now serves as Honaker Funeral Home on Main Street. Leviacy Hatfield, the proud wife of Devil Anse, was Don Chafin’s second cousin. Keeping all these facts in mind, one can understand how a man with such influences could get away with murder; especially if your brother-in-law (Frank Hurst) was the sheriff. Interestingly enough, Chafin would in 1920 purchase the house, now know as the Chafin House, from Hurst for $27,500. It still today stands on Main Street in Logan. Here is the story of the shooting and trial as reported in the Logan Democrat, a former rival newspaper of The Logan Banner.
“Frank Kazee, 26-years-old, was shot and instantly killed last Saturday night on Mud Fork about three and a half miles from Logan by a bullet fired from a pistol in the hands of Don Chafin, deputy county clerk, according to a verdict of a jury impaneled by Coroner Bryant Sunday morning which heard the evidence.”
The story went on to say that around midnight on a Saturday two vehicles, which were referred to as “machines” by the newspaper writer, were traveling up the creek in the vicinity of the home of J.B. Ellis when the “machine” carrying Chafin, Harold McCormick, Jim Wagner, Lummie Widener and Julius Curry passed the “machine” in which Abe Kirk, Cage Kirk and Kazee were riding. Kazee was in the back seat. Although not reported, it is believed that words were exchanged in what could be called one of Logan County’s first cases of road rage. The report said Chafin’s machine stopped about twenty yards from the place where the other vehicle had chosen to turn around. Chafin approached the vehicle and demanded to know who the passengers were. Abe Kirk is said to have answered: “You know us, Don.” To this, Frank Kazee is said to have added: “Sure, Don, you know us.” Chafin backed up a few yards, and then approached the vehicle again. Chafin reportedly opened the side door and is said to have fired the shot which killed Kazee. Chafin “returned to his machine and drove back to town.”
The two Kirks also started for town and rode for some time before they looked back to speak to Kazee. When he did not answer, they discovered him dead. The story said the Kirks had previously thought that Chafin had fired the pistol “just to have a little sport.”
Following his posting of a $5000 bond the next day, Chafin is said to have been “visibly affected by the tragedy.” He said he had no recollection whatever of the previous night. And he added that he had no memory of shooting the boy and that such a thing was “entirely out of his mind.”
Chafin saw the boy’s father and reportedly tried to comfort him as best he could. He ordered the undertaker to “spare no expense in giving the youth a burial.” “I never felt so bad in my life,” declared Chafin to a reporter. The Kazee boy was a good friend of mine and I can’t remember shooting him at all. I would not think of doing such a thing. I cannot be convinced yet that I killed him. When the officers came for me and told me that I had shot him, I could not believe them. It seemed so foolish to think that I would do anything like that. The whole events of Saturday night are absolutely a blank to me. I have no recollection of anything taking place that night.”
Chafin’s words, having been spoken like a true politician, set the stage for his trial that came about three months later in October.
The headline for October 18th read: “Don Chafin Is Acquitted of Murder Charge By Jury”. The story said the jury had been out for nearly four hours before reaching its decision. Special appointed Prosecutor Meeks of Huntington made the statement to the court that “a material witness for the state, Cage Kirk, was being held out of jurisdiction of the court” and he implicated two deputy sheriffs of the county in the implied abduction. However, Meeks refused to divulge the source of his information, the newspaper reported. Chafin’s attorney then requested that two special deputy sheriffs be appointed to take charge of the jury so that “no reflections should be cast upon Sheriff Hurst,” who was Chafin’s brother-in-law.
The newspaper report said that during testimony Chafin had offered to tell the prosecutor who it was that sent Cage Kirk away, but he was “not asked nor permitted to do so”. John Marcum, Chafin’s defense attorney, later told the jury that it was Chafin’s “political enemies” who were responsible for sending Cage Kirk out of the jurisdiction of the court. He also confused the jury more by asserting that a “fund raised by the same source” was responsible for the appearance in the case of attorney Lance Marcum, as assistant to Prosecutor Meeks.
Without Cage Kirk, his brother, Abe Kirk, was the only real witness for the prosecution. He told of the defendant and Julius Curry “leaving the machine in which they were riding and coming up to the machine which he was driving, and of the words that passed there.” Kirk said he heard gunfire and saw the flash which came from Don Chafin, but did not see any weapon, and could not swear who shot Kazee, who was sitting alone in the back seat. He also stated that he did not know at the time that Kazee had been shot nor did he know that he had been killed until later.
The key witnesses for the defense were Chafin and Julius Curry. Curry testified that Chafin did not shoot Kazee and that the gunfire came from behind both of them, and that he saw no gun flash. Chafin, testifying on his own behalf, denied having fired the gun that killed Kazee, and swore that on the night of the murder he had no weapon with him. He substantiated the testimony of other witnesses that he and the murdered man had been friendly.
So it was that on a hot summer night in Logan County in the year of 1917 a bunch of joy riding young men, who were probably all drinking the liquor of their choices, and having access to early vehicles which were few in the county, were out on a typical Saturday night drive. Chafin did not appreciate words being exchanged by occupants of the car he had just passed. Chafin’s drinking would come into play in later life, when he reportedly got drunk and entered a UMWA establishment making idle threats. It was there he was shot in the chest by an official who hated him anyway.
The trial itself was nothing but a stage for actors in the play. The one witness who could positively identify Don Chafin as the killer was taken out of town by Sheriff Hurst’s deputies, while the special assistant Prosecutor named was related to the defense attorney. Toss in a few “ringers” on the jury, and Chafin’s future was secured. The man, who at age 21, had previously been elected assessor of Logan County in 1908, would become sheriff in 1912. At the close of his term, in 1916, he was appointed county clerk, and in 1920 was again elected sheriff. The Battle of Blair Mountain would happen the very next year. Fact is, had Chafin been found guilty, as he should have been, there may never have been a “Blair Mountain”, and oh, how Logan County’s history would be altered.
Dwight Williamson is a contributing writer and a former reporter for The Logan Banner. He currently serves as a Logan County Magistrate.
*Published with permission.