Dictionary of Virginia Biography

William Gibboney Baldwin (26 May 1860–31 March 1936), cofounder of Baldwin-Felts Detectives, Inc., was born in Tazewell County, the eldest of five sons and four daughters of Denison B. Baldwin and Sallie Barns Baldwin. Very little is known about his youth except that he enjoyed reading. He abandoned an early interest in dentistry and turned to detective work about 1884 when he joined the Eureka Detective Agency in Charleston, West Virginia. He married Katherine English, and they had two sons before separating, probably before he moved to Roanoke early in the 1890s.

Baldwin formed his own agency in Roanoke, Baldwin's Railroad Detectives, and took over all of the detective work in the coalfields of western Virginia, West Virginia, and eastern Kentucky for the Norfolk and Western Railway Company, of which his brother-in-law, William Jackson Jenks, was general manager and later vice president. The work consisted of keeping order on trains, preventing or investigating thefts, and controlling the railroad's labor force. Baldwin's agency provided all detective services for the Norfolk and Western until he retired. He took an active role in his company's often violent work. In 1898 Baldwin was acquitted of murder charges in Petersburg after shooting and killing a black man during an arrest. At the trial he claimed to have fired on fourteen men in his capacity as a railroad detective for the Norfolk and Western.

Baldwin was involved in two notorious episodes of racial violence in Roanoke at the turn of the century. After an assault on a white farmer's wife in Roanoke in 1893, he brought in Thomas Smith, an African American, as a suspect. Baldwin then refused to help city officials protect Smith from the violent crowd that had gathered at the jail. A riot broke out and Smith was eventually lynched. In 1904 Baldwin intervened in the case of Henry Williams, an African American man who had been arrested and accused of assaulting and nearly killing a white Roanoke woman. Baldwin extracted a confession from Williams, who later charged that Baldwin had got him drunk in his jail cell and that his confession was both coerced and false. A mob of Roanoke men threatened to lynch Williams after news of the confession was made public, but he survived long enough to be legally hanged later that year.

Baldwin's principal fame came after he formed a partnership with Thomas L. Felts in 1900. Baldwin-Felts Detectives supplied security services to the Norfolk and Western, the Virginian, the Carolina, Clinchfield and Ohio, the Chesapeake and Ohio, the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac, and the Southern Pacific Railroads, as well as to Morgan's Louisiana and Texas Railroad and Steamship Company. In 1904 Baldwin traveled to Europe on behalf of the National Bureau of Identification, the forerunner of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, to study the emerging science of fingerprinting.

Baldwin-Felts agents took part in the case of Floyd Allen and his Carroll County family. Shortly after Allen and members of his family engaged in a wild shootout in the county courthouse on 14 March 1912, agency detectives left Roanoke to assist in capturing the members of the family who had fled into the rugged mountains. The firm's detectives eventually tracked two of Allen's relatives, Sidna Allen and Wesley Edwards, all the way to Des Moines. The national publicity accorded the manhunt and the many books and legends that grew out of the episode spread the fame of Baldwin-Felts Detectives.

Incorporated as Baldwin-Felts Detectives, Inc., in February 1911, the agency had busy offices in Roanoke and Richmond and in Bluefield and Thurmond in West Virginia during the 1910s. It opened an additional office in Denver after Baldwin-Felts was hired in 1910 to break up a strike of Northern Coal and Coke Company miners. Felts's brother, Albert C. Felts, who directed the Colorado work, designed an armored railroad car mounted with two machine guns that was called the "Death Special," and not without reason, for a number of miners were killed as Baldwin-Felts agents broke up the strike.

Baldwin-Felts became known almost as well as the older Pinkerton Detective Agency, achieving special notoriety in the southern Appalachia coalfields, where it defended the coal companies' interests against miners and the unionization efforts of the United Mine Workers of America. Baldwin-Felts blacklisted union members, intimidated, beat, and even killed union organizers, and worked undercover to identify workers critical of coal-mine owners and operators. Its detectives sometimes hired immigrants or African American miners to spy on their fellow mine workers. Baldwin-Felts even had some of its agents made deputy sheriffs to give legal cover to their work. As permitted by West Virginia law, mine operators employed armed guards who were often Baldwin-Felts agents to serve as private police in many coalfields there.

The agency experienced particularly active and controversial years in 1912 and 1913, when it undertook to break up strikes on Paint and Cabin Creeks near Charleston, West Virginia. At the height of the struggle, Baldwin-Felts had about three hundred agents in the field, and Albert Felts and Lee Felts, another brother of Thomas Felts, took personal control of the mine guards. As in Colorado, Felts used machine guns mounted on a railway car against striking miners. So controversial and violent were the armed mine guards that an investigative commission appointed by William E. Glasscock, the governor of West Virginia, pronounced the mine-guard system "vicious, strife promoting and un-American" and demanded its termination. Mine guards remained in place until 1934, however, when Congress finally enacted stronger laws to protect the rights of labor union members and organizers.

Baldwin-Felts agents were also involved in the so-called Matewan Massacre of 19 May 1920. After the agency's armed officers evicted striking miners from company housing, Albert Felts, Lee Felts, and five other agents were killed in a shoot-out with Sid Hatfield, the chief of police of Matewan, West Virginia, and his armed supporters. In retaliation, Baldwin-Felts agents shot and killed Hatfield and one other man in August 1921.

Despite the reputation for violence that Baldwin-Felts agents had in the coalfields, William G. Baldwin was a respected Roanoke businessman and local investor who also engaged in a number of small philanthropies. About 1920, after his estranged wife died, he married Jane Dinwiddie, of Roanoke, manager of the W. G. Baldwin Company, the manufacturer of Martha Washington Candy. He retired from Baldwin-Felts in June 1930 to manage his other businesses. William Gibboney Baldwin died in Roanoke on 31 March 1936 and was buried in Evergreen Burial Park in Roanoke.

Sources Consulted:
Brenda McDaniel, "Gun Thugs and Heroes," Roanoker 6 (July–Aug. 1979): 54–61, 78–82; Richard M. Hadsell and William E. Coffey, "From Law and Order to Class Warfare: Baldwin-Felts Detectives in the Southern West Virginia Coal Fields," West Virginia History 40 (1979): 268–286; Jack M. Jones, Early Coal Mining in Pocahontas, Virginia (1983), 118–135; Ann Field Alexander, "'Like an Evil Wind': The Roanoke Riot of 1893 and the Lynching of Thomas Smith," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 100 (1992): 185, 188–190, 205; State Corporation Commission Charter Book 74:261–262, Record Group 112, Library of Virginia; Thomas Felts Papers in Eastern Regional Coal Archives, Craft Memorial Library, Bluefield, W.Va.; Justus Collins Papers, West Virginia and Regional History Center, West Virginia University, Morgantown; Report of West Virginia Mining Investigation Commission Appointed by Governor Glasscock on the 28th Day of August, 1912 (1912), quotation on 2, feature article in Roanoke World-News, 13 Mar. 1947; obituaries in Roanoke Times (portrait) and Roanoke World-News, both 1 Apr. 1936.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Paul Salstrom.

How to cite this page:
Paul Salstrom, "William Gibboney Baldwin (1860–1936)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 1998 (https://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Baldwin_William_G, accessed [today's date]).

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