A Clearcut Case?

As an outdoorsman and a timber executive’s conflict grew violent, more was on the line than just the outcome of a trial.

In March 1897, when Robert W. Eastham spotted businessman Frank Thompson on a train from Parsons to Davis, a series of life-changing events were set into motion that left Thompson dead, Eastham on trial for his murder, and the entire nation following the news coming out of tiny Tucker County, West Virginia.

Eastham, a famous outdoorsman, and Thompson, owner of a lumber mill, already were enemies when they encountered one another on that fateful day. They were divided by Thompson’s Blackwater Lumber Company blocking access to the Blackwater River, which angered farmers as well as nature enthusiasts such as Eastham.

Eastham’s fury prompted him to swear at Thompson and slap him in the face right there in front of fellow passengers. Thompson stood up and shot at Eastham, who was not seriously injured. However, Eastham returned fire, and Thompson took a bullet in the stomach. He died the next day.

Ordinarily, Eastham probably would have gotten off on self-defense, or, perhaps, because he had provoked Thompson by slapping him, with a less serious manslaughter charge. But as the 20th century approached in Appalachia, a division was deepening between those who appreciated West Virginia’s traditional lifestyle and those who saw industrialization as the future.

And so after a grand jury finally indicted Eastham for first-degree murder on the third try, a who’s who of West Virginians lined up to defend the Virginia-born outdoorsman—including former Democratic U.S. Senator Henry Gassaway Davis. At the same time, a team of well-known prosecutors, many of them Republicans, set out to avenge Thompson’s death.

Ronald L. Lewis, retired Robbins Chair and professor emeritus of WVU’s Department of History, first became interested in Eastham’s trial when he was researching another book, Transforming the Appalachian Countryside, which was published in 1998. He decided to dig around and see what he could find.

The result, The Industrialist and the Mountaineer: The Eastham-Thompson Feud and the Struggle for West Virginia’s Timber Frontier, will be released by West Virginia University Press in March. In it, Lewis describes the time when West Virginia had uncut, virgin forests with trees that towered more than 120 feet tall, and, how in a very short period of time, they were virtually all cut down, changing the way of life for many residents. “You had social transformation of people being moved from land to industrial work,” he says. “They thought it was a comedown for them. There was a loss of independence and self-sufficiency, which is the hallmark of backwoods culture.”

That helped set the stage for the trial. So did the fact that it had only been six years since the end of the feud waged by the Hatfields of West Virginia and the McCoys of Kentucky. The idea of another entanglement between rural residents probably helped to entice newspaper reporters from New York and other big cities to travel to Tucker County and follow the proceedings. “I know the New York Times did have reporter there,” Lewis says. “I picked up a story from a New York Times reporter who the locals had fun with. He had never seen a pumpkin, and he asked a farmer what it was. And the farmer said it was a Tucker County orange. So the guy bought a bunch and sent them back to the newspaper.”

Lewis found a treasure trove of material at the Tucker County Courthouse and was in luck when the clerk in charge of the files let Lewis borrow them so he could make photocopies back in Morgantown. “It would have taken me months to take notes,” he says. He also stumbled across Eastham’s nephew and namesake while visiting a museum in the outdoorsman’s native Virginia. Having died at the age of 35 as a single man with no children, Thompson did not leave as much information behind. “I find Eastham a lot more interesting, with a lot more character to report about,” Lewis says.

The author lays out not only the legal wranglings and the case’s complicated conclusion but also Eastham’s surprising actions after the trial. More than 100 years later, Lewis places the events in context. Even if Eastham’s supporters felt somewhat vindicated by the outcome, time marched on, woods were deforested, and many Appalachians lost their way of life.

Lewis sees both sides of the coin. “I’m a modern person,” he says. “It’s hard for to me to think, ‘Let’s get back to living in the woods,’ although I can find it romantic and understand that’s what they were fighting against. They were against corporate America. Now, corporations dominate American life. The nationalization of the market system and political system has concentrated the power of a few people and made the country the way it is today.” wvupressonline.com

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