Friday, March 07, 2008

Another Whisky Tragedy

The Murder of Thomas Butler

by David Parmer
The headline of the Weston Independent newspaper of October 29, 1907 screamed, “ANOTHER WHISKY TRAGEDY.” Thus was announced the death of Thomas Butler, a son of Ireland, who came to America, the land of opportunity, settled in Confluence, and married a local girl.

Virgin Timber
By October 26, 1907 , the “easy” timber of central West Virginia had already been exploited. It had been cut, taken to the mill, sawed into dimension lumber or made into veneer and shipped by rail to the northern markets. However, huge tracts of timber resources in remote areas of central West Virginia were still plentiful. Large stands of virgin timber lay in pockets in Braxton, Lewis and Gilmer Counties in the Orlando area.

One such tract of virgin timber covered the hillsides of nearby Heaters Fork in Gilmer County, just over the hill from the headwaters of Posey Run, at a place known then as Rudkin.

To the left: clipping from the Weston Independent newspaper of October 29, 1907

To the right: photo of a logging operation on Clover Fork, about 10 miles east of the Rudkin operation.

There are many forgotten little communities in central West Virginia which saw a flicker of light long ago but which are now only distant memories. Rudkin is one such community. Situated in Gilmer County, but only a stone’s throw from the Braxton County line, about three miles north north east of Burnsville and about four miles west of Orlando, Rudkin lay just to the east of Locust Knob. Rain which falls in the Rudkin area drains into Long Shoal Run, Buffalo Creek, Heaters Fork, Slidinghill Run and Dumpling Run. A remote hilly area of narrow valleys and little tillable land this part of Gilmer County saw little meaningful development in its early history. One feature of Rudkin was nice stands of virgin poplar, oak, maple, hickory, chestnut and other hardwoods. Around the turn of the 20th century those forests were being timbered. Mills at nearby Burnsville, including Pioneer Boom and Lumber, Gowing Veneer Mill, and the Burnsville Planing Mill were all eager for raw timber. Lumber brokers such as John I. Bender of Burnsville also were ready buyers of sawn timber. The Burnsville Wagon Factory required lumber for its wagons and hickory for the automobile wheel spokes it manufactured under contract for the Ford Motor Car Company.
To the left is a recent photo of the little church that sits on Locust Knob.
Right, a map showing the area where the logging was being done in the area of Rudkin, Locust Knob and Heaters Fork on the left side and downtown Confluence /Orlando to the right.
Below to the right: the group of men is detail from a photo taken by Orlando photographer Lee Morrison of lumber camp workers on their day of rest, Sunday.
Below to the left is another group of men, taken from that same photo of lumber camp workers on Sunday.
Timbering in those days of course was done by manpower with axe and saw and the ever-present work horses. When the tracts of timber were located in remote regions, provision was made to house and feed the timberjacks or “wood hicks” which they were sometimes called. Crude huts or sleeping quarters were hastily constructed and a rudimentary dining hall was erected. Such arrangements were efficient from the standpoint of the timber company owners and a novelty for the men who cut the trees and moved them to the saw mill on site for milling. Although this writer is uncertain of the location of the Rudkin mill, the sleeping quarters and the dining hall, Fred Cosner of Burnsville who is a native of Long Shoal Run which heads on Locust Knob at Rudkin suggests that the mill would have been on Heaters Fork. His rationale for that opinion is based on the availability of water on Heaters Fork for the steam boiler which powered the milling saw. Such water flow would not have been available on Slidinghill Run nor on Schoolhouse Branch, small streams also in the area of Rudkin. This opinion jibes with the sketchy news articles which were written about the murder of Thomas Benjamin Butler.

Thomas Benjamin Butler
The origins of Thomas Benjamin Butler are vague. We do know that Butler acknowledged Ireland as his native land. The Coal and Coke Railroad which was constructed through Orlando at this time employed many Irish immigrants in the construction of the railroad and Butler may have been a railroad laborer. Employment was also brisk in the Orlando area at the turn of the 20th century in the oil and gas fields and in timber cutting and those extractive industries may have attracted the Irishman to Orlando. Again, it is but speculation what attracted Butler to Orlando. We do know for sure that in 1907 Butler was employed as a cook at the lumber camp at Rudkin and that he listed his address as “Confluence.”

The Homicide
Two local newspapers of the day reported the death of Thomas Benjamin Butler.
The Weston Independent and the Burnsville Enterprise each devoted a short column about the incident. The Weston Independent on Tuesday, October 29, 1907, reported that Butler was killed by “two drunken men” near Burnsville the previous Saturday night. The paper reported that the perpetrators were two men known as Ratliff and McCartney and they were yet to be apprehended. The Independent surmised that the two drunken men got their “stuff” from Weston. The paper revealed that the two men “struck Butler with the gun and inflicting fatal wounds, [and afterward] they went to a neighboring house and told the inmates that they had better look after Butler, and then [they] disappeared. Their victim was in a terrible condition and died a few hours later despite the presence of a physician.” The Independent, a paper opposed to free-flowing whiskey, blamed the liquor industry for the death of Thomas Butler and related that “ Butler was a total abstainer and his offense was his dislike of drunkenness about the camp. His murder is another sad blow to the claim that liquor hurts only those who drink it.”

The Burnsville Enterprise in the November 1, 1907 issue, reprinting a column from the Glenville Democrat, reported that the murder took place on Heater Fork. That paper reported that Butler had walked up Sliding Run near Rudkin and had stopped at the house of Edward Barker for a conversation. Everet Ratliff and Bert McCartney also were walking along this route and had been walking in the same direction on Heater Fork. The newspaper reported that Everet Ratliff struck Butler in the head with the butt of a shotgun. A third man, Bert McCartney, was present during the incident. The paper related that whiskey drinking had been involved and that the whiskey had probably been acquired in Burnsville. According to the news account, Ratliff, who along with McCartney and Butler, worked at the lumber camp, had just been released from jail for some minor offense. The paper reported that Thomas Butler, the victim, a resident of near Confluence, had recently been married and “was well spoken of by the people of his acquaintance.”

Thomas Benjamin Butler, Husband and Father
Gertrude Estline Skinner, the daughter of Alexander “Aley Hoss” and Sarah Eliza (Posey) Skinner, was sixteen years of age when she married Thomas Benjamin Butler in a Catholic ceremony in Clarksburg on December 26, 1904. The granddaughter of Luther and Agnes (Walton) Skinner on her father’s side, Gertrude was also the granddaughter of Benjamin and Francena Posey on her mother’s side. Butler married firmly into the one of the oldest of Orlando families. The first two years of their marriage produced two children for Tom and Gertrude (Skinner) Butler. A son Eugene was born in October of 1905 and daughter Zella arrived on April 30, 1906. By the first week of November 1907, less than three years when she was married, Gertrude Skinner Butler was a widow and her two children fatherless.

Criminal Proceedings
Since the homicide of Tom Butler occurred in Gilmer County, that county had charge of the criminal proceedings which were instituted against Everet Ratliff for the death of Butler. To this point in its history Gilmer County had conducted only two trials on a charge of murder, one of which was the trial of a slave for a murder in 1858. To say that Gilmer County had little experience in capital felony cases is an understatement. In the early 20th century most lawyers, as well as judges, had relatively little legal education and training in jurisprudence. Failure to observe correct legal procedures and to ensure fair and impartial trials was commonplace and local political considerations often impaired justice in local courts. With that backdrop, the trial of Everet Ratliff for the murder of Tom Butler began in Glenville on Friday evening November 22, 1907 before Circuit Judge Harold B. Woods. A newspaper account in the Braxton Central recounted that the trial had created quite a stir in Glenville and the court room was packed with observers. All of the evidence was given on the charge on the first day. The court adjourned the trial for jury deliberations the following day. On the second day, after argument of counsel for the defendant and the prosecuting attorney, the jury retired to deliberate the fate of Everet Ratliff. After consideration of the evidence and the law, the jury returned a verdict that Everet Ratliff was guilty of murder in the second degree and was thereupon sentenced by the court to nine years in the state penitentiary. The court stayed the sentence in order that Everet Ratliff could appeal the jury verdict to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.

A search of the records of the appellate court reveals that no appeal was taken by Evert Ratliff.

Tom Butler was laid to rest in his final resting spot and his family grieved and reconciled themselves to the realization that Tom Butler was dead and that the man responsible for his death was to serve nine years in the state penitentiary for the murder.

According to the records of the West Virginia Department of Corrections, Everet Ratliff, Prisoner Number 6225, served his full sentence of nine years for the murder of Tom Butler and was discharged from the West Virginia State Penitentiary at Moundsville in 1917. After his release from prison, Ratliff lived at Marlinton, West Virginia where he died in 1941 at the age of fifty six.

Gertrude Butler, the widow of Tom Butler, eventually re-married Ezra Posey of Posey Run. They lived most of the remainder of their lives on Oil Creek at Posey Run. She died in 1974 at the home of her daughter Mildred and her son-in-law Lynn Riffle at Jane Lew. Her husband Ezra predeceased her in 1972. They are both buried in the Orlando Cemetery.

An observation about the killing in the Burnsville Enterprise was, “the general opinion is that the [killing] was the result of sudden passion aroused by the imbibing too freely from the cup that separates man from his reason and gives dominion to his baser qualities.”

The two pages below are the Law Orders, with the result of the trial of Everet Ratliff. Double click on them to enlarge them.

1. For more on lumbering in the Confluence/Orlando area, see the Mar '07 entry Lee Blake – Orlando Lumberman
2, The temperance movement was strong in America at this time; Carrie Nation was at the height of her crusade. Posey Run newspaper columnest P. N. "Uncle Zeke" Blake reflected the temper of the times. See the Jun '07 entry Uncle Zeke’s War on Booze 

from Russell Barker, December, 2012:
Things in the story caught my interest like: Heaters Fork, logging camp, virgin timber, saw mill, Rudkin, Locust
Knob, Edward Barker, Everet Ratliff, and Bert McCartney, and also, Fred Cosner.

First of all, the map is not accurate as I read it.  Heaters Fork Run begins below the Locust Knob Church of Christ at
Rudkin.  The Rudkin School and Negro Church was farther West on Joes Run Road.  Rudkin Post Office probably sat
diagonally across the 4-corners intersection from the Church.

The four-corners intersection was the coming together of Joes Run, Heaters Fork, Long Shoal (Buffalo) and Sliding Run Roads.

Going North, on Heaters Fork Road, one probably came first to the home of Israel Alton Barker, also known as Ezra, or Id. So, that is probably where Edward Barker came from.  On down Heaters Fork was John Stewart Barker, then the eaters Fork School and a saw mill may years ago, at the mouth of School House Run (todays Topo Maps). My family called School House Run, "Ratliff Run", because that is where the Ratliff's lived, having bought land from the Barkers about 1882.  Stephen Ratliff from Bath Co VA, lived in Calhoun Co, then Braxton, dying in 1875. His wife had a sizable family to care for, oldest son, John Newton Ratliff, so Miriam bot some land over the county line ridge from Burnsville.  It seems the family changed the spelling to Radcliff.

If one were to leave Burnsville and start up Oil Creek, soon turning left onto Dumpling Run and go all the way to the county line on the ridge,  you would be ready to start down the other side on Tomblin Run.  Mick's lived on Dumpling Run.  Tomblin's lived on Tomblin Run (Tumbling Run on todays Topo maps).  I have never heard of a saw mill on Tomblin Run.

I think I understand the Ratliff person.  McCartney might have been McCarty. Edward Barker was probably ID Barker.  The Cosners lived on Long Shoal Run in the 1950, so Fred Cosner being three years younger than my father, should have had a good knowledge of local history. I found it hard to believe that there was virgin timber abound Rudkin
in 1907.

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