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by John C. Tucker

"May God Have Mercy" tells the story of the rape and murder of 19-year-old Wanda Thompson, and how Roger Coleman was eventually convicted and executed for the crime, despite grave doubts of his guilt.

Chapter I: MURDER - Next

Buchanan County, Virginia

The town of Grundy doesn't fit the usual genteel image of Virginia. Grundy is the county seat of Buchanan County, in the heart of Appalachia. It is farther south than all but a sliver of Kentucky, and farther west than most of West Virginia. It is so far west that the mixture of mud, water and coal dust that flows through town in the Levisa Fork river runs west to the Mississippi instead of east to the Atlantic Ocean.

It's nearly a seven hour drive from Grundy to Virginia's capital in Richmond, but only thirteen miles to West Virginia - due east. You can't buy a drink of liquor in Grundy, so some of it's less reputable citizens make the short trip to the Acapulco Club, just over the state line. Others drink the moonshine made in Buchanan County's mountain hollows. It's a toss up whether you're more likely to go blind from drinking the moonshine or getting slashed by a broken beer bottle at the Acapulco.

Courthouse of Grundy, Virginia. (Photo Courtesy John Tucker)

If you head west from Grundy, it's sixteen miles to Pike County, Kentucky - site of the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys, and some celebrated battles between revenuers and moonshiners. During prohibition the revenue men rarely ventured into Virginia - it was too dangerous, and besides, Virginia politicians didn't care any more for federal intervention in whiskey making than they did forty years later when the issue was segregation. In 1935 Sherwood Anderson wrote about a moonshining case tried in federal court in Roanoke. The defendants included the sheriff of Franklin County and the County Prosecutor, Carter Lee, Robert E.'s grand nephew. From the evidence, Anderson wrote, it seemed as if Franklin County, Virginia, was "the wettest spot in the United States." Up the road in Buchanan County some of the residents smiled.

Today, the only significant business in Buchanan county is mining coal. Unless you have a private airplane, you're most likely to approach Grundy by driving northwest on highway 460. Once you cross the height of land, the headwaters of Levisa Fork appear and the highway follows its valley. Soon road and river are joined by the tracks of the Norfolk & Western Railroad, built to carry the rich coal deposits of Buchanan County to market.

In 1931, shortly before the railroad announced its plan to extend its tracks in Buchanan County, a few prominent citizens began purchasing mineral rights from the families who had settled the area a century earlier. The depression was on and life was even harder than usual for families trying to scratch a living from Buchanan's steep slopes and thin soil. For a man who owned a couple of hundred acres of mostly untillable mountain side, the dollar an acre he was offered for whatever was underneath was found money - money he was too poor to turn down even if he suspected the buyer knew something he didn't. Thus in early 1931 thousands of acres of Buchanan County mineral rights changed hands for next to nothing. A few years later, while most of its citizens remained dirt poor, Buchanan County boasted some of the wealthiest families in Virginia - and still does. Among them are the McGlothlins and the Steeles, founders and owners of United Coal Company, one of the largest privately owned coal companies in America. Organized in 1970 by a group of local lawyers and businessmen who decided to invest in some then depressed coal properties, United grew rapidly, just in time for the 1973 Arab oil boycott to multiply the price of coal and the value of United's properties. Two decades later Jim McGlothlin, United's CEO and largest shareholder, is one of the richest men in America.

A statue of a coal miner stands outside the courthouse where Roger Coleman was tried and convicted. (Photo Courtesy John Tucker)

Coal is mined three ways in Buchanan County - strip mining, drift mining and deep shaft mining. The strip mines use giant earth movers to chew off the tops of mountains and ridges. Drift mines tunnel straight into the side of a mountain, removing the narrow bands of coal which followed its contours when the mountain was raised up by the massive force of colliding tectonic plates. The deep shaft mines burrow straight down to where the coal was formed, and then spread out to capture it.

As you approach Grundy, large industrial compounds appear along the road, each with its own rail spur and a windowless, square-sided tower sheathed in corrugated metal. These are the shaft mines where miners work far below the surface, raised and lowered in cages attached to a cable. The mine on your left in Vansant, just east of Grundy, is Consolidated Coal Company's Pocahontas Mine No.3. Its shaft descends some fifteen hundred feet straight down to the "Pocahontas" seam which runs beneath much of Buchanan County. Once the seam is reached tunnels spread out in many directions, following the rich deposits of coal. Some tunnels run for many miles with a maze of side tunnels as well. The mountain whose insides are now being devoured by Pocahontas No. 3 is not even visible from the mine entrance in Vansant.

The shaft mines of Buchanan County are among the deepest, gassiest, and most dangerous coal mines in America. Because they release so much deadly and explosive methane gas, these mines require exceptionally strong air circulation, so that working in them is like working in a wind tunnel. In a place that is always damp and cold, a wind blowing a steady twenty five miles an hour may keep the mine from exploding, but after an eight hour shift some miners think favorably of the fiery cremation chosen by Dan McGrew in the Robert Service poem.

Even so, the miners who work the deep shafts have two advantages over those who work the drift mines that tunnel into the mountainsides of nearly every "hollow" in Buchanan County. One is that the deep shaft mines are unionized, while United Coal and most companies that own drift mines are not. The other is that a shaft miner can usually stand up while he works. The Pocahontas seam is nearly five feet thick, and the tunnels which work it are at least as high as the seam, but the drift mine seams and the tunnels which follow them are typically 36 inches high or less. A drift miner works on his hands and knees. For a miner who avoids being crippled, burned or buried alive, the usual question is which will give out first - his lungs, his back or his knees.

As U.S. 460 enters Grundy from the east it becomes the main street of the business district. Although Grundy's population is less than 2,000, it is the only incorporated town in Buchanan County and the main commercial center for the surrounding area. The left side of the road is lined with a variety of businesses. In the center of town, on the right, is the Buchanan County Courthouse, an ugly 88 year old structure of grey stone. More recently a wing has been added, with an entrance of concrete blocks molded to imitate the stone. At the corner of the building, where a short side street runs off to the right, a striking bronze sculpture of a coal miner stands on a black marble base. He is dressed in work boots and coveralls, his pant legs taped over his boot tops to keep out the coal dust. His miner's helmet and headlamp are tilted back at a jaunty angle, revealing longish hair which is surely blonde in real life. He stands erect, holding a miner's pick waist high, and seems to gaze off to a distant horizon - a pose suggesting either that the sculptor had never been in a coal mine or that the mine owners who contributed to his commission were disinclined to show their workers crawling on hands and knees in a tunnel barely three feet high.

Beyond the court house and another side street Slate Creek approaches the highway from the right, passes beneath it and empties into Levisa Fork, which there makes a sharp bend to the west, leaving the highway to fetch up against a sheer cliff of grey stone. On the face of the stone members of the latest graduating class of Grundy Senior High School have painted their class numerals and a pictorial tribute to the incongruous school mascot, a golden wave.

To avoid the cliff, Route 460 pauses at a stoplight and turns ninety degrees left to follow the river to Kentucky, while another road heads off to the right, following Slate Creek upstream to West Virginia.

Until recently, Tuffy's barbershop occupied the building on the corner where the highway turns. In the basement of the shop was a shower room where, for a small fee, coal miners coming from work could remove their work clothes and wash some of the black coal dust off their skin and out of their hair before returning home. The barbershop and bathhouse are closed now, so unless he works at one of the big mines with its own shower room, a miner takes his coating of coal dust home.

If the coal miner's statute next to the Courthouse pays tribute to the economic heartbeat of Buchanan county, the Courthouse itself plays a central role in one of the region's principle recreational activities - violence, especially murder, rape, and wife beating, with an occasional dose of labor strife thrown in.

While Grundy can't boast a strike as bloody as the one which brought nearby Harlan, Kentucky the nickname Bloody Harlan, a few years ago the most violent coal strike in decades was centered next door in Dickenson County. Before it was over hundreds of miners had been jailed, and a judge named McGlothlin had fined the United Mine Workers millions of dollars. In the next election, Buchanan County's incumbent state representative, also a McGlothlin, lost his seat to the President of the Mineworkers local.
As for casual violence, Grundy's recent generation of young layabouts and drug dealers can hold their own in any league. In February, 1981, under the headline "Murder No Longer Safe in Buchanan," Grundy's newspaper, the Mountaineer, profiles a young
lawyer who was the county's Commonwealth's Attorney, or prosecutor - Jim McGlothlin's younger brother Michael. The article reports that since taking office a year earlier, Mickey McGlothlin had successfully prosecuted seven murder cases. It doesn't mention that the murder rate in Buchanan County in 1981 was higher than New York City's.

A month after the article praising Mickey McGlothlin appeared in the Mountaineer, Grundy's young Commonwealth's Attorney had another murder to prosecute.

Continue : Read Chapter II

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