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'Comic Opera War' tells story of mine wars, trial

Play is staged in same courtroom as where the real trial was held

September 21, 2010|By RICHARD F. BELISLE
  • Dan Lutz, author of the play "A Comic Opera War"
Ron Moltere,

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. -- In September 1921, 20,000 armed union coal miners tried to wrest a makeshift army of 10,000 mine operators and guards, nonunion miners and local "militia" off a mountain ridge near Logan, W.Va.

Called "The Battle of Blair Mountain," it was one of several major incidents in the West Virginia mine wars of the 1920s. The violence got so bad that President Warren G. Harding sent in 500 U.S. Army troops to quell the insurrection.

More than 700 miners were indicted for treason against the state. Some were charged with murder.

Most of them ended up in Charles Town in the spring of 1922 for the first mine wars trial. The case was sent to Jefferson County on a change-of-venue order.

The first defendant was William Blizzard, a young United Mine Workers of America organizer who prosecutors said was the ringleader of the union's attempt to organize the Logan County miners.


Many of the miners were invited to stay in the homes of locals sympathetic to their cause, said Dan Lutz, author of a play about the trial.

Fifteen years ago, Lutz, 61, of Summit Point, W.Va., began writing "A Comic Opera War." For years, he visited the Library of Congress to research stories in The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and other national newspapers that sent reporters to cover the trial.

"I spent thousands of hours and many trips to Washington researching this," said Lutz, who took eight years to finish the play.

The characters in the play, which opened last weekend and will be shown again Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, are those involved in the wars and subsequent trial.

The play is staged in the Jefferson County Courthouse in the same second-floor courtroom where the real trial was held. Jefferson County Circuit Judge David H. Sanders portrays Judge John M. Woods, who presided over the 1922 trial.

Sanders is one of 18 actors in the play. Among its characters are lawyers on both sides, Logan County witnesses and law enforcement officials, Blizzard, Army officers and Ephraim Morgan, governor of West Virginia at the time.

The play is directed by the husband-and-wife team of Robert Willgoos and Joyce Webb. Willgoos plays the governor.

Willgoos said he thought the play was too long and that it needed some "tweaking."

On Monday night, the cast sat around a table, read through the play and began acting like editors. Lutz, on the sidelines, watched as his words were chopped. The end result reduced the play by a half-hour.

Gary Chrisman of Leetown, W.Va., and Terry Headlee have lead roles as mean-spirited lawyers and Ku Klux Klan members Anthony Belcher and drunkard George M. Beltzhoover. They were hired by the mine operators to prosecute Blizzard.

"The directors felt I could carry the role," said Chrisman, 60, a football coach making his theatrical debut. He said he didn't know much about the mine wars until the play.

Headlee, of Martinsburg, W.Va., former executive editor of The Herald-Mail Co. and currently managing editor of The Frederick News-Post, is making his sixth theatrical appearance. He most recently acted in "The Anvil," a locally produced play about the John Brown trial.

There's a touch of irony in Headlee's final line, in which he says in anger to a newspaperwoman, "I have nothing to say to a sneaking, nosy reporter."

Richard Hamstead plays Harry M. Houston, the lead defense attorney, and retired Jefferson County Judge Thomas W. Steptoe Jr. portrays James M. Mason, a local attorney and member of the defense team.

Hamstead, one of the more experienced cast members, has appeared on television in episodes of "Gunsmoke" and "High Chaparral," and in the Hollywood movie "Joe Kidd."

Steptoe, as Mason, gets to cross-examine one of the play's most colorful characters, Holly Smith, a deputy of Logan County Sheriff Don Chapin, whom Lutz calls "the vicious, corrupt godfather of Logan County."

Smith is portrayed by Shepherd University student Jacob Leonard, who pleased the audience with his interpretation of a Logan County accent.

At one point, under cross-examination by Mason, Smith testifies, "Sheriff Don's the law and if he says you can do it, you can do it. Here. Let me show you my badge. Ain't it purdy?"

Smith also testifies about being a stool pigeon for Chapin, "He pays me real good for news about who's doing what. You know if you was to pay me, I could tell you the same things."

Audience members are recruited to serve on the jury. Play patrons sit on the same hard courtroom benches that spectators occupy in trials in Sanders' court.

If you go

What: "A Comic Opera War"

When: Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Second-floor courtroom of Jefferson County Courthouse, corner of Washington and George streets, Charles Town, W.Va.

Tickets: $15

For information: Call 304-725-0966 or send an e-mail to">

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