Policing for Profit in Early Roanoke


This contribution is courtesy of Roanoke Peoples Power Network on the history of private policing stemming from one of the most notorious cop agencies – The Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency


Virginia had no public local police force until 1932. Before then policing was almost totally a private affair. The protection of private property and reinforcing the white supremacist social order were and are the two major functions of police in America. 

Roanoke has its contribution to that history in the form of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, one of the most notorious private detective agencies of the 20th century, which was led by its namesake – William Gibbony Baldwin. Headquartered in Roanoke, Baldwin’s agency became the largest detective agency south of the Ohio river by 1909, boasting 243 employees stationed over 8,000 miles of railroad tracks. Unlike the white hooded vigilantes further south, white supremacy in Appalachia wore a professional face, fitted with a badge and a gun.

William Baldwin was a professional at exploiting white hysteria for profit. In 1891 a Black suspect named Jack Prince was accused of shooting a train conductor in Rural Retreat. A lynch mob descended on Prince, who had to be whisked away to jail by the state militia. Hearing about the excitement, Baldwin arrived on the scene to accuse Prince of unsolved murders that happened 175 miles away from where Prince was at the time. 

Because of those accusations, Jack Prince was convicted and died in prison five years later. In 1893, a white woman was found bleeding from her head in downtown Roanoke – she described her attacker as a young black man with a hat. A furious crowd gathered around the first person they could find who fit that description – Thomas Smith. Baldwin was able to assist Smith to a tavern where the victim identified Smith as the attacker, then directly to jail. 

No longer worthy of Baldwin’s protection, the lynch mob demanded that police surrender Smith to the crowd; the police gave in and Thomas Smith spent his last breath pleading his innocence before he was hanged and his body was “riddled with bullets”. Baldwin also enjoyed the support of one of The Roanoke Times’ first editors, Herbert Browne who led a race riot of his own in 1892. Their relationship was mutually beneficial; sensational headlines about violent black men sold hundreds of papers for Browne and effectively worked as free advertising to rich, white property owners for Baldwin.

If you trusted the integrity of the Roanoke Times in the 1890’s you might think that Baldwin was a “tough but fair” detective who did anything that needed to be done to find the hard facts of the case, but upon closer inspection – he was just a savvy businessman who disregarded the facts completely. 

Between 1887 and 1903 there was mass hysteria about vagrant “train wreckers” who left railroad spikes on the tracks or threw rocks at train cars; Baldwin arrested dozens of people for this crime- many of them were Black. Multiple train wrecking cases involved Black children who received unfair trials and were likely tortured to force confessions out of them in at least three states. In another train-wrecking case in Eggleston Place, Baldwin arrested a Black employee of Norfolk and Western Railway (described as a “Black fiend” in The Roanoke Times) who allegedly sabotaged a train as revenge for being fired. Baldwin ignored the fact that the alleged train wrecker had gotten his job back long before the incident occurred and turned him in.

If disregarding relevant evidence and subverting due process were not horrifying enough, Baldwin routinely killed his Black suspects; as The Roanoke Times put it in 1890, “when his finger presses the trigger something is sure to drop”. In September 1898 Baldwin and his associate Thomas Felts approached Black Norfolk and Western bookkeeper, H. W. Hawkes, who had been accused of fraud with their guns drawn. Baldwin shot Hawkes’ frightened father in the neck, killing him instantly. 

Because of Hawkes’ family connections and wealth, both Baldwin and Felts were charged with first degree murder. Shortly after, Felts shot a poor Black man to death for “resisting arrest” between court appearances with no repercussions. The trial of Baldwin and Felts for the murder of an elderly Black man lasted twelve minutes and ended with both defendants walking free. This was the only time Baldwins’ authority to kill Black men at will was ever questioned. The Planet, the only Black-owned newspaper in Virginia at the time, commented “We never expected any other result from the trial.”

Keeping this history in mind, it’s not a mistake that large corporate interests colluded to get rich by villainizing & murdering Black people 120 years ago. It was the concerted effort of hundreds of private corporations and powerful politicians to uphold & maintain the white supremacist social order in a post-slavery society; 120 years later the only thing that’s changed is the date.

2 responses to “Policing for Profit in Early Roanoke”

  1. Why is it we chose to teach this racist history, but we don’t teach the historical fact that the Democratic Party fought tooth and nail to retain slavery?
    Minorities across our wonderful country continue to vote for a political party that kept slaves and fought for slavery?
    The Republican Party was actually formed to end slavery!
    If we are bashing the modern modern police force and tearing down statues of historical figures that owned slaves and supported slavery, why then do we vote for the party that supported slavery?

    Like

    1. both parties exist to perpetuate exploitation, we support neither, read our points of unity

      Like

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