Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Legend of Rabbit Martin

Boy, this is going to be a wild post. I hope I can do Rabbit Martin justice. I don't know everything and some of what I write is just speculation because I wasn't there. I can only refer to what I have read and I can only tell what was told to me or I gathered from stories and much of that is fuzzy memory. But ...... it's time.  It's time to give a different perspective and think in a different way about the story of the man and the legend of William T. "Rabbit" Martin, Jr.

I'm going to tell a story, the one I know...and you can prove it right or you can say it's fiction...doesn't matter...the events are all over with and it's just a story. Rabbit Martin story was infamous in our area. He was a legend.  I'd say just for surviving what most men would have crumbled under.

Rabbit Martin was a family friend. He had a LOT of friends. He was a very good friend to my ex husband but also was a long standing acquaintance of my grandfather Wesley "Bane" Boyles. He also worked with his brothers, my Uncles Tom and Brown Boyles at the Bluefield Cab Company.
I'm squinting because this is early in the morning when he dropped by with breakfast for me and my husband.  I was hungover. I think a bottle of Jose Cuervo was involved the night before.
Rabbit Martin is laughing because I told him don't squeeze too hard my head has a heart beat. 

The first time I met him that I remembered was through my ex-husband. That first meeting we were getting through the old Appalachian tradition of "who are your people", and after I told him he said, "Good Lord, I know your whole family!" and he did! He had actually met me once at Grand dad's when I was little he said. I didn't remember it. My grand daddy Bane knew a bunch of people that were around many times on our visits.

Rabbit Martin would come by my house and if my mother was there they would get to talking on old stories and people they both knew from way back in the day in Bluefield WV. He could do the train whistle like Box Car Willie and my kids just loved to hear it.

What brought this post about was a conversation I had with my daughter. John Nash, the Noble Prize winning mathematician, died recently and I was telling her I was reading his biography, "A Beautiful Mind". John Nash was born and raised in Bluefield. My mother would have been a grade below him at the same school. We were talking about the author's reference to how the family of Nash was sort of well to do?

But I was telling her the streets the author of the biography was giving that they lived on wasn't part of what the author called, "country club hill" and what we called, "snob knob". John Nash and his family were still middle class and lived in a middle class neighborhood. Just like my ex-husband's people the Nash family participated with people of snob knob but were still not quite part of that set even though his grandfather was a mayor. The Nash family did move up to upper middle class but didn't live on the hill of the Country club set like Queenie Clyborne did. College Avenue was sort of the dividing line of Bluefield.

In 1927 Grand daddy Bane was living with his parents on Rogers Street, a street below Highland Avenue where the Nash family lived when John Nash was born.

When I mentioned Queenie Clyborne then of course we always remember Rabbit Martin. Rabbit died in October of 2013 and my daughter asked me if I'd ever written that story I always wanted to write. I said, "No, I haven't even started." She said, "Well you better get to it, before it gets too late and you're gone."

Once when Rabbit Martin was in the process of moving he brought by a box or two of papers for us to keep for a time for him. He didn't want them being misplaced or lost. He told me I was welcome to read them. In those boxes were transcripts of his trials, diaries, photographs and piles of letters he had written to get himself freed from prison. I did read it all and what those papers told was a heck of a story.

I remember vividly a black and white photograph in one of the boxes of him meeting West Virginia Governor Arch Moore at Moundsville Prison during the 1973 prison riot. Both of them standing in a small room surrounded by state troopers and prisoners, Rabbit Martin was shaking the Governors hand after he brought the demands of the rioters to the Governor and ended the riot.  I asked him once if I learned to write would he let me write up his story? He would laugh and say, "If I thought it was good enough".

Last time I saw him I asked him, "You going to let me write your story?" He said, "Sure, but you can't write anything past 1978." I have no idea why he said that. I asked, "Where are your boxes of papers?" And he said he had sent them to Texas. I hope that means they are with his son and they still exist.

So to write this post I tore through the house looking for an article I kept that was published in the Bluefield Daily Telegraph January 22, 1995 by Barbara Hawkins, entitled, "The Legend of Rabbit Martin."  I will have to use that article as a reference with what I know with a somewhat faulty memory.

The story goes that on January 5, 1970, the home of millionaire coal baron C. A. Clyborne on Liberty Street in South Bluefield was robbed of $300,000 in $100 bills while the Clybornes were not home between 5:30 and 7:15 pm. The money was kept in a metal box in the closet. It's said that Queenie Clyborne accumulated the money from "liquidated dividends" and testified she was keeping it at the house for their retirement. Also taken were some jewelry, a 38 revolver, a small portable TV and a pillowcase.

Several people were arrested for the robbery and they pointed the finger at Rabbit Martin as being a part of it. He always maintained his innocence. He had never been a saint but insisted he didn't do this one and really it wasn't his style of robbery.  He was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison under the Habitual Criminal act. He escaped from jail in Princeton right after his sentencing of life in prison. He only stayed free about a month before being captured and sent on to Moundsville Prison.

He spent years being a jail house lawyer trying to prove he was innocent and get free again. He helped a lot of other prisoners with their cases. He gained his freedom by having one of his previous convictions from 1949 appealed and dismissed.

The newspaper article has much of the drama. Rabbit's explosive actions in the court room, i.e.he strangled his own defense lawyer with his tie, one of the prosecutions witnesses had died and his body was exhumed to determine if they had died a natural death, and the escape from jail. It had facts and time lines but even in that interview with Rabbit Martin are shades of what happened that he didn't say.

January 22, 1995 Bluefield Daily Telegraph
The story was already sensational with all of the above with the amount of the money that was never recovered, but you add scams, an underworld power struggle, a woman in the middle of it and the reason he believed he was framed, that adds another whole dimension. Rabbit Martin was well known in and around Bluefield even before this robbery occurred.

The history of this legend goes back much further than that evening in January 1970. He was a cult hero to many people. People knew him to sometimes play Jesse James and Robin Hood prior to this. My mother told me a few stories she knew. And most wouldn't of minded if he took a coal baron's money. But the fact of the matter is...he didn't.

Over the years of knowing him the stories he told gave me more insight to what I believe happened.  I'd ask direct questions and he'd tell a story, that in a round about way answered the question. He was guarded like that. Just like this interview. He said he did a lot of things to make a dollar- robberies, scams, burglaries. He didn't expand on the scams. Twenty years ago when he gave this interview he said there were people still alive that knew the truth.  But one thing he never was, was a snitch. He tried to prove his innocence with facts while never revealing a system he had worked under illegally to make extra money before that fateful accusation in 1970.

So I'm going to write about those stories in the next post.  About the Rabbit Martin I knew.  He was actually pretty remarkable. I knew him as a very intelligent man having an in depth common sense wisdom. He was kind, no nonsense person with a wry sense of humor, who had survived things most would crumble under and came out the other side.  Someone should really do a movie about this man's LIFE!!