Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Legend of Rabbit Martin Part 2

I thought this post would be easy but it isn't. Should have waited until winter when there is not so much to do. To be able to tell the story of Rabbit Martin and his being accused of stealing $300,000 from a coal baron's house, then I sort of have to say something about the town it occurred in, Bluefield, West Virginia.

How can one describe this town? It was a town built by the coal industry and the black gold coming through it on the railroad out of the Appalachian mountain coal fields. There was money here. A lot of money.

Today, with the decline of employment in the coal industry of the last 50 years, the town is a shadow of it's former self. It is hard to see it as it once was. It's still touted as Nature's Air Conditioned City where if the temperature rises over 90 degrees the Chamber of Commerce sends out the "Lemonade Lassies" to serve lemonade but it is a far cry from it's glory days today. Bluefield,West Virginia, in it's hay day was a booming bustling little town that reminded me when we would visit "up home" from where ever my dad's military station was, of a little New York.

The coal fields brought so many people from all over the world into this area for work. Prohibition itself also brought more outsiders and bootleggers in as the illegal moonshine stills around Bluefield provided illegal booze to be taken to the east coast and mid west markets. I have a friend whose last name is Luciano. Luciano's people migrated to the mountains during this time and yes his family are kin to Lucky Luciano.

Dough Boy Lunch to Right
So many first generation immigrants poured into the area to make their way and fortune. My mother spoke of when she was young, neighbors and bosses being first generation, German, French, Italian, Greek or Polish intermixing with native Appalachians. The waitress job she held where she met my father in the 1940s, was at a restaurant called the Dough Boy. Her boss and the man that owned it was Greek.  It was a wild, town with an eclectic mix of people in it's hey day.

In 1924, Bluefield grew across state lines when Bluefield,West Virginia was "Married" to Graham, Virginia which was the town adjoining just on the state line border. So today both towns have the name Bluefield with one being in the state of Virginia and one in West Virginia.

There was the high society money side of the town. With the country clubs. theaters, the upper echelon of lawyers, coal barons, railroad and coal executives, Doctors and all the myriad middle class below them, with laborers below that. There was a large black community that had businesses and organizations that mirrored much of the white community. There were two set of colleges, two high schools, one being white and one black before integration in the 1960s.

During WWII, coal was needed for the war effort and a whole host of stars came to visit. Greer Garson once came to Bluefield to sell war bonds.

And one of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. wives was from Bluefield.

I think of Bluefield's hay day as being the years of 1930's to 1970's. As with all towns and cities there is an underworld that works beneath all the legitimate business. When I was a child and Dad first moved us back here in 1970, after being in the military, my parents pointed out a building that had been a brothel just down from the main Norfolk and Western Railway office on Princeton Ave.

It was a brownstone building that outside on warm days on it's small porch driving by you would see a woman that usually looked like she was dressed in lingerie. She wore a lot of make up and had red hair in a very high large hair style. One could not miss her sitting on a porch. She was known by the name Big Red. My mother said she had been a madame and she ran a brothel or enhanced "escort service". My mother always had the greatest respect for her. She said, "That's OK. She's laughing all the way to the bank and her family is cared for."

There was also Veto's Alley which was notorious that if you knew the right people you could make a connection to get just about anything or service there. But if you didn't know anyone there and you caused trouble you wished you never visited.

Rabbit Martin knew that underworld well but the conundrum was he knew people in both worlds side by side and people knew him.

The World of Rabbit Martin

I know of only a bit of his early years. I know he was the same age as my mother. He was born in Roanoke July 26, 1929, the son of William T. and Verta (Johnson) Martin. He spoke of his first crime was stealing a car when he was a teenager. He didn't speak of his early years much to me other than he spoke of being in foster care or an orphanage and reform school he didn't care for. I don't know how far he went in school but I know he read a lot.

He told me that he always held a regular job somewhere by day or night and then for extra money would do his what he called "side" jobs. As he told Barbara Hawkins he freely talked about unlawful activities from his younger years. He said, " I was into everything. I had been in and out of prison numerous times. I did a lot things to make a dollar, - robberies, scams, burglaries...And, I tried to keep on top of it. I had several friends who worked with me."
Barbara Hawkins didn't elaborate on the scams, or maybe didn't get him to talk about them, because he also said there were people alive that knew the truth when he gave the interview....And that is where the story is. He gave a clue when he said, "We tried to keep up with the new alarm systems that came out and things like that." 

What ever he was in his younger years, by the time of the Clyborne robbery, he and his friends had developed a sort after hours business of scams and burglaries. But much of it were business deals with legitimate businesses. 

Beckley Post Herald
12 December 1962
The first time I saw a DVD of the movie Ocean's Eleven with +George Clooney I read on the back of it. "In any other place they'd be bad guys, but Ocean and his crew stick to the rules. Don't hurt anybody. Don't steal from anyone who doesn't deserve it. And play the game like you've got nothing to lose. Are you in or out?"

And though Rabbit Martin didn't rob casinos or anything big like that because of the area we lived in....there was a code to what he did. 

The way some of the scams worked he told me was if a business was in trouble financially, they would hire him or several of his buddies to rob them...for the insurance money. He would usually get whatever they robbed, most of the time, and a percentage of the funds of the insurance pay out. They would fence the goods all throughout the east coast. These are what he called his "big jobs".

What amazed me is how many people knew this! The goods sometimes would be divided out locally but mostly fenced out of the area. There was a story my mother told that a neighbor of hers that was a coal miner. To get to the mines during the week he car pooled with several other miners. Their car broke down and they needed a transmission and it to be fixed by Sunday night or they were in danger of losing their jobs. None of them had enough money to scrape the money together to even get a bus ticket to get back to the coal fields much less to buy the expensive transmission needed for the car.

Just so happens an auto business was slated to be hit that weekend by this group Rabbit Martin associated with and the feller found all the parts he needed left on his porch Saturday night. My mother said everyone knew where it came from and no one said a word. My mother said farmer's would find sacks of seed they needed or a part for a tractor, car tires all kinds of little stuff would appear on people's porches. It was like Robin Hood had visited.

My Grand daddy Boyles lived in Bluefield most of the time and my Uncle Tom worked for the cab company. They knew most of these men that did this. As a result my dad would never knowingly ever let my mother buy anything off my grand father. Grand dad was always swapping and trading. My mother bought a lawnmower for my dad once from my grand father and brought it home. My dad never trusted that lawnmower was legit. My grand father lived in an apartment...what was he doing with a new lawnmower?  He used it for years but every time he'd still wonder about that lawnmower. Worried him to death.

Rabbit Martin told me tell tales of some of his escapades. Once he was hired to hit a coal company office payroll. He was told when the money would be there and it would be "his payment". The owner would declare to the insurance company there was more in the safe than what was stolen. Same as for goods taken from these jobs for legitimate businesses. It was an insurance scam.

The coal company had made sure the guard would be off somewhere else. He had a limited time to get into the safe. He could not get the combination to work, it was taking too long. Plus the safe was in front of this picture window that faced the highway so he had to sit on the floor and pull the safe out of the way of the window.

He said he had on a brand new pair of bell bottom jeans and he accidentally rolled that safe on his jean leg to the point he had to take a knife to cut himself loose and ruin his new jeans. Made him so mad he just blew the safe open instead of opening it by combination. He told the owner he blew the safe to make it look legit but really he was just pissed off because he ruined a good pair of jeans.

He told Barbara Hawkins, "It was a way of life for me, I used to believe in it." "Back then I worked as hard to steal some body's money as the police worked to try to catch me."

He told me some of the jobs were hired out and some were not. In between the big jobs they would do little jobs. But what they would hit would be country stores, Southern states, post offices  and schools, (their agriculture departments had tools that could be fenced easily). Places that had cash and merchandise that would move quickly. By the time of the Clyborne robbery, he was doing very little of those but fencing goods for others that did. He would only do the larger hired jobs.

His motto by that time, after serving two stints in prison, was if you are going to risk the time make sure the crime is worth it. He told me he was selective in what he would fence too. If was from a business, say it was jewelry from a jewelry store, that he do. If it was from a home burglary he'd run them off and scold them.  He had a thing about people who robbed other people's homes and it is why the Clyborne burglary just didn't fit him at all, no matter the amount of money.

He did not do house burglaries. He told me he never did a house burglary in his life. First of all that was too personal, it was just part of his code. He told me that a person ought to be safe in their own home, but what he told Barbara Hawkins was, "In my way of thinking, a house burglary is a potential killer. What if somebody was in there or sleeping and woke up? What if he jumped out on me and I had a gun and shot him?"  He very rarely used a gun.  He said, " I remember a buddy telling me a long time ago when we were getting ready to rob a school and I had a gun. He said, "Put that gun back in the glove compartment. If you shoot them, it's a murder case and that means life or even the death penalty. But, if you get caught for robbery, it's just prison."

At the time of the Clyborne robbery he was driving a cab on bad weather days and working with Wand H Construction Company on the good weather days with nights devoted to the criminal side of his money making schemes.

The cab company was a hoot. It was a legitimate business but drivers had other ways of making extra money. One was selling liquor on Sundays out of the cab. In Bluefield you could not buy liquor on Sundays so some drivers had a side business.  Mostly regular customers that would order their Sunday fill earlier in the week. The cab drivers would pick up on Saturday from the liquor store and bring it to their house on Sunday for the cost of the liquor and their fee.

I remember the first time I was aware of this practice. I was at cousin's house who had some delivered to his house on Sunday. I asked him isn't that illegal? He answered, "Well maybe but his next stop is the judges house two streets over. Ain't nobody going to say anything."

Beckley Post Herald 16 Jan. 1963
Rabbit Martin hit the Elks Club.
It was in an old house only house he ever hit.
His pal Brooks went missing as he was
Set to testify against Bluefield Police Officers
 Sometimes cab drivers would do surveillance for a fee. Martin told me even the police department hired them from time to time. No one thought about a cab sitting waiting for a fare working surveillance.

Rabbit Martin was supporting a wife and five children and he did it anyway he could.  By the time of the Clyborne robbery, Rabbit Martin had been in his illegal side business for over 20 years. He was more than well known in these circles before the Clyborne robbery....and he made his share of enemies too. The one that brought him down was over a woman.  That's the next blog post of how that occurred.


Sources; Bluefield Daily Telegraph Sunday, January 22, 1995 Barbara Hawkins interview with Rabbit Martin
Photos: My own collection and from the Bluefield WV Facebook page by Randy Gilpin.
Beckley Post-Herald, Beckley, WV
December 12, 1962 and January 16, 1963