Murder of the Brumfield Family
Italian Railroad Workers.
Backstory and Context
In the late 19th century, foreign immigrants arrived in many of the rural areas of Appalachia seeking employment with railroads and the coal mines. These immigrant workers were often recruited from large cities. along with African Americans seeking an alternative to sharecropping in the Deep South. Many of the immigrants were from central Europe, including Italy, Hungry, Poland, Ireland, and the Slavic Nations. These peoples brought with them their culture and shared it with the peoples of Appalachia.
When the Norfolk and Western Railroad was constructed through Wayne County, West Virginia, the N&W contractors brought large numbers of African American workers from Virginia and the Carolinas, as well as Italian and Hungarian immigrants. During the construction of the railroad, over 110 African Americans were working alongside 300 Hungarians and 75 Italians in Wayne County (Dickinson 2005). Tensions often flared between these newcomers and the local people. On August 4, 1891, an incident occurred which sparked a violent shootout between Italian immigrants and the local law enforcement.
A few weeks prior to August 4, a Mr. Brumfield, who lived on Buffalo Creek near where the new railroad was being constructed, noticed that someone was stealing wheat from his barn. He kept watch for several nights and one night, he saw a man sneak into his barn. Brumfield took up his shotgun, confronted the thief, and shot him. The thief turned out to be an Italian immigrant who was working for the railroad. Despite bring severely wounded, the thief managed to retreat back to the Italian work camp. His fellow Italian workers sought vengeance for their wounded comrade. On August 4, a group of Italians approached Brumfield’s home and murdered Brumfield, his wife, and three of his daughters. Word of the brutal murders quickly spread and infuriated locals. Wayne County Sheriff Sanders Spurlock formed a posse and upon receiving word that the fugitives were headed north for Cincinnati, the posse set out in pursuit. They caught up to the murderers at the Italian work camp near Catlettsburg, Kentucky. To their surprise, the Italians had been warned and had fortified the camp with breastworks constructed of logs and stones. The sheriff’s posse were confronted by 25 to 30 armed Italians barricaded within the camp. When the posse charged the camp, the Italians opened fire. The shootout was brief but deadly. After the firing ceased, eight Italians were dead and two of the sheriff’s posse were wounded. Numerous arrests were made and it was determined that all of the men who participated in the murder of the Brumfield family had been killed in the conflict.