Harmon Hopson: Outlaw of the Norfolk & Western Railroad
My Appalachian Ancestors
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Harmon Hopson is my paternal grandfather. I am the fourth child and second daughter born to his eldest son, Harmon Lee Hopson Jr.
A Legend Is Born
Harmon Lee Hopson was born on December 9, 1924 to Pearlie May Daniels and Theodore Roosevelt Hopson. Theodore, who was 20-years-old, and Pearl, aged 21, reared their family in a little West Virginia town called Glen Alum. Harmon grew up alongside his many siblings: Robert Pleasant, Vada Virginia, Theodore Roosevelt Jr., Gene, Floyd Talmadge, George, John Eugene, Shirley Temple, Sylvia, and Jerrell & Geraldine who were twins. On the 1940 census, Harmon is reported to be attending the 5th Grade in school at age 13.
Harmon married Sylvia Maxine Lilly, daughter of Fanny Opal Farley and Frank Roy Lilly. They lived in a small one-room log cabin in War Eagle, West Virginia. By the fall of 1947, Harmon and Sylvia were awaiting the arrival of their first child. Sylvia kept house in their log cabin home with a dirt floor and Harmon worked on the railroad with Norfolk & Western, like the other men in his family. Cousins, uncles, even his own father worked as railway men. It was a job he knew well. And did well...save for a couple things...
Anything for a Drink
It was no secret that Harmon loved his moonshine. He was raised up on shine by a family of bootleggers. His children remember that when he was sober, he was a normal father who did things with the family and fairly fun to be around. He would work, they said, and come home to eat with the family like any other father. When he drank, however, they remember him quite differently. He would become rather irrational and quarrelsome. He wasn't exactly known for coming up with good ideas at the end of a bottle.
In late September of 1947, armed with a shotgun, Harmon Sr. hopped onto a stopped Norfolk & Western train while it was travelling through the town of Wharncliffe. According to an article printed in the Charleston Daily Mail on September 19, 1947, it was Conductor L. Johnson and railway man Jesse Williams whom Harmon encountered on the train. It is reported that both men stated he jacked the train for robbery while it was stopped, probably to load coal. Williams charged that Harmon shoved the shotgun into his body and demanded his money. Williams handed over the $1.25 that was in pocket. For an unknown reason, Harmon did not shake Johnson down for his money and Johnson was able to keep the $30 he had in his own wallet. After making off with only a dollar and quarter, Harmon fled the train with the intent to go buy his liquor. When police soon caught up with him and began to question him about the robbery, he denied all counts of it. When questioned by the police about why he was toting his shotgun, he told them he was just getting back from squirrel hunting. He was arrested for the crime and incarcerated at Huttonsville prison in Huttonsville, West Virginia. Sylvia was seven months pregnant with their son, Harmon Jr., and gave birth to him at home in their one-room log cabin with the help of a midwife while Harmon Sr. was serving time.
Harmon served just over a year when the itch to be free became too much for him. Using a piece of chewing gum, its foil wrapper, some cleaner and a match head, Harmon "McGyvered " a small bomb and literally blew his way out of the prison. His little act of terrorism was said to have cost a prison guard his ear but not kill anyone. Upon fleeing from Huttonsville, Harmon ran straight for a cemetery close to his home for refuge. In those days, if a person sought refuse in a sacred space such as a church or cemetery, they could not be forcibly removed. This little loophole in the law enabled Harmon to remain on the cemetery and avoid being apprehended for his jailbreak for over a month. It was now October of 1948. The night air was getting colder, moisture collected on the ground, and Harmon Hopson Sr. was living on a grave yard, sleeping under the stars as an outlaw, just to prove a point. Their baby son Harmon hadn't yet turned a year old. With a baby on her hip, Sylvia made regular rounds to the graveyard, providing her husband with plates from the dinner she had cooked and a change of clothes. It was a matter of time before the weather was too cold for Harmon to withstand any longer. He told his wife to contact the authorities and tell them he was ready to turn himself in.
An article in the Charleston Daily Mail, written on October 26, 1948 states:
"Harmon Hopson, about 21, a fugitive from the medium security prison at Huttonsville, was recaptured at nearby Wharncliffe. Hopson escaped about a month ago while serving a five year sentence imposed in Mingo county for a robbery without firearms at Wharncliffe last year...State police, who captured the youth with the help of Norfolk and Western railway officers, said that Hopson would be lodged in the penitentiary at Moundsville."
Harmon completed his 5-year sentence for armed robbery of the Norfolk & Western Railway train. He received time served for the year he had spend behind bars before his escape. He returned home ready to pick up where he left off. The second child to be born to Harmon and Sylvia, Edward Roy, would arrive a year and a half later. In no time, Harmon and Sylvia went on to have five more children: Rainie Sue, Carl Lee, James Eugene, Mary Lou, and Darrell Wayne. With a full house, Harmon bounced between the fun and spontaneous father his children enjoyed and the dangerous and spontaneous person whom his wife had known well. His children were no strangers to the fact their father had a quick switch and a short fuse. He couldn't stay away from the moonshine and as a result, he spared no energy when it came to abusing those around him.
Harmon Jr. credited his grandmother Pearl for saving his life against his father on several occasions. He stated that his father would often take things out on him as a child and would whip him for no account of his own. Most of the time, those whippings went too far. One night in 1952, when Harmon Jr. was only 5-years-old, he was sent by his father to walk down the hollow to a fellow bootlegger's house to get him a bottle of liquor. With disregard to the fact it was dark outside and his little child's legs were very tiny and could only carry him so far, so fast, Harmon grew angry when Jr. hadn't returned in what he considered ample time. Harmon Sr. went out looking for his son and was about to beat him for it when Harmon's mother Pearl pulled a gun on her own son. "You ain't gonna touch 'at boy," she told him. "I'm gonna take him home with me and you ain't gonna lay a finger on him just because you're a drunk! You hear me?" Pearl kept Jr. with her for quite a while after each time she witnessed her son's abuse of his family. She was no saint by any means and certainly played her part to influence him into the person he has become but she was not about to let his children pay the price for her failures. His abuse, however, didn't stop for long and it knew no bounds.
One day in 1962, Sylvia had had enough of Harmon's erratic behavior and took it upon herself to hide the liquor. When Harmon couldn't find it, he turned into a madman. In a split second, he drew the shotgun on his wife and pulled the trigger, shooting her twice in the head at point blank range.
Harmon Jr. stated there were many times he and his siblings would either lay in bed and pretend to sleep until Harmon Sr. got up and left for work or wake early and sneak out the door, hiding under the house for safety until they saw Harmon Sr.'s feet trot down the steps and away from the house. Harmon Jr. also recalled another story from his childhood memories: Harmon Jr. was 16-years-old on this particular day that his father had been drinking and and belligerent. His father had been whipping one of the younger kids when Jr. ran into the room to defend his sibling. Sr. quickly grabbed a poke from the fireplace and attempted to conceal it from Harmon Jr. but Jr. saw it and dared his father to use it on him. "I told him he better use it while he had it because I was going to kill him with it," Harmon Jr. said. "And he swung it at me. He almost got me with it but I wrestled it away from him and knocked him a good one. I told him if he ever touched my mommy or my brothers and sisters again, he was a dead man. He knew I meant it. He never touched them again that I know of. If he did, they didn't tell me. There was another time he acted like that...", he went on. "I waited for him to go to work and I laid in the weeds all night with a shotgun, waiting for him to come home. I was gonna blow his head off. I was fed up. The only thing that saved him was that he didn't come home. He laid out all night. He was lucky."
The Bell Tolls
Harmon Hopson Sr. was raised on the bottle and for no man's sake could he allow it to be pried from his hands. He knew well the sweats and shakes that came along with being an alcoholic. His own father had been one, as had his mother. They were moonshiners. It's just who they were. His raising would be the life and death of him. He would go days without eating and only take in what he got from the bottle. He withered away and often, because he rarely drank anything other than liquor, he would dehydrate, causing constipation. At one point his bowels locked up completely. The family says, "he drank himself to death." The official report on the death certificate has his cause of death listed as "coronary thrombosis", or a blockage leading to the heart, which is a common risk among binge drinkers.
Harmon Lee Hopson Sr. passed away on February 12, 1964 at his home in Panther, West Virginia. Harmon Jr's last memory of his father was that "he was dying and they kept telling me, 'Your daddy's dyin'. Go get help!'. It was cold outside and I didn't want to go. I didn't see why he needed help. We were who needed help. I thought, "just let him die!'. They wouldn't shut up so I put my shoes on and stormed out the door. Then I took my ever loving time walking down the road. I wasn't helping save that man."
Harmon's funeral service was held at home with friends and family, including his many children in attendance. As the service closed, his body was placed upon a train and transported down the valley to the cemetery. He was laid to rest at Big Branch Cemetery in Wharncliffe. He is surrounded by a slew of family at the cemetery with his mother and her siblings, as well as some cousins having been buried nearby. For many years he didn't have a headstone on his grave. Harmon Jr. went many times to locate the grave in order to place a headstone but to no avail. At some point, someone outside of his immediate family made him a headstone but accidentally inscribed the wrong name on it. Anyone looking for the grave marker of Harmon Lee Hopson Sr. must look over the stones searching for one that reads: Homer L. Hopson.
Despite the robbery, Harmon managed to keep his job with the railroad. He actually retired from Norfolk & Western. Sylvia lived after being shot in the head with a shotgun. The buckshots were lodged inside her skull and could be felt under her scalp until the day she died in February of 2012 from Alzheimer's which was set off by being shot in the head.
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