Detectives, Gunslingers And Shadowland

Detectives, Gunslingers And Shadowland

The Shadowland firearms training center and a tribute to the one of the most storied lawmen to ever chase down a bad man.

Shadowland isn’t some mythical place where mall ninjas, tactards and has-been or wannabe gunfighters go to drink whiskey and video themselves pontificating on their greatness. It’s where I live; it’s just a small hacienda and collection of shooting ranges hidden in the West Virginia Hills. But it was inspired by history—a history those who are students of the gun and gunfighters might be interested in.

Wicked Grips created these custom grips with the Shadowland logo for one of the author’s 1911s.

When I went to work as a special agent for the railroad police, I met John Velke. Velke was writing a book on the history of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency. I helped him with some research and even contributed a chapter to the book’s second edition, which is mostly a chronological detailing of the organization and its founder’s exploits between 1885 and 1930. But it was also something more. It was an introduction to a very prominent figure in American law enforcement, a gunfighter and a detective. Just as much as it was the history of a detective agency, the book was a biography of a man named William Gibboney Baldwin.

Cover of the book,The True Story of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, by John A. Velke III.

William Baldwin founded the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, and, in time, it became the Norfolk Western—now Norfolk Southern—Railroad Police Department. Baldwin was a self-described “shootist” who had a storied law enforcement career, survived many gunfights, tracked down members of the Hatfield gang and even did some work for President Teddy Roosevelt. On the East Coast, around the turn of the century, Baldwin was every bit the legend Bat Masterson was in the West. My area of responsibility with the Norfolk Southern Police Department was the same area Baldwin covered during his tenure. His exploits were of extreme interest to me; I chased bad guys over the same ground he had, and I spent time behind a badge where he’d had shootouts and even survived an assassination attempt.

The great detective, gunslinger and shootist, William Gibboney Baldwin. (Image courtesy of John A. Velke III.)

Baldwin’s career began in 1885 in Charleston, West Virginia, when at age 25 he went to work for the Eureka Detective Agency. Shortly after, he opened his own agency in Bluefield, West Virginia, originally named the Virginia and West Virginia Railroad Detectives. In 1989, Baldwin became involved in one of his first gunfights. Attempting to arrest murderer Bill Moran, who was known as the Terror of Flat Top, two of Baldwin’s detectives were badly wounded, and Baldwin was shot twice. But Moran never stood trial; his body was littered with lead.

A few years later, Baldwin was tried and acquitted for the murder of Henry Hawkes. Hawkes had pulled a gun on Baldwin during the attempted arrest of Hawkes’ son. Baldwin swiftly pulled a revolver and promptly shot Hawkes in the head. During the trial, Baldwin testified that while in the employ of the Norfolk & Western Railroad—one of his many clients—he had shot 13 men. Celebrated Western lawmen the likes of Masterson and Earp have the reputation of being fearsome gun-wielding pistoleers, but reliable documentation to support all their so-called gunfights combined doesn’t equal those of Baldwin. Had Baldwin’s escapades occurred west of the Mississippi, he’d have likely eclipsed both these American icons in popularity.

This author’s Special Agent credentials, 2005.

Sadly, due to strike-breaking work conducted by the Baldwin Felts Detective agency, the organization developed a tainted and feared name in the coal fields of southern West Virginia, western Virginia and eastern Kentucky. So dreaded was a “railroad detective” in these areas, they’re still more feared there than local, state and even federal law enforcement officers. It’s unfortunate that those events shade the amazing and adventurous career of Baldwin. He and his agency were engaged in several criminal cases of great importance, and they also worked diligently to protect American transportation interests during World War I.

Additionally, Baldwin was partly responsible for American law enforcement’s adoption of fingerprinting as a method of identification. He was part of a three-man International Association of Chiefs of Police committee that included New York City Police Sergeant Joseph Faurot—who is now considered the father of fingerprinting—and famed detective William Pinkerton. Baldwin took the lead on this committee and traveled to London for conference with Scotland Yard on the fingerprinting process.

There’s no doubt Baldwin was a gun guy. It’s reported that he had a special holster crafted to conceal a handgun in his trousers that was attached to his suspenders. He also regarded himself as a shootist, as can be seen from the marksmanship cards he saved from 1894. His marksmanship ability is also unquestionable based on the 52-foot (17-yard) 10-shot group measuring about 2.4 inches. He was known to carry a Smith & Wesson 38-44 revolver, as well as a very rare Mauser Zig Zag revolver.

Marksmanship cards of William G. Baldwin. Note the inscription at the top. (Image courtesy of John A. Velke III.)

Baldwin named his Troutville, Virginia, estate Shadowland. After collaborating with Velke on the second edition of his book, my wife and I decided if we ever had a piece of ground worth naming, we’d do the same. This was somewhat ironic since our first home—a used 1979 single-wide trailer we’d lived in when I first became a police officer—was set in a mobile home park called “Shadow Wood.”

The Shadowland sign at the driveway entrance to this author’s West Virginia home and shooting range.

If you turn up the driveway to our hillbilly plantation/shooting range, you’ll see a sign that says, “Shadowland.” Nope, it’s nothing swanky, and it’s a long way from an antebellum mansion. But it’s our home, our castle. It’s where we live, shoot and hunt. And it’s where we raise kids who do the same, and who’ve also been trained to accept that they’re their own first responder. It’s also a historic tribute to one of the most storied lawmen to ever chase down a bad man.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the January 2022 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

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