In the Appalachian Mountains, the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River separates Mingo County in Southwestern West Virginia and Pike County in Eastern Kentucky — and between the years 1861 -1893 it also separated two families which have come down to represent the personification of feudin’: The Hatfields and the McCoys.
The head of the Hatfield clan was William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield. By the 1870s Devil Anse was a successful timber merchant who employed dozens of men, including a few McCoys, and they lived mostly on the Kentucky side. He was the father of 13 children. On the West Virginia side stood Randolph “Old Ranel” McCoy, who, though not as prosperous as Devil Anse, did own some land and livestock, and also had 13 children. For a time, the families lived in relative harmony, even intermarrying, although some switched family loyalties once the feud started. Each of the patriarchs had numerous kinfolk, and wielded political influence in their respective counties. Both sides fought in the Civil War, mostly on the Confederate side.
The first event in the decades-long feud was the 1865 murder of Randolph’s brother, Asa Harmon McCoy, by the Logan Wildcats, a local militia group that counted Devil Anse and other Hatfields among its members. Many people, even members of his own family, regarded Asa Harmon as a traitor, since he’d served in the Union Army during the Civil War.
Relations between the two families continued to sour over the next decade before flaring again over a dispute over a single hog. In 1878 Old Ranel McCoy accused Devil Anse’s cousin, Floyd Hatfield, of stealing one of his pigs. Floyd Hatfields’s trial took place in McCoy territory but was presided over by yet another cousin of Devil Anse. It hinged on the testimony of star witness Bill Staton, a McCoy relative married to a Hatfield. Staton testified in Floyd Hatfield’s favor, and the McCoys were infuriated when Floyd was cleared of the charges against him. Two years later, Staton was violently killed in a fracas with a couple of Old Ranel’s nephews; Sam McCoy stood trial for the murder but was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense.
Within months of Staton’s murder, Johnson (Johnse) Hatfield, Devil Anse’s 18-year-old son, met Roseanna McCoy, Old Ranel’s daughter. According to accounts, Johnse and Roseanna hit it off, disappearing together for hours at a time. Supposedly fearing retaliation from her family for mingling with the “enemy,” Roseanna stayed at the Hatfield residence for a period of time, drawing the ire of the McCoys.
Although they shared a romance, it rapidly became clear that Johnse was not about to settle down with Roseanna. Several months later he abandoned the pregnant Roseanna, and in May 1881 he married Nancy McCoy, Roseanna’s cousin, souring relations even further. Adding to the misery, Roseanna’s baby daughter died of measles before her first birthday. Roseanna died at the age of 30 in 1889, some say from a broken heart; oddly enough, Johnse lived long enough to die of natural causes in 1922.
Then came August 1882. On a local election day, three of Ranel McCoy’s sons ended up in a violent dispute with two of Devil Anse’s brothers. The fight soon snowballed as one of the McCoy brothers stabbed Ellison Hatfield multiple times and then shot him in the back. Authorities soon apprehended the McCoys, but the Hatfields interceded, spiriting the men to Hatfield territory. After receiving word that Ellison had died, they bound the McCoys to some pawpaw bushes and within minutes, they fired more than 50 shots, killing all three brothers.
The law quickly returned indictments against 20 men, including Devil Anse and his sons. Despite the charges, the Hatfields eluded arrest, leaving the McCoys boiling with anger about the murders and outraged that the Hatfields walked free. Their cause was taken up by Perry Cline, an attorney who was married to Martha McCoy, the widow of Randolph’s brother Asa Harmon. Years earlier Cline had lost a lawsuit against Devil Anse over the deed for thousands of acres of land, and this was his chance to get revenge. Using his political connections, Cline had the charges against the Hatfields reinstated. He announced rewards for the arrest of the Hatfields, including Devil Anse.
(By 1887, the national media had gotten wind of the feud, and in their accounts the Hatfields and McCoys were usually portrayed as violent backwoods hillbillies who roamed the mountains looking for people to shoot. What had been local news was becoming a national story, suitably embellished by reporters going for sensationalism.)
The Hatfields all of a sudden had a bounty on their heads. In an effort to end the problem once and for all, a group of Hatfields and their supporters hatched a plan to attack Randolph McCoy and his family. Led by Devil Anse’s son Cap and ally Jim Vance, a group of Hatfield men ambushed the McCoys’ home on New Year’s Day in 1888. Randolph fled, escaping into the woods. His son Calvin and daughter Alifair were killed in the crossfire; his wife Sarah was left badly beaten by the Hatfields, suffering a crushed skull as she tried to protect her daughter.
A few days after what became known as the New Year’s massacre, a bounty hunter named Frank Phillips chased down Jim Vance and Cap Hatfield. Vance was killed, and Phillips rounded up nine more Hatfield family members and supporters and hauled them off to jail. Years of legal ministrations unfolded as a series of courts judged the legal merits of the Hatfield case. Eventually, the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that the Hatfields being held in custody could be tried.
The trial began in 1889, and in the end, eight of the Hatfields and their supporters were sentenced to life in prison. Ellison Mounts, who was believed to be the son of Ellison Hatfield, was sentenced to death. Nicknamed Cottontop, Mounts was known to be mentally challenged, and many viewed him as a scapegoat even though he had confessed his guilt. Although public executions were against the law in Kentucky, thousands of spectators gathered to witness the hanging of Ellison Mounts on February 18, 1890. Reports claim that his last words were: “They made me do it! The Hatfields made me do it!”
As the feud eventually faded, both patriarchs attempted to recede into relative obscurity. Old Ranel McCoy eventually became a ferry operator, and died at the age of 88 in 1914 from burns suffered in an accidental fire. By all accounts, he continued to be haunted by the deaths of his children. Devil Anse Hatfield, who had long proclaimed his skepticism about religion, was born again when he was baptized for the first time at age 73. He died of pneumonia in 1921 at the age of 81.
In May 1944, Life magazine revisited the Hatfields and McCoys, and interviewed a number of descendants about the rivalry and relations between the two families. Among the photographs was a shot of two young women, Shirley Hatfield and Frankie McCoy, working together in a local factory that produced military uniforms. It was meant to symbolize the unifying effect of America’s war efforts at the height of World War II.
(Although the feud ended more than 100 years ago, the names Hatfield and McCoy have entered the lexicon as the personification of family feuds, even giving rise to a popular song from 1936, called, The Martins and the Coys, which Disney used as one of the ten segments of its 1946 full-length cartoon, Make Mine Music. Disney later cut this segment from the US DVD release because it “glorified gunplay.”)
Today the feud is remembered annually on the 2nd weekend of each June and attracts people from all over the US. The festival features lots of family friendly things to do including: music, plays, tours of the Hatfield McCoy Feud sites, a tug-of-war across the Tug river by descendants of the feuding families, golf tournament, ATV poker run, great home cooking and lots of other fun – all with a Hatfield McCoy Feud theme.
And be sure to visit Pigeon Forge, TN for the dinner theater feud. It runs all year, except for February.
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