Short column this week, as I’m writing this from my hotel in Chicago. I’ve been on a business trip since Wednesday and I’m using my only real free time to write this. But then, with Version 2.0 coming to a close, I need to be able to say I’m the only staffer to have never missed a column.
This week I thought I’d talk about something most Americans can recognize by name, but very few can give you any real details about it. I’m talking about the Hatfield-McCoy feud. Yes, the Hatfields and McCoys were real people, and like most bits of American folklore, most people prefer to stick to the erroneous legends instead of learning what the entire event was about.
The Hatfield-McCoy Feud
The Hatfields and the McCoys have become a metaphor for feuds, grudges, and other long standing rivalries. It’s also assumed that both clans were nothing more than bumbling hillbillies with guns. This is somewhat true as both families were nestled along the Kentucky-West Virginia border. The Hatfield’s dwelled in West Virginia and the McCoy’s made their homestead in Kentucky. Both families were amongst the first to settle the Tug Valley, and although their homes may look like rustic log cabins only fit for the impoverished today, they were actually prosperous farmers, although a good deal of both families’ incomes came from moonshining. Both families were still considered hillbillies by those that knew of them though, which is a bit odd as the Hatfield’s actually had a decent amount of political power in the region.
Bad blood between the families can be found as far back as 1863, but it wasn’t until 1878 that the feud truly began in earnest. All the bloodshed and insanity that started in that year and lasted for three decades can be traced back to the most unlikely of possessions: a pig. Now, get those crazy hillbilly deviant sex jokes out of your head. Back in 1878, and especially in the Appalachian region of the United States, pigs were very expensive and valuable. The pig wandered over from the Hatfield’s land into the McCoy’s, and the McCoys considered this a good excuse to settle up the border dispute between the families. In other words, the pig went on to McCoy land, and thus it was now a McCoy pig. The Hatfield’s in return, claimed the border between the property was incorrect and also called the McCoy’s thieves. The case went to court, and the judge ruled in favor of the Hatfields, mainly in part to the testimony of a mutual relative between the two families, one Bill Staton.
Now due to the previously mentioned bad blood between the families, it took little time for this to escalate into a far bigger deal than it should have been. In June of 1880, Staton was killed by two of the McCoys, Sam and Paris. Thus began madcap violence. In 1881, in a Romeo and Juliet type of scenario, a young McCoy named Roseanna fell in love with a Hatfield named Johnse. Needless to say both families were up in arms. Literally. Roseanna would run away to live with the Hatfields for a time before returning home. When Johnse went to visit her, he was kidnapped by the McCoys and saved when Roseanna fled to the Hatfields and helped them organize a rescue party. After he was saved from mob justice, Johnse would eventually leave Roseanna while she was pregnant with his child for his first cousin Nancy. Ew.
The peak of the feud occurred in 1882 when three McCoys, Bud, Tolbert, and Pharmer would get into a verbal fight with Ellison Hatfield. The McCoys would snap and brutally murder Elison by stabbing him 26 times in the torso, and then finishing him off with a shot to the head. The leader of the Hatfields, Devil Anse, was Ellison’s brother, and ended up killing all three brothers himself.
The feud would claim several more lives as it ebbed and flowed between 1882 and 1887. Then Perry Cline would enter the picture. Perry was a lawyer and a distant relative of the McCoys. Perry, at the request of his cousin Randolph McCoy, had murder indictments issued for the murder of the Hatfields from five years before and Cline would request extradition of the Hatfields into Kentucky. Due to legal red tape, the process was going slowly; too slowly for the McCoy’s liking. Thus the McCoys riled up fellow Kentuckians, and a massive raid was organized, leading to several Hatfield friends, relatives, and supporters being dragged into Kentucky. As you can imagine, this didn’t sit well with the Hatfields at all, and so they retaliated by burning alive two McCoy children in the McCoy family home on January 1st, 1888.
After all of this, the feud was no longer between just two inbreeding and farming families, but it had blown up into a feud between West Virginia and Kentucky as a whole. Both state’s Governors called in their respective National Guards to halt the raids on each other’s territories, and the Governor of West Virginia, E. Willis Wilson even accused his Kentucky counterpart of violating the extradition process and secretly approving of the McCoy’s actions. West Virginia would end up fighting the Hatfield’s extradition all the way to the Supreme Court. In May of 1889, the Supreme Court sided with Kentucky and the Hatfields were forced to stand trial for murder. Oddly enough, the murder trial did not revolve around the original murders in 1882, but instead of the burning of the two children in 1888. Eight Hatfields went to trial, and all eight were found guilty. Seven were sentenced to life in jail, while the eighth was executed by hanging in a public display in the town of Pikesville, Kentucky. An interesting note here is that it was illegal to hang people in Kentucky at this time.
From here the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys would peter out until 1891 when both families finally agreed to end the feud once and for all. When all was said and done more than a dozen family members were killed, with the majority being McCoys.
Over the past century the feud has become infamous and shown up on everything from Bugs Bunny cartoons to a Family Feud reunion where the descendents of both clans played each other in a best 3 out of 5 series, with the winning team getting a prize winning hog. Although the feud can easily, and some might say cruelly, be summed up by calling it “Two packs of Hillbillies fussing over a pig”, the feud ended up encompassing not just two families, but two entire states and eventually the highest court in the land. If you’re interested in learning more, I suggest either the hour long documentary the History Channel released on DVD a few years back, or getting one of two books. The first is called, Hatfields and the McCoys by Otis Rice, and it’s a quick 150 page read that is both informative and entertaining. The second is, Feud: Hatfields, McCoys, and Social Change in Appalachia, 1860-1900. This one is more than twice the length of the first and has a more scholarly bent. Either way, both are an excellent read on the subject.
This has been this week’s Nyogtha folks!