No other folk do blood feuds like Mason-Dixon Line Americans. Wedged between the Smoky Mountains and the Mississippi is enough pure meanness to power New York City from now until the Mayan Doomsday. They may pronounce themselves zealots for the religion of “turn the other cheek,” but hillbillies make Sicilian mobsters look laid back.
Of all the famed conflicts between Jayhawks and Bushwackers, State Line mobsters and small-town Sheriffs, moonshiners and claim jumpers, one stands out in the annals of American history: The Hatfield-McCoy feud. If American vengeance had a brand, it would be Hatfield-McCoy.
Nobody did eye-for-an-eye like these good old boys. And yet nobody knows much about them. The grit of their conflict has been washed under a sugary tide of commercialism, relegating their deep human suffering to the stuff of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, dinner theater.
Until now. Until here, loyal reader. Because in honor of what looks to be a righteously bad-ass three-part, six-hour miniseries premiering on the History Channel Memorial Day, Hatfields & McCoys, we’re giving you the Big Sandy River dirt.
Here are 12 seriously messed-up facts about the Hatfield-McCoy feud, one for each corpse resulting from the conflict:
1. The Civil War Was Behind It
The Hatfields and McCoys had grounds to hate each other even before they collided. They fought on opposite sides of the Civil War.
The division makes it easy to remember: McCoys were Kentucky soldiers for the Union. Hatfields were draft-ducking outlaws for the Confederacy.
2. The Hatfields Started It
Despite what people believe about both sides being wrong, the Hatfields threw down first. William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield was likely at the reins when this whole situation went hellbent.
“Devil Anse” was truly a red-blooded son of a bitch. He didn’t get his nickname on account of the logging operation he ran. He dodged duty in the Confederate Army, then turned around and formed a band of “irregulars” – read, back-stabbing outlaws – named after his hometown. If this sounds just like the career path of the covetous, murderous fat-ass in Cold Mountain, it is. Devil Anse robbed, pillaged and killed other civilians using the Stars & Bars as an excuse.
All this culminated in him and some other family members – many of who were from his mother’s side, the Vances – waylaying a McCoy who was coming home after the Civil War. They drove Asa McCoy into a cave and gunned him down.
Devil Anse went on to orchestrate much of the brutality during the feud. His eternal reward, at least in this world, is a grave topped by a statue of himself in Logan, West Virginia.
3. A Pig Helped Start It
Asa getting plugged in a cave wasn’t what sparked off the worst of the feud. That began thirteen years later, and was inspired by a hog.
The McCoy patriarch, Randolph “Old Ran’l” McCoy, let his pig wander onto Hatfield land. Apparently holding to an idea of property rights that predated ancient Sumerian law, the Hatfields claimed that made the hog theirs.
The whole case went to court. In the tried-and-true tradition of Southern Justice, the presiding judge was a Hatfield. You can guess who won the case. The Hatfields made away with the hog.
The McCoys decided to score a moral victory, however. Sam and Paris McCoy got into a scrap with the relative who testified on the Hatfields’ behalf, Bill Staton, and killed him. They were acquitted on the basis of self-defense.
4. The Feud Site Is Now Poisonous
All this fussin’ and feudin’ went down in a region known as the Big Sandy River, a borderline feature to east Kentucky and West Virginia. A lovely stretch of water, the river used to live up to its name. Not so much anymore, up in Martin County by the Tug Fork where the feud took place.
In 2000, a coal sludge impoundment owned by Massey Energy broke and disgorged into the Big Sandy River. The toxic mire contained heavy metals such as mercury, lead, arsenic, copper, and chromium.
Nasty, for sure – but how much sludge could a little coal impoundment hold? Well, about 30 times as much toxic goo as the freaking Exxon Valdez spill that rocked the news cycle a couple decades ago. We’re talking hundreds of millions of gallons. It was the one of the worst environmental disasters ever…that you probably never heard of.
5. East Kentucky’s Top Sports Team Shares The Hatfield Name
If you’ve ever been within spitting distance of Kentucky, you know what’s meant by “Wildcats.” University of Kentucky athletics, the Wildcats, are the soul of that region, as much as horse breeding and hot browns. It just also happens to be the name of the Hatfield butchers who tormented and slaughtered east Kentucky from across the West Virginia border: The Logan Wildcats.
6. A Hatfield Dumped His Pregnant McCoy Bride…for Another McCoy
Here’s where the feud officially qualifies itself as a Southern blood feud by becoming both way off the chain and utterly moronic.
As if the pig-related homicide wasn’t bad enough, one of the Hatfield boys got a McCoy girl “in a family way.” Johnson “Johnse” (are we seeing a trend here?) Hatfield, Devil Anse’s son, bedded down with Roseanna McCoy and got her knocked up. The McCoys didn’t take kindly to this, and arrested Johnse on the pretext of some outstanding warrants for bootlegging liquor.
Devil Anse was no stranger to working his will outside the law, though, and got a pile of kin together. He besieged the McCoy farm where Johnse was stowed away and hauled him back home.
Johnse, recognizing the error of inseminating hated rivals, took up with a cousin. Just kidding – he took up with a McCoy cousin, Nancy McCoy, leaving Roseanna in the lurch while making McCoy family cookouts even more awkward.
7. The Hatfield Execution Site Already Stunk of Corpses
By “awkward,” I mean “seething with murderous intent,” because the next blow struck in the Hatfield-McCoy feud was on Roseanna’s behalf. Three of her brothers cornered Ellison Hatfield, Devil Anse’s brother, a year later in 1882. Words were exchanged, then blows, then 26 stab wounds and a bullet – all delivered to Ellison.
Devil Anse hit the trail to beat constables in reaching the McCoy boys. He snagged them and dragged them back to West Virginia. Ellison, to the credit of Hatfield toughness, had hung in there to see his killers arrive. He then croaked and Devil Anse arranged it for the three McCoys to follow him: He tied them to bushes and had his whole family blow them away.
Those bushes were pawpaw bushes, named after the papaya that they resembled. Similarity to pleasant tropical fruit stopped there. Pawpaw reeks like rotting meat in order to attract pollinating insects.
In this case, the corpse stink attracted three bullet-riddled teens and ignited the worst of this notorious feud.
8. Mostly Kids Got Killed
You know how they got Ole Ran’l McCoy? They didn’t. And you know what brought down ornery Devil Anse Hatfield? Frigging pneumonia. At the age of 81.
No, the casualties of the conflict weren’t the patriarchs who stoked it. It was the kids who were fiery with it. The usual pattern was that Devil Anse would do something savage, the McCoy boys would fly off half-cocked, and the young would pay in blood.
They couldn’t even nail old Randolph six years after they shot his sons tied to the stinky trees. Devil Anse and two fistfuls of kin surrounded Randolph’s house on New Year’s, lit it on fire and laid into everyone who came out. They beat his wife near to death and killed two of his kids, but Randolph had already snuck off, free and clear.
9. The McCoys Lost
It’s hard to score a blood feud like a hockey game, but the numbers just don’t lie in this case – the McCoys got beat in this one. Chalk it up to them being more law abiding, or less tactical, or just plain unlucky enough to fight West Virginians, but the McCoys suffered far more casualties than the Hatfields.
All in all, 7 McCoys perished in the feud. Only 1 Hatfield died. The McCoys got their licks in, but it was usually against families related to the Hatfields, not the fire-headed Hatfields themselves.
Even the last three losses on the Hatfield side were taken out by the State of Kentucky or by Frank Phillips, a local roughneck and posse leader.
10. The Hatfields Kept Winning Into the 20th Century
After a handful of Hatfields were sentenced to life imprisonment for the whole “butchering women and children on New Year’s” thing, the conflict simmered down. Anse got back to his logging, Randolph to his grieving, and life moved on. Until, that is, Family Feud.
Yes, that Family Feud – the hit game show of the ’70s. In 1979, a special episode of Family Feud pitted Hatfield descendants against McCoy descendants.
After an early lead, the Hatfields prevailed.
The prize? A pig, of course.
11. The Hatfields Won Until 2002
The McCoys came out ahead in the end. Their scuffle over Hatfield turf culminated in a fight to win their ancestors’ bodies back. Graves of six planted McCoys, five murdered during the feud, were on Hatfield land, owned by John Vance. Out of a sense of tradition, I guess, Vance denied the McCoys the land, their bodies of their kin, and access to the plots.
The court didn’t take a shine to these antics and awarded the McCoys access to the cemetery. Vance still won’t open it to the public, though.
12. 9/11 Changed Everything
In 2003, the Hatfields and McCoys set aside their differences, picked up a pen and signed an “official truce.” It was time to join forces, they said.
The stated cause for this alliance was the September 11 attacks.
Seems they had a bigger blood feud to focus on.
But then, we all know how that one’s turned out. Happy Memorial Day.