“That was a Real Nice Truck” Vigilante Justice in Skidmore, Missouri, USA

(Last week I posted about vigilante justice in Tanzania.  It happens in the United States, too, which is what this story is about. As with the previous post, this is an extract from my book  When Killing is a Crime, 2007 Lynne Rienner Publishers).

Ken McElroy was shot and killed while sitting next to his wife Trena in a Chevy Silverado in downtown Skidmore, Missouri, USA, in August 1981. At least thirty-five people were present at the time of the killing, including law officers, the mayor, and other prominent people in the small community. At least two guns were used to shoot as many as 15 rounds.

The shooting occurred in the afternoon outside the American Legion Hall following a meeting which had been called to discuss how Skidmore could protect itself against Ken McElroy. McElroy and his wife Trena showed-up uninvited at the meeting. Leaving after exchanging words with the men there, he and Trena returned to his truck. As he was sitting in the truck, he was shot by two different rifles. Despite the large number of potential witnesses, and repeated investigations by local, state, and federal authorities all reached the same conclusion. Ken McElroy had been killed by “persons unknown.” All thirty-five people present claimed not to have seen anyone fire. Despite the coercive power of the courts to compel testimony, none present admitting to having seen who killed Ken McElroy. Town Marshall David Dunbar, who had earlier resigned out of fear of McElroy would attack would only comment twenty years later: “It’s really a shame about the Silverado,” he said. “That was a really nice truck.”

Ken McElroy was born in 1934, the 15th of 16 children born to itinerant sharecroppers. He never really learned to read well, and never had a job. McElroy lived outside of Skidmore, a town of about 500 people, with a succession of women. A harem, writers called it, because frequently there were more than one teenage wife or girlfriend living there. Indeed, in the 1960s and 1970s, he regularly cased junior high schools, looking for new girls to replace those of whom he had tired. As a result, by the time of his murder in 1981, he had had at least ten children by four different women. He had been arrested twenty-two times, been tried only once (he was acquitted) but never served time in jail. Indeed, the event that precipitated his murder, a shotgun assault on a 70 year-old grocer, resulted in only his first conviction and sentencing. He was free on bail when he was killed.

Ken McElroy married for the first time at age 18, and moved briefly to Denver, Colorado. He could not hold a job, so he and his wife soon moved back to Skidmore. There, he began hanging out with his “coon huntin’ buddies,” men who shared his passion for hunting raccoons at night when the animals were active. His nighttime activities were to become his income—he became a cattle rustler in a remote corner of Missouri where cattle markets were poorly policed, and there was no obligation to brand cattle. Nighttime stealth, a refined capability to harass any witnesses, and an attorney who could be retained at a cost of $5,000 per felony kept him out of the courthouse, and driving a succession of new trucks. McElroy also developed a skill for brandishing weapons, and intimidation.

McElroy’s first arrest came in connection with his wife-to-be Trena, an eighth grader who he first seduced in 1971 when she was 12 years old. McElroy already had two women, Marcia and Alice living with him at the time. Nevertheless, Trena moved in replacing Marcia. She dropped out of school in the 9th grade, and was pregnant by the time she was 14. But then 16 days after the birth of her son, she and Alice fled to Trena’s parents. This lasted only a few hours. McElroy brandishing a gun forced the girls to return home with him, where as punishment, he beat them and forced them to perform sex acts. After that, he returned with Trena to the home of her parents. McElroy shot the family dog, poured gas around the house, and burned it down.

Two days later, Trena took her new-born son to a doctor, who coaxed the story of the arson out of her. The doctor contacted the county social welfare agency, who put Trena and her baby into foster care. The case was taken to the district attorney. On the basis of Trena’s testimony, McElroy was indicted for arson, assault, and rape. Even at $5,000 per felony, his attorney told him, it would be difficult for him to be acquitted. But McElroy did not relent. He found the foster home where Trena was living, and began making threatening calls. The District Attorney slapped on eight more felony molestation charges as a result of the trysts he had with Trena beginning when she was 13 years old.

But McElroy was still charming. He arranged to divorce his second wife Sharon from whom he had been separated for several years, and marry Trena. More threats persuaded Trena’s mother to give consent to the marriage, which in turn solved McElroy’s legal problems. As his wife, Trena could not be compelled to testify against him, in a case which was highly dependent on her cooperation for a conviction. McElroy had beat the charges.

There were more cases during the subsequent years. Many involved intimidation, whether it was over women, slights to his honor, or accusations of criminal activity. His last fight was in many respects just as trivial as the others. One of McElroy’s children was chastised by shopkeepers Bo and Lois Bowenkamp for not having paid for a ten cent piece of candy. Ken McElroy came back to the store, and found Bo Bowenkamp cutting open boxes with a butcher knife. A verbal altercation ensued, and Bowenkamp was shot with McElroy’s shotgun. This time, despite the claims of McElroy and one of his coon huntin’ buddies that Bowencamp had threatened McElroy with the knife, Ken McElroy was sentenced to two years in prison. But, under Missouri law, he remained free on appeal; still the only question in August 1981 was when he would begin his sentence. Stays were granted, during which McElroy returned to Skidmore to threaten witnesses, including the Bowenkamps. It was at this time the town called a meeting in the American Legion Hall. The conclusion of the meeting resulted in the still unsolved death of Ken McElroy, by persons unknown.

Ultimately of course, this is a story about the legitimacy of the law as it emerges from the people. Not even the power of the FBI could break the code of silence in Skidmore. Skidmore, in short, to address the problem of Ken McElroy briefly became a virtually stateless area. The death and subsequent code of silence was as powerful as that in an inner city gang, or any stateless areas which are so difficult to police.

Further Reading

Film: “Without Mercy” (2004)

Krajicek, David (n.d.) Court TV Crime Library, online at http://www.crimelibrary.com/notorious_murders/classics/ken_mcelroy/index.html

MacLean, Harry N. (1988). In Broad Daylight: A Murder in Skidmore, Missouri. New York: Dell


Campbell’s Law, Planned Social Change, Vietnam War Deaths, and Condom Distributions in Refugee Camps

Donald T. Campbell was a psychologist in the 1970s. During this time, the belief emerged that society was a social engineering project that could be planned and evaluated.  The general idea was  that if you collected enough data, you could plan and control social change in a way that led to desired results.  Economists from USAID believed this about economic development, military planners in Vietnam believed it, and Sociologists in the War on Poverty believed it.  But by 1976, Campbell wasn’t so sure…

The generation of social scientists Campbell critiqued ran around measuring poverty, illiteracy, disease, Communism, and other bad things.  Thus in the 1970s you had Wars on Poverty, Smallpox, Illiteracy, Drugs, and so forth.  There were also violent wars in Vietnam (for the Americans), and in Afghanistan (for the Russians).  When I lived in Tanzania in the 1980s, the Tanzanian government had wars on Poverty, Ignorance, and Disease, all funded by international donors living out this paradigm.  Planners in Washington, New York, Dar Es Salaam, and elsewhere calculated with statistical precision what was needed for victory in their “war,” and allocated government money to produce the desired victory.  Their decisions were “data driven” and “evidence based,”  to borrow two words common in policy making circles today.

Campbell was involved in such projects himself.  He was so much part of them that he wrote an unfortunately obscure paper, “Assessing the Impact of Planned Social Change” which reflects on the psychology of planners.  More interesting for this blog, though, is the fact that what he was really doing was taking the ethnographic temperature of number-assessed planners.   Campbell’s Law is as follows:

The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.

In Vietnam, Campbell pointed out, the quantitative social indicator was “enemy killed.”  Thus, he noted, this measure was corrupted as dead civilians were re-defined as “enemy,” and occasionally villages were invaded in the hope that at the unit would have kill-metric which could be rewarded.  Two examples added by other social scientists including the following: Cardiac surgeons declined to operate on seriously ill because such patients were more likely to die (duh).  They did this because the state began issuing “scorecards” rooted in survival rates.  So, since the very sick were the most likely to die in surgery (or on their own), the doctors declined to operate on the seriously sick, and preserved their high survival rates.  Another example of Campbell’s Law comes from airline schedules.  Airlines began to be scored on the basis of “on-time arrivals” in the 1980s.  They responded by simply increasing estimated flight times, thereby driving up their “on-time” rates—anytime you arrive early at a destination, thank Campbell’s Law; tailwinds probably did not have much to do with it!

Citing “Campbell’s Law” when critiquing the United States’ “No Child Left Behind Act” is something of a fad in education circles today.  This is because high stakes testing for science and math drives decision-making about student promotion, teacher retention, and school closures.  Thus, you get extensive test prep of students in reading and math, with resultant dilution of subjects like history, science, music and the arts which are not tested for.  And of course, the ultimate vindication of Campbell’s Law are the cheating scandals by schools and teachers concerned only about “succeeding” on test day.

Campbell’s law also applies well to other bureaucratic endeavors, especially those of applied social scientists.  My own experience is in Tanzania where projects to assist refugees or villagers were created with quantitative goals and objectives to satisfy donors, independent of what was needed or wanted by the villagers (or refugees) they were assisting.  My favorite version of Campbell’s Law was the many broken diesel-powered water projects that littered western Tanzania in the 1980s and 1990s.  Indeed a book called Watering White Elephants was written about this phenomenon.  Many of these were funded with the bureaucratic “Health for All by the year 2000” goal of WHO in mind. Quantitative reports showing that the goals of the project in terms of villagers served, villages with pumps, etc., were met.

For the refugees I worked with in Tanzania between 1994 and 1996, a good example was the numerical goal established for birth control in the Rwandan refugee camps.  This was right after the Rwanda genocide, and the UN was concerned about the exploding birth rates, and the costs that would be incurred by their child health programs.  The result was a bright idea: Condoms all around!  In `1995-1996, four million condoms were distributed in record time by a USAID program, a quantitative  result trumpeted at NGO meetings I attended (Quick: 4 million condoms spread across 450,000 refugees means that USAID is assuming what about the frequency of refugee sex???).

The visiting anthropologist hired to evaluate the program though pointed to the corruption of the condom distribution program.  The condoms, she found were not used to prevent births, which continued to rise quickly, even nine months (or more) after the big distribution.  Rather the condoms became a marker for young men to display their prowess.  The young men cut off the end of the condom and wore it as a bracelet to represent conquests.  Campbell’s Law wins again!

Indeed, there is a ethnographic field worker’s version of Campbell’s Law which was written by the development economist Teodor Shanin in 1966 at the height of the Cold War.  Central planners in Moscow, Washington, and Beijing were running around the world applying the econometric models (Washington), or assumptions about central state planning (Moscow and Beijing) to Third World projects.  The result was Campbell’s Law writ large, as the planners with their emphasis on production targets, development plans, and so forth created goals which implementers adjusted their programs to match.  The result was that in places like the Congo, Vietnam,and  Afghanistan, all the great powers were ultimately frustrated.  Echoing Campbell’s law, Shanin wrote about the corruption of the quantitative social indictors in the following way:

Day by day, the peasants make the economists sigh, the politicians sweat, and the strategists swear, defeating their plans and prophecies all over the world—Moscow and Washington, Peking and Delhi, Cuba and Algeria, the Congo and Vietnam”  Shanin (1966).

Which in the end points to the strengths of the ethnographic method, since after all Campbell’s Law applies to quantitative measures, not qualitative.  As long as ethnographers are the harmless fuzzballs on the wall, they are able to write about processes, interactions, relationships, and so forth that quantitative measures typically miss.  After all, Campbell’s Law itself is ultimately an ethnographic conclusion about the nature of quantitative methods. Ethnographic method may not be grand, or easily adapted to manage large bureaucratic projects, but in its insight, it can be used to describe the limitations of more quantitative projects.

Reposted from Ethnography.com (2010).

Social Class and Food from Around the Web

I grew up eating what the educated like to call “junk” food and “trash” food, mostly it was “poor food,” that came from boxes and cans. It wasn’t always like this in my family, we had short periods of feast and long periods of famine, and when times were good (my mom “marrying up’) we ate fresh, home cooked food. When times were bad however (going broke after losing the family business), it was hamburger in a five-pound tube and no label, mac and cheese in a box.

There’s much debate about poverty and food, mostly around how welfare recipients do or don’t spend their money on food. At the same time, when the debate about health/nutrition and poverty comes up, the poor and working class are the subject of scorn and critique for their food choices and “the growing obesity problem.” It’s a no-win situation.

Easy CheeseToday, we offer you some selections from around the web about social class and food:

  1. Read the excellent “Trash Food” by Chris Offutt by clicking here.
  2. Look at a playful Instagramer’s take on class and food plating by clicking this link to Twisted Swifter (a favorite website). If you don’t know what “food plating” is (bless you, I didn’t either), click this link to learn the “Basics of food plating.”
  3. Those with an anthropological bent, can read Robin Fox’s take on class, food, and table manners when you click here.

Monetizing Mindfulness

Maybe the word “mindfulness” is like the Prius emblem, a badge of enlightened and self-satisfied consumerism, and of success and achievement. If so, not deploying mindfulness — taking pills or naps for anxiety, say, or going out to church or cocktails — makes you look sort of backward or classless. Like driving a Hummer.

I came across a good critique of how the Buddhist concept of mindfulness has been co-opted by the PMC (professional middle class) and other groovy types looking to sell stuff to the MBA’s. My critique of the article is that the concept was co-opted by the kind of people who read The New York Times, and it’s unlikely they have the reflective skills to realize that this article is about them!

Click the link here, and give Virginia Heffernan’s article a read yourself and let us know what you think. Has the meaning of mindfulness been muddied? Is it less a spiritual practice and more a class marker?

Expressing Outrage and Lynching: Vigilantism in a Tanzanian Village, 1997

When Killing is a crime(Adapted from Tony Waters, When Killing is a Crime, Lynne Rienner Publishers 2007).

By Essau Magugudi in Kigoma
NOVEMBER 27, 1997, is deeply etched in the memories of Shunga villagers. It was on this day that they took law into their own hands and hacked to death three bandits who they suspected of carrying out acts of robbery in villages surrounding refugee settlements of Mutabira and Muyovozi.
Such retribution was unprecedented…”

I found the above article story while cruising the internet in1999, after typing in the keyword “Shunga” on a lark. Shunga is a remote village in Western Tanzania where my sister-in-law lived for 16 years, and also where my wife and I were married. I had also spent six weeks there in 1996 recovering from hepatitis and writing an article about Shunga which was later published in African Studies Review.

Magugudi’s  article struck me as odd because lynch law (or vigilante committees, if you will) were not unprecedented in that part of Tanzania as is asserted in his article. Rather it is fairly typical of remote Tanzanian villages at that time, and has in fact been found around the world where ever justice systems are weak. Indeed, during the three years I lived in the nearby town of Kasulu (1984-7), typically once or twice per year, some kid would be caught in the market stealing something trivial. Someone would yell “thief” and he would run toward the police station as fast as he could, with a very angry mob chasing after him. The unspoken arrangement was that if he made the police station he would be arrested and a legal case would be made against him. Thus, the police station was “safe” so to speak, even though the thief would be prosecuted. But, if the crowd caught him, he might be beaten to death.

Similar rules of summary justice were applied to Shunga. The big talk in Shunga in previous years had been of rumored poisonings, the attempted murder of a former ward councilor (someone set his grass roof on fire in the middle of the night), and the execution by a burning tire “necklace” of a thief caught in a neighboring village. Vigilante justice and summary execution is not that unusual where the courts and police find it difficult to find transportation to the remote villages even if they are called. Indeed, in Tanzania when I lived there, without access to a vehicle police officers needed to walk for at least half of a day even to ask the first question. What has changed is that because of a refugee crisis in this part of Tanzania, which began in 1993.  Journalists came to the area looking for stories, some of which might end up on the internet where I can find them.  Mugugudi continued:

…The three slain bandits had on that day ambushed a peasant along the main road … As luck would have it, the peasant escaped narrowly from his custody of his captors who had tried to seize his bicycle. He then reported the incident to the villagers who were bathing at a nearby stream. As the bandits emerged from their hideouts and descended towards the stream, they were stopped by villagers for questioning. It was discovered that the bandits were refugees at Muyovozi [refugee] camp. Upon searching them, the villagers found them with three locally made guns secured in an old sack. The bandits were handcuffed and taken to the ward office where a mob of angry youths hacked them to death.

Not much of a criminal investigation here. Probably most relevant is the fact that the youths killed represented the threat the refugee camp provided to the village. Since 1994, Shunga, which has a population of about 4,000 has had a UN supported refugee camp built on its boundary. In 1997, there were 50,000 refugees from Burundi living there.

The hacking of the bandits did arouse mixed feelings among villagers, especially when the councillor of the ward was taken by the police to Kasulu for questioning, but residents of Shunga and other neighboring villages believed the killing of the bandits would minimize, if not stop altogether, acts of banditry which had been increasing in the villages.

“Mixed feelings” is usually an indication that there are doubts about “legitimacy,” particularly in the context of the removal of the ward councilor. Villagers asked themselves whether they should have killed the refugees or not? How does it feel like to live next door to people who have killed publicly in this fashion? What can the central authorities, whose authority was usurped, actually do? Should they have presented the thieves to the ward councilor while still alive? There are doubts among the villagers about whether the right thing was done, and whether they legitimate authority to do it. Notably, though, the doubts were about who should have responded, not whether the punishment for theft was just. Rather, it was about who is the legitimate third party, the central government, ward councilor, or the village mob? There is also fear that “two party” justice exposes the villagers up to retaliation by the dead refugees’ friends.

I also pity government officials assigned to rural areas of Tanzania, like the ward counselor. He was sent to a remote village like Shunga with the idealistic assumption that he could persuade villagers to develop and pay for a modern state, even though they will never receive things like police investigations. From the villagers perspective, the most most prominent duty or the ward counselor is to collect the annual head tax, a job which confers little status, and for which their miniscule salary which is typically late. In fact the salary is so small and irregular that as with virtually every other person living in Shunga, the ward councilor had a subsistence farm in order to raise enough food to eat.
Not surprising, in many parts of Tanzania, the situation often leads to corruption. Technically, of course, the Shunga Ward Councilor had the Kasulu Police force to back him up, but then so does every other of the 40 or 50 ward councilors in the District. When I lived in Kasulu, the police had only one or two vehicles, and were unlikely to respond to a remote robbery case. A consequence is that the problem sometimes escalates into the type of lynching described above. This is a classic case of a weak state which has little legitimacy built up, and as a result has difficulty asserting the monopoly on the use of coercive force.

In fact, the central government is aware that Shunga has had a history of problems with ward councilors. One of the previous ward councilors, who pushed projects of school construction and tax collections too hard (he was known as a modernizer), had the grass roof of his house burned late one night, in an attempt to kill him. He was warned, but lost his house, and was given a transfer by the central government. No one ever prosecuted (or lynched) those responsible for the torching.

But, four months after that incident Mugugudi described, several more incidents of banditry and robbery were reported from villages near refugee settlements in Kasulu district.

So much for the hope that lynching controls stealing. Banditry was a chronic problem before and after the incident in Shunga. Lynching, perhaps less so, but the point that Esau Magugudi makes here is a good one. Lynching is not necessarily an effective means of crime control. Nor were the footraces out of the Kasulu marketplaces described above. Stealing was there before and after “executions;” so much for  theories equating severity of punishment with deterrence. This is a stark reminder that capital punishment of the most horrific sort did not control theft in the area.

Related Reading
Waters, Tony (1997) Beyond Structural Adjustment: State and Market in a Rural Tanzanian Village. African Studies Review. 40(2):59-89.

Adapted from Tony Waters, When Killing is a Crime, Lynne Rienner Publishers 2007.

Hatfield and McCoy Feud–The Real Thing

(Extract from When Killing is a Crime by Tony Waters (2007).  Lynne Rienner Publisher).

The Hatfield and McCoy feud is legendary in the United States, having become the subject of film and television drama. However, the events do have a root in a real feud, which took place across the Tug River, which forms the boundary between West Virginia and Kentucky in the latter half of the 19th century. The origins of the feud are vague. Squirrel Huntin’ Sam McCoy, one of the feudists, later wrote his memories of the time, but could not remember why the feud started, but his descriptions of general horseplay and boisterousness in the context of a trial over the ownership of hogs come closest to being a general explanation. Depending on how you count, the resulting feud left between 12 and 20 dead between 1882 and 1900, and as many wounded (Waller 1988:239; MacClintock 1901:176).

The Hatfield-McCoy feud illustrates well the manner in which violence, and new methods of responding to violence, emerge in areas where the state is weak. At the time of the feud, the remote area of Appalachia, where there were no regular roads, no railway, and people lived on homesteads where they grew what they ate and wore. The source of cash most often was whiskey, which was typically sold without payment of required taxes. What contact with the authorities there were, often came in the form of arrests, when mountaineers brought their “moonshine” into town to sell surreptitiously.

In other words, the state in rural Appalachia was still weak, and many were suspicious because the authorities lacked a monopoly on the use of coercive violence. As a result, when looking at the story of the McCoy-Hatfield feud, the role of the state is anomalous. Sometimes, the protagonists tried to enlist the authority of the state to represent them in the settlement of grievances. At other times, particularly when they were dissatisfied with the action of the court, principals in feuds organized their own attacks and even “executions” in the interests of exacting revenge.

In the late 19th century, each clan had a leader, Devil Anse Hatfield on the West Virginia side of the Tug fork of the Big Sandy River, and Old Ranel McCoy, opposite him, on the Kentucky side of the river. Each had extensive kin relations on both sides of the river. Each was a prolific patriarch as well; Devil Anse had 13, children, and Old Ranel sixteen. Intermarriage between the clans was extensive.

The trigger to the feud was in 1879, when Old Ranel McCoy came to believe that Floyd Hatfield, a cousin of Devil Anse, had penned up his free-ranging “razorback” hogs. Old Ranel’s first impulse though was to report the case to the authorities and he took the case to the Justice of the Peace on the Kentucky side of the river. A trial was called, and a journey of six McCoys and six Hatfields empanelled. One of the McCoys though sympathized with the Hatfield case, and as a result Ranel McCoy lost the case, and presumably Floyd Hatfield kept the hogs.

But later in 1879 a fight erupted between Sam and Parish McCoy, and one of the Hatfield witnesses, Bill Stayton, from the trial. Parish McCoy and Bill Stayton both managed to shoot each other, before they clinched, fighting with hands and teeth (MacClintock 1901:177). Sam McCoy responded by shooting Stayton in the head.

The two McCoys were brought to trial for Stayton’s death, with Devil Anse Hatfields’s own brother as judge. Nevertheless, the McCoys were acquitted on grounds of self-defense. In response, according to MacClintock, the Hatfields declared “war.” The clans began sharp-shooting from a distance, and the McCoys in particular began to post sentinels to protect their homes and farms. Nevertheless, truces would emerge, particularly in the context of elections, which were held periodically.

Relations stood a chance of being healed later in 1879, when the feud was complicated, by a romantic relationship between Johnse Hatfield, son of Devil Anse, and Roseana McCoy, daughter of Old Ranel. Roseana went to live with Johnse at the Hatfield homestead, but Old Ranel refused permission for them to marry. In response, the McCoy brothers and friends interrupted the lovers’ trysts, and took Johnse captive. Devil Anse responded by sending out his family, which recaptured Johnse, and humiliated the McCoys. The McCoys responded by having a warrant taken out of the arrest of two Hatfield brothers. The warrant was served, but the Hatfields released, and the feud simmered. And while these incidents are cited by historians of the feud, it still did not heat up.

The violence of the feud is continued on election day in 1882, which was devoted to socializing and politics, liberally lubricated with “apple jack” and “corn-juice.” Talbot McCoy, a son of Old Ranel, asked Devil Anse’s uncle ‘Lias Hatfield for repayment of a $1.75 debt so that he could buy more whisky. ‘Lias denied owing the debt, and a fight ensued, which was broken up by officers. In response, Deacon Ellison Hatfield called Talbot McCoy a coward, and challenged him to a knife fight. The officer released Talbot to defend himself and another fight ensued. Despite the fact that young Bud McCoy was digging into him with another knife, Ellison Hatfield got the best of Talbot McCoy, and was about to crush his opponent’s head with a stone, when Farmer McCoy raised his revolver, and shot Ellison in the back. The three McCoys were immediately taken into custody by Kentucky police, while the Hatfields retreated back to West Virginia.

Devil Anse Hatfield quickly heard of the incident, and organized his kin to intercept the prisoners. Twenty to thirty of them challenged the sheriff’s men, and before the three McCoys reached the jail in Pikeville, Kentucky, they were hustled back to West Virginia. Miraculously, Ellison was still alive, and Devil Anse Hatfield announced a deathwatch. If Ellison died, so would the three McCoys: legend has it that he told two McCoy women who had arrived to beg for the lives of the three men: “Yo’ needn’t beg, an’ yo’ needn’t cry. If Ellison dies, yo’ boys hez got to die, damn my heart if they don’t!” Ellison himself, as he lay dying urged that Devil Anse turn his killers over to civil courts, saying, “Give them civil law.” The mothers of the three McCoys arrived and pleaded for mercy. But when Ellison died, Devil Anse Hatfield ordered all three tied to trees on the Kentucky side of the river, and shot.

After the McCoys actually appealed “civil law,” Kentucky issued warrants for Devil Anse Hatfield and twenty of his supporters. But no action was taken to capture the Hatfields by the West Virginia government where the Hatfields remained (Waller 1988:76). Finally five years later, in 1887, the governor of Kentucky upped the ante, by offering rewards for the capture of Devil Anse. Still, the West Virginia government did not pursue the warrant, or Kentucky’s requests for extradition. In response, the McCoys and their Kentucky allies began to organize posses into West Virginia. In retaliation, West Virginia issued warrants for the arrest of the “McCoy invaders,” and the Hatfields organized raids into Kentucky, resulting in the death of a daughter and son of Old Ranel McCoy. The “Battle for Grapevine Creek” in which groups of about forty men on each side battled, one made of West Virginia Hatfield allies, and the others deputies from Kentucky who had crossed the river resulted.

The raids attracted attention in the national press, which characterized the events as being a product of the barbaric culture of Appalachia. The national exposure led to redoubled efforts to control the situation. Kentucky in response proceeded with the prosecution of the nine Hatfields over the objections of the West Virginia governor. The man accused of causing the death of Old Ranel’s daughter, a mentally retarded Hatfield cousin by the name of Ellison Mounts, became the one person hung as a consequence of the feuding. Devil Anse, the leader of the Hatfield clan, and organizer of the original execution, remained unindicted and honored by his clan, and died at home in 1921.

By 1900—some argue earlier—the feud ended. With so many dead, and finally a good number imprisoned, the rule of the state came to be accepted. In other words, the final assertion of power by Kentucky brought an apparent end to the feud. There were no more killings, and the feud itself became the stuff of Hollywood legend.

But why did the feud occur? Crimonlogical theories about the legitimacy of the state, and the dangers of unlegitimated third parties provide a clue. The Hatfield and McCoy feud occurred in a place where the state was present, functioning at a certain level, and could be a powerful arbiter in the context of lesser offenses. Nevertheless, when the feud escalated beyond a level that Kentucky could control, each clan retreated into itself, and the feud began. This would seem to indicate that the central government had only an imperfect “monopoly” over the use of coercive power. In essence, what Cooney calls a “virtual stateless area” meaning an area where the state was unlegitimated, and did not have a monopoly on the use of coercive force emerged in the social space between the two states. The two McCoy and Hatfield patriarchs in fact had a great deal of legitimated power—though never a monopoly.


Further Reading

McClintock, S. S. (1901) “The Kentucky Mountains and their Feuds. II. The Causes of Feuds. American Journal of Sociology, 7(2):171-187.

Waller, Altina L. (1988). Feud: Hatfields, McCoys and Social Change in Appalachia, 1860-1900. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.



Allegations of Racial Discrimination at a Rural Sheriff’s Department


Something worth sharing has cropped up in our neck of the woods, which is in a rural county in northern California. A deputy for the Butte County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO) sued his employer citing “racial harassment, discrimination and retaliation when he reported the incidents.” The local paper reported that Michael Sears is a deputy sheriff who has one Black parent and one white parent, or in other words, is “mixed race.” It seems he experienced a series of racially-focused incidents and actions by his co-workers and bosses that sounds a whole lot like what is called in American Labor Law, a “hostile work environment” and “workplace bullying.” The local Chico Enterprise-Record reported the details of Mr. Sears allegations. My sense of it is that after eight years with the BCSO, he couldn’t stay silent about his experiences. Usually a complaint only gets this far when there is clear, undeniable evidence. But as my journalist friends might remind me, these are only allegations. Right? Right.

The reason it interests me is because this is the same sheriff’s department that since September has been investigating the murder of my friend Marc Thompson who was African American. I’ve written about Marc on this blog and at the Synthesis, a local newspaper here in Butte County, which you can read about by clicking this link and this link. It’s concerning because the BCSO is a rural department and if you’re someone like me, you worry about racism among the ranks; it is what it is. There are many questions around the investigation into Marc’s murder by the BCSO—no arrests even after seven months. Some of us assume institutional racism and bias in how the investigation into Marc’s murder was and continues to be conducted. For instance, the county has yet to release an official cause of death and I still don’t know the how and the why behind some bullets that were sent to the Department of Justice labs in the state capital in Sacramento, California.

So, I also wonder about the investigative interest among members of a sheriff’s department in the case of deputy Sears. Who would use the “N-Word” in the presence of their African-American mixed race co-worker (and expect him to keep quiet about it)? I wonder about his superiors and their alleged retaliation, and how in rural places like Butte County, this kind of racism is accepted and as the article indicates, laughed off, from the bottom of the sheriff’s office hierarchy to the top of it.

Going  by the comments on social media, it seems like Mr. Sears is a well-respected officer and several community members commented on various sources that they are “rooting for him.” I’m rooting for him too. In one comment on a local source’s webpage, a reader says, “I am a ex-Butte Co. employee and I was amazed at the “good old boy” ethics I experienced. Some departments are run by people who seem to be protected from employee rights and labor law prosecutions.” Another reader said, “The workplace deserves a high degree of professional conduct. If the good old boys are willing to behave like this in the office, what the hell is going on in the streets.”

This is the worry I have and is the reason many officers don’t blow the whistle. The Blue Wall of Silence is hard to penetrate and retaliation for speaking up is swift and career-ending. I’ll keep you posted on what happens with Mr. Sears case but for now, let’s get his story in the running conversation.