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.