The Hatfield and McCoy family feud
The Hatfield-McCoy feud was a long standing feud that lasted from 1878 until 1891. It involved two warring families of the West Virginia-Kentucky back country located along the Tug Fork River, off the Big Sandy River. The feud reached an epic scale and state militias were called in to restore order with the state of Kentucky even threatening to invade Virginia.
The McCoy’s, led by Randolph “Old Randall” McCoy, lived mostly on the Kentucky side of Tug Fork (a tributary of the Big Sandy River), and the Hatfield’s, led by William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield (described as “six foot of devil and 180 pounds of hell”) lived mostly on the West Virginia side. Both families were part of the first wave of pioneers to settle the Tug Valley area. The Hatfield’s were more affluent than the McCoy’s and were politically well-connected. Where the McCoy’s relied on God, the Hatfield’s relied on cunning and hard work. “Devil Anse” Hatfield’s timbering operation was a source of wealth for the Hatfield family, but he employed many non-Hatfield’s, and even hired Albert McCoy, Lorenzo Dow McCoy, and Selkirk McCoy.
The Asa Murder
For years the families living on opposite sides of the river and in different states, crossed the river to trade goods, marry each other, and to attend friendly family gatherings together. The tide turned in 1865 with the death of Asa Harman McCoy (Old Randall McCoy’s brother) on January 7, 1865. Jim Vance (uncle of Devil Anse and widely considered to be one of the meanest of the Hatfield clan) and his “Logan Wildcats” (a guerrilla Civil War unit) despised Asa Harmon McCoy because he had joined the Union army during the American Civil War. Both families were southern sympathizers (but both had some family members that joined the Union Army). Asa Harman McCoy had been discharged from the army early because of a broken leg. One night, on his return home, he was murdered in a nearby cave by Jim Vance of the Hatfield family. Being southern sympathizers, neither family thought much of it and even the McCoy’s felt Asa had gotten what he deserved. After the Asa murder, things remained calm for over a decade until that “damned pig” stirred things up.
The Stolen Pig
The second recorded instance of violence in the feud occurred after an 1878 dispute about the ownership of a hog. Floyd Hatfield had it and Randolph McCoy said it was his. The Hatfield’s believed that since the pig was on their land, that meant it was theirs. Some of the McCoy’s objected saying the “notches” or “marks’ on the pig’s ears were McCoy marks, and not Hatfield marks. The matter was taken to the local Justice of the Peace, Anderson “Preacher Anse” Hatfield. The star witness was Bill Staton who swore the pig belonged to the Hatfield’s. The jury consisted of six Hatfield’s and six McCoy’s but one McCoy was having an affair with a Hatfield and voted their way giving the Hatfield’s a 7-5 decision in their favor. Hence, the Hatfield’s retained control of the wandering pig. To the McCoy’s, this injustice would not stand and Bill Staton, the Hatfield star witness, immediately became a target.
The Death of Bill Staton
Within a few months after the trial, Bill Staton was shot to death by Paris and Sam McCoy. They were caught and tried but were found not guilty with a plea of self defense. It was rumored that Devil Anse Hatfield had arranged the acquittal in an attempt to maintain peace between the two families. Instead, the McCoy’s were outraged that Paris and Sam had been brought to trial in the first place.
The Illicit Affair between Roseanna and Johnse
The feud escalated after Roseanna McCoy began an affair with Johnse Hatfield (Devil Anse’s son), leaving her family to live with the Hatfields in West Virginia. During her stay with the Hatfields, she became pregnant. Roseanna eventually returned to the McCoys, but when the couple tried to resume their relationship, Johnse Hatfield was arrested by the McCoys on outstanding Kentucky bootlegging warrants (Johnse was indeed a well known bootlegger). He was freed from McCoy custody only when Roseanna made a desperate midnight ride to alert Devil Anse Hatfield, who organized a rescue party. Hell bent on vengeance, the Hatfield party reacted quickly and surrounded the McCoys allowing them to capture Johnse and take him back to West Virginia. Despite what was seen as a betrayal of her family on his behalf, Johnse added to the McCoy shame and abandoned the pregnant Roseanna, marrying instead her cousin Nancy McCoy in 1881.
The Murder of Ellison Hatfield
The escalation continued in 1882 when Ellison Hatfield, younger brother of “Devil Anse” Hatfield, was killed by three of Roseanna McCoy’s young brothers: Tolbert, Pharmer, and Bud. Ellison was stabbed 26 times and finished off with a shot in the back. The three McCoy brothers were arrested by Hatfield constables and were to be taken to Pikeville for trial. Devil Anse Hatfield quickly organized a large group of followers and cut off the constables with the three McCoy prisoners in tow before they reached Pikeville. The three brothers were taken by force to West Virginia to await the fate of mortally wounded Ellison Hatfield. When Ellison died from his injuries three days later, the McCoy brothers were themselves murdered in turn. They were tied to pawpaw bushes and gunned down, further escalating the feud.
Devil Anse Hatfield immediately became a chief suspect in the McCoy brother’s murders but was later cleared after it was determined that he was at home ill. Other suspects were difficult to identify as both families remained tight lipped. Soon after the incident, the Hatfields broke into the home of Mary McCoy and whipped her with a cow tail. Mary McCoy was married to a Hatfield relation but the Hatfields felt she was leaking information to the McCoy’s. Mary’s husband, Jeff McCoy, quickly sought revenge for the beating and was promptly shot to death on the banks of the Tug River.
The Case Against the Hatfields Heats Up
After five years with no new leads, things quietened down until “Bad” Frank Phillips, an enterprising lawyer and gun for hire who experienced some bad dealings with Devil Anse Hatfield, convinced the Kentucky Governor to increase the focus on the case. The Hatfields reacted quickly. Feeling that Old Randall McCoy could provide key testimony that would be detrimental to their case, The Hatfields decided that Old Randall McCoy must be silenced and on January 1, 1888, they raided his home in an effort to kill him.
The escalation reached its peak during the 1888 New Years Night Massacre. Several of the Hatfield gang surrounded the McCoy cabin and opened fire on the sleeping family. The cabin was set on fire in an effort to drive Randal McCoy into the open. He escaped by making a quick break out of the cabin but two of his children were murdered and his wife was beaten and left for dead (she eventually recovered from broken ribs and skull fractures but her head injuries left long-term damage).
Between 1880 and 1891, the feud claimed more than a dozen members of the two families, becoming headline news around the country, and compelling the governors of both Kentucky and West Virginia to call up their state militias to restore order. The Governor of West Virginia once even threatened to have his militia invade Kentucky. Kentucky Governor S.B. Buckner in response sent his Adjutant General to Pike County to investigate the situation. Newspapers from around the country awaited word from Adjutant General Sam Hill to find out “what in the Sam Hill was going on up there”.
In 1888, Wall Hatfield and eight others were arrested by a posse led by “Bad” Frank Phillips, and brought to Kentucky to stand trial for the murder of Alifair McCoy, Randall’s young daughter, who was killed during the New Years Massacre. She had been shot after exiting the burning house. The Supreme Court became involved and ruled in favor of Kentucky (the McCoy’s). All were found guilty. Seven received life imprisonment, while the eighth, “slow witted” Ellison “Cottontop” Mounts (who was rumored to be the illegitimate child of two Hatfield cousins), was executed by hanging. Thousands attended the hanging in Pikeville, Kentucky.
The families continued to feud with each taking turns capturing and killing opposing family members and then breaking the instigators out of jail when they were caught. The New York Times reported the following on October 28, 1889:
Huntington, West Va., Oct. 27.—Information was brought by courier today from Hamlin, Lincoln County, that about midnight Friday a mob surrounded the Lincoln County Jail, forced an entrance after a short resistance by the authorities took two of the prisoners, Green McCoy and Milton Haley, and hung them to a tree a short distance from the jail building. Haley and McCoy were natives of Kentucky and were allied to the McCoy faction of the outlaws whose murderous feud with the Hatfields is familiar to the public. McCoy was engaged in a shooting scrape with Paris Brumfield of Lincoln County about a year ago, and about a month ago he, in company with Haley, ambushed and attempted to murder Al Brumfield and his wife. This shooting occurred on a Sunday night and both the victims were badly wounded, Mrs., Brumfield being shot in the breast and her husband in the leg. For a time it was thought the woman would die, but she finally recovered.
McCoy and Haley escaped to Kentucky, but not until there had been two more attempts at assassination in the county, in one of which a man named Adkins, a friend of the Brumfields, was wounded., The two would-be murderers were arrested at Benn Post Office, Martin County, Ky., and were confined in jail there. Friday they were looked up in the Lincoln County (West Va.) Jail, and, in the absence of definite information, it is supposed they were lynched by some of the Hatfield sympathizers.
Aftermath and Final Notes
William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield died January 6, 1921 at the age of 81 of pneumonia. He is buried in the Hatfield Family Cemetery along West Virginia Route 44 in southern Logan County. His grave is topped by a life-size statue of himself made of Italian marble.
Randolph “Old Randall” McCoy died at the age of 88 after catching fire over a cook stove fire. He is buried in the Dils Cemetery in Pikeville, next to his wife who passed away in the 1890’s
In 1979, the two families united for a special week’s taping of the popular game show Family Feud, in which they played for a cash prize and a pig which was kept on stage during the games.
- 1865: Former Union soldier Asa Harman McCoy killed January 7, 1865, probably by the “Logan Wildcats” led by Jim Vance.
- 1878: Bill Staton (nephew of Randolph McCoy) was killed in 1878 as revenge for testifying on behalf of Floyd Hatfield in his trial for stealing a McCoy hog. Shot by Sam McCoy-nephew of Randolph McCoy Sr.
- 1882: Ellison Hatfield is mortally wounded in a fight with Tolbert, Pharmer, and Randolph McCoy, Jr. on August 7, 1882, dying two days later on August 9.
- 1882: Tolbert McCoy tied to pawpaw trees and killed as revenge for Ellison Hatfield’s shooting/stabbing on August 9, 1882, the day Ellison died.
- 1882: Pharmer McCoy tied to pawpaw trees and killed as revenge for Ellison Hatfield’s shooting/stabbing on August 9, 1882, the day Ellison died.
- 1882: Randolph McCoy Jr. tied to pawpaw trees and killed as revenge for Ellison Hatfield’s shooting/stabbing on August 9, 1882, the day Ellison died.
- 1886: “Jeff McCoy” killed in fall of 1886 following his murder of mail carrier Fred Wolford, shot by “Cap” Hatfield.
- 1888: Alifair McCoy killed January 1, 1888 at Randolph’s house by nine attackers led by Jim Vance. The attackers failed in their attempt to eliminate witnesses against them.
- 1888: Calvin McCoy killed January 1, 1888 at Randolph’s house by nine attackers led by Jim Vance. The attackers failed in their attempt to eliminate witnesses against them.
- 1888 January 7: Jim Vance killed by “Bad” Frank Phillips in an ambush.
- 1888 January 18: Bill Dempsey killed by Jeff McCoy and “Bad” Frank Phillips.
- 1890: Ellison “Cottontop” Mounts was hanged on February 18, 1890 for Alifair’s murder.