For my money, one of the best shows on TV is FX’s superbly entertaining “Justified,” which follows the hard-boiled exploits of US Marshal Raylan Givens as he tangles with sundry wrongdoers in the hills and hollows of eastern Kentucky. With its rich tangle of vexed familial connections — Raylan is a lawman; his father is an outlaw — and longstanding feuds, the show harks back to the granddaddy of all Appalachian noir: the Hatfield-McCoy feud.
One of the violent epics of American folklore, the contretemps erupted in the rugged Kentucky-West Virginia border country in the 1880s, but its antecedents can be traced to the fault lines of the Civil War. Generations have argued over who started the whole thing: Hatfields tell it one way; McCoys another. But whoever provoked it, the deeds of these fractious families have passed into the annals of myth.
In “The Feud,” Dean King delivers up a heaping portion of popular history, larded with outsized characters, shootouts, manhunts, and posses on the prowl. Like his subject matter, King’s approach is outsized, as is his prose. What happened between the two families, he writes, “captured our national imagination, etched itself in our psyche, and became a defining moment in the American experience, a reflection of something essential in our fierce, liberty-loving character.”
If King doesn’t quite explain how exactly this was so — the same could be said of many other moments in the American experience — his well-researched narrative confidently separates hearsay from fact, and bulges with bloody set pieces and visceral family passions which exploded into savage fighting that went on for nearly a decade.
The story is too good to be made bad, but you’ll need to really work the index to keep track of a cast that runs into the hundreds, and features such figures as Squirrel Huntin’ Sam (McCoy); Crazy Jim (Hatfield); Big Jim (McCoy); a “Good ’Lias” and a “Bad ’Lias” (both Hatfields); and a bounty hunter known as Bad Frank Phillips. The feud was never a straight split between the families, which had intermarried for generations; indeed, several McCoys sided with Hatfields, which makes the feud an all the more complex phenomena to pick apart. King’s book includes many black and white photographs showing stern visages.
Family ties did not prevent a faction of Kentucky McCoys, who, with one notable exception, fought for the Union, and the West Virginia Hatfields (Confederate) to take up arms against one another after the war. (Family members also served as justices of the peace and in other official capacities, which did little to prevent hostilities.) “Like a bonfire lit from three different sides,” the feud emerged from several precipitating factors. One was the killing of Union man Harmon McCoy in 1864, by, many allege (accounts differ), Crazy Jim Vance, uncle of Devil Anse Hatfield, patriarch of the West Virginia Hatfields.
Here was a crucial spark. Others included an illicit affair between one of Devil Anse’s sons and the daughter of Hatfield patriarch Randall, and an imbroglio over some of Randall’s valuable razorback hogs, stolen, he said, by a Hatfield, in the 1870s.
All of this burst into full-blown violence after an election-day incident in Kentucky on Aug. 7, 1882, which convention holds as the start of the feud. “Campaign” whiskey flowed freely, and stoked tempers and grudges. An attempt by a McCoy to collect a debt from a Hatfield led to a brawl that saw Ellison Hatfield (brother of Devil Anse) mortally wounded. What followed was a nightmarish series of reprisals on reprisals. The Hatfields rounded up three of Randall’s sons who were executed to avenge Ellison’s death. Randall would suffer the death of several more children during the decade, as the Hatfields rode across the border to silence family members and others.
Kentucky-West Virginia relations grew tense as the governors of each state (who had ties to the families) tried to keep the peace and settle the feud through legal channels. But, as King shows, the Hatfields and McCoys had their own versions of justice — it was family honor that mattered, not the rule of law.
The feud more or less came to an end around 1890, after the controversial hanging of “Cotton Top” Mounts, who was tried and executed for his role ina McCoy brother’s murder. (Others were given life sentences.) There were many surprising outcomes in the wake of the feud, perhaps none more so than the respectable rise of Henry D. Hatfield (nephew of Devil Anse), who became a doctor and was elected governor of West Virginia in 1912. The families today are at peace.