Hatfield-McCoy Feud

Huntington Herald Dispatch
August 8, 1982

The Hatfield-McCoy Feud 100th Anniversary

By Dave Peyton
Herald-Dispatch staff writer

Dutch Hatfield of Newtown, W. Va., never knew his grandfather, Ellison Hatfield.

Ellison was murdered a hundred years ago this month a few miles from Dutch's home. That killed and a subsequent triple execution began the most infamous family feud in the history of America. On one side were Dutch's ancestors - the Hatfields. On the other side of the fight were the McCoys who lived in nearby Pike County, Ky.

Dutch knows one sure thing about the feud: If someone says he knows the true story of the battle, he doesn't. No one knows the truth, he says. Nor will it ever be known. The truth was buried with the people who fought and died in this rugged mountain terrain during the years of the feud.

"I suppose if I had talked to all the old folks when I was a kid and had written down what I heard, I would be a rich man today," said Hatfield, who at 74 is a retired coal miner and former police chief of nearby Matewan, W. Va.

But Dutch didn't write the stories down. Nor did he talk to the old ones much about the feud which ended before he was born. In the days of Dutch's youth, the Hatfields were trying to forget the feud and the hard times it meant for the family.

Dutch knows for certain that his grandfather, Ellison, lies buried on a hillside cemetery near his home. From the cemetery, Dutch can look up and down Mate Creek hollow and see land that the Hatfields once owned. Hatfields still live in the hollow, but much of the land is now owned by coal companies which have been mining the black gold from the rich Mate Creek seams for 50 years or longer.

It's generally agreed that Ellison was murdered across the Tug River in Pike County, Ky., where Hatfield Branch joins Blackberry Creek. It happened during an election day brawl. Three McCoy brothers - Tolbert, Pharmer (some say his name was Phamer) and Randolph Jr. - were charged with the death.

But there the facts come to an end. Dutch says he has always heard his grandfather suffered 17 stab wounds to his body. His cousin, Emma Hatfield (daughter of Ellison's brother, Smith Hatfield), said she always heard Ellison was cut 47 times. Meanwhile, V. C. Jones, the author of what some call the most accurate account of the feud, said that Ellison was stabbed 27 times and shot once in the back.

What brought murder that day to the election grounds in Kentucky? The ill feeling between the Hatfields and the McCoys probably pre-dated Ellison's shooting by seven or eight years. It may have started in 1874 when Floyd Hatfield, Ellison's cousin, and Randolph "Rand'l" McCoy, father of the three accused in Ellison's death, fought over who owned a semi-wild razorback hog. Floyd Hatfield and Randolph McCoy each claimed ownership before a magistrate in Kentucky. The magistrate was a Hatfield - "Preacher Anse" Hatfield to be precise. The preacher was a cousin to "Devil Anse."

After the "hog trial" was over, Floyd Hatfield got possession of the hog. But the trial left bad feelings.

A couple of years later, a friend of the Hatfield clan was shot down in cold blood. Two McCoys were suspected of the shooting but no evidence was ever presented to back the claim. Despite the lack of evidence, Ellison, a magistrate in West Virginia, signed warrants for their arrest. Ellison asked his old brother, Devil Anse, to serve the warrants. Devil Anse told a reporter many years later that he refused to serve the warrants "because the McCoys and I had always been good friends."

But that wasn't all to the ill feelings. About the same time, Johnson Hatfield, one of Devil Anse's sons, fell in love with Roseanna McCoy, daughter of Randolph McCoy. She left her father's home in Kentucky to marry Johnson, known as Johnse. They were never married but lived for a time "without benefit of clergy," as they say. Their relationship was a stormy one. Ros[e]anna became pregnant during the relationship, but the "love child" was either born dead or died within a few months after birth. Again the facts aren't known.

Johnse eventually tired of Roseanna and sent her home to her father and mother. He ended up married to Nancy McCoy, Roseanna's cousin. That marriage lasted only briefly, and he went on to marry at least four other times. It's no wonder that when Hatfields talk of Old Johnson, they still remember him as a ladies' man.

Thus, both the Hatfields and McCoys brought grudges that day to the election grounds along Blackberry Creek. The election was held in a field a few yards from the home of Preacher Anse Hatfield.

In his book "The Hatfields and the McCoys," Jones recounted what happened from testimony of Preacher Anse, who was apparently one of the election officials on the Kentucky side of the river.

According to Preacher Anse and others, there was lots of whiskey that day on the election grounds. Ellison was there, as was Preacher Anse's brother, Elias, who carried the name "Bad 'Lias." Everyone said it suited him perfectly.

Early in the day, Tolbert McCoy, Randolph's 31-year-old son, picked a fight with Bad 'Lias over money owed for a fiddle. Preacher Anse broke up the fight by reasoning with the McCoys. Bad 'Lias, it is said, was too drunk to listen to anyone, even his saintly brother.

The early morning fight made Tolbert McCoy seethe with anger. This set the stage for what was to come. It began when Ellison awoke from a nap in the woods and came out into the crowd.

Ellison wore a big floppy straw hat that day, it is said. He cavorted in the crowd, showing off a little more than he should have, what with tempers flaring.

Suddenly, Tolbert burst from the mass of people and stood before 41-year-old Ellison.

"I'm hell on earth," Tolbert roared at Ellison.

"What?" Ellison replied.

"I'm hell on earth," Tolbert repeated.

At this point Ellison called Tolbert a couple of names that might be considered too tough for an R-rated movie and certainly not suited for a family newspaper.

The words were the fire that lit Tolbert McCoy's short-burning fuse. To[l]bert took a knife from his pocket and ripped open a gash in Ellison's chest with one quick swipe. By the time Tolbert was ready to stab again, his two younger brothers - Pharmer and Randolph Jr. - joined in the battle.

Preacher Anse rushed to the melee to act as peacemaker. As he did, Ellison grabbed a rock and was ready to crush a head or two when a shot rang out. Ellison fell to the ground with a bullet hole in his back.

Election talk came to an end. The talk turned to murder before the people started drifting away from the grounds, fearful of what the next days and weeks would bring to the Tug Fork region.

Word spread of the mortally wounded Hatfield like wildfire in a dry autumn forest. Hatfield clan members carried their wounded relative down Blackberry Creek and across the Tug Fork to a relative's house in West Virginia.

Meanwhile, the three McCoy boys were arrested by authorities at the election site and preparations were made to move them to the jail at Pikeville, more than 20 miles away over some of the roughest terrain in Appalachia.

It was dark before news of the wounding spread to the home of Valentine Hatfield on the West Virginia side of the river. He was the senior Hatfield in the clan. The others looked to him for guidance in handling the affair.

It is said that Valentine, known as "Wall," proposed to allow the authorities in Pike County to take care of the three McCoys. That didn't please most of the Hatfields, who believed the Old Testament admonition "An eye for an eye..." They sought swifter justice than the law would allow.

It must have been at this point that the clan started looking for a Hatfield who would lead them into a revengeful raid across the river.

They found that man in Devil Anse, Valentine's younger brother. And they must have known he was their man when Devil Anse stopped outside the home where Ellison was dying and said resolutely, "We'll hang them McCoys."

The Hatfield clan and their followers, who numbered perhaps more than 20, began riding toward Pike County. Two Hatfields rode ahead of the main group and convinced the authorities taking the McCoys to Pikeville to return to the scene of the crime to try the three boys since the law stated they were to be tried in the district where the crime occurred.

The authorities consented and started returning to Blackberry Creek the following morning, Aug. 8. Soon, the entire Hatfield clan came out of the woods and began following.

Later that same morning, the prisoners, the authorities and the Hatfields all reached Preacher Anse's house near where the fight had happened the day before.

It was here the Hatfield clan drew their guns and took the three McCoys away from the Pike County authorities without a shot being fired. The authorities were no match for the armed Hatfields and they knew it.

The McCoys were taken back to West Virginia and held as prisoners at an abandoned schoolhouse on Mate Creek.

McCoys waited bound on the floor of the schoolhouse. Devil Anse, who was clearly the head of the clan by now, told his plans to nearly anyone who would listen. If Ellison lived, the McCoy boys would be returned to Pikeville to face criminal charges. If Ellison died, the three boys would be executed as an act of revenge.

It was an emotional scene. Several female relatives of the McCoys, including their mother, came to see them. And though this got on Devil Anse's nerves a bit, he allowed the visits.

The night of Aug. 8 became the morning of Aug. 9. And still Ellison lingered near death a few miles away.

On the afternoon of Aug. 9, word came that Ellison had finally died.

What happened after that is lost to history since murder and secret executions are involved.

Under the cover of darkness, the three McCoy boys were removed from the schoolhouse and apparently marched back down Mate Creek to the place where its water spills into the Tug Fork.

Dutch Hatfield says he has always heard that the three boys were taken across the Tug Fork to Kentucky and tied to bushes. Then the executioners (whoever they were) returned to the West Virginia side of the river and fired the shots from their home state.

Writer Jones described what the people along the Tug Fork found as the morning sun rose on the river valley on the morning of Aug. 10:

"There, tied to pawpaw bushes with the thongs that had bound them together since the day before, were three McCoy brothers, bloody and dead. The bodies of Tolbert and Phamer had been riddled with bullets. Tolbert's hands were still over his forehead, as if he had tried to ward off the death-dealing missiles, one of which had passed through his hand and into his head. Phamer sagged like a sack of grain, slumped forward swinging from the armpits. Young Randolph was in a kneeling position, almost the entire top of his head shot away."

There was no question about it. The feud was on. The law (what little there was in those parts) had no control. The bodies of the McCoy boys were placed on a sled drawn by oxen and a slow trip up Blackberry Fork began. At the headwaters of the creek, the bodies were taken over a ridge and down the other side of the mountain to a tributary of Pond Creek where the Randolph McCoy cabin was located.

Legend has it that the three boys were buried in hillside graves a few hundred feet downstream from the cabin. A huge marble marker was placed there a few years ago by McCoy descendants.

Dutch Hatfield, meanwhile, said he doesn't believe the bodies were buried at that site. An old man familiar with the feud told Hatfield in his youth that the bodies were buried further up the creek on the other side of the hollow.

But such is the way of the infamous feud - lots of legends and few facts.

Crime and Punishment