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Feuds, Fiddles, Family, and Friends
Ed Haley's Life on Harts Creek

By Brandon Ray Kirk

Johnny Hager (banjo) and Ed (fiddle) perform in White Sulphur Springs, Greenbrier County, about 1912.
Photo courtesy of Lawrence and Pat Haley.

The author compiled this story from research and interviews he conducted with Ed Haley’s family and friends from 1991 to 2001. –ed.

James Edward “Ed” Haley was one of the most gifted musicians ever to emerge from West Virginia. Best known as a fiddler, he was also an accomplished vocalist, clawhammer banjoist, guitarist, mandolin player, organist, and pianist.

Renowned singer-songwriter and musician John Hartford researched Ed’s life and music from the early 1990s until his untimely death in 2001. He regarded Ed as “the best and most important fiddler of our time.” In 2000, John played Ed’s slow, mournful arrangement of “Man of Constant Sorrow” in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Ed was born in August 1885 to Milt and Imogene “Emmy” (Mullins) Haley at Warren (later Spottswood) on Trace Fork of Big Harts Creek, Logan County. Ed’s early life was marred by tragedy and violence. He barely remembered his father, Milt, who was a fine fiddler in his own right. Ed’s cousin Turley Adams recalled Ed saying that Milt “was a hard-working fellow, and when he’d come home, he’d just tell them boys, ‘Right now, we got to have a fight and get everything settled, and we’ll be all right.’ They liked to fight. One of them . . . bit Milt’s ear off right in the yard down there.”

Roxie Mullins, another of Ed’s cousins, recalled that Milt “was awful bad to drink . . . and he kept a loaded Winchester sitting right by the side of his door. People was trying to kill him, and he was trying to kill people.”

At age three, Ed lost his eyesight. Many explanations have been handed down through the years. Most pin the blame on Milt. Ed’s son Lawrence recounted, “When my dad was very young—he couldn’t have been over two or three—he had the measles. And when his father came in from working in the timbers that evening, he didn’t like the whiny way my dad was acting. It was the dead of winter. They was ice on the creeks. So as to make him more of a man and cut out his babyish crying, he took him out and held him by the feet and dropped him in a rain barrel through the ice. Now, according to my cousin, that’s partly what caused my dad to go blind.”

Some attribute a different motive to Milt’s actions. Roxie heard that Milt dipped Ed in the frozen creek because “he thought that’d kill his fever, see, and it went to its head and put his eyes out.”

Ugee (pronounced “U-G”) Postalwait, a longtime Haley family friend, told a slightly different version, “I don’t know whether you ever knowed it or not, but the gypsies used to come around in the country, and [Ed] had a high fever, and they told his dad and them to take him down to the creek and throw him in the cold water, and that would break the fever on him, and he’d never have a fever again. And that’s what he done, and it put him blind.”

Due to his blindness, Ed was often the butt of practical jokes. Neighborhood children, mostly relatives, played pranks on him. “When Pop was just a little kid,” recalled Lawrence, “he got to the point to where he could travel . . . over to Uncle Peter’s. Uncle Peter kept cattle in the field out here or something—a bull or two. Well, the boys teased him. You know, he’d get about halfway across that field, and then they’d go to snorting like a bull—scare him—and then stand way back and laugh at him. Pop took that for a while and finally found a pistol over here at the old house, and he went across the field, and they started doing that to him. Well, he just pulled that pistol, and where that sound was coming from, he started shooting that pistol. I guess that broke that little game up.”

“They cut trees,” Roxie recalled, “and put him in logs and would start him at the top of the hill and roll him into the bottom and bump to bump to bump to bump . . . just skinned him all over. They played all kinds of tricks on him. Why, he’d just laughed ‘til he died about it. He didn’t care.”

Milt was a central figure in the notorious Lincoln County feud, which arose in the late 1870s due to personal grievances between Paris Brumfield and Canaan Adkins. [See the GOLDENSEAL articles “The Lincoln County Crew: A Feud Song” by Michael Meador, Summer 1986, and “Settling Family Differences” by Lenore McComas Coberly, Summer 1992]. In the late 1880s, Milt and Green McCoy became involved in the feud when they attempted to kill Paris’ son Al. On September 22, 1889, Milt and Green shot Al and his wife, both of whom survived. Milt and Green escaped but were eventually captured and jailed in Martin County, Kentucky. A Brumfield-led gang retrieved Milt and Green and murdered them near Harts Creek on October 24.

Milt and Green were buried in a single grave on the West Fork of Harts Creek in Lincoln County. The murder of Milt and Green and subsequent atrocities garnered national headlines. Milt didn’t receive positive coverage. “Haley has been about Hart’s Creek several years,” the Wheeling Intelligencer reported, “and was regarded as a man capable of any crime.”

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.