|One More Hatfield Bites The West Virginia Dust|
Election Shooting Recalls Famous Hatfield
McCoy Feud That Raged for Generations and Cost Lives of Scores of Mountaineers
There was an argument over the elections in a sleepy little West Virginia mountain town the other day. When it ended one man lay dead with a bullet in him and a second man was under arrest. All Mingo County hummed with excitement and the days that followed were tense and expectant. For the dead man was Alex Hatfield, son of the mountaineer who started as bloody a feud as the South has ever known.
Mingo County has never forgotten the day of the Hatfield – McCoy battles on the border line of Kentucky and West Virginia when the raiding parties of the warring clans stole across the boundary to wreak revenge on their enemies and in so doing brought their respective States almost to the verge of civil war.
Nor has Mingo County forgotten, or ever will forget, the last stand of “Cap” Hatfield and his handful of followers – a stand staged on a mountain crag which at last was blasted out beneath their very feet.
In the annals of Kentucky and of West Virginia there are many chronicles of the feud. The American vendetta which a few decades ago flourished to such an extent as virtually to paralyze the process of law in certain Southern districts has vanished now, but in its time it took as heavy a toll of lives as a small war.
And that in reality was what it was – families fighting families, and each so strong in numbers and so heavily intrenched in its district as to bring almost an entire county into the fight on both sides.
In the mountain regions of Kentucky and West Virginia the courts are few. The mountaineer of those days – keen-eyed, hard-bitten, courageous – believed that he was a law unto himself. His life was primitive and so were his passions. Inflamed with hatred, he could be cruel and remorseless against a private enemy.
It was a strange state of affairs that prevailed in those forest-clad hills until the feud of the Hatfields and the McCoys was stamped out, leaving behind it a trail of graves and burned homes.
Origin of the Feud. Although gunfire did not blaze until the 80s, the Hatfield – McCoy feud can properly be said to have dated back as far as the Civil War. Between the States of Kentucky and West Virginia flows the Tug River.
On one side, in Pike County, KY, lived the McCoys, headed by old Randolph McCoy. On the other side, in Logan County, WV, the Hatfields and their stonghold, with “Devil Anse” Hatfield as their leader. For generations the Hatfields and the McCoys had lived in their respective counties, and their families had grown to such an extent that they almost populated the districts in which they dwelt.
On this fertile soil for hate and bloodshed the seeds of conflict were cast. The Hatfields organized a company of raiders during the war. So did the McCoys. The two bands, operating in the same territory, came in conflict with each other.
There were hard words and harder blows. The end of the war found Hatfield glaring at McCoy across a narrow stream.
Floyd Hatfield drove a litter of razorback hogs into a pen on his way to the settlement to sell them and by chance Randolph McCoy came by. McCoy claimed them as his own, charging they had been stolen. The Hatfield clan blazed with wrath and the matter was laid before the nearest court. Half the officials of the West Virginia County were Hatfields; the family dominated the entire district just as the McCoys dominated Pike County across the river.
Frowning and grim, the Hatfields and the McCoys came to the courthouse. They were in homespun and rough mountain dress, they were unshaved, and they carried bottles of inflaming “moonshine” with them.
A Hatfield presided as judge and the case went against Randolph McCoy, who left town with his henchmen, followed by jeers and hoots. From that day on the feud was flaming.
Guerilla Warfare Begins. Across the hills about Tug River there drifted at intervals the echo of rifle shots. That was a Hatfield taking a shot at a McCoy or a McCoy taking a shot at a Hatfield.
Both counties had become battlefields, with the feud opening in the shape of desultory skirmishing. As yet there appeared no concerted drive of open warfare, but that was to come soon enough.
The Hatfields and the McCoys were in fighting mood, it is told, on an election morning in 1882. They had come to town, armed to the teeth as usual, to cast their votes. They stood and glowered at each other, for already life had been taken.
A Hatfield adherent had encountered two McCoys on a mountain trail a short time before and had loosed his rifle on sight. Paris McCoy, with a bullet in his breast, had fired back and clinched in the venomous hand-to-hand battle, which had ended abruptly when the second McCoy fired a bullet into the brain of the Hatfield feudist. Both McCoys had been brought to trial and acquitted.
So on this election morning the atmosphere was tense. It was Tolbert McCoy who precipitated the storm by challenging “Bad ‘Lias” Hatfield to fight over a debt. “Bad ‘Lias” lurched forward and was knocked flat. “Big Ellison” Hatfield rushed in and took over the fight. Time and again as they locked in combat McCoy thrust his knife into Ellison’s side, but in the end he was hurled to the ground. Mad with rage, “Big Ellison” picked up a rock and was about to finish Tolbert when pistol shot cracked and he fell. Pharmer McCoy had entered the arena on his own account.
The Schoolhouse Massacre. There was prompt action by the Hatfields. Floyd Hatfield, a constable, seized Tolbert McCoy and two others of the McCoy faction, both hardly more than boys. They were rushed across the river into Hatfield territory, trussed like fowls and thrown into a deserted schoolhouse. Tragedy was impending.
In twos and threes the Hatfields came drifting to the schoolhouse until a small army of their clan was camped around the spot. Judgment had been pronounced .
A Hatfield, sitting as Coroner at the inquest, gave out the verdict of “murder by persons unknown.” The verdict was a farce. In Pike County, KY, twenty-three Hatfields were indicted for the murder o the McCoys. But who would serve the warrants? The Hatfields cursed when they heard the news that “Devil Anse” and his son Cap went into action.
The McCoys must be taught a further lesson. Under cover of darkness parties of Hatfields crossed over into Kentucky and raided McCoy homes, seeking to convince them that they had better stop meddling with dangerous enemies.
General Buckner, Governor of Kentucky, and Governor Wilson of West Virginia had entered the quarrel, and there was talk of civil war. Buckner made requisitions on Wilson for the arrest of the twenty-three Hatfield murderers, but West Virginia, confident that it could attend to its criminals in its own way, refused to honor Kentucky’s requisitions.
Then the Hatfields, half-crazed with hate, perpetrated an outrage that stunned the country. They wanted to “get” the head of the McCoys – “Old Man Randolph”. In a band of a score or more they crossed the boundary one Winter night and fired his cabin.
Shots poured into the house where lived “Old Man Randolph.” His son Calvin, his wife, his two daughters and two grandchildren. While Calvin McCoy, with repeating rifle to shoulder, held off the yelling Hatfields, “Old Man Randolph” labored to put out the fire. The water gave out and he used churns of buttermilk.
His wife ran out of into the night and a Hatfield knocked her senseless. His unmarried daughter appeared at the door and was shot to death. Calvin rushed out in a sortie and fell dead. With the roof blazing above him “Old Man Randolph” went out himself to face his enemies, a double-barreled shotgun blasting a path before him. He shot his way through the Hatfield ring and escaped.
Kentucky Governor Acts. It was enough for Kentucky. If West Virginia would not run the Hatfields to earth after this outrage then Kentucky would. Deputy Sheriff Frank Phillips with the Kentucky Governor’s warrants slipped into West Virginia and bagged three of the Hatfields. He came back again and surprised Cap Hatfield and Jim Vance on the mountainside. Cap fled, but Vance stood his ground and died, desperate to the last.
It was he who had ordered the shooting of “Old Man Randolph’s” daughter. His dying act was to try to put a bullet into Phillips. The war between the authorities of Kentucky and the Hatfields was on. Inside of ten days Phillips and mounted posse were ambushed by a band of Hatfields.
Their horses were shot under them: they fled to a stone wall for cover, and from behind it fought a battle that lasted for more than two hours. When the battle of Grape Vine Creek was over there were dead Hatfields, but no dead deputies. Nine Hatfields by now were in the Pikeville (KY) jail awaiting trial. A good many more Hatfields and McCoys were dead.
The State of West Virginia claimed that the arrests made by Phillips, a Kentucky sheriff, on its soil were nothing less that kidnapping. The United States Circuit Court at Louisville was appealed to and the legal strength of the two States appeared before the bar. In the end the Hatfield prisoners were tried in Kentucky jurisdiction. One of them was executed and others received prison terms.
But Cap Hatfield was far from tamed. Another election day came around, and with almost a score of killings behind him he fame to town to add still more to his string. There was a quarrel with two of the McCoy clan and rifle leaped to shoulders. Cap got his man his stepson got the other. A bystander rushed in and the boy got him, too. Not until the following day did a posse – 100 strong – set out on the trail.
Cap Hatfield Captured Asleep. Cap Hatfield, most dangerous of all his clan, and his boy aid were found asleep beside the trail by two of the posse and captured without a struggle. A tremendous guard was flung about the Mingo County Jail, where the prisoners were lodged.
It seemed well to take precautions, for word arrived that “Devil Anse” Hatfield and his clan were mustering for a jail delivery. The attempt at rescue came, but it wilted away before the loaded rifles of a small army of deputies. Then one day Cap Hatfield with the aid of a smuggled hatchet cut his way out of jail.
There was fight left in the Hatfields. Ten or a dozen of the clan, carrying rifles and ammunition, rallied to their leader. The pursuing posse went into the heart of the Hatfield country, and with it was “Old Man Randolph” McCoy, with is ancient muzzle-loader on his arm. He had every intention of being in on the finish of the Hatfields.
He stalked them down like game and almost cut them off at the foot of the “Devil’s Backbone” – a huge, towering crag for which they were making. Only one person at a time could pass up the trail to the peak; a single man could hold it against an army. Cap Hatfield had chosen a formidable spot for his last stand.
The deputies closed in. Hidden in trees and behind stumps, they opened a galling fire on the Hatfields holding the crag. The Hatfields replied with venom, and at the end of the first day two of the posse lay dead in the underbush and seven others were out of the fight with wounds. Then dynamite was brought up to blast the Hatfields from their mountain fort. It was a handful of feudists against the power of a State.
The blast went off and the Hatfields charged. Three of them went down before they retreated once more to the crag, half of which had been blown away. Cap Hatfield could be seen moving here and there fearlessly amid the smoke directing the fire of his men.
Several of the posse advanced, firing, and fell wounded. Again came the explosion of dynamite and this time what was left of the “Devil’s Backbone” came toppling down into the river in a mighty avalanche. The last stronghold of the Hatfields was gone, and so were the Hatfields.
Under cover of the explosion Cap Hatfield had led his men back over the mountain. The posse thought them destroyed but instead they had escaped. With their flight there vanished the last threat of the feud. The Hatfield’s power had been smashed.
Cap and his band were fugitives form the law and sought safety far from the scenes of their former activities. The Hatfields who remained hung their rifles over the chimneys of their cabins and settled down to the pursuits of peace.