By Douglas Imbrogno, The Charleston Gazette
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Despite being more than 125 years old, the Hatfield & McCoy feud will be a surprisingly hot subject in the national media this spring and summer.
A host of cable series, shows and books will focus on one of the world’s most notorious feuds, most prominent among them a three-day History channel miniseries, The Hatfields and McCoys: An American Vendetta, starring Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton that begins airing Memorial Day, May 28.
On the coattails of what the channel bills as an “epic three-night event,” several of its other shows will do Hatfield and McCoy-themed programs. History’s popular American Pickers will lead up to the series with a program that recently brought hosts Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz to the Mountain State, checking out some little-known feud memorabilia. How the States Got Their Shapes will tape a show of its own this June.
While the high-profile Costner-Paxton miniseries looks to be an action-packed telling of a colorful feud, with the dramatic license to be expected from a TV drama (see the trailer here), History also will screen a two-hour documentary about the feud’s historical bonafides.
In addition, several new books are out or coming out. On the smaller scale, independent West Virginia book publisher Woodland Press recently released The Devil’s Son, a novel by Parkersburg native Anne Black Gray, inspired by some of the feud’s characters and billed as a “vast historical epic.”
At the larger end of the publishing spectrum, Dean Young, author of the nonfiction best-seller Skeletons On The Zahara: A True Story of Survival, has a “retelling” of the feud due out later this year in a book from Little, Brown.
Need more? Earlier this month, Anderson Cooper filmed an episode of his new daytime talk show, Anderson, about the feud, featuring Costner and a Hatfield family member, to air before the series.
All this is music to the ears of Bill Richardson, who for years has toiled at turning the feud into tourism gold for West Virginia and has fingers in several of these projects.
More than a pig
“There is going to be a landslide of national media about our state’s history and that will result in a landslide of attention,” said Richardson, who helped with research on the Young book and was interviewed for the History documentary.
Richardson, a West Virginia University Extension associate professor who does community development work in Mingo and Logan counties, also is a filmmaker, artist and author who, several years back, produced his own 57-minute Hatfield & McCoy documentary, Feud.
He has been instrumental in encouraging feud-related tourism destinations in the state (see a list at a website he developed called hatfieldmccoycountry.com). Among them:
The burial sites of Devil Anse Hatfield and Randle “Ole Ran’l’ McCoy, patriarchs of the feuding families; The Paw Paw Massacre site where the Hatfields executed three McCoys for killing Devil Anse’s brother; the place where Johnse Hatfield and Roseanna McCoy, “the Romeo and Juliet of the hills,” met and fell in love; and The Hog Trial site, where a trial featuring a contested pig contributed to the feud.
Richardson hopes all the attention will lead to more people visiting the state and learning a more nuanced, broader view of the feud than the caricature of violent hillbillies going at each other for vendetta-settling target practice.
“It wasn’t just ignorant hillbillies fighting over a pig, which is one of the ways it has been characterized. When you actually get down to the facts of the history, it is very different than the myths that have grown up.”
Causes and effects
There was not a sole causal event, but many factors in the feud that set two backcountry families at each other’s throats for the better part of the 1880s, and led to the murder of an estimated dozen people and the wounding of 10 others.
Most of the Hatfields lived in West Virginia’s Mingo County along the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River and fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Across the river, the McCoys called Pike County, Ky., home and had fought for the Union.
One of the seeds of the feud was the 1865 murder of returning Union soldier Asa Harmon McCoy, killed by a group of ex-Confederate militia dubbed the “Logan Wildcats.” Devil Anse Hatfield was an initial suspect, but when it was learned he was home sick at the time, suspicion shifted to his uncle, Jim Vance, a member of the Wildcats.
Later, the ire stirred up in both families was deepened by the romance between Johnse Hatfield and Roseanna McCoy, along with a host of other personal conflicts.
But there was more than a just blood feud in play. Larger forces also were at work, in a dispute that eventually would put two state governments at loggerheads — the West Virginia governor even threatened a militia invasion of Kentucky at one point, as murder, retribution and foiled justice abounded.
Yet this feud also led to an influential U.S. Supreme Court ruling on due process and extradition after a posse brought a Hatfield to Kentucky to stand trial for the slaying of Alifair McCoy, killed during the “New Year’s Night Massacre” in 1888, the crowning violence of the affair.
The Hatfields were a more affluent family than the McCoys, due to the success of Devil Anse’s timbering business in the great virgin forests of Appalachia.
“Devil Anse was one of the very first post-Civil War entrepreneurs,” said Richardson. “He was one of the first people to begin logging that timber and capitalizing on it. Coal had been discovered, but not really mined yet in Southern West Virginia. This was even before the railroad was through here,” Richardson said.
So, add a dispute over timber rights into the mix and that a Hatfield – Henry D. Hatfield, a nephew of Devil Anse – would become the 14th governor of West Virginia, and you begin to fill in a more interesting history of a much-caricatured feud.
“It became individual disputes between two families,” Richardson said, “and then it spiraled out of control.”
The full tale
Richardson is sensitive to questions about whether all this renewed attention could be a negative for the state and whether the History series will have any nuance to it.
“I just think the discussion of negative depictions is premature,” Richardson said. “If, when the show comes out, it does portray us negatively (which I don’t think it will), then that’s a perfectly legitimate discussion. But to start talking about it now, when it hasn’t happened — and may not — just makes people miss the point that good things are happening in a place and for a state that usually only gets bad press.”
It’s true, he said, that the way the feud has been portrayed in years past reinforced stereotypes of mountain folk.
“All the negative stereotypes of mountain people can be traced back to the Hatfield and McCoy feud. When people talk about ignorant hillbillies marrying their cousins, that all came from the Hatfield and McCoy feud. And that is because it was such a big story back then.”
The renewed interest in the feud, whether told with nuance or lack of it, will be a bonanza for the state, he said.
“We’re going to get what I estimated to be about $120 million of media coverage about the history of West Virginia.”
History, after all, is mostly about wars, battles and conflicts, he said. In studying how to develop a tourism industry around a violent event like the feud, Richardson pondered how some other states built a thriving tourist business around Wild West outlaw Jesse James.
“If you think about Jesse James, he was a cold-blooded murdering outlaw,” Richardson said, “but Missouri and two or three other states have built a tourism industry around his life.”
Some in West Virginia might be anxious about over-attention to the feud, but there is no reason not to mine such rich history, he said.
“It seemed to me ridiculous to run away from that history when everyone else was embracing (such tales) and turning them into an economic asset,” Richardson said.
The History channel series will be interested in telling a good story, he said.
“The Costner miniseries will absolutely tell a fictionalized version of the history,” Richardson said. “It will depart from the facts, there’s no doubt about it.”
Yet he cited a similar film project he helped with, John Sayles’ “fictionalized history” film, “Matewan,” which stirred a whole lot of interest in the actual history of the Mine Wars era.
“I can’t control whether they play fast and loose with the truth,” Richardson said. “All I can control is trying to utilize that to try and get people to come here and learn the true story, which is even more interesting than the mythology.”