The Hatfields & McCoys: America's greatest feud

5:46 AM, Jun 11, 2012   |    comments
The Hatfield clan poses in April 1897 at a logging camp in southern West Virginia. The most infamous feud in American folklore, the long-running battle between the Hatfields and McCoys, may be partly explained by a rare, disease inherited by the McCoy clan that can lead to hair-trigger rage and violent outbursts. (AP Photo)
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(CBS News) There's never been a family feud quite like the one between the Hatfields and the McCoys. Though the tale has grown to almost mythical status ... it has its origin in fact. Rita Braver talks to some real McCoys - and some real Hatfields, too - for our Sunday Morning Cover Story:

"They were men, who matched the mountains,
They were Hatfields and McCoys.
They were men who matched the mountains,
They were men, when they were boys . . . "

Jimmy Wolford doesn't just sing about the most famous feud in American history; he is a descendant of one of the warring families. His middle name is McCoy, from his mother's side.

But when he and his friend and neighbor Linda Hatfield Van Meter were growing up, the subject of the Hatfield-McCoy feud was too sensitive to discuss in these parts.

"Our families didn't talk about it," Linda said.

"My grandfather said our hide is on the fence if you talk about it," Jimmy said. "That meant you get a bustin' in our rear!"

But the rest of the world was fascinated with the story of the two clans, led by Randolph McCoy (known as "Old Randall") and William Anderson Hatfield (called "Devil Anse," though exactly why isn't known).

"There's one story that his mother said, 'He's so mean that even the Devil's afraid of him,'" said historian Bill Richardson. "He was a tough guy, and he was a leader of men. What I sort of say is that Devil Anse was a man who took life by the horns, and Randall seems to be a guy that life took him by the horns."

Richardson says it all began on the West Virginia-Kentucky border, in the wake of the Civil War, where some had sided with the Union . . . others with the Confederacy.

There was a huge amount of tension, he said: "They talk about brother against brother. That's exactly the kind of situation here: neighbor against neighbor."

Randall's brother, Asa Harmon McCoy was one who fought for the Union. He was wounded, and after returning home, Richardson said, "Some of the Hatfields, who were Southern sympathizers and Southern soldiers, tracked him down and murdered him."

Simply because he was a Union soldier? "Absolutely."

That was 1865. And so began skirmishes - over land, and valuable timber rights. But the next major battle came in 1878 over, of all things, a hog!

"Randall McCoy got into a dispute with Devil Anse's cousin and best friend, Floyd Hatfield, over a hog. He thought that Floyd had stole his hog. And people in those days, they needed that hog for protein. It fed a family of four for 30 days."

The case went to trial. The local magistrate just happened to be a Hatfield. And you guessed it, the Hatfields won!

And after the trial was over, there was a murder over the hog trial.

"The main witness for the Hatfields was out hunting, and he ran into a couple of the McCoys," said Richardson. "They pulled their guns. The Hatfield was killed. One of the McCoys was injured and the other one was unhurt."

With all this animosity, you wouldn't think that Devil Anse's son Johnsie would fall for Randall McCoy's daughter Roseanna . . . or would you?

"This is the daughter of his father's greatest enemy," said Richardson. "He spends one day with her, then takes her home and says, 'Dad, I want to marry this girl.'"

So, did they get married and live happily after?

"Well, that's not the way things happen in a feud," said Richardson. "Devil Anse allows her to stay in the house. Then she becomes pregnant. Johnsie stilll doesn't marry her, and so she leaves. But her father Randall McCoy won't let her back in his house, so she has to go stay with her Aunt Bettie to have the baby."

The child lived only 8 months.

Six months after the baby dies, Johnsie marries Roseanna's first cousin, Nancy McCoy . . . who coincidentally is the daughter of Asa Harmon McCcoy, who was the first person killed in the feud.

"That's the reason this story has lived," said Richardson. "It defies . . . unbelievable that these things happened, but they happened."

And kept happening.

In 1882 Devil Anse Hatfield's brother, Ellison, was murdered by three McCoy boys - who in turn were executed by Hatfields.

As the feud escalated, Devil Anse Hatfield's boys get an idea:

"On New Year's Eve night 1887, just before the dawn of 1888, a bunch of the Hatfields get all liquored up and drunk for New Year's," said Richardson. "They say, 'Hey, I've got a solution to our problem: Let's just to kill all the McCoys. Problem solved.' And that's what they do."

. . . Or at least tried to.

As Walter Cronkite described in a CBS reenactment, the Hatfields set fire to Randal McCoy's home. Two of his children were killed, though he got away.

The state of Kentucky hired a marshal known as "Bad Frank" Phillips to round up the Hatfields.

"He was tough, he was mean, he was ruthless," said Richardson. "That's exactly what the McCoys wanted. And they come together at the culminating battle of the feud, a battle called the Battle of Grapevine Creek."

The History Channel mini-series shows the fever pitch this battle reached.

Ultimately, after court cases that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, eight of the Hatfield gang got life in jail, and one Hatfield - Ellis "Cottontop" Mounts - was hanged.

"There needed to be blood for blood, and he was the sacrifice," said Richardson.

Did that finally end the feud?

"It had gotten to the point where they were tired of it, and they decided 'no more,'" said Richardson. "There were a few skirmishes after this, but basically that is the end of the feud."

Both Randall McCoy and Devil Anse Hatfield lived until their 80s, their feud becoming the stuff of American legend.

Even today, their descendants marvel at all in the interest in the Hatfields and the McCoys.

Jimmy Wolford told Braver that what is most fun about being part of the story is "You can laugh at what they don't know. You can laugh at the lies, and what they do know."

And 150 years later, we're still talking about it

"What do you think people have been so fascinated by this story over the years" asked Braver.

"You've got these amazing characters doing these unbelievable things on this Shakespearean scale," said Richardson. "You've got love stores, murders, the Civil War. It just keeps on giving."

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