The Hatfield McCoy Feud


The Hatfield–McCoy feud (1863–91) involved two families of the West Virginia–Kentucky area along the Tug Fork, off the Big Sandy River. The Hatfield's of West Virginia were led by William Anderson "Devil Anse" Hatfield while the McCoy's of Kentucky were under the leadership of Randolph "Ole Ran'l" McCoy. Those involved in the feud were descended from Ephraim Hatfield (born c. 1765) and William McCoy (born c. 1750). The feud has entered the American folklore lexicon as a metaphor for any bitterly feuding rival parties. More than a century later, the story of the feud has become a modern metaphor for the perils of family honor, justice and vengeance.


William McCoy, the patriarch of the McCoy's, was born in Ireland around 1750 and emigrated to Doe Hill, Virginia. The McCoy's, led by Randolph "Ole Ran'l" McCoy (grandson of William), lived mostly on the Kentucky side of Tug Fork (a tributary of the Big Sandy River), and the Hatfield's, led by William Anderson "Devil Anse" Hatfield (son of Ephraim Hatfield and Nancy Vance), lived mostly on the West Virginia side. Both families were part of the first wave of pioneers to settle the Tug Valley (also called the Grand Horse Valley). The majority of the Hatfield's living in Mingo County (in what would eventually become West Virginia) fought for the Confederacy in the American Civil War. The majority of the McCoy's living in Pike County, Kentucky, fought for the Union Army. The first real violence in the feud was the murder of a returning Union soldier, Asa Harmon McCoy. He was killed by a group of ex-Confederate Home guards called the "Logan Wildcats". Devil Anse Hatfield was a suspect at first, but was later confirmed to have been sick at home at the time of the murder. It was widely believed that his uncle, Jim Vance, a member of the Wildcats, committed the murder.


The Hatfield clan in 1897.


The Hatfield's were more affluent than the McCoy's and were well-connected politically. Devil Anse Hatfield's timbering operation was a source of wealth for his family, but he employed many non-Hatfield, and even hired Albert McCoy, Lorenzo Dow McCoy, and Selkirk McCoy. 

Asa Harmon McCoy was murdered on January 7, 1865. Jim Vance, the uncle of Devil Anse Hatfield, despised Harmon because he had joined the Union Army during the American Civil War. Harmon was discharged from the army early because of a broken leg. He returned home to a warning from Vance that Harmon could expect a visit from Devil Anse's Wildcats. Frightened by gunshots as he drew water from his well, Harmon hid in a nearby cave, supplied with food and necessities each day by his slave, Pete; but the Wildcats followed Pete's tracks in the snow, discovered Harmon and shot him fatally.


At first, Devil Anse Hatfield was the prime suspect. Later, after it was determined that the Wildcats' leader had been confined to his bed, suspicion of guilt focused squarely on Vance; but in an era when Harmon's military service was widely considered by many of the region's inhabitants to be in and of itself an act of disloyalty, even Harmon's own family believed that he had brought his murder upon himself.  Eventually the case withered and no suspect was brought to trial.


The second recorded instance of violence in the feud occurred thirteen years later, in 1878, after a dispute about the ownership of a hog: Floyd Hatfield had it but Randolph McCoy said it was his.  The pig was only in the fight because some of the Hatfield's believed that since the pig was on their land, it was theirs. Some of the McCoy's objected, saying that the "notches" (markings) on the pig's ears were McCoy marks, not Hatfield marks. The matter was taken to the local Justice of the Peace, and the McCoy's lost because of the testimony of Bill Staton, a relative of both families. Presiding over the case was Anderson "Preacher Anse" Hatfield.   In June 1880, Staton was killed by two McCoy brothers, Sam and Paris, who were later acquitted on the grounds of self-defense.



The feud escalated after Roseanna McCoy began a relationship (courtship) with Johnson "Johnse" Hatfield (Devil Anse's son), leaving her family to live with the Hatfield's in West Virginia. Roseanna eventually returned to the McCoy's, but when the couple tried to resume their relationship, Johnse Hatfield was arrested by the McCoy's on outstanding Kentucky bootlegging warrants. He was freed from McCoy custody only when Roseanna made a desperate midnight ride to alert Devil Anse Hatfield, who organized a rescue party. The Hatfield party surrounded the McCoy's and took Johnse back to West Virginia before he could be transported to the county seat, Pikeville, Kentucky, for justice the next day.  Despite what was seen as a betrayal of her family on his behalf, Johnse Hatfield thereafter abandoned the pregnant Roseanna, marrying instead her cousin, Nancy McCoy, in 1881.


The escalation continued in 1882 when Ellison Hatfield, brother of Devil Anse Hatfield, was killed by three of Roseanna McCoy's young brothers: Tolbert, Pharmer, and Bud. Ellison was stabbed 26 times and finished off with a shot during an election day fight that took place in Kentucky. The McCoy brothers were initially arrested by Hatfield constables and were being taken to Pikeville for trial. Devil Anse Hatfield organized a large group of followers and intercepted the constables and their McCoy prisoners before they reached Pikeville. The brothers were taken by force to West Virginia to await the fate of mortally wounded Ellison Hatfield. When Ellison finally died from his injuries, the McCoy brothers were themselves murdered in turn as the vendetta escalated. They were tied to pawpaw bushes, where each was shot numerous times. Their bodies were described as "bullet-riddled".


The feud reached its peak during the 1888 New Year's Night Massacre. Several members of the Hatfield clan surrounded the McCoy cabin and opened fire on the sleeping family. The cabin was set on fire in an effort to drive Randolph McCoy into the open. He escaped by making a break for it but two of his children were murdered and his wife was beaten and left for dead. The remaining members of the McCoy family moved to Pikeville to

escape the West Virginia raiding parties.


Between 1880 and 1891, the feud claimed more than a dozen members of the two families, becoming headline news around the country, and compelling the governors of both Kentucky and West Virginia to call up their state militias to restore order. On one occasion, the Governor of West Virginia even threatened to have his militia invade Kentucky. In response, Kentucky Governor S. B. Buckner sent his Adjutant General Sam Hill to Pike County to investigate the situation. Besides nearly a dozen who died, at least 10 people were wounded.


In 1888, Wall Hatfield and eight others were arrested by a posse led by Frank Phillips and brought to Kentucky to stand trial for the murder of Alifair McCoy, who was killed during the New Years Massacre. She had been shot after exiting the burning house. Because of issues of due process and illegal extradition, the United States Supreme Court became involved (Mahon v. Justice, 127 U.S. 700 (1888)). The Supreme Court ruled 7–2 in favor of Kentucky, holding that even if a fugitive is returned from the asylum state illegally instead of through lawful extradition procedure, no federal law prevents him from being tried. Eventually the men were tried in Kentucky and all were found guilty. Seven received life imprisonment, while the eighth, Ellison "Cottontop" Mounts, was executed by hanging. Thousands attended the hanging in Pikeville, Kentucky.


Valentine "Uncle Wall" Hatfield, the elder brother of Devil Anse, was overshadowed by Devil Anse's ambitions but was 1 of the 8 convicted to end the feud. He died in prison of unknown causes. He petitioned his brothers to assist in his emancipation from jail, but none came for fear of being captured and brought to trial. He was buried in the prison cemetery, which has since been paved over. William Anderson "Devil Anse" Hatfield, the younger and more militant brother of Valentine Hatfield, led the clan in most of their combative endeavors.  Doc D Mahon, son-in-law of Valentine and brother of Pliant, was one of the eight convicted to end the feud. He served 14 years in prison before returning home to live with his son, Melvin.


 Pliant Mahon, son-in-law of Valentine and brother of Doc, was one of the eight convicted to end the feud. He served 14 years in prison before returning home to rejoin his ex-wife, who had remarried but left her second husband to live with Pliant again.


Fighting between the families eased following the hanging of Mounts. Trials continued for years; the trial of Johnse Hatfield was the last of the feud trials in 1901.


A section of the floodwall along the Tug Fork in Matawan, West Virginia, constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, depicts the Hatfield–McCoy feud.


 1865: Former Union soldier Asa Harman McCoy killed January 7, 1865, probably by the "Logan Wildcats" led by Jim Vance.

 1878: Bill Staton (nephew of Randolph McCoy – not shown on family tree) was killed in 1878 as revenge for testifying on behalf of Floyd Hatfield in his trial for stealing a McCoy hog. Shot by Sam McCoy-nephew of Randolph McCoy Sr.

 1882: Ellison Hatfield is mortally wounded in a fight with Tolbert, Pharmer, and Randolph McCoy, Jr. on August 7, 1882, dying two days later on August 9.

 1882: Tolbert McCoy tied to pawpaw trees & killed as revenge for Ellison Hatfield's shooting/stabbing on August 9, 1882, the day Ellison died.

 1882: Pharmer McCoy tied to pawpaw trees & killed as revenge for Ellison Hatfield's shooting/stabbing on August 9, 1882, the day Ellison died.

 1882: Randolph McCoy Jr. tied to pawpaw trees & killed as revenge for Ellison Hatfield's shooting/stabbing on August 9, 1882, the day Ellison died.

 1886: "Jeff McCoy" killed in fall of 1886 following his murder of mail carrier Fred Wolford, shot by "Cap" Hatfield.

 1888: Alifair McCoy killed January 1, 1888 at Randolph's house by nine attackers led by Jim Vance. The attackers failed in their attempt to eliminate witnesses against them.

 1888: Calvin McCoy killed January 1, 1888 at Randolph's house by nine attackers led by Jim Vance. The attackers failed in their attempt to eliminate witnesses against them.

 1888 January 7: Jim Vance killed by Frank Phillips.

 1888 January 18: Bill Dempsey killed by Jeff McCoy and Frank Phillips.                                   

 1890: Ellison Mounts was hanged on February 18, 1890 for Alifair's murder.



Virginia Murdered Caught


Publishers Press Dispatch Williamson, WV, July 20, Deputy United States Marshall Dan Cunningham, with two detective aids, late on Monday night, on Poplar Creek, in this county, captured the notorious Johnson Hatfield. Hatfield was taken by surprise and surrendered. He was hurried to Kentucky. Hatfield was wanted for the part played by him at the time the McCoy home was burned and a defenseless woman, Alafair McCoy, and a male member of the McCoy function (sic faction) were killed by the Hatfield's in the time of the vendetta on News Year’s night, nine years ago. Since then a charge of murder has stood against him, and a large reward has been offered for his arrest. He had outwitted the constables time and again. It was reported here this morning that deputies were after Hatfield’s father, Devil Anse, and others of the clan, and that serious trouble seemed imminent.




New York Times March 12, 1900


Hatfield Must Go To Prison


Murderer of a Woman in a Feud to Serve Life Sentence


Special to the New York Times


Frankfort, KY, March 11 – After ten years Johnson Hatfield must go to prison for life for the murder of Alifair McCoy. This marks another step in the Hatfield-McCoy feud, which created a reign of terror in Kentucky until ten years ago, and has broken out at intervals since, but only in the way of individual killings. Most of the leaders have either been convicted or have been shot to death. The case of Johnson Hatfield was affirmed by the

Court of Appeals yesterday. His victim was a woman. He was convicted in Pike County, and given a life sentence and has fought the case desperately to the end. Hatfield was indicted in Pike County for the murder of Alifair McCoy in August 1888 and also was indicted for having previously conspired with others to kill her. Hatfield had ten years of freedom before he was finally apprehended. He was arraigned for trial the first time in

September, 1898, when he obtained a change of venue to Floyd County on the ground of prejudice. Hatfield then appealed from the life sentence of the Floyd Circuit court on the ground of errors in instruction. The Court of Appeals in a decision by Judge Burnam sustains the verdict. The case is notable as being one of the few successful convictions in the feud, yet of all the men accused of murder not one has ever been hanged.


Note: Actually, Ellison "Cotton Top" Mounts was hung for the murder of Alifair McCoy, February 18, 1889 and Valentine Hatfield, Johnson's uncle, was convicted and sentenced to life in 1889.




Washington Post, April 22, 1922


“Devil Anse’s” Son Dead


Johnst Hatfield Served Term for Killing McCoy Clan Member


Williamson, WV, April 21 – Johnst Hatfield, son of the late “Devil Anse” Hatfield, and an active participant in the Hatfield – McCoy feud of years ago, died in his mountain cabin at Wharncliffe, near here, late last night. When the feud was at its height Johnst, who was known as “Devil Anse’s” right-hand man in the war on the McCoy's, was captured by Kentucky authorities in West Virginia and hurried across the Tug River. He was convicted in Kentucky of the murder of a member of the McCoy clan and served thirteen years of a life sentence.