The Hatfield-McCoy feud is a part of Appalachian history that became a common adjective for any bitter dispute. The original warfare is currently believed to have lasted from 1878 until 1891; however, concrete data is lacking. No one was interested in the feud until years after it was over, which means myths and misconceptions continue to abound even today.
The Hatfield family was headed by William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield. They lived in West Virginia, along the Kentucky border. The Hatfields had money and power. The McCoys lived right across the border, in Kentucky. They were headed by patriarch Randolph “Ole Ran’l” McCoy. The McCoys lacked the resources and connections their neighbors enjoyed.
No one has solidly established just how long the families feuded. As far back as the Civil War, the two parties were said to have disagreed over which side to support. The Hatfields became Confederates while the McCoys supported the Union. This is commonly believed to be the starting point of the infamous battle, although several unverified accounts state their bad blood went back as far as 1850, and involved stolen livestock.
One popular variation stated the battle began when ex-Union soldier Asa Harmon McCoy returned home from the Army, around 1865. Harmon was medically discharged after he broke his leg. According to this story, a group of militant ex-Confederates, headed by a Hatfield, ambushed McCoy. They soon proved Devil Anse had nothing to do with the murder. He was bedridden due to illness when the crime was supposed to have happened. Facts didn’t quell suspicion that Hatfield’s relatives were involved.
Other versions of the tale state this particular murder wasn’t a factor in the fighting at all. Whatever the cause, the feud would eventually be credited with 13 deaths.
John Hatfield, cousin of Devil Anse, gained most of his notoriety long after the feud was over. He remained on the wrong side of the law well into his golden years. In March of 1913, John and his friends, Robert Cline and “Burman” Hatfield, decided they would hold up a Southern Train as it traveled through Wise County, Virginia.
The bandits successfully stopped the train, and even delayed it for six hours. Unfortunately, it was merely a cargo train, not a passenger train. When they realized their failure, the empty-handed robbers fled. Luck remained with Hatfield that year because the authorities never found him.
Hatfield dodged the law another decade, but whatever luck he had briefly disappeared. He was arrested, charged, and convicted of the murder of a man named Mullins in 1922. His 20-year-sentence didn’t dampen his spirits, even though he was 72 when the verdict was handed down.
By December of 1923, Hatfield was ready to “bust out.” He warned the jailer that his escape was imminent, but the officer laughed at the old man’s threat. Hatfield made the same statement several times to different officials, and the authorities decided it was better to check his cell, just in case he had a suitable jailbreak implement. The authorities didn’t find a single file or sharp object. They dismissed his claims as nothing more than the irate ramblings of an aging outlaw.
The authorities didn’t laugh a few days later, when it really happened. Somehow, Hatfield indeed broke out of jail. The inmates in his cell pried a steel rail from one of the beds and used it to pry the bars from the window. A water hose was used to climb down from the fourth floor. No one ever established how they dismantled a steel bed, or stole a water hose, without detection.
To add to the law’s chagrin, convicted murderers Stephen Wood and Alex Mullins followed Hatfield. Two other lesser criminals also escaped. The men fled into the night.
Inmates in other cells eventually noticed Hatfield’s was empty and alerted the guards. Law enforcement and the fire department were dispatched, but it was too late. Heavy falling snow camouflaged their tracks within minutes. Hatfield’s ultimate fate is not known, but his last quote to the other inmates was, “Tell that jailer he told me a barefaced lie when he said there was no chance for me gettin’ outta here.”