There was no practical explanation for why I was climbing up a steep, rocky path in a forgotten little corner of West Virginia, searching for the grave of Devil Anse Hatfield, the leader of the notorious Hatfield clan of Hatfield-McCoy infamy. The feud has been over for more than 100 years, and its participants aren’t worth venerating.
But curiosity is a powerful thing, and on a recent road trip through West Virginia and Kentucky with my wife and two sons, I ventured off the interstates onto a series of winding backroads to learn more about America’s most famous family feud.
There’s been a resurgence of interest in the Hatfields and McCoys since the History Channel premiered a miniseries starring Kevin Costner last year and a reality show tracking the lives of the families’ descendants in August. Tourism officials in West Virginia and Kentucky have scrambled to capitalize on the public interest, but the feud is still viewed through a different lens on each side of the Tug River, which separates the two states.
The Hatfield Family Cemetery is next to a crumbling abandoned church on a forlorn section of Route 44 in Sarah Ann, W.Va. There’s an imposing iron sign and three tall wooden crosses staked up on a tree-covered hill, but the place is mostly overgrown and neglected. As I climbed the unpaved path to the old hilltop cemetery, I passed a handwritten sign that warned, “Smile! You are now being videoed due to theft!”
When William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield died of pneumonia at 81, his heirs sent photos of him to a craftsman in Italy, who constructed an impressive marble statue with his likeness. The statue towers over all the other memorials in the derelict cemetery.
We were the only visitors on a Friday afternoon. Many of the plots are uncared for; some are buried beneath shrubbery, while others can be reached only after a walk down narrow footpaths. The cemetery is on the National Register of Historic Places, but it’s unclear who owns the land, so a plan to refurbish the place in the hope of luring tourists hasn’t gotten off the ground.
We crossed the Tug River, and steps across the Kentucky state line, we met two off-duty firemen who were guzzling beer from 16-ounce cans at the site of the Pawpaw Massacre. In 1882, members of the Hatfield clan tied three sons of Randall McCoy, the leader of the McCoy clan, to pawpaw trees and executed them in retaliation for a stabbing incident at an Election Day party.
A few miles to the west, next to the McCarr post office, we got out to have a look at a reconstructed log cabin at the so-called Hog Trial Site. Although some historians trace the feud’s origins to a killing in 1865, others say the feud really got rolling in 1878 when Randall McCoy took Floyd Hatfield to court for allegedly stealing his pig — and lost. Two years after the verdict, members of the McCoy clan killed the man who had testified that the animal belonged to Floyd Hatfield, sparking a cycle of violence that didn’t abate until 1890, when Ellison “Cottontop” Mounts was hanged for the murder of Alifair McCoy. (Some historians say that the final feud killing took place in 1947, when Allen Hatfield, the chief of police of Matewan, W.Va., raided a brothel and exchanged gunfire with an angry patron, a McCoy, who died in the incident.)
The next morning, I met Jay Shepherd and Jesse Bowling from the Pike County Tourism, Convention & Visitors Bureau at the Hampton Inn in Pikeville, Ky., where they lead Saturday morning Hatfield & McCoy tours year-round. Shepherd explained that the proceeds are earmarked for the creation of a statue dedicated to Randall McCoy. Not exactly a save-the-starving-children-in-Africa cause, but I was game.
Shepherd said that since the premiere of the History Channel miniseries in the spring of last year, the three-person tourism office has been inundated with brochure requests. “Some people said no one’s going to visit a place where a whole lot of people died,” he said. “I tell ’em, ‘You ever heard of Salem? Ever heard of Gettysburg?’ ”
Bowling, our tour guide, opened by asking how many in our group of 12 had seen the miniseries. A flurry of hands went up, and he smiled. “It was about 60/40, with most of it being inaccurate,” he said.
There were inaccuracies on both sides, Bowling insisted, but he thought that the McCoys were treated especially unfairly, with Randall McCoy’s cousin and attorney, Perry Cline, depicted as “slimy” and Randall portrayed as a drunkard. The History Channel also gave credit to the state tourism office in West Virginia but snubbed Kentucky, leading some in the Bluegrass State to wonder whether a conspiracy was afoot.
“It was lopsided history, but it was great for reviving interest in the feud,” Bowling said. “Now it’s given us a chance to tell the truth.”
Outside the courthouse, where eight Hatfields were tried and convicted of murdering two McCoys, Bowling told us that the bloodiest feud in the region was the Baker-Howard feud, which lasted for nearly 60 years and may have claimed more than 100 lives, compared with about a dozen fatalities over a 25-year span in the Hatfield-McCoy feud.
Bowling thinks that the Hatfield-McCoy feud remains more famous because of the media attention it garnered after 1888, when the U.S. Supreme Court took up the question of whether members of the Hatfield clan could be tried in Kentucky after a posse arrested them in West Virginia and transported them across state lines. (Most of the McCoy clan lived on the Kentucky side, while the Hatfields lived in West Virginia; the court ruled 7-2 that the Hatfields could be tried in Kentucky, even though there’d been no lawful extradition procedure.)
Stops at the York Mansion, where Cline once lived, and the Dils Cemetery — the burial site for Randall; his wife, Sarah; and their daughter, Roseanna, who stirred up trouble by taking up with a member of the Hatfield clan — were mildly interesting, mostly because of the stories Bowling related in his folksy Appalachian accent. But the highlight of the tour was a stop at a little hilltop cemetery hidden up a steep road in a neighborhood just outside Pikeville, where Cline was buried after he died of tuberculosis in 1891.
After the miniseries came out, Bowling told us, he and his colleagues had to learn more about Cline, who was featured as a prominent player in the feud. They found his grave in this long-forgotten, atmospheric cemetery and made it a stop on the tour, much to the neighbors’ chagrin. I was tickled by the fact that the History Channel had the power to turn the grave of an obscure, long-dead attorney into a tourist attraction.
In the gift shop afterward, my 5-year-old son, Leo, hassled me about buying a Hatfield gun — because they “looked tougher” in the photos, he said — and Shepherd admitted that in some small way, the Hatfield-McCoy feud is still alive in that people on opposite sides of the Tug still can’t agree on who started it or who got the worst of it.
“You’ll get a different story if you take a tour on the other side of the river,” he said.
Seminara is a journalist and former diplomat based in Chicago.