1882 One Hundred Years Ago

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PIKE COUNTY, KENTUCKY: A fuse that wound back through disputes over a $1.75 fiddle and a stray hog to the well-remembered violence of the Civil War days touched off its charge on August 7. In the midst of Pike County election-day festivities, Ellison Hatfield opened the most famous feud in American history by stirring from a drunken slumber, first to insult Tolbert McCoy and then to attack him. Tolbert and his brother drew knives and started stabbing Ellison; a third McCoy brother shot him.

Ellison, fearfully wounded, was borne away. When word reached Anse Hatf ield, head of the West Virginia clan and to one contemporary “six feet of devil and 180 pounds of hell,” he and his kin rounded up the three McCoys and held them prisoner. Two days later Ellison died; the Hatfields brought the three boys to within sight of one of the McCoy’s cabins, tied them to papaw bushes, and pumped fifty rifle bullets into them.

The state of Kentucky posted big rewards for the capture of the murderers, but the Hatfields stood together and sent packing the hopeful detectives down from Chicago. The McCoys were persistent. The violence continued.

On New Year’s Day of 1888, nine Hatfields crossed the West Virginia line into Kentucky and laid siege to Randolph McCoy’s cabin. After an hour’s battle, the building took fire. Alifair McCoy stepped outside to douse the flames, confident the Hatfields wouldn’t harm a woman. They shot her 107 in the stomach. As she lay screaming on the ground, her mother, Sarah, tried to get to her. “For the love of the Lord,” she screamed, “let me go to my girl.” A Hatfield pistol-whipped her until she lost consciousness.

Within days bands of McCoys fifty strong began forays across the border, and on January 19 a full-fledged battle raged for two hours and left heavy casualties in its wake. The governors of both Kentucky and West Virginia called out the National Guard.

At last, in 1889, several Hatfields captured in the McCoys raids were tried in Kentucky; all were found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment, except for Alifair’s murderer, who was hanged. The feud began to peter out. “Devil Anse” found God; one of his nephews, Henry Drury Hatfield, became governor of West Virginia.

At the turn of the century a curious sightseer made his way to Anse’s abandoned cabin. He found hanging above the fireplace a lithograph bearing the legend “There is no place like our home.” In the margin another visitor had written, “Leastwise, not this side of hell.”—