The Hatfield and McCoy Feud, a protracted nineteenth century vendetta between neighboring clans along the border between Kentucky and West Virginia, is America’s most infamous family feud. Fought largely in the 1880s, it pitted the McCoys, most of whom lived in Pike County, KY, against the Hatfields, who lived mostly in neighboring Logan County, WV. The bad blood between the rival clans led to significant violence, mayhem, and murder. As modern science and research have revealed, and as seen below, there was literal bad blood that drove and amplified the vendetta.
The McCoys were led by Randolph “Old Ran’l” McCoy, while the rival Hatfields were led by William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield. The earliest known violence dates to 1865, when Harmon McCoy, a Union Army veteran who had fought in the US Civil War, was murdered by a band of Confederate guerrillas led by Devil Anse Hatfield. Bushwhacking had been common throughout the conflict, so the killing did not lead to an immediate feud. However, it stored hard feelings for later on down the road.
In 1878, a McCoy accused a Hatfield of stealing a hog. The Hatfield was acquitted, but one of the witnesses who took his side was murdered by the McCoys in retaliation soon thereafter. Tensions increased in 1880, when Devil Anse Hatfield’s son impregnated Old Ran’l McCoy’s daughter. Then in 1882, Devil Anse’s brother was mortally wounded in a brawl with three McCoys over a small debt owed on a fiddle. The Hatfields retaliated with the capture and execution of three McCoys. That was when things exploded into a prolonged back forth vendetta.
Things got bad not just for the immediate clans involved, but for outsiders, who felt the ripple effect of the feud. At times, the beef between the two families threatened to turn into a war between the states of Kentucky and West Virginia. By 1890 the Hatfields, who had seriously gone overboard in the brutalities during the course of the vendetta, had been reduced to homeless hunted fugitives. Finally, four of them, plus their accomplices, were arrested and indicted for one particularly heinous atrocity.
The fighting between the Hatfields and McCoys finally came to an end in February, 1890, when Ellison “Cottontop” Mounts, a Hatfield, was hanged in Pikesville. The feud was remarkable for its intensity and longevity. That ability to keep a good hate going for a long time might have been due – at least on the McCoys’ part – to genetics. In 2007, an eleven-year-old McCoy girl prone to fits of rage underwent medical tests to find out just what was wrong with her. It was discovered that she, and many members of the McCoy clan, had tumors on their adrenal glands.
According to doctors, those kinds of tumors can cause the release of massive amounts of mood-altering chemicals, such as adrenalin. That could explain much about the infamous feud. As the McCoy girl’s physician put it, her family’s genetic defect: “does produce hypertension, headache and sweating intermittently depending on when the surge of these compounds occurs in the bloodstream. I suppose these compounds could possibly make somebody very angry and upset for no good reason“. Feuding was literally in the McCoys’ blood.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading