The Hatfield-McCoy feud: What made them do it?

I was glued to the History Channel last night, watching the first two hours in the “Hatfields and McCoys” original miniseries.

It’s a grim story, based on two actual clans in 1800s Appalachia who collide over economic rivalry, social change and plain old cussedness. Last night we saw the beginnings of the feud; look for the body count to pile up even more in the next two installments tonight and Thursday.

Where does that kind of rage come from? Did the fighting represent how most mountain families in the post-Civil War era settled their differences, or were the Hatfields and McCoys a departure from the norm?

Plenty of scholars have asked these same questions.

One of the more intriguing possibilities that has only emerged in recent years: The McCoy family carries a rare genetic disorder that causes adrenal tumors, leading to the release of adrenaline and other compounds that might predispose someone to anger, outbursts and perhaps violence. Left untreated, it can be fatal.

Several modern-day descendants of the McCoys have the disorder, known as von Hippel-Lindau disease, lending considerable credence to this theory. Vanderbilt Magazine published an article about it in 2007 after treating an 11-year-old girl who’s descended from the McCoys.

Dr. Revi Mathew, associate professor of pediatrics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, described the symptoms: “It 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.”

The Coal Valley News of Madison, W. Va., expanded further on this theory with an interview with Dr. Coleman Hatfield of Stollings, W. Va., a great-grandson of patriarch William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield and family historian.

Dr. Hatfield told the Coal Valley News that he had long been puzzled about the feud. “I always thought it odd how Ran’l McCoy could so easily go into a rage over seemingly inconsequential incidents. Perhaps his temper concerning ‘that damnable pig’ could better be explained partly due to a disorder or disease. His volatile mannerisms, and his inability to let go of his anger, didn’t always seem rational or reasonable.”

Genetic researchers apparently have known for years about the McCoy family’s susceptibility to von Hippel-Lindau disease. One researcher reportedly traced it through four generations of the clan. It wasn’t until 2007, however, that the information became public knowledge, mostly to alert other McCoy relatives of their risk.

Whether genes can be blamed for a feud that lasted nearly three decades (1863-1891) and claimed 13 lives is highly debatable, of course. The Hatfields participated in the violence too, and there’s no evidence of von-Hippel Lindau disease or any similar disorder on their family tree.

What about post-traumatic stress among the clan’s two leaders, Devil Anse Hatfield and Randall McCoy, who were both Civil War veterans? Kevin Costner, who plays Anse Hatfield and also co-produced the miniseries, offers this as one of the possibilities to help explain their behavior. “I think both men suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome,” he told the Fresno Bee last week. “Both guys came back to their families with millions of images in their heads.”

The role of moonshine in the region’s culture, its availability and the potential for alcohol abuse probably didn’t help either.

Altina Waller, a historian and professor at the University of Connecticut who spent 10 years researching the Hatfield-McCoy feud, told the Wall Street Journal that the real force underlying the conflict was likely a complicated brew of economics, social change, industrialization and politics. Americans back then may not have known about the economic changes taking place in the valleys of eastern Kentucky and West Virginia in the wake of the Civil War, but their imaginations were captured because they “saw in the feud their own anxieties about family cohesion and family violence,” Waller explained.

Then as now, the roots of violence and conflict seem to be a tangle of physical, mental and social factors that aren’t easy to pin down.

Photo: Kevin Costner as William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield, courtesy of History Channel.

16 thoughts on “The Hatfield-McCoy feud: What made them do it?

    • I believe there may be some truth to this. Sadly I am married to an ancestor of one of the McCoy’s. We had a perfect marriage for 11 years. No financial troubles, no marital troubles. We had everything we wanted! He being a computer engineer and I a nurse! Then all of a sudden one year ago he put us in debt to the tune of $50,000.00 with the IRS, he can’t stay off the internet with what he thinks is women he s talking to and they ask for large sums of money! Which he gladly sends. He obsessively orders merchandise from on line and we have never been in the positive with our bank in the last year! I have had to call the police on him several times as he has put me in a choke hold and made me pass out but has since then choked me n numerous occasions! He has now been in a mental hospital and been diagnosed as being in a bipolar crisis and to no avail meds DO NOT WORK! I am afraid this change will not revert back to the wonderful sweet McCoy I know and we may be heading for a divorce due to my safety! It has to be something in the genes!

    • History of the Indians explains why Devil Anse Hatfield’s lineage murdered children and beat up old women. Study the Indians way of life and see for yourself how the Indians would bash the brains out of babies. Not all Hatfields have the Indian Blood in them. Devil Anse Hatfields grandfather Ephriam :EPH OF ALL married three times. The Indian he was married to was Miss Bundy and is the women Devil Anse descended from. Actually the feud began over mineral in these mountains back in the late 1800’s when the railway was approaching and getting close to Grapevine/Thacker Creek. The Grapevine property was the 5,000 acres of land that Devil Anse stole and later had to give back when it enterreed a court room with an honest judge that was not related to Devil Anse Hatfield! LOL What most people do not know is that Perry Cline was only app. 13 years old when Devil stole the lad’s property which was after Perry’s father passed away. Perry had a younger brother Jacob Jr that was half owner of the 5,000 acres. Jacob did NOT sell his 1/2 interest therefore Devil lost the lawsuit. If you want to see an original document for proof visit Cline and Johnson web site and see tyhe document in Blood Red writting.
      Such wild and vicious killing by Hatfields of McCoy women and children would have been enough reason to create a brain disease. Would you not agree? If you do not agree how would you justify or clarify innocense or how could you beleive it was OK and alright for the Hatfields to commit such vicious murders. The McCoys had the opportunity to kill women and children including Devils wife when Devil ran like a wildcat leaving his wife and baby in the house when attacked by McCoys. The McCoys posse waited all night in the house and ate the Hatfields dinner that Mr’s Hatfield had prepared! LOL but McCoys refused to hurt them. McCoys were only wanting the guilty and off age men.

  1. Interesting possibilities. I hadn’t even thought of lead poisoning.

    I think the Hatfield-McCoy feud has been popularized in history as something that was an accepted part of “hillbilly” culture, but the reality seems more complicated than this. These families lived alongside each other for at least 2-3 generations before the Civil War, so why now? Why would things have broken down so badly in the early 1870s?

    My guess is that a number of ingredients may have all come together at the right time and in the right place: a society still dealing with the trauma of the Civil War, confronting post-war social and economic change, seeing their independent way of life and strong family ties under threat, plus individual personality clashes, with perhaps some physical and mental health issues on top of it all. Maybe the mix just became too explosive to contain.

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  3. It appears from the information provided ..the feud did not stem from the separated ideas of loyalties concerning the Civil War ..nor the information provide the given factor of mental instability related to any genetic disorders a prominent cause. ..Yes ..ignorance played a tremendous role ..but not the main factor. ..For the families had been friends living there in the mountains along with other families with their liquor ..depravity ..ignorance ..and anger long before that occurrence ..but after the Civil War ..there became a breach in the ties. ..Why! ..In my opinion from that read and observed from the movie ..being of only one factor ..{because of the jealously of one individual success of another}. ..After the Civil War there was a great reform ..a change that swept across the country ..and among the people there in the mountains and backwoods ..the change caused great fear among the many those ..ignorant ..poor ..and uneducated. ..From social factors among many of the people there in the mountains it was like a cultural shock. ..For the days of cotton and slaves had ended ..Many people ..especially those in the north were developing in a different source of direction ..and looking to cash in upon the new success of change. ..It appeared Anse Hatfield tried to adapt promoting a lucrative lumber business to support his family ..and it becoming a success. ..This progress of Anse Hatfield caused Randal McCoy a tremendous amount of jealously ..because he after the war lost focus ..being unable to adapt to the new social change ..thus this creating jealously against Anse Hatfield ..In-turn Randal McCoy mentally feeling Anse Hatfield placing him to shame for not being able to support his family as was being done of himself. ..Therefore the stolen pig and the murder of his brother being that used to stir the conflict. ..All started from the secret acts of jealously stemmed in the heart of Randal McCoy against Anse Hatfield success ..his ability to adjust to the changing society. ..Remember {Randal McCoy} had great faith in God ..but Anse Hatfield was succeeding. ..{A Cain verses Abel ..the jealously}. ..Which is why Randal ..his arguments being always of the Hatfields cheating ..stealing from him ..which was the truth within his tormented spirit ..for Anse Hatfield success caused {Randal McCoy} to feel less than a man ..his manhood to have been stolen. ..The days of ignorance had come to a close in the family of Anse Hatfield ..and he already had leverage ..for those in his family ..some were already semi-intelligent. ..But the McCoys were those being left behind ..being laughed at for their backward ignorance and poverty. ..It was all jealously stemmed from the anger of Randall McCoy against Anse Hatfield ..his gaining success.

    • I agree with your post. Johnse Hatfield and Roseanne McCoy’s relationship was another blow to Randall’s ego. Rosanne had brought shame to him and his family at the hand of a Hatfield. The fact that Anse Hatfield didn’t force a marriage between them could only appear to Randall as another slap in the face. He had so much anger stored up by then……pride and hatred……so many factors come together….the anger encouraged by other people…..decisions placed upon the shoulders of both clan leaders….it was a recipe for disaster. The old saying, “Pride goeth before a fall” was never better demonstrated!

    • The McCoys are related and Perry A Cline was my gg grandfather I have the original case concerning the land that Devil Anse stole he was a thief and a bully he did not progress and become civil and intelligent, he brother was a brutal killer who killed many of the McCoy clan, McCoy was betrayed by one of his own on the jury over the stolen pig, finally with the help of Cline those muderous Hatfields were finally brought to justice…Your summary and version is stupid.

  4. Without doubt homemade liquor, poverty and jealousy played a huge role in the feuding. Also, an instigator to the cause was the lawyer, Perry Cline. He was cheated out of his land by “Devil Anse” Hatfield. As anyone familiar with mountain people know that is substanial cause for retailiation. Killing a man’s brother, stealing his pig and stealing his daughter would drive most men to take rash steps against the perpetrator, especially in the mountains where mountain law prevails.

  5. Besides ignorance, becoming established in a land of old ways, they fought together and then against each other. If you look into the ways of today, not much has truly changed just a different era. Long live the Hatfields {my heritage} and McCoys,!

  6. I am neither Hatfield or McCoy, but having deep roots in the mountain heritage that I have grown up in, I would like to make these points.
    The miniseries depicted us, West Virginians as well as Kentuckians, in the same sterotypical roles as always. Dumb, Stupid, vulgar, intermarried, dirty, shack living, foul mouthed, violent people. This time however, they offered up the excuse of mental illness heightened by religious fervor for the McCoys. After all by Randall’s belief system, he did the right thing in the eyes of God by keeping his oath and full filling his term of service in the Army. Only to come home and find his own family in dire straights both financially and in the amount of winter provisions that had been prepared. Feeding a family of 16 children and two adults took a lot of preparing to get through a winter. Then to see that Devil Ance, who had broken his oath before God to serve his country honorably to the end of the war, was prospering and had the respect of the people around him, caused the hatred flared up in Randall right then. Had he come home and found Devil Ance in the same predicament he was in the rage might never have taken hold of him. When God did not stike all of his enemies dead and protect his family at the house fire Randall lost his faith in God. He began drinking and right before the battle of Grapevine blasphemed God by cursing him. At that point Randall had separated himself from the love of God. And if true, I fear for his soul. On the other hand we have Anderson Hatfield who makes no bones about the fact that he is in charge of his family. His trust is in bullets to protect his family. He is ruthless never asking for God’s blessing doing what Ance Hatfield thinks is best for the family. There is no hammer to heavy to bring down on the backs of his enemies and he will do it himself (by his own actions or orders). Yet in the end, after all of the blood has dried, it is Ance that turns to God and is baptized. Washed of his sins through the blood of Christ–Ance is forgiven. That is the paradox for me. The man who began a Christian ended a madman and the ruthless one who depended upon only himself ended a Christian. God does work in mysterious ways His wonders to behold.
    Another point I want to make is that no one on either side walked away a winner. Everyone involved lost someone they loved, time away from work, and a part of their lives they could never get back was wantonly given over to hatred and revenge. And everyone who survived had to live with the fact that a mentally retarded boy took the blame for them all.
    Finally, everyone has skeletons in their closets that they would rather remain closed within the closets wall. Most mountain people are taught from a very young age not to EVER display our dirty laundry in public. However, this movie has not only displayed but indeed has inspected every dirty grungy spot. But to my Hatfield, McCoy, Vance, Cline and other neighbors let me just say that we are who we are today. We are not our ancestors. This disgrace is theirs. May God Bless You All.


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  8. I agree with YOU VICKI. I have only heard of the fued and watched this one on the History Channel. I think what you had to say was well written and truthful. Especially the part about COTTEN a mentally retarted young man who took the blame for the all so innocently until the very end. So sad all the bloodshed and lives lost.

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  10. I don’t understand , from the series it seemed to me that Devil Hatfield was the most cruel and not Randall Mccoy. Which is correct ?

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