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.