Devil Anse and Vigilantism in West Virginia [Television]

The History Channel will be airing a three-episode historical miniseries on the Hatfield/McCoy feud starting tonight, starring Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton.  I have a unique interest in the miniseries, since it is actually reenacting part of my family history.

As a direct descendant of Devil Anse Hatfield (my great-great-great grandfather), of course I have heard stories about the feud for my entire life. It will be especially interesting to see to what extent the miniseries corresponds with that oral family history.

My great-grandmother remembered Devil Anse fondly. She said that he had a great sense of humor and loved to play practical jokes, that he always had a twinkle in his eye, and that he absolutely doted on his children and grandchildren.  She also said that he was fiercely protective of his family, as history is very well aware.

She once told me that no one was surprised when Anse kidnapped the McCoy boys and ordered their execution after they murdered his brother Ellison, and that no one really cared that he did it because they considered it justice done. This does not surprise me at all, even today.

In West Virginia, families are fiercely loyal, even if they otherwise do not get along.  When I was growing up, with three siblings all being raised by my grandmother, the only reason any of us were spanked was if we were fighting with one another.  Due to that inbred sense of loyalty, if you harm our family, we take it very, very personally, and we do not forgive, much less forget.  We will take that anger to our graves.  The truth is, you can do whatever you want to me and I will eventually find a way to forgive you for it; but if you harm my family, it absolutely enrages me, and there is no forgiveness, ever.  I would never act upon that rage, but it is still there, and it rears its ugly head whenever anything reminds me of the incident in question, even many years after it happened.

So I understand all too well where the vigilante mindset comes from, since the only real difference between those who engage in family-related vigilante justice and me, is that I do not believe I would ever be morally justified in committing violence, except purely in self-defense.  That said, I also have no sympathy for those who find themselves on the wrong end of vigilante justice, as long as I believe they got the right person.  Most family-related vigilantes in West Virginia are not violent by nature, you see.  When they react with violence, it is usually because someone committed a crime against them or their family which, in the outside world, would result in a prison term.

I am hardly alone, since most people in this region do not frown upon vigilante justice. It is very common to hear people say about defendants in criminal cases, “they ought to hand him over to the family, and let them take care of it”. It is also not uncommon for families to go looking for the person who committed a violent act, saying “he better hope the cops find him before we do”. I have heard those statements so many times, in fact, that those are actual quotes.

The vast majority do not kill, obviously, but beatings severe enough to require hospitalization are not at all unusual.  Those crimes usually are not prosecuted, because juries in this area will generally not convict once they hear the reason for it.  Vigilante justice is thus so common and so accepted in West Virginia, and of course it has an extremely long history, that it has affected how justice is administered in this state.

The cops here usually view vigilante justice the same way everyone else does – that “they had it coming” – though of course they will usually deny that if asked by an outsider.  When they receive a call about an unexplained act of violence, they always consider that it may have been a reaction to a prior crime.  If there is reason to believe that is the case, they usually will not even make an arrest.  I have even known cops in West Virginia who will tell victims of violent crime that hopefully they learned their lesson about whatever it is that they did to provoke the beating.  The problem is, most people here do not consider them victims, if the violence was in reaction to a prior criminal act.  We consider it justice, because we do not have faith in the criminal justice system.

Most cops here do not bother to show up for magistrate court, even knowing that the case will be dismissed if they are not there.  The reason is that backroom deals in criminal cases are extremely common, even in cases involving violent crimes, and many times those deals are based upon a personal or social relationship with the magistrate.

Magistrates are elected officials who preside over the vast majority of court cases in this state (misdemeanors, traffic violations, civil claims under $15,000).  There are no qualifications whatsoever for the office, beyond being of legal age.  Candidates are not required to have legal training or experience of any type; they are not even required to have a high school diploma.  They also do not recuse themselves from criminal cases in which they have a personal relationship with the defendant or the family of the defendant.  They sometimes do not even recuse themselves when they are related to the defendant.

As a result, those with connections to the magistrates can get the case against them dismissed very easily, or given a slap on the wrist in the form of a small fine even in cases where they would get prison in other states.  Unfortunately, since even the biggest cities here have a population of less than 75,000, most people do have connections of one type or another to the magistrates.  Therein lies the problem.

Since backroom deals are so common, and reporting crime usually results in only disgust at the way the case turned out, most here do not bother to report crime unless they need a written report for some reason.  Some will just install more locks and hope it does not happen again, while others prefer to mete out justice themselves.  It is therefore not at all uncommon to find that someone was attacked because they had committed a crime against the assailant or a relative of the assailant, and inevitably, the underlying crime was never reported.

So while Devil Anse took justice into his own hands over 100 years ago, the vigilante mindset is still very common in West Virginia today.  Unfortunately, until and unless the citizens of this state trust that they can obtain justice through the courts, family-related vigilantism will continue to be a problem in search of a solution.


11 thoughts on “Devil Anse and Vigilantism in West Virginia [Television]

  1. hi my name is Jenny Hale! I’ve been told my whole life that I’m related to devil answer! my grandmother ezella(Parsons) Hale told me that her grandmother is his grand daughter! i believe her name was Polly Faye or just Faye! I’m interested in finding out more about our family history and exactly how far I am down the family tree! if u have any info on this can u please contact me! please and th

    • Jenny, If you peruse the blog. There are links posted to the family tree that you could perhaps track to find your relatives. (Family Tree)

  2. I have to agree with you! I live in Lewis County, West Virginia and we are an “old” family in our area, and we have the saying- “Blood is thicker than water”. We stick together. In this area and with most families- you mess with one of them- your messing with all of them. Our family was the same way too in how the women played a larger role than what everyone thinks. If anyone wanted to get married, they had to be “screened” by the elders. They had to be from “good blood”, as it was said in my family.We had a leader so to speak of the family that everyone looked to as far as decisions and events, and amazingly enough in mine it seemed to be females most of the time. The women just allowed the men to think they were in control. lol. I loved reading your blog. I think sometime I may come down and visit some of the history with this. I know I want to see Anderson’s grave stone. Now, Anderson Hatfield was buried in Logan County, right?

    • The Hatfield Family Cemetery is on Route 44 near Sarah Ann (southern Logan County), and you can see the life-size statue of Devil Anse there. There is another Hatfield Cemetery near Newtown in Mingo County (close to Matewan), and you may also find it interesting, but the one near Sarah Ann is where you will find the grave of Devil Anse.

  3. I liked all the info you have shared. Many times stories get twised over the years and people tend to believe the bad and romantic parts of it because they make better story telling. I wish you were on Facebook. I searched and did not find you. I too have history of my family in Tombstone. Take care. I imagine you are getting a lot of questions.

    • I am getting a LOT more questions than I ever imagined, LOL, so it is taking me a very long time to answer them all. I am honored, however, that so many people are taking such an interest in my family history. 🙂

      I am on Facebook, but I have gotten some very strange threatening comments here from people pretending to be McCoys. Of course, I know they are not actually McCoys, because the McCoys are extremely nice people, and they certainly do not go around threatening people for no reason at all. So I did not release those comments, not only because I do not want to encourage that weird behavior, but also because I do not want people to think there actually are McCoys who act like that. However, due to those threats, I have decided not to release my identity.

      Besides, you probably would be very bored with my Facebook anyway, LOL. I am rarely even on there, since it is mostly a site for young people, and even when I am on there, I am just talking to my immediate family about very mundane things. I think the last thing I posted there was a picture of my dog wearing a hat, and that was months ago. 🙂

      • I really am sorry that people would threaten you, thats horrible. I just thought you could create an Appalachian Lady, page on FB. Well anyway I really enjoy reading all this history.

  4. I ran across your blog, and have really enjoyed it!

    I lived in Lexington Kentucky from 1976 until 1981, and worked for IBM. There was an older couple,( in their middle fifties) who moved across the street from us who were from Pikeville, Ky. The husband was a miner who was retired on a disability, with lung cancer. Over the first few months that they lived there, my wife did a lot of stuff to help them out, and they kind of adopted us as “being like good kinfolks”.

    One weekend, they hosted a family reunion at their house, and invited us also. Because these folks treated us like kinfolk, all of the family members there welcomed us like that. I was having an interesting conversation with this old ‘granny’ looking woman who looked to be a hundred, but based on who were introduced as her children, I guessed she may have been late sixties or early seventies. No teeth, and smoking hand rolled cigarettes.

    While I was talking with her, my pre-kindergarten daughter came running over and crying about some altercation over a toy with another of the small children there. I told her to “just let it go, and find something else to play with”.

    After hearing that, the old lady said, “you know, it’s just a shame that grownups can’t do that when they have a problem. Somebody makes you mad, first thing you gotta do is get your family involved, then they gotta get their family involved, and pretty soon someboy has to shoot somebody. It don’t seem right, but that’s the way it always seem to work out.”

    I later related this story to a computer programmer that I worked with, who was from Pikeville also. This was an educated man, and he pretty much verified that was the way things usually worked in that part of the country. He said that lawyers didn’t make much money there, because if you had a legal problem with somebody, you didn’t sue them. In his words, “Up there, a man’s got a problem with someboyd, you duke it out with them. If that don’t solve it, somebody from your family dukes it out with somebody from their family. And if that don’t solve the problem, somebody wakes up with a stick of dynamite in their car, or under thier house.”

    Again, I enjoyed your blog. I think it is hard for many people who have not lived in that part of the world to understand the social structure and the strength of family ties.

    Buzz S.

    • Fascinating story! Yes, that is indeed pretty much how things work. The individual disagreement just intensifies if it is not settled quickly, the families get involved, and then you have a real problem on your hands.

      Even now, if I had a problem with someone committing a crime against me, I would not bother calling the police because they would do nothing to really help. Last time someone stole from me, it was a family heirloom and I was not sure who did it (but knew it had to be one of a particular group of boys who were friends with my son). So one of my male cousins came over when the boys were here, and told them if the stolen item was not back within 24 hours, he was going to start cutting all their fingers off with tin snips.

      Needless to say, the missing object was returned to my front porch sometime that very night, LOL.

      Had I called the police, they would have taken a report and that would have been the end of it. There would have been no investigation, nothing, because the object was not valuable except to me (and, obviously, the thief). However, I was absolutely furious and wanted my irreplaceable heirloom back, so I got it back the only way I knew how. It also sent a message to the boys coming around my house, that if they steal from me, there will be hell to pay because I am not the only one they will have to fight over it.

      It goes without saying that none of them ever stole from me again, LOL.

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