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.