As previously stated, I hail from the Hatfield clan, of the infamous Hatfield/McCoy feud, and have heard the oral family history since I was a young child. I thought it might be interesting for viewers of the Hatfields & McCoys miniseries if I compared the series to the family oral history, as well as history in general.
Devil Anse was a very tough character, that much is undeniable. There is a reason they called him six foot of the devil and 180 pounds of hell, after all. What they did not show at all is that he had a great sense of humor, and loved to play practical jokes. He also looked absolutely nothing like Kevin Costner in the miniseries, as you can see in the photo at left.
The actors portraying the family are far more attractive than the actual Hatfield family (naturally, since they are actors), which is something my family finds endlessly amusing. Not only did Anse look absolutely nothing like Kevin Costner, but Vicey was actually short and plump, and Johnse did not look like the dreamboat he is portrayed as being. Roseanna McCoy was not even a blonde. The offensive thing about that is, there is nothing wrong with not looking like a Hollywood actor, and in fact most people do not look like a Hollywood actor, so why did the actors not look anything like the actual people involved? You can see individual photos of Johnse and Roseanna by clicking the link below to my post about their relationship. The following is a photo of Devil Anse and his wife Levicey, to show you just how much they did not look like the actors in the miniseries.
In fact, for anyone interested, here is the uncropped photo from my header, and a list of who is in that photo:
Front row, left to right: Tennyson (Tennis) Hatfield (son of Devil Anse), Levicy Hatfield (daughter of Johnse),Willis Hatfield (son of Devil Anse), and “Watch” or “Yellow Watch,” Devil Anse’s coon and bear dog.
Second row: Mrs. Mary Hensley-Simpkins-Howes, (daughter of Devil Anse) with daughter Vici Simpkins, William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield, Levicy Chafin Hatfield (aka Vicey, wife of Devil Anse), Nancy Elizabeth Hatfield (wife of Cap) with son Robert Elliott Hatfield, Louise Hatfield (daughter of Cap), Cap Hatfield, and Coleman Hatfield (son of Cap).
Top row: Rosa Lee Hatfield (daughter of Devil Anse), Detroit (Troy) Hatfield (son of Devil Anse), Betty Hatfield (Caldwell) (daughter of Devil Anse), Elias Hatfield (son of Devil Anse), Tom Chafin (nephew of William Anderson), Joe D. Hatfield (son of Devil Anse), Ock Damron, Shephard Hatfield (son of Cap), Levicy Emma Hatfield (daughter of Cap), and off to the side is Bill Border, some store clerk who happened to get into the photo (LOL).
The Hatfields were always posed with guns by photographers passing through (which is how family portraits were taken back then), due to the feud. So they were exploited in that respect, and it never even occurred to them how history would view them in light of those photos. They did not ask to be famous, nor did they ever aspire to be famous, so they just did not think that way.
There is far more to the feud itself than is being portrayed on television. You must remember, what you are watching is a feud spanning many years, compressed into only six hours and sanitized for a viewing audience, so much of the inaccuracy is in the little details. However, there were some major inaccuracies as well, and of course they are far more troubling.
An underlying theme to the real feud, which was barely touched upon in the miniseries, was the attempts by some McCoy relatives, and powerful people connected to those relatives, to steal the Hatfield timber rights. You must remember, Devil Anse worked that land himself for many years, cutting trees by hand which was very hard labor in the days before chainsaws or railroads, and he scrimped and saved to buy the vast majority of his land, rather than inheriting it. He was not a fool, and he was certainly not going to sit back and allow people to steal his land from him, but that is exactly what they were trying to do.
The McCoy attorney/cousin Perry Cline shown in the series was related to some state authorities in Kentucky, and they had sent him to Tug Fork for the specific purpose of stealing timber rights from Devil Anse. When Anse saw through the ruse and called him on his lies, and took the Cline timber rights in exchange for not filing criminal charges for fraud of official documents, they were all enraged, and they were determined to get revenge against Devil Anse, who they had incorrectly assumed to be just a dumb hillbilly.
To that end, Cline stayed close to the McCoys. He fed the McCoy children a steady diet of hatred and lies about the Hatfields, and continuously fed into Randall’s hatred and paranoia of Anse, which is really horrific behavior given that Randall clearly suffered from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder (back then, it was called shell shock). If not for that highly manipulative and deceitful behavior, intended to fuel violence against the Hatfields, it is possible and even probable that the McCoy sons would never have gone so far as murder, and Devil Anse would never have felt the need to take revenge; ergo, rather than a feud, it would have been at most an ongoing argument between families which occasionally resulted in a fistfight, and nothing more. Needless to say, Perry Cline was every bit the slimey snake he was portrayed in the series, and more.
When the feud first started on the series with the death of Asa Harmon (a McCoy cousin), some McCoys (including Randall) accused Devil Anse of the murder, though that accusation is not covered at all in the miniseries.
In reality, Anse was home from the war when the murder occurred, but was in bed sick at the time of the murder. His uncle (on his mother’s side) Jim Vance had become enraged because Harmon had come home from the Civil War still wearing a Union jacket, when most in that area – including Devil Anse and Randall McCoy – had fought for the Confederacy. Harmon was murdered because he was an unrepentant Union supporter – meaning that he was viewed as a traitor, and had been on the side which had killed some of the Hatfields – and not because Harmon accused Jim of having sex with his dog. It does make for good television, however, to not delve into the true motives for the first murder or the accusation against Anse, and attribute it instead to a grudge over a drunken statement, since that is a recurring theme.
Jim Vance was, in the words of my family, “mean as a damn snake”. He had not only killed Asa Harmon among others, he also had the ear of Anse when it came to how to react to the McCoys. Anse very much kept his own counsel, but it is undeniable that he was influenced, at least to some degree, by his uncle.
The story of Johnse and Roseanna is yet another recurring theme in the miniseries, but it is based more on well-known fable than fact. You can read the Hatfield family oral history of Johnse and Roseanna on this blog by clicking here. Roseanna did not die dramatically as shown on the miniseries, while caring for her mother, right after finally confronting her father. She relocated to Pikeville years before her death and died, it is said, of a broken heart at about age 29 (as covered at the link, my elders told me that dying of a broken heart was a term back then for committing suicide, but a McCoy commenter kindly informed me that she died of a heart attack, and they would know the McCoy family history far better than I, so I and my ancestors stand corrected on that).
The New Years Eve attack upon the McCoy household was neither planned nor perpetrated by Devil Anse, though the miniseries shows otherwise. In fact, he did not even know anything about it until after it was done, nor would he have agreed to it. He knew there was a woman and children in the house, and he was not a murderer; nor did he have any interest in harming women and children. His plan was to end the feud by cutting it off at its head, which meant killing Randall McCoy, but his plan was to catch Randall away from his home, so as not to endanger the McCoy wife and children. To do otherwise would be to rain hellfire and brimstone upon his own home, where his wife and younger children still resided, and Anse was, simply stated, not that stupid. The fact that the Hatfield home was never raided or burned as revenge by McCoys or their agents/supporters is proof that the McCoys knew Devil Anse was not behind that fatal raid.
The feud is portrayed as having started with the death of Asa Harmon, and common folklore is that the feud started with the theft of a pig. In reality, however, the feud started with the coldblooded murder of Ellison Hatfield, because it was only then that Devil Anse struck back. Prior to that time, Anse had great empathy for his old friend Randall, due to his understanding that Randall was extremely traumatized by the war, and not in his right mind anymore. Anse even employed many McCoys in his timber business, so any bad blood was on Randalls side only up to that point. Once the McCoy boys viciously murdered his brother for no reason, however, Devil Anse struck back very hard by personally executing the McCoy sons – which he did mostly because they had already been set free without punishment for one murder, so he understandably did not trust the justice system to stop them from murdering again – and the feud was on.
A question which came up in comments repeatedly was the miniseries portraying McCoys as being on the Hatfield side of the feud. That part of the miniseries was very accurate. The Hatfields and the McCoys were actually all friends prior to the feud, some Hatfields were married to McCoys, and as stated, many McCoys were employed by Devil Anse in his timber business. Several McCoys who worked for Anse continued to show allegiance to the Hatfields during the feud, and they were considered Hatfields even though there was no blood relation. Claiming them as Hatfields had nothing to do with the feud, however.
Claiming someone as a relative when they are not really related to you is not at all unusual in West Virginia, since we tend to take in what we call strays (people who are estranged from their own family). I have taken in many strays myself over the years, all friends of my now-grown son, and I took them into my home at various times during their childhood, and cared and provided for them as if they were my own children. As a result, though I have only one child, I have about a half dozen young men who call me Mom to this day, and several young ladies who dated my son over the years do the same, since I treated them like daughters, and cared and provided for them as well. These young men and women, now grown and most moved away, will come visit me first when they are in town, even before they visit their own families, and they usually stay with me during their visit as well. It is a kind of extralegal adoption, basically, meaning that I never legally adopted them, but they view me as their mother and I view them as my children. They are always welcome in my home, and always will be, because they are family though there is no blood relation. In fact, most friends of my son call me Mom, because I treat them all like my own children whether they ever lived with me or not. So McCoys being viewed as Hatfields (or Smiths being viewed as Joneses) is not unusual at all, even to this very day in West Virginia.
The miniseries shows Nancy McCoy leaving Johnse to marry Bad Frank Phillips, but there is no mention of any children, and it makes it seem like Nancy and Johnse were married for an extremely short period of time. In reality, Johnse and Nancy were married for years and had two children, Ancie and Stella; Ancie was born about four years after they were married, while they were married five years before Stella came along. So they were married and lived as husband and wife for far longer than was portrayed in the miniseries. Insofar as Nancy leaving him for Bad Frank, as portrayed in the series, I was always told that Johnse left Nancy for another woman. Nancy did indeed eventually marry Bad Frank Phillips, though.
I got a lot of questions about what happened to Cap with regard to his eye, and whether he was really blind. Cap was portrayed as having lost his eye in a timber cutting accident, which was very dramatic of course. However, he actually lost his sight in one eye due to a percussion cap accident. Percussion caps were shown on the miniseries, when they showed people putting an anvil over gunpowder, then hitting it with a sledgehammer in order to cause a small explosion. Obviously that is extremely dangerous, but it is not an unusual activity even today in some parts of rural West Virginia (and yes, people get seriously injured that way all the time). However, most of us who want to cause an explosion for fun now use Tannerite and shoot it from a distance with a high-powered rifle, which is both far safer and makes a much bigger explosion. Either way, though he was indeed blinded in one eye, his eye did not look all white like on the miniseries. His eye looked normal but he had what we call wall-eye, meaning that his bad eye did not track with his good eye when he looked at something.
The miniseries showed only Wall Hatfield as a judge. In reality, there were two Hatfield judges. The other one was Preacher Anse Hatfield, so named because he was a minister, and to differentiate between the Anses in the family. Preacher Anse actually presided over the famous pig trial, not Wall. Wall presided over the murder hearing of the three McCoy boys, and set them free (though he later regretted doing so, for obvious reasons). This is very important to understand about the feud, and a very important (and completely unnecessary) error in the miniseries, because the fact that multiple Hatfields were judges is the very reason why the McCoys felt they could not get justice in West Virginia for the execution of the McCoy sons.
I got lots and lots of questions about Cottontop Mounts as well. The miniseries portrays Cotton as mentally retarded and very childlike, and that was a major part of the storyline. In reality, though, he was neither. Cotton was, however, what we call in these parts crazy as hell, meaning that he was mentally ill in a dangerous way. In fact, when he was in jail awaiting execution, there was discussion (which is well documented) about bringing in a psychiatrist to examine him, because he appeared to be insane and they were very concerned about the moral implications of executing an insane person. Note that there was no concern stated about him being childlike or mentally retarded, but if he were either, or especially both, obviously that would be an even bigger concern. Needless to say, in the 1800s, psychiatrists were not brought in to examine the condemned, so that was extraordinary in and of itself. Some believed that he was faking insanity to avoid execution, though, so ultimately a psychiatrist did not examine him. However, he was not faking. Cotton was indeed severely mentally ill, and had been for long before his arrest. The miniseries also misquoted his final words. He did not praise the Hatfields for loving him. Instead, he blamed the Hatfields. I am not sure why they felt the need to change something like that, since his final words are very well documented, except that they built the entire storyline around the idea that Cotton was mentally retarded and childlike.
What I found most disturbing about the miniseries is that Devil Anse was portrayed as someone monstrous enough to sacrifice his own mentally retarded and childlike nephew. That could not be further from the truth. In reality, he allowed Cotton to hang without even trying to intervene because he believed Cotton killed the McCoy child in cold blood, and Anse believed in blood for blood. Remember, Cotton was neither mentally retarded nor childlike, but he was crazy. Cotton had actually been in on the planning of that bloody raid with Johnse, so there was no reason for anyone in their right mind to believe he shot that poor child by accident. Anse could not very well execute the McCoy boys for the murder of his brother then help Cotton get away with the murder of an innocent McCoy child, after all. In fact, he would not have done that, because his sense of justice was very well defined. Like I said, he believed in blood for blood, meaning that he strongly believed that coldblooded murderers had to pay with their lives (which is a belief still extremely common in West Virginia, though we no longer have the death penalty). So I found it extremely disturbing that the series portrayed Cotton as having been sacrificed by Devil Anse, just for the sake of making a neat little drama to end the feud. The truth is, the feud continued after Cotton was executed.
The National Guard was brought in to control the feud at one point, just to give you an idea of how bad it really got. It was actually far more disturbing than what was portrayed on the miniseries, and there are even names for their battles, just as if it were an actual war. There were shootouts in the mountains, with the McCoys using explosives in an attempt to blow up the Hatfields while they were shooting from a crag. It was really the sort of violence one would never expect to see outside an actual war.
The truth is, neither family was completely innocent, neither family was completely guilty, and both sides were being manipulated by the people who wanted to steal the Hatfield timberland. So it became a full-on war between the two clans, which became particularly bad because the McCoys brought in mercenaries with promise of payment for killing the Hatfields, which the Hatfields predictably picked off for target practice. I say predictably because, to this day, many Hatfield descendants are known for their marksmanship ability, including me; it is just a natural ability we inherited. Of course, nowadays we are shooting only at game and targets (targets only for me), and not human beings. Then again, we do not have people trying to kill us these days, either. The Hatfields and the McCoys have been friends now for many, many years, and I personally think they are wonderful people.
So while I do very much appreciate the attempt to humanize the feuding families, because that is something which really needed to be done since neither Anse nor Randall were evil men, there is no neat little story to be made for such senseless loss of life, no matter how hard Hollywood may try. If they wanted to tell the story in a documentary manner, they should have examined far more closely the conspiracy by powerful third parties to steal the Hatfield timberland. It is not as if this is unknown, after all, since multiple scholars have discussed it in detail as the true underlying cause of the feud.
Last, but certainly not least, many people in comments asked about Johnse and Cap, specifically what happened to Johnse and why Cap was never arrested. Though not shown on the series, they were both arrested.
Johnse went into hiding but was arrested about ten years later when he returned. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, but was later pardoned after an inmate tried to kill the Lieutenant Governor of Kentucky with a homemade knife during a prison visit, and Johnse saved his life. Ever the Lothario, Johnse married several more times after his release from prison.
Cap was arrested and held in the Mingo County (WV) jail, but he hacked his way out of the jail with a hatchet which was smuggled in to him. Needless to say, it was not a very secure jail, LOL. He continued to fight with the Hatfields for a time after his escape, including in some of the more well-known battles of the feud (including the one where the McCoys tried to blow up the Hatfields on the crag), and he was never recaptured. Eventually a general pardon was issued for all feud participants, so Cap no longer needed to worry about being re-arrested. He went on to become an attorney and a sheriff.
All in all, the miniseries was interesting even to me, but it was historically inaccurate in many ways, some far more serious than others. So while I do appreciate the miniseries and especially its attempt to humanize the feud participants, the real story of the Hatfield/McCoy feud, as usual with historical dramas, is far more interesting than anything which might come from Hollywood.