West Virginia Judiciary

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Chief Justice's Column

October-December 2017

Hatfields and McCoys at the Supreme Court of the United States

by Chief Justice Allen H. Loughry II


Devil Anse Hatfield (left) and Randolph McCoy (right). The Hatfield photo is courtesy of the Charleston Gazette-Mail and the McCoy photo came from the Pikeville-Pike County Tourism Commission.

Black’s Law Dictionary defines justice as “the fair and proper administration of laws.” In the early days of our state, it was common for people to dispense their own visions of justice. Although the Hatfields and McCoys are known for how freely and violently they carried out their own “justice,” perhaps less well known is that on more than one occasion they turned to the court system to address grievances. Unfortunately, the outcome of each court case fueled the bitterness of the losing family and intensified the feud, until ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court intervened.

The two families began as good neighbors and friends. They settled on both sides of the Tug Fork River, intermarried, and conducted business with each other. Both families owned large tracts of timberland and sold moonshine.

Numerous books and reports discussing the feud vary widely with regard to the names of family members, the spelling of names, dates, and specific details of the major events, and even the actual cause or causes of the feud. After extensive research, I believe the feud was not caused by a single event. Instead, it seems clear that it resulted from an escalation of several events over a period of many years. Likewise, while people may erroneously characterize the feud as a skirmish between “hillbillies,” it can never be forgotten that these were real people who suffered misfortune and tragedy that changed the lives of both families forever.

One of the main court cases involving the families occurred in 1878, when Randolph McCoy accused Floyd Hatfield of stealing one of his pigs. Pigs in those days roamed freely but were branded with their owners’ marks. At a trial presided over by Justice of the Peace Anderson Hatfield (who was also a Baptist minister), a jury made up of six Hatfields and six McCoys voted seven to five in favor of the Hatfields.

Almost two years later, a key witness in the pig trial, Bill Staton, was killed by two of Randolph McCoy’s nephews, Paris and Sam McCoy. They were tried and successfully pled self-defense. Although they were acquitted, the McCoy family was incensed that they were even forced to face charges.

On Election Day, August 5, 1882, members of the two families clashed at the Blackberry Creek voting precinct in Pike County, Kentucky. Elections at that time were important social events with food and festivities surrounding polling places. There was tension because people believed the McCoys wanted vengeance against Ellison Hatfield, who had testified against Sam and Paris McCoy. There was an argument, and two of Randolph McCoy’s sons stabbed Ellison Hatfield and a third shot him.

The McCoy brothers were immediately arrested by a Hatfield constable and placed into the custody of two Hatfield Justices of the Peace from Pike County, Kentucky. They never made it to jail because they were overtaken on the way by a posse of Hatfields led by Valentine Hatfield, a West Virginia Justice of the Peace, who took the three McCoys to West Virginia.

The brothers, 21-one-year-old Tolbert, 19-year-old Phanner, and 15-year-old Randolph (Randall) McCoy Jr., were confined in a schoolhouse while the Hatfields waited to learn if Ellison would survive. He didn’t. After his death, the three McCoy boys were taken to the Kentucky side of the river, tied to pawpaw bushes, and shot.

Although indictments were issued for those involved in the boys’ deaths, no one was immediately arrested. Five years later, Randolph McCoy and his brother-in-law, Pikeville attorney Perry Cline, convinced Kentucky Governor Simon Bolilvar Buckner to reissue murder indictments. On Sept. 10, 1887, Buckner filed a requisition under the seal of the Commonwealth of Kentucky demanding West Virginia Governor Emanuel Willis Wilson arrest the indicted men. Wilson refused, saying he did not think the accused were guilty.

Meanwhile, on January 1, 1888, a group of Hatfields surrounded the cabin Randolph McCoy shared with his family. When Randolph refused to come out, shots were fired into the cabin and it was set on fire. As the family fled the flames, Randolph’s son, Calvin, and daughter, Alifair, were killed and his wife, Sarah, was beaten. Sarah McCoy was found the next morning with broken ribs and her head frozen to the ground by her own blood.

The Kentucky Governor appointed an agent, Pike County Deputy Sheriff “Bad” Frank Phillips, to retrieve indicted Hatfield family members and friends from West Virginia. Phillips formed an armed posse of about 25 men, crossed the river, forcibly seized nine men and put them in jail in Pike County, Kentucky. On Feb. 1, 1888, the West Virginia Governor asked the Kentucky Governor to release them and return them to West Virginia. The Kentucky Governor refused, saying the issues involved were judicial, not executive.

West Virginia filed a writ of habeas corpus in a Kentucky federal court that eventually was argued at the U.S. Supreme Court on April 23 and 24, 1888. In the May 14, 1888, Mahon v. Justice decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held in favor of Kentucky. Plyant Mayhorn (sometimes spelled Mahon) was one of the men being held in Kentucky.

“No mode is provided by which a person unlawfully abducted from one state to another can be restored to the state from which he was taken, if held upon any process of law for offense against the state to which he has been carried,” said the opinion written by Justice Stephen Johnson Field.

“The arrest of Mahon and his abduction from the state were lawless and indefensible acts, for which Phillips and his aids may justly be punished under the laws of West Virginia,” the opinion said. Still, it added, “the offender against the law of the state is not relieved from liability because of personal injuries received from private parties, or because of indignities committed against another state. It would indeed be a strange conclusion if a party charged with a criminal offense could be excused from answering to the government whose laws he had violated because other parties had done violence to him, and also committed an offense against the laws of another state.”

Eventually, eight Hatfields and their supporters were sentenced to prison for killing McCoys, and one, Ellison “Cotton Top” Mounts, a son of Ellison Hatfield, was publicly hanged. Throughout the following decades there were more killings and more trials, but they tapered off after railroads built in the 1890s made the area more accessible. The resulting growth of the coal industry and an influx of immigrants who worked in the mines led to a large, ethnically diverse population. Family on-family fighting gave way to disputes between economic classes and political groups.

No longer enemies, Hatfield and McCoy descendants now celebrate their feudal heritage with an annual festival. Both families have had representatives serve in county and state political offices, and one—Dr. Henry D. Hatfield—became a West Virginia Governor and U.S. Senator. Even the U.S. Supreme Court, the final arbiter of justice in our nation, could not settle the animosity between the families as well as time has done.