Huntington native Darrell Fetty, a Hollywood actor, writer and producer, starts to fume when he’s asked about the Hatfields and McCoys feud.
Fetty, whose first wife, Carolyne McCoy, was a direct descendant of both the McCoys and Hatfields, points to what he calls a 150-year-old injustice he hopes to correct. And it is this:
In 1881, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday boiled up some frontier justice blazing guns at the O.K. Corral out in Arizona, and afterward rode off into the sunset as forever heroes.
But only a year later, in 1882, when the families of William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield and Randolph “Randall” McCoy got tangled in a violent family feud filled with a similar tale of frontier justice, their image and legacy was caricaturized and soiled by the yellow journalism of the New York press.
Fetty hopes to set that West Virginia and Kentucky story straight next week when The History Channel plans to roll out more than 10 hours of Hatfields and McCoys-related coverage.
Fetty has produced The History Channel’s first six-hour miniseries, “Hatfields & McCoys,” which premieres on Memorial Day. He also produced a companion two-hour documentary, “America ’s Greatest Feud: Hatfields & McCoys,” that premieres at 4 p.m. Saturday, June 2.
“I wanted to show that our heritage involved a similar set of rugged circumstances as the Old West, this highly glamorized time in American history... but just a little further east,” Fetty said by phone last week. “Our ancestors were simply trying to protect their families and live by a code of honor, that sense of clan loyalty and how you had to protect your family because in the wilderness that was all you had. The killings were not random and were over specific issues, often after a shaky justice system had failed them.
“This was post-Civil War America. The entire country was awash in suspicion of neighbors and in bitterness, especially in border states. Not only could it have been your neighbor who fought for the wrong cause, but your own brother might have fought on the opposite side. This was a time of lawlessness and people were still trying to establish law and social order.”
The feud involving the Hatfields and McCoys was a complex family conflict between the clans of patriarchs Devil Anse Hatfield, who lived on the West Virginia side of the Tug Fork River, and Randolph McCoy, whose family lived on the Kentucky side of the Tug Fork. Most of the main violence occurred between 1882 and 1888.
Animosities were steeped in bloodshed in the Civil War and fueled by court cases in which McCoys lost timber and a hog to the Hatfields, and a Romeo-and-Juliet type of forbidden love between Johnse Hatfield (Devil Anse’s son) and Randolph’s daughter Roseanna.
Only a handful of killings took place, but some were public and most were graphically violent. After Devil Anse’s brother Ellison Hatfield was stabbed 27 times and shot in the back in 1882, the three McCoy boys were captured and shot more than 50 times by the Hatfields.
In 1888, the feud escalated to the point that the Kentucky and West Virginia governors called in the national guards, afraid another state-vs.-state war was rekindling. The feud boiled up to the Supreme Court in April 1888 when the court ruled the Hatfields would have to stand trial in Kentucky for the New Year’s killings of two of Randolph McCoy’s children. Several Hatfield men were sent to prison and Ellison Mounts was hanged on Feb. 18, 1890, for the shooting of Alifair and Calvin McCoy.
Bill Richardson, a WVU Extension professor, historian and Hatfield and McCoy expert who was interviewed for the documentary, said the feud has many facets, many fascinating characters and a razor’s edge not dulled by time.
“There are feuds that lasted longer and had more people killed, but this story has so much depth it just keeps on going,” Richardson said. “There’s a landmark Supreme Court case, a love story, a story about the Civil War, a story about the burgeoning Industrial Revolution after the Civil War, and then there are these characters who do things that seem so unrealistic and bizarre to us today that it is hard for people to fathom. So it is these fascinating characters in unbelievable events during one of the most turbulent parts of American history.”
Richardson also is a filmmaker who made documentaries on the Hatfields and McCoys in 2003 and the “Mine Wars” in 2005. He said the sudden interest in the story can be traced to the fact that once Fetty got the miniseries greenlighted, that beget even more interest and other productions.
“What tends to happen is success breeds success, and so I know the Costner miniseries and a feature film were in the works for about five years. ... The way Hollywood works is that when one thing is greenlighted, then all of a sudden everything related to it is greenlighted so you get a movie and then something similar coming out. That’s been happening since the 1960s,” Richardson said.
Although the first show has yet to air, folks are already feeling an impact from the building buzz.
Keith Davis, the owner of Woodland Press in Chapmanville, said he already has seen a considerable sales bump for its best-selling book, “The Tale of the Devil: The Biography of Devil Anse Hatfield,” written by Cap Hatfield’s grandson and Devil’s great-grandson Coleman C. Hatfield. The same is true with Anne Black Gray’s new book, “The Devil’s Son: Cap Hatfield and the End of the Hatfield and McCoy Feud.”
“I assume the commercials are rolling on History Channel because Anne’s book has taken off wonderfully and ‘Tale of The Devil,’ and ‘The Feudin’ Hatfields and McCoys’ have seen a lot of activity on Amazon and on our website,” Davis said. “That’s what has been fun, is that it seems to be building almost week by week.”
Richardson has worked the past four years coordinating five-day bus tours out of Huntington that stop by places such as Heritage Farm, “We Are Marshall’ sites, the New River Gorge area and the coal country sites from the feuding to the Mine Wars. He said everything is in place for the state to take advantage of the exposure from the miniseries.
He said a case in point is having the West Virginia Film Office help coordinate and promote in-state film production crews such as Trifecta Productions in Huntington to shoot for the film. Richardson singled out Joe Murphy of Trifecta.
“Joe and those guys have done a yeoman’s job and I think it’s great that we are getting some film production as a result of this,” Richardson said. “Pam Haynes out of the state film office has worked really hard and has been instrumental at getting incentives built in to have productions here. Film productions have gone up geometrically because of the incentives, and companies like Trifecta are in position to benefit from that.”
Richardson, who has built a website to gather all the tourism info related to the feud (www.hatfieldmccoycountry.com), said everyone is excited to see these waves of shows. They hope that means more tourists this summer as curious fans come to see the feuding sites.
“I think it is going to be an explosion, it really is,” Richardson said. “I have been working for more than 10 years to get ready for this. That is the thing, if this had happened a decade ago before I had done the groundwork here, I don’t think we could have been able to take advantage of it as well economically.
“We’ve been able to prep for this, and I think the bottom line is this is an exciting time for West Virginia. We’re going to get the most positive media attention we have got in decades and not only that, it will benefit us economically. This is a win, win, win.”
Richardson said organizers are anticipating that this year’s 13th Annual Hatfield McCoy Reunion Festival on June 8-9 will be the largest ever. It takes place in Matewan and Williamson in West Virginia and Pikeville, Ky. The festival features music, plays, tours of the Hatfield McCoy Feud sites, a tug-of-war across the Tug River by descendants of the feuding families, a golf tournament, a marathon and more.
The History Channel show, “How The States Got Their Shapes,” will be in Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky that weekend taping for a show to air later this summer.
“It’s all summer long and it’s going to be wave after wave after wave of tourists,” Richardson said. “That just won’t benefit the coal counties, it will be helping bring people to West Virginia who are also looking for other things to do. This is a marquee event that will help the whole state.”
Davis said people in the region are looking forward to renewed interest in the feud on many levels.
“We are prepared, but we just don’t exactly what to expect,” Davis said. “We are certainly hoping for several things.
“Personally, I am in the book business, so I love to see this activity of people excited about books,” Davis continued. “I also hope this will bring a certain amount of respect and notoriety to this region of West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, and that people will take a second look at our culture and history. It is a very colorful history. My personal hope, too, is that young people here will find a renewed interest in our own history.”