History channel vs. history book: Facts are a casualty of TV's Hatfield-McCoy feud

ctruman@herald-leader.comMay 25, 2012 

  • EXCERPT

    From 'Blood Feud: The Hatfields & The McCoys: The Epic Story of Murder & Vengeance' by Lisa Alther

    If you wonder how the feud fits into the broader scope of the times — everything from Darwin's theory of evolution to the gun-toting adventurism of Teddy Roosevelt — Alther links it all neatly:

    "This was also the age of Darwinian survival of the fittest. The grotesque atrocities of the feudists were an exaggerated parody of the ruthless behavior widely admired at that time in robber barons and in those who waged major wars against minor banana republics. Critics could sputter with outrage over the savage excesses of the Hatfield-McCoy feud while secretly thrilling to the feudists' displays of untrammeled manliness that loudly proclaimed their evolutionary fitness. The Hatfields and the McCoys presaged Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders."

  • ON TV

    'Hatfields & McCoys'

    Three parts airing at 9 p.m. May 28-30 on History

    IF YOU GO

    Lisa Alther signs 'Blood Feud'

    When: 6:30 p.m. June 5

    Where: The Morris Book Shop, 882 E. High St., Lexington

    Learn more: (859) 276-0494, Morrisbookshop.com.

  • 'Hatfields & McCoys' trailer

Does the History miniseries Hatfields & McCoys get its feud history right? Well, it's certainly inventive in its interpretation of the fighting, loving, grudge-bearing families and their hangers-on.

Comparing the miniseries with the new book Blood Feud: The Hatfields and the McCoys: The Epic Story of Murder and Vengeance by Lisa Alther, here are a few ways Hatfields & McCoys makes assumptions about the way the ruckus might have unfolded in the name of making TV.

Were Hatfield and McCoy war buddies?

Television: Patriarchs "Devil Anse" Hatfield and Randolph McCoy were Confederate army buddies, covering for each other in the fray.

Book: McCoy was 14 years older than Hatfield and had nine young children. Although Hatfield joined the Confederacy "in a fit of pique," McCoy's wartime activities are not recorded. Alther notes that the McCoy clan is on the whole not as well-documented as the Hatfields, perhaps because so many of its numbers died in the feud.

Were the families Hollywood beautiful?

Television: "Bad Jim" Vance, widely regarded to have begun the hostilities that led to the Hatfield-McCoy feud, looked like Tom Berenger. Hatfield matriarch Levicy Hatfield looked like Sarah Parish, a delicate British actress with fine high cheekbones.

Book: Vance and Hatfield were rugged hill people. Alther's book said Vance "had a condition that made his eyes bulge and roll." Levicy was described by a reporter as the "strongest and most muscular-looking woman I have ever seen (with) intensely black hair, a very broad swarthy face, and a stout, powerful figure."

Who escaped the New Year's Massacre?

Television: Randolph McCoy escaped out the back door alone to shield his family from a Hatfield-sponsored posse that attacked his family's house at the New Year's Massacre, setting it afire. He then ran away, reasoning that the Hatfields would leave his family alone if he were not inside.

Book: The house was already on fire when McCoy escaped with a young grandson and hid out in a haystack or a pigpen. Daughter Alifair, crippled by polio, was in the yard trying to get water when she was shot.

Was McCoy a charismatic leader?

Television: Randolph McCoy had a personal magnetism that drew people to him.

Book: Aside from the attraction held by his wife Sarah, who bore 16 children, McCoy's "nature tended toward gloom. People sought reasons to flee when they saw him coming with his litany of complaints."

How did the feud end?

Television: The feud ended after both sides nobly decided they'd had enough bloodshed and were older, wiser and repentant.

Book: The Kentucky state government, in a burst of effectiveness not seen since, put pressure on the feuders to dial it down so the state could attract outside investment. That investment was in the coal industry.

Cheryl Truman: (859) 231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

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