The Hatfield-McCoy feud has been over since the 1890s, but the hills are still alive with talk about it. And not just the hills: cable television and publishing also have taken an interest.
The History channel has been heavily promoting its three-night miniseries Hatfields & McCoys, about the legendary Kentucky-West Virginia feuding families. The miniseries stars Kevin Costner as William Anderson "Devil Anse" Hatfield and Bill Paxton as Randolph "Ole Ran'l" McCoy. It premieres Monday.
Writer Lisa Alther's book Blood Feud: The Hatfields and the McCoys: The Epic Story of Murder and Vengeance (Lyons Press, $24.95) went on sale Tuesday. Alther will sign the book June 5 at The Morris Book Shop in Lexington.
The miniseries goes for the standard feel of a television epic, taking a handful of poetic liberties. Alther's book is well researched, if more tongue-in-cheek. At one point, she refers to "Devil Anse" Hatfield as a padrone, rather like a mountain Tony Soprano.
"It was actually my editor's idea to write it," Alther said of Blood Feud. "He said there hadn't been a book about the feud in about 30 years. There are so many versions to every episode that happened, depending on whether the teller sympathized with the Hatfields or the McCoys. I realized I was going to have to pick my way through it, picking my path as to what seemed plausible to me."
For some Kentuckians, the feud is not a 150-year-old tale to be parsed out. It's part of their family history.
Patty Hatfield is a Floyd County real estate agent who often draws attention because of her last name. How often do people comment on her Hatfield moniker, which she kept after her 32-year marriage ended amicably?
"All the time," Hatfield said. "And that's when I say I'm not a Hatfield at all, I'm a McCoy. My mom's a McCoy, and I married a Hatfield."
In the 19th-century feud, the McCoys generally hailed from Kentucky and the Hatfields mainly from West Virginia.
Patty Hatfield said she and her mother used to draw attention when they visited clothing shows for a shop they owned wearing their "Hatfield" and "McCoy" name tags.
Benita McCoy-Lyons, a Lexington cookbook author behind the Web site Kentuckyscratchcooking.com, said she owns the gun that is said to have fired the final shot in the feud. Mainly, her battles these days have to do with keeping up with how many meals to fix for her catering business, The Real McCoy Catering.
David McCoy of Lexington is confident that the History miniseries will get the flavor of the feud right.
"I'm just interested to see some of the big-name actors and see how it's portrayed," said David McCoy, who even named one of his sons Mark Randolph after the McCoy clan's founding father. "It really means a lot to our family."
Still, the differences might be startling to those who don't have roots in Eastern Kentucky or Western Virginia — Costner, for one.
In Entertainment Weekly, he said the feud wasn't all that different from property-rights issues in more modern, affluent areas.
"It's very easy to make fun of these people and call them hillbillies," Costner said. "But if somebody builds something that takes away your view in Malibu, you're in court for 15 years. It's not so different today."
'A voice of clarity'
Actress Mare Winningham, who plays matriarch Sarah McCoy in the miniseries, said the part is a great role, a devoted wife and mother who loses almost everything. In her climactic scene, with her house on fire behind her and two of her children dead, Sarah comes striding out of the blaze with a gun in each hand.
"When I read that scene, I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, it's got to be the most cinematic, wonderful scene," Winningham said. "It's the beginning of her madness. She has nowhere to go with all the madness and horror and terror."
Winningham's character "is a voice of clarity throughout the piece ... and in a sense, (she has) some sort of prescience — when they're going to come, how they will come, how bad it's going to get."
"She's the only one in the piece who reacts to the deaths the way she should," Winningham said.
Sarah McCoy is horrified by the deaths and heartbroken when she has to tell three of her sons goodbye before they are shot by the Hatfields. The remaining McCoys are fixed on revenge, obliteration of the other family's partisans.
The miniseries was not filmed on location, but rather in Romania. Winningham said that shooting in Eastern Europe instead of Kentucky and West Virginia wound up being inspiring.
"At first I found that amusing, going all the way to Romania to shoot Kentucky and West Virginia," she said. "To be in a location that was so remote. In some ways it was very isolating, ... but it took us back to another time and place."
Ugly in many ways
The ugliness of the story of the Hatfields and McCoys extended beyond the actual feud.
The original feuding Hatfields are often portrayed as holding an edge in holler social circles, but you wouldn't have wanted to hire them as catalog models.
Alther's book describes a reporter's reaction on seeing Cap Hatfield (portrayed in the miniseries by Prestonsburg native Boyd Holbrook): "I do not think that I ever saw a more hideously repulsive face in all my life. ... Simply a bad young man, without a single redeeming point."
Alther goes on to describe Cap Hatfield's colon deformity, which made dining with him something of an adventure in discovering close up how digestive processes work.
Holbrook, who has had a successful career as a model and is decidedly not like his character in the looks department, said he tried to add some dramatic shading to the brutish character "rather than being evil for evil's sake. ... Cap is kind of like a shadow character."
Brutality and banality
For the nation, the Hatfield-McCoy feud symbolized some dark backwoods intrigue that the media has played up into a fever dream of bloody revenge and forbidden romance deep in the mountains.
It was indeed bloody, and there was some forbidden romance, but the real Hatfield-McCoy feud was a bit more about the banality of backwoods war: cowering in a cave, bickering over a pig, knocking a mother senseless as her home burned and her children died nearby.
David McCoy said, "Young kids in my children's generation on down, ... it's been lost because it's not taught in history classes any more."
Despite the popular idea that the Hatfields were villains and the McCoys were less-successful villains, not all Hatfields took up the family side. Members of both families sided with their friends and neighbors.
And as Winningham and Alther point out, women on both sides of the divide got short shrift. In the midst of a bloody feud, they were expected to raise gardens; preserve food; sew; cook; and raise, slaughter and butcher animals — often while pregnant.
"The women were giving birth every one or two years and doing all the farm work while their husbands were out creating havoc," said Alther, a native of East Tennessee who lives in Vermont, Tennessee and New York.
At the time, The Courier-Journal of Louisville once suggested that the Hatfields move to what was then the Dakota Territory and the McCoys to Venezuela to end the feud, according to Alther's book.
A complicated narrative
"When I started off, all I thought I knew was that it was a struggle over who owned some hogs," Alther said.
It was far more complicated than that, with influences from the Civil War, clashes over the ownership of timber land and "that whole hillbilly stereotype that I think the feud is responsible for, of the dullard with the jug of moonshine and the overalls," she said.
According to Alther's book, the feud finally waned when the Kentucky state government pressured the families to back off so the state could attract outside investment.
The "investment" that the governments wanted was coal mining, which required a docile work force and decimated the influence of farming, hunting and herding.
"It kind of summed up what had been evolving in my mind about how the feuds fit into their era," Alther said. "They weren't just isolated atrocities in Appalachia — how all that led up to the powerful male that deserves to survive when the rest of us don't."
The feud allowed the coal industry to get a toehold in Appalachia, where it has been responsible for environmental destruction and enduring poverty, she said.
"I lay a lot of the responsibility for it at the foot of the feud," she said, "that allowed the corporations to come in without anyone else in America objecting."