Author of new Hatfields and McCoys book visits with descendants of feuding kin

Left to right: Loretta McCoy, Linda Kaiser, Jeremy Hatfield, Iris Underwood and Kim Geralds waited to have author Dean King, sign The Feud: The Hatfields and McCoys, the True Story.
Left to right: Loretta McCoy, Linda Kaiser, Jeremy Hatfield, Iris Underwood and Kim Geralds waited to have author Dean King, sign The Feud: The Hatfields and McCoys, the True Story. Herald-Leader

Iris Underwood, a descendant of the irascible feudist Randall McCoy, runs a lavender farm in Michigan.

G. Addison McCoy, another McCoy descendant, is a Madison Central High School student who may go to the University of Pikeville, near his family's old stomping ground, on a soccer scholarship.

The impromptu photographer of a Thursday night McCoy family reunion in Lexington dons a nametag that reflects his genetic roots: Jeremy Hatfield-McCoy. His mother, a McCoy descendant, married a Hatfield.

That the Hatfields of West Virginia and McCoys of Kentucky have intermarried generations after famously feuding in the late 1800s is no surprise. Nor is it shocking that the feud continues to fascinate writers more than 100 years after it was settled.

"Every story has two sides, but a feud has 15 sides," said Gary McCoy.

Thursday night the new real McCoys are sitting on a brick patio behind a huge columned house in the Bluegrass, eating broccoli salad, strawberry-rhubarb pie and banana cake. They are together to meet with Dean King, author of the new book The Feud: The Hatfields & McCoys, The True Story.

It's a long way from the Eastern Kentucky hills in which Sally McCoy snuck out of her besieged cabin to comfort her dying daughter Alifair, where three of her sons were killed after an election day dispute ended in a Hatfield death.

"Our uncles and mother were always conscientious to make us aware of the stories, the influence of Grandpa Lark (McCoy's) life," Iris Underwood said.

During that time, the McCoys were scratching by — as illustrated by one of the feud's signature moments, a dispute over the ownership of McCoy pigs — and under constant threat. These days one branch of the family is enjoying the good life on a farm in northern Fayette County with three spacious houses.

This main house is owned by Leonard "Tab" McCoy, who made his money as a real estate investor and in the Caney Branch mining company.

The family has scattered far afield from its Eastern Kentucky roots and the decades-long hostilities with the Hatfields.

King told the McCoy-heavy group of his interest in the feud. His book was spurred by the late John F. Kennedy Jr., who had wanted author Charles Frazier, author of Cold Mountain, to write about the feud for George magazine, which Kennedy published.

Kennedy was interested in how the feud area resisted federal control for so long, allowing feuders to maraud without effective interference for more than two decades after the Civil War.

Frazier wanted to work on another novel instead. So King, whose brother-in-law works at Grove/Atlantic publishers, took the reins and spent four years producing the book. It was released in May.

King said that the journalists who arrived in Eastern Kentucky in the late 1800s to chronicle the feud, which had captured nationwide public imagination, were skilled but "insulting to the people ... supercilious and scoffing."

Of the feuders, he said, "These were people who were supremely self-reliant. The Hatfield-McCoy feud "is an American roots story, liberty-loving and freedom-loving" said King, who lives in Richmond, Va..

His book is meant "to sweep you away in a tale. I want to take you away and be in a time. I try to make these people real again," King said.

Representatives of both families came to a peace agreement in 2003, after the 9/11 attacks, to show that the two battling families could turn their legendary ire on a common enemy.

And then came the popular 2012 miniseries on the History Channel starring Kevin Costner as "Devil Anse" Hatfield and Bill Paxton as the fractious Randall McCoy.

Said Patty O'Brien Hatfield, daughter of Sadie McCoy O'Brien and granddaughter of Lark McCoy: "I know if my mom was still living — she passed in 2007 — she would have loved to have seen it. She would have been a big critic."

King said that the History Channel is planning a reality show in which Hatfield and McCoy descendants band together to distribute legal moonshine.

The show, tentatively called The Hatfields and McCoys: White Lightning, is expected to debut this summer, he said.

"As I read about the feud, I began to realize that the story was far more complex — at once more brutal and more heartrending — than I knew. The true story and what it says about humanity had been lost for me, like for most, in the legend. As I investigated I became convinced of two things: that the tale of the troubles between these two isolated American families had much to tell us about who we are as Americans and that the story needed to be rebuilt from the group up using records, original documents, and early accounts whenever available, while corroborating as much of the story as possible on site in the West Virginia and Kentucky border country where it happened."

From The Feud: The Hatfields & McCoys, the True Story . By Dean King. (Grove/Atlantic. $28.)

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