Photos courtesy of Pike County KY Tourism Commission ("Devil Anse" Hatfield photo courtesy West Virginia State Archives)
Pictured from left to right: Randolph "Ole Ran'l" McCoy, Johnse Hatfield, Roseanna McCoy and Capt. William Anderson "Devil Anse" Hatfield.
You may have heard this story in its more popular version, which has turtles instead of rocks, but the earliest version discovered (1838) goes like this:
"The world, marm," said I, anxious to display my acquired knowledge, "is not exactly round, but resembles in shape a flattened orange; and it turns on its axis once in twenty-four hours."
"Well, I don't know anything about its axes," replied she, "but I know it don't turn round, for if it did we'd be all tumbled off; and as to its being round, anyone can see it's a square piece of ground, standing on a rock!"
"Standing on a rock! but upon what does that stand?"
"Why, on another, to be sure!"
"But what supports the last?"
"Lud! child, how stupid you are! There's rocks all the way down!"
The story highlights, in comic form, the persistence of belief in the face of facts, as well as the power of story over evidence. When it comes to feud tales, I’m afraid, it’s also rocks all the way down! When you read contemporary feud books, you’ll generally find a lot of footnotes, plenty of referencing, ibids and et als out the wazoo. The presence of footnotes is, in this case, more or less a means of making fairy tales read like history. It’s a publishing trick, a graphical sleight of hand, an authorial gimmick that lets feud fabulists cover themselves with a mantle of academic authority. I use footnotes: would someone who uses this many footnotes mislead you?
Well, yes, they would, and do, and have done so for quite some time now.
Tom Dotson jokingly refers to this practice of footnoting as a daisy chain of references, with subsequent writers referring to previous writers who in turn reference other writers whom you will discover, once you stare at what they wrote closely enough, are writing what amounts to absolute fantasy. In some cases, such as Lisa Alther’s book, the daisy chain of references leads to a blank page in someone else’s feud book!
Let me pause briefly and relate to you one of my grandmother’s colorful mountain expressions. My grandmother was a Kentucky Hatfield, non-feuding variety, and she had a way with words. She would often say that creek water was safe to drink after it had run over 5 stones and a goose turd. While that’s not my idea of a safe water filtration system, it does capture to some extent what goes on with the footnoting. Here’s the rule, which I will refer to henceforth as Granny’s Rule of Feud Fable to Feud Fact:
Any feud claim, no matter how preposterous or unsourced, can be turned into feud fact as long as it travels through at least three writers, with at least one of them being a certified historian. The certification process, as you will see, can often be fairly lax.
An example is the name “Crazy” Jim Vance. This little doozy never appeared anywhere in the record, ever. In 1992, in an interview for a documentary film about various aspects of West Virginia history, Margaret Hatfield, a school teacher and family historian from the Kentucky side of the Tug River, said that people called Jim Vance “Crazy” Jim. For years, this mistake was ignored, until it was picked up and used by Dean King in his best selling (and extensively foot noted) book about the feud. He never mentions Jim Vance without calling him “Crazy” Jim. In the introduction to a recent release of the book “American Vendetta” by T.C. Crawford, publisher Keith Davis mars an otherwise exemplary edition of the book by referring to Dean King as an “historian” and repeating, and thus further legitimizing, the “Crazy Jim” moniker. The name was also picked up and used in the Hatfield McCoy mini-series which aired on The History Channel. So now, in the popular mind, there was a fellow named “Crazy” Jim Vance who prowled the Tug Valley until his death in 1888, but I’m here to tell you, no such man ever existed. The real Jim Vance, as we will show in later posts, was for many years one of the most respected lawmen on either side of the river. When he lived in West Virginia, he served at various times as both a Justice of the Peace and a Constable. When he lived in Kentucky, was appointed Deputy Sheriff by none of other than Perry Cline, brother-in-law of the man (Asa Harmon McCoy) that later writers claimed Jim had killed. But, to many writers and readers these days, he’s “Crazy” Jim Vance.
The opposite of Granny’s Rule of Feud Fable to Feud Fact would be the Rule of Persistence. Once a piece of lore has entered the canon via Granny’s Rule of Feud Fable to Feud Fact, it is nearly impossible to remove it. Counter evidence has an uphill battle once the final goose-dropped hurdle has been cleared!
There you have it. The process, which I also think is similar to money laundering, has done so much damage to the process of writing an accurate history both of the feud in particular and the region and its people in general, that I’m not quite sure how to go about working against it. These feud tales, once filtered through the quasi-academic system and polished to perfection by prose stylists acquire an aura of inviolability. They are, in effect, compelling and fit with the mind’s innate need to understand complex events in simplistic, but narratively cohesive, ways. So it’s no accident when a writer such as Jean Thomas recasts the few available details of the relationship of Johnse Hatfield and Rosanna McCoy into the tale of a mountain Romeo and Juliette. The mere details, stripped of their historical context and removed from human memory are easily shaped into conventional (and convenient) narrative structures. Too many people prefer the tall tales, and so the tall tales persist, often in the face of amazing amounts of evidence.
So keep that in mind as you read or see or hear anything related to the feud. In very few cases are the “facts” anchored in real evidence. In many cases, they don’t even pass the test of basic common sense. That will not stop those who believe in them, however, from believing in them with passion. And no matter how many footnotes they provide, no matter how many layers of references stand between you and the tale, if you dig deeply enough, you will quite often find that, as the woman in the opening tale insists, it’s rocks all the way down.
Note: There are two books that have informed and broadened my understanding of the feud, that are thoroughly historical, and that are wonderful right down to the very last footnote and appendix. Those books are "Feud: Hatfields, McCoys, and Social Change in Appalachia, 1860-1900" by Altina Waller and "The Hatfield & McCoy Feud After Kevin Costner: Rescuing History" by Tom Dotson.