Hatfield & McCoy: What you didn’t know about the real-life murderous families

A feud between two families spanning nearly two centuries inspired the Hatfield & McCoy dinner show in Pigeon Forge, Tenn (photos by eakkarat rangram _ Shutterstock.com and Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Feud)
A feud between two families spanning nearly two centuries inspired the Hatfield & McCoy dinner show in Pigeon Forge, Tenn (photos by eakkarat rangram / Shutterstock.com and Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Feud)

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The truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, and this is certainly the case with the Hatfields and the McCoys. 

You may have heard about this famous Hatfield-McCoy family feud. You may have seen the dinner show in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. But behind the slap-stick comedy and musical numbers lies a real-life story of stolen pigs, bitter revenge and brutal massacres.

In this story, we’re going back to the era of the American Civil War in 1863. 

The Hatfields lived on the West Virginia side of the Tug River Valley. The patriarch of the family was William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield. Anse ran a successful timber operation, the main source of wealth for the family. 

On the other side of the river lived the McCoys. The McCoys were less affluent than the Hatfields, but they were believed to be well-connected politically. The patriarch of the McCoys was Randolph “Ole Ran’l” McCoy.  

Both families fought in the Confederacy, with the exception of Asa Harmon McCoy, which is where our story begins. 

The Hatfield Clan
The Hatfield clan, 1897 (archive media photo)

The first sign of trouble: The Hatfields are accused of Asa McCoy’s murder

Devil Anse was believed to be involved with the Logan Wildcats, an infantry of the Confederate Army.

There are many intricacies and varying reports to this part of the story, but here’s the over-simplified version: Anse’s friend was killed by the Union, and he wanted revenge.

When Asa comes home from the war injured, Anse and the Wildcats sent him a warning, which causes Asa to go into hiding for a while. But reportedly, the moment Asa comes out of hiding in 1865, he is murdered. 

While a murderer was never formally accused or convicted of the crime, the McCoy family pointed fingers at James “Jim” Vance, Anse’s uncle and a member of the militia group. Anse himself was reportedly bedridden at the time of the murder, which gave him an alibi. 

While some reports claim this was the start of the famous Hatfield-McCoy battle, other reports say that there wasn’t much bad blood between the families (yet) because the McCoys felt that Asa “brought it upon himself” for fighting for the Union. 

But things were more or less peaceful between the families until …

McCoy-Hatfield
Randolph McCoy (left) and “Devil Anse” Hatfield (right) (archive photos)

The second dispute: The famous stolen pig 

Thirteen years later in 1878, hell broke loose when Ole Ran’l accused Floyd Hatfield, Anse’s cousin, of stealing his pig. 

While this sounds a bit funny today, a pig was an expensive piece of property and a direct source of food and income for his family back then. 

The dispute was taken to court, but the local judge happened to be a Hatfield. Some reports claim he tried to make it a fair trial and had a jury of half McCoys, half Hatfields.

The key testimony of the case came from Bill Staton, a relative of both families, and the judge ultimately ruled in favor of the Hatfields. 

So Floyd went free, and Ole Ran’l wasn’t too happy about it. He also had to pay court costs, and if you remember, the McCoys were not as wealthy as the Hatfields, so he wasn’t too happy about that, either.  

This sparked a few physical fights between the families over the years, and the fighting came to a head when Staton (who had the key testimony) was spotted hunting in the woods by two McCoy boys. 

Now, some reports say that this was the Staton that gave the testimony, but other reports say this was actually Bill Staton, Jr. Either way, Staton or Staton Jr. is alarmed by the two McCoys and non-fatally shoots one of them. Then the other McCoy shoots Staton and kills him. 

Some reports say that the two McCoy boys were acquitted on the grounds of self defense, while other reports say that they were sent to prison. 

Adding fuel to the fire: The forbidden romance of Roseanna McCoy and Johnson Hatfield

To add fuel to the fire, Roseanna McCoy entered a relationship with Anse’s son Johnson (or Johnse, according to some sources). Roseanna reportedly left her family to live with the Hatfields in West Virginia. She became pregnant, but Johnson didn’t marry her. Because of the baby, her family disowned her, and she goes to live with her aunt.

The baby dies from measles as an infant, and Johnson ultimately abandons Roseanna to marry her cousin Nancy McCoy in 1881. 

The feud dramatically escalates: Ellison Hatfield is stabbed 26 times by Ole Ran’l McCoy’s sons

The feud escalated quickly (to say the least) in 1882 when Ellison Hatfield, Anse’s brother, got into a drunken fight and was stabbed 26 times by three of Ole Ran’l’s sons. The three McCoys were arrested by Hatfield constables.  

Secretly, Anse organized a large group of followers and intercepted the McCoys before they reached trial. Anse said that if Ellison didn’t die, he would let them go.

But ultimately, Ellison died from his wounds, so the Hatfields tied the three boys up to trees and bushes and executed them, shooting them at least fifty times. 

Bounties placed on 20 members of the Hatfield clan

This is where a man named Perry Cline enters the picture.

Cline, who was married to a McCoy, lost 5,000 acres of land to the Hatfields in a prior lawsuit. Reportedly, he lost this land in court because he was found guilty of cutting timber from Anse’s land.

Some articles say he was cheated out of his 5,000 acres, but some reports say it was justified.

Either way, Cline was an attorney with a vengeance, and he took this latest execution of the McCoy boys as an opportunity to contact the the governor of Kentucky about the Hatfields — and ultimately put bounties on 20 members of the Hatfield clan. 

This was a huge problem for the Hatfields, because anybody could now take shots at them to collect some money. A man named “Mad” Frank Phillips was the main bounty hunter and made it his personal war to get as many Hatfields across the river as he could. He would carry out raids and abduct Hatfields to bring them to Kentucky, and sometimes he would execute them. 

At this point, the feud was getting attention from the press. 

This put the entire states of Kentucky and West Virginia at a feud. The two governors were standing toe-to-toe, reportedly ready to send troops over to invade their neighboring state.

The climax: The New Year’s Night Massacre 

Amidst all the chaos and abductions, the Hatfields came up with a plan to end the whole thing in 1888.

A group of Hatfields set out to attack the entire McCoy family and ambushed them at their home, which would become known as the 1888 New Year’s Night Massacre.

Cap and Vance Hatfield led several members of the Hatfield clan to surround the McCoy cabin and opened fire on the sleeping family. The cabin was set on fire, but Ole Ran’l escaped by making a break for it. Two of his children were shot and his wife was beaten to death. 

In 1889, the Hatfields were tried, and some were sentenced to life in prison. One of them was hanged. 

That was apparently enough to calm down Ole Ran’l. He reportedly lived a quiet life as a ferry operator for the rest of his days and died at the age of 88.

Anse was baptized at the age of 72 and spent the next ten years of his life in peace, believing all his sins were washed away. 

The feud seemed to disappear, but all in all, it’s estimated that at least 24 people were killed between the two families during their disputes.

Hatfields and McCoys: Where they are now 

Believe it or not, the real-life families made a special appearance for a taping of “Family Feud” in 1979, where they played against each other for cash prizes on the famous game show. A pig was kept on stage as a nod to the stolen pig 100 years prior. 

Relics about the two families can be found throughout parts of West Virginia and Kentucky. In 1999, a project known as the Hatfield and McCoy Historic Site Restoration was completed, and a committee of historians spent months researching information to find out the factual history of events surrounding the feud. 

In present day, family members will say in interviews that there are varying reports about what actually started the feud. Some say it was just two stubborn old men who got their entire families wrapped up in their war. 

The classic tale has been loosely interpreted in several shows and movies. 

The Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Feud in Pigeon Forge 

The Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Feud show in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., features a four-course feast, musical acts, dancing and a much more light-hearted take on actual events. 

Now that you know the history about the famous family feud, you can go check out the fun interpretation and tell your family the real story. 

Read More: Review of Hatfield & McCoy: Murderous feud turned comedic dinner show 

Have you been to the dinner show? Let us know in the comments!

Cast
The cast of the Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Feud Show in Pigeon Forge (photo courtesy of Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Feud)

Editor’s note: There are some conflicting reports about the storyline of the real Hatfield and McCoy families. The information in this article was a collection of resources from the most consistent reports from the Stuff You Should Know podcast, the Wikipedia entry about the family feud, reports from the Herland-Dispatch and interviews via the History channel, Fast The Latest News and Timeless Evil.

Disclaimer: While we do our best to bring you the most up-to-date information, attractions or prices mentioned in this article may vary by season and are subject to change. Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any mentioned business, and have not been reviewed or endorsed these entities. Contact us at [email protected] for questions or comments.

1 Comment

  1. I’ve been lucky enough to go twice! The food is fabulous and the show great. I liked the second time the best because the pool had been added and I loved that addition!

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