Hatfields McCoys

How many people can a pig kill? A story of a great American vendetta

Kyrylo Danylchenko

The quarrel between McClure and Stonefield farming families over a pig in World of Warcraft does not seem funny to Americans. They recognize it as a conflict between the McCoys and the Hatfields. The story of the war between the two families has become part of US culture and folklore.

Tempers on the border of Kentucky and West Virginia: 11 dead, one hanged, seven sentenced to life. This is what happens when the enmity between neighbors is fueled by free access to weapons and is not restrained by the police.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the Hatfield and McCoy families, totalling almost a hundred close and distant relatives, were neighbors on the border of Kentucky and West Virginia. The Hatfields were richer, they cut timber. The McCoys were poorer and worked on a farm. Both families sold a lot of moonshine and posed with guns in all the photos.

Hatfield Clan
The Hatfield clan in 1897. Devil Anse is the second in the middle row. Photo: Wikipedia

The head of the family, William ‘Devil Anse’ Hatfield, was a charismatic patriarch with a predatory profile, a thick black beard, and a heavy gaze. The leader of the Irish McCoy clan, Randolph ‘Ole Ran’l’, was a gentleman with a mustache who enjoyed reading the Bible aloud.

When the Civil War broke out in the United States, Devil Anse supported the Southern states and slavery. The McCoys favored the North and the liberation of black people. This did not add to the love between the neighbors.

In the beginning there was a pig

In 1878, dislike became hatred. It turned out that 16-year-old Roseanne McCoy was pregnant by Johnse Hatfield, the son of the head of an enemy clan. Her nerves were on edge, and then there’s this pig… A legal battle ensued over the hog with ear notches similar to the marks of both clans.

Billy Staton, a distant relative of both families, testified in favor of the Hatfields. Two years later, the younger McCoys provoked a fight and shot him, allegedly in self-defense.

floodwall Hatfields & McCoys
Floodwall in Matewan, West Virginia. The panel depicts the Hatfield and McCoy families, as well as a disputed hog. Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers / usace.army.mil


1882. Ellison Hatfield, Devil Anse’s brother, tried to break up a routine fight in a saloon. He was attacked by the elder McCoy’s three brothers with knives. Later, the sheriff counted 26 wounds on Hatfield’s body. After shooting Ellison in the stomach, the Irish tried to escape, but were detained by local constables.

When Devil Anse learned about what had happened, he sat down to clean the gun. Trying to save the arrested from lynching, the sheriff took the three McCoys to another state.

Devil Anse
William Anderson Hatfield, also known as Devil Anse. Photo: West Virginia Archives and History Photograph Collection Database
Devil Anse
From left to right: Ock Damron, 'Devil Anse' Hatfield, Jim Vance, W. B. Borden. Photo: West Virginia Archives and History Photograph Collection Database

Ellison Hatfield was dead the same night. The sheriff’s convoy was pursued by his furious relatives. Bud, Phamer and Tolbert McCoy were tied to a tree and shot. About fifty bullets were found in each body. The rumors said, even children shot at them.

A few months later, another McCoy, Jeff, has died. He shot a postman in a quarrel, and Devil Anse used this as a reason for lynching.

Bloody outcome

In a series of shootings and ambushes, both clans lost their men. Finally, on New Year’s Eve 1888, the Hatfields decided to put an end to the story. A dozen and a half people shot and set fire to Ole Ran’l McCoy’s house. The leader of the Irish clan managed to escape, but his wife was maimed, and his young daughter and son were killed.

Ran McCoy
Randolph 'Ole Ran'l' McCoy. Photo: Edward McCoy's family archive / West Virginia Archives and History Photograph Collection Database

The deaths of the children have finally shook the authorities. The governor of Kentucky threatened to invade West Virginia with a militia. Under the pressure, eight Hatfields were arrested and extradited. By a Supreme Court decision, seven of them were sent to prison for life, and one was hanged.

Ellison 'Cottontop' Mounts, illegitimate son of Ellison Hatfield, killed by the McCoys in 1882. In 1888 he participated in attack on Ole Ran'l McCoy's house. Was accused of murdering his daughter and hanged. Photo: findagrave.com
Execution of Ellison 'Cottontop' Mounts
Execution of Ellison 'Cottontop' Mounts, Ellison Hatfield's illegitimate son. Photo: Pikeville Public Library

Long-awaited peace

From that moment on, the enmity began to subside. The patriarchs of both clans escaped the bullets of their enemies and the hangman’s noose. Ole Ran’l McCoy outlived half of his 17 children and died at the age of 88. Devil Anse began breeding pigs in his old age and lived to be 82.

In 2003, the descendants of Hatfield and McCoy signed a symbolic truce. It was broadcast live on television. Now they make a good living from the production of corn moonshine named ‘Drink of the Devil’, guided tours, a themed festival, and a marathon race through the places where their great-great-grandfathers were killed.