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Book imagines the lost details of the Hatfields and McCoys

Courtesy photo
A native of Parkersburg, Anne Black Gray had family in Logan who knew Cap Hatfield, the notorious hotheaded son of Devil Anse Hatfield. Courtesy photo

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When Parkersburg native Anne Black Gray told a writer she met at UCLA she was working on a book of historical fiction on the Hatfield and McCoy feud, he was instantly dismissive.

"What are you writing about those people for?" he asked. "They're just cartoon characters."

Gray laughs. "He didn't even think they were real."

But Devil Anse Hatfield and Randall McCoy, their wives, daughters, sons and their many other relatives, were quite real. They also were far from the two-dimensional stereotypes that have spawned a thousand pop-culture caricatures.

Gray's book is part of a wave of renewed focus on the feud, including the History Channel series "The Hatfields and McCoys: An American Vendetta," starring Kevin Costner, which begins May 28, and an episode of "American Pickers" airing Monday, which considers the authenticity of Hatfield artifacts found in an old West Virginia general store.

Gray, who now lives in Los Angeles, is back in her home state this week to introduce the fruits of her labors and to talk about a novel that is a work of imaginative re-focusing.

"The Devil's Son: Cap Hatfield and the End of the Hatfield and McCoy Feud" was released earlier this month by Woodland Press of Chapmanville. Gray will sign copies of the book at Books-a-Million at Dudley Farms Plaza on Corridor G from 6 to 8 p.m. today, and on Saturday from 2 to 5 p.m. at Books-a-Million at the Huntington Mall, in Barboursville.

"I've tried to put flesh and blood on these people and how the families felt bearing children with bullets flying around," said Gray.

She spoke by phone from a book-release tour that took her to Logan, one of the feud's focal points. The feud mostly played out in the 1880s in the Tug Valley, with the Hatfields on the West Virginia side of the Tug River and the McCoy family on the Kentucky side.

The feud led to the killing of about a dozen people and the wounding of 10 others. Less well known is the influential U.S. Supreme Court ruling on due process and extradition that came as West Virginia and Kentucky sparred mightily over the feud's legal ramifications.

Gray's research included numerous histories and memoirs, two master's degree theses and countless old newspaper articles. She was inspired by her own family history, as she had grandparents and aunts in Logan she visited as a child who spoke of her grandfather's friend, "Uncle Cap."

Since Gray's grandfather was a reserved person -- a lawyer, judge and mayor -- she assumed "Uncle Cap" was like him, she said. "I was really surprised when I grew up that 'Uncle Cap' was Cap Hatfield, known as the most savage killer in the Hatfield clan."

Once she plunged into feud history, she found a maelstrom of competing narratives, gaps and unknowns. As West Virginia Humanities Council director Ken Sullivan summed up the feud in the West Virginia Encyclopedia:

"Various explanations have been offered, including differences originating in the Civil War and strains caused by the rapid industrialization of the region. None adequately explains the depth of bitterness and the amount of blood shed between neighbors on the Tug Fork."

Gray was determined to try her hand at imagining how the feud peaked, then receded. "There was agreement on certain instances and controversy on others, and not much in between," he said.

The characters, events and settings depicted in the book are faithful to the way the feud played out historically. The conversations, motives and many other happenings are fictional, she said.

For example, it is known that, as he matured, Cap Hatfield -- wishing to protect Hatfield family fortunes through the courts and no longer through gunfire and confrontation, as was his "Pappy's way" -- chose to attend law school in Knoxville.

"The Devil's Son" imagines Cap's experiences at the school, and what might have caused Devil Anse's favored son to back away from the patriarch's feuding ways. Gray depicts Cap arriving on campus, revolver hidden in a shoulder holster, his shotgun back at the boarding house in a cardboard box. He has hidden his identity as a Hatfield since newspapers nationally -- this part is historic -- would breathlessly report the latest news of the bloodthirsty hillbilly feuders.

Hectored by some urban classmates, Cap scares them off by shooting his revolver over their heads, immediately landing in hot water for his lawless country ways. The university president, a man named Dabney, wants to expel him. Cap tells him:

 

"I've never been to a place where a man didn't consider it his duty to carry a gun. Before this week I'd never seen a college or a library or a bookstore."

Dabney's angry expression softened to an attentive one.

"Pappy is a good man and did what he had to do to take care of us when there were animals and robbers and Union soldiers and other kinds of varmints about with nobody around to look after us but him. But now the soldiers and many of the animals are gone and the mountains are full of another kind of robber -- men dealing in land, money, coal and timber. They tell us we're backwards, uneducated, uncivilized hillbillies. And they're right to say we don't know the things they do. But do they help us understand? Do they teach us? Do they invite us into their society so that we may learn?"

 

Cap goes on to say something that speaks to the widening of focus Gray's book attempts:

"No, they do not," Cap continued. "They take advantage of our lack of education. They cheat us in business, they trick us in the courts, they treat us so bad we can't hold up our heads in our own mountains. That is why I came to Knoxville, to your school -- to become educated and civilized, to learn to be nobody's fool."

Gray picks up the thread, noting that the Hatfields lived in the West Virginia outback. Devil Anse was trying to make a go of a timbering business even as times were changing and railroads and other business interests were eyeing the same land, but concerned about its lawlessness.

The family's Scots-Irish roots had bred in them a distrust of formal society, she said.

"They were out in the wilderness where the sheriff wasn't," Gray said. So they took the law into their own hands."They didn't like being overseen by the establishment. They felt -- you buy from them, then you had to work for these people and you became indentured. It was all one establishment -- the churches, the schools and the government. And they moved into the wilderness where they were in charge of themselves, as their ancestors had been."

That's not to whitewash the manner in which Devil Anse and family settled matters when they felt they'd been crossed, cheated or dishonored, she said.

Devil Anse, Gray said, "was maybe like a Mafia man." He looked out for the best interests of his extended family and business confederates, paying his bills and -- when they arose -- settling disputes with the business end of a gun.

Yet even Devil Anse went through changes as the feuding wound down. In one of several Woodland Press titles devoted to the feud, Devil Anse is depicted later in life as a member of the Masons in the Logan area, said Gray.

"I thought, my goodness, he would never have been caught in such a thing at the beginning of his life, or even mid-life," she said. "I think even he became not so rotten a character. In some ways, he was not rotten -- he took care of his family and loved his wife."

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.


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