Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Roseanna McCoy: Juliet of the Mountains

               Hers is the classic story of a girl who loved too much. Young and starry-eyed, she blinded herself to clan hatreds, and one spring afternoon, claimed Johnse Hatfield as her lover and intended husband. Little did she know how completely her happiness was doomed. Nor that she would become fuel in America's most famous, brutal feud. 

          First, there are the people ... Giants with fierce pride and strange names like Devil Anse. Cotton Top. Bad 'Lias. And "Squirrel Hunting" Sam. Men bred from the rugged individuals who scorned the courtesies and restrictions of their native, stifling Virginia society and chose to strike out for open spaces to the west, a wilderness where they could be free.
         The Hatfields and McCoys forgot the tensions and injustices of the Civil War. Again, the families intermarried. Even the patriarchs, with Ole Ran'l considerably older, added to their expansive families. In West Virginia, times were good. Devil Anse's logging enterprise prospered and his crew grew to 30 men. Through a lawsuit , he gained 5,000 acres along Grapevine Creek, turning him into one of Logan County's wealthiest men.
But near Kentucky's Blackberry Creek, the tide was about to turn.
           It happened one autumn day in 1878 when Ole Ran'l stopped to visit a Kentucky Hatfield, his wife's brother-in-law, Floyd. There Ran'l spotted a familiar-looking pig and claimed it as his own, accusing Floyd of theft. (Pigs in those days roamed free until herding time, marked only with an identifying ear notch.) Tempers flared and soon the two faced off in court. Ironically, Preacher Ans Hatfield, a hard-shell Baptist minister and justice of the peace, presided over the jury of six McCoys, six Hatfields and a courtroom littered with jugs and rifles.The final verdict rested on the testimony of Bill Staton, a nephew of Ole Ran'l and brother-in-law of Ellison Hatfield, who swore to Floyd Hatfield's ownership. Floyd won. But Staton was marked for death. Within months he found it at the hands of Paris and Sam McCoy. Though Sam was tried for the shooting in a Hatfield court, which writers believe Devil Anse had instructed to acquit for the sake of peace, the gesture was futile. The McCoys were enraged that Sam had stood trial at all. Instead of gratitude, they felt an even greater hatred for the Hatfield clan, and it would take little more for the seething frustrations to burst into all-out war.

Enter Romeo and Juliet

        Against this background of bubbling resentment, nothing could seem more foolhardy than a love affair between a daughter of Ole Ran'l and a son of Devil Anse.
But Roseanna McCoy was not wise.
By the best measure, the spring election of 1880 proved her downfall.
           To mountain folk, elections were great social events. Men came to swap goods and stories, to drink and laugh and doze in the sun. The women grabbed the chance to visit, gossip and show off their gingerbread, a token bribe to influence votes of their choice. All in all, elections were not to be missed.Johnse Hatfield understood that. Though only 18 and a West Virginia resident, he descended on Jerry Hatfield's Kentucky grounds that day dressed in his finest yellow shoes and new mail-order suit. A notorious lady's man whose looks set hearts aflutter, he had romance in mind.
Then he spied Roseanna.
      Soon Roseanna, considered one of Pike County's most beautiful girls, sauntered away into the nearby bushes with Johnse. The two returned hours later, when the sun was beginning to set and Roseanna realized her brother, Tolbert, had left for home without her.Panic-stricken and with fear in her eyes, she turned to her new lover.Johnse rose to the occasion, suggesting that she come home with him to the Hatfield cabin.
It seemed the only thing to do.
          Some say Devil Anse thought Johnse too young for marriage. Others swear he simply refused to have his own blood mixed with that of Randall McCoy. Whatever his reason, he turned deaf ears to Roseanna's pleading and when, months later, her mother sent her sisters to beg for her return, Roseanna went, in part, according to some historians, because of Johnse's wandering eye. But her stay with her own family, punctuated by Ole Ran'l's nagging and reproaches, was short-lived.In desperation, Roseanna fled to her aunt, Betty McCoy, at Stringtown, Ky., a spot closer to her lover and where the two could meet again with no prying brothers' eyes to disturb them.
But Roseanna had underestimated the male McCoys.
             One night, as the lovers rekindled the magic of their attraction, her kinsmen surrounded them, took Johnse prisoner and set out for the Pikeville jail. The alleged destination didn't fool Roseanna, who understood Johnse would be killed at the first convenient spot. In an act of sheer devotion and family disloyalty, Roseanna borrowed a neighbor's horse and rode, hat less, coat less and saddle less, to Devil Anse. Quickly gathering sons and neighbors, he led his forces over a shortcut, cut off the McCoys and reclaimed his son without a scratch.For her bravery, Roseanna received a cruel reward. From that day, Johnse never again risked returning to her side. Hopeless and pregnant, she went back to the father who considered her ride an unforgivable sin. There, amid hostility and shame, she contracted measles and miscarried her child.
To add to her heartbreak, Johnse married Roseanna's 16-year-old cousin, Nancy McCoy, only months later, on May 14, 1881.
           In little more than a year, the Hatfield-McCoy feud would burst into flames, perhaps not coincidentally at Jerry Hatfield's home during the 1882 election.There in the shadow of Roseanna's first blush of love, her brothers, Tolbert, Pharmer and Bud, would, without seeming provocation, stab Devil Anse's brother Ellison 26 times and finish him with a shot in the back. After his death three days later, the trio paid with their own lives, tied to bushes and riddled with bullets, despite their mother's cries for mercy.Soon after, when the Hatfields decided someone was leaking their plans, they turned on Nancy McCoy Hatfield's sister, Mary Elliott, bursting into her home and switching her and her daughter with a cow's tail. When her brother Jeff McCoy tried to seek revenge, he was arrested, escaped and quickly shot at the banks of the Tug.
Before the feud's end around 1891, the death toll numbered 13.
              To answer a legion of real and imagined wrongs from Ole Ran'l and with considerable influence from his political ally Perry Cline Ð the man who had lost 5,000 acres to Devil Anse so long before Ð Kentucky's governor appointed special officer Frank Phillips in 1887 to arrest the murderers of the McCoy brothers. To sweeten the pot, he also offered outlandish reward money that unleashed an army of bounty hunters on the West Virginia ridges.
         Determined to leave no living witnesses to convict them of their crime, the Hatfields raided the McCoy family home on New Year's Day 1888, killing daughter Alifair and son Calvin and burning the cabin to the ground.
           Suddenly public opinion shifted against the Hatfields, and Phillips began his work with glee and new names on his list, though he lacked properly executed extradition papers.
              In response, West Virginia's governor put up his own reward offers, sued his neighboring state for unlawful arrest of nine prisoners and eventually saw the case to the United States Supreme Court before the men were returned to Kentucky for sentences of death and prison terms.
But there was little joy at the verdicts.
             Roseanna herself was gone. After tending her mother's wounds from the New Year's Day raid, Roseanna grew more and more depressed, slipping away from life soon after. Less than 30 at her death, she lies today buried in Dils Cemetery at Pikeville.
         In a twist of fate, Johnse Mc-Coy, convicted separately and later than the others of feud crimes, was pardoned when he saved the life of Lt. Gov. William Pryor Thorne as the latter was attacked by an inmate during the officials prison inspection. Johnse's wife Nancy had long since left him, moved in with and, upon the pair's mutual divorces, eventually married his pursuer, Frank Phillips. She died at 36.The evil Jim Vance was killed in the feud. His young comrade, Cap Hatfield, went on to become an attorney and the father of Logan County's first woman lawyer.*

*Some information was gathered from an outside source


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