The war between the Hatfields and McCoys is one of the most brutal family feuds in American history, distinguished by its absurd escalation of violence. The moonshine-soaked, romance-fueled family feud took place between 1865 and 1890, in a bloody brother-on-brother, neighbor-on-neighbor wave of violence with ties to the recently ended Civil War. The barbaric battle between the two families became a national legend and was even made into a miniseries on the History Channel.
The Hatfields & McCoys were large families on opposite sides of the Tug River, which separates Kentucky and West Virginia. The McCoys lived on the Kentucky side, the Hatfields on the West Virginia side. The families were run by two powerful patriarchs: William Anderson Hatfield, known as Devil Anse, and Randolph "Old Ranel" McCoy. While these men were in charge of their respective families and are largely credited with leading the troops on either side of the river, the feud involved many different members of each clan.
History experts disagree on when exactly the feud started. The violence either kicked off in 1865, with the murder of Asa Harmon McCoy, or in 1878, with a deadly dispute over a hog. Regardless, the feud was perpetuated by thefts and increasingly vicious acts of violence, which escalated to all out war. The grand finale of the feud came in 1889, when several members of the Hatfield clan were put on trial for murder.
After the deadly dispute with Ellison Hatfield, the McCoys were escorted to jail. During this escort, they were kidnapped by Devil Anse Hatfield and his posse and brought back to a little hellscape known as Hatfield territory.
When the Hatfield gang learned Ellison had died from his wounds, they tied the three McCoys to pawpaw trees and shot them point blank, firing an outrageous 50 bullets into the three men.
Although a total of 20 men were indicted for the murders, the Hatfields, rogues that they were, managed to elude arrest.
As the Hatfield-McCoy feud escalated, the governors of Kentucky and West Virginia, each eager to blame the other for the violence and assert authority over lawless bandits from another territory, threatened to invade one another's states with local militias. Nothing came of this other than chest-thumping threats, but it goes great lengths to showing how much the feud impacted local politics and identity. The governor of Kentucky also sent the chief officer in the state's militia to Pike County, where the McCoys lived, to investigate the situation.
In 1887, media reports on the Hatfield-McCoy feud painted the Hatfields as "backwoods hillbillies who roamed the mountains stirring up violence." Thanks to this coverage, the story became a national legend.
It's unclear if the McCoys encouraged this portrayal of the Hatfields or if the media did this naturally. Historians know the McCoys hired Perry Cline, a politically connected attorney who was married to Martha McCoy. Cline was determined to get the Hatfields arrested and charged. It's possible defamation of character was part of the McCoys's long-term plan. Either way, national attention was brought to the backwoods feud, and it was markedly one sided.
Ever on the offensive, the Hatfields staged a sneak attack on the McCoy homestad. On New Year's Day 1888, they set fire to the McCoy home in what was eventually dubbed the New Year's Night Massacre. According to some accounts, the fire was set while the family was still in the house, asleep, as a means of forcing Randolph McCoy to come outside where a Hatfield ambush awaited him. As the flames grew, the Hatfields opened fire on the house.
McCoy did come out, but managed to escape into the woods along with some children, who suffered frostbite. Other members of the McCoy clan weren't so lucky. Two of his children were killed during the blaze, and his wife was beaten so badly she was permanently disabled.