A family feud no more: Local dad, son have ties to legendary Hatfields

The Hatfield clan gathered in April 1897 at a logging camp in southern West Virginia. The most infamous feud in American folklore, the long-running battle between the Hatfields and McCoys, may be partly explained by a rare disease inherited by the McCoy clan that can lead to hair-trigger rage and violent outbursts.

Lee Runyon doesn't hold a grudge against anyone named McCoy — he doesn't even know any of those folks.

Time was, most people would have expected Runyon, 41, to hate a McCoy on general principle.

You see, his great-grandmother was Polly Hatfield Runyon. And Polly's great-uncle was Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield — leader of one the families in the most famous American feud of all time.

Runyon, principal at St. John's High School, and his father, local attorney William Runyon, grew up hearing the stories of bloodshed and vengeance in the hills of West Virginia and Kentucky. By then, those stories were all that was left of the fighting.

But they were some stories. “In Appalachia, they pass those stories down from generation to generation,” Lee Runyon said, partly because of family lore and partly because conversation is so important. “It's a desolate, isolated mountain region. People lived in hollers — you didn't simply get up and go to town. You'd visit family.”

William Runyon, 70, was born in a Kentucky house not far from the site of the 1888 New Year's Night Massacre, when several members of the Hatfield family burned a McCoy cabin in an attempt to smoke out Randall McCoy. They meant to kill him. He escaped, but his children died in the fire.

By then, the Hatfield-McCoy feud had been going on for more than two decades. But even then, when more than a dozen members of the two families were killed in their ongoing war, it was never a simple matter.

“It wasn't all of the Hatfields and all of the McCoys, just one set of McCoys and one set of Hatfields,” said William Runyon. “Anse Hatfield was actually in business with a cousin of Randall McCoy.”

The feud began in the days following the Civil War, and the last of the trials related to the feud ended in 1901. By the time William Runyon was a kid, “the feud had more or less fizzed. Maybe some Hatfield and McCoy kids fought at school, but that was about it.”

Polly Hatfield was an adult by the time Anse Hatfield died, but she knew him well. She didn't paint him as a guy riding around on horseback shooting people. William Runyon said that, above all, Hatfield was a businessman.

“Yes, the Romeo and Juliet thing happened, and the Civil War part, yeah that happened,” William Runyon said. “But it was also business.”

Runyon said the miniseries that aired on the History Channel this week — and starred Kevin Costner as Anse Hatfield and Bill Paxton as Randall McCoy — didn't make enough of the socioeconomic aspect of the feud. Anse Hatfield was a businessman while Randall McCoy was a farmer, who had a much tougher time making a living in the mountains of Appalachia. There were resentments. Runyon said McCoy was often trying to claim rights to land Hatfield used for his timber business.

In fact, William Runyon said the feud was made to be more hillbilly than it was by posing Anse Hatfield in bib overalls in one famous photo.

“He didn't wear overalls, he wore suits,” Runyon noted.

But it made for good copy, and has for nearly a century and a half.

The feud started, according to family lore, when one McCoy was killed for joining the Union during the Civil War. Anse Hatfield was accused, but even when he had an alibi, the McCoys blamed Hatfield's Uncle Jim.

More than a decade later, the two families were at each other's throats over ownership of a pig. The Hatfields won the case in court, thanks in part to the testimony of a distant relative of both Hatfields and McCoys. The McCoys later killed the man.

In between, a McCoy girl fell in love with one of Anse Hatfield's sons, and moved to West Virginia to be with him, stirring more resentment. Eventually, one of Anse Hatfield's brothers was killed; another died in prison.

William Runyon's father brought this family to Charleston in the 1950s when he was in the Navy (he later worked for Roper Hospital). They still get back to visit family now and then, and their famous heritage only comes up every few years.

But it doesn't change their lives.

“That and $4.75 will get you something at Starbucks,” William Runyon said.