A Durkheimian Analysis of the Hatfields and McCoys

During the final decades of the nineteenth century, tremendous social changes swept through the United States. With technological innovation came new power structures and personal relationships. Norms of behavior were suddenly outmoded. The old social order confronted the as yet unformed new, and conflict often arose. Isolated Appalachia was no exception. The Kentucky-West Virginia border witnessed a series of events that riveted national attention. Tensions between Randall McCoy of Kentucky and Anderson Hatfield of West Virginia erupted into violence and murder in the 1880s.

Incorrectly characterized as a family feud, the clashes were the result of uncertainty in the social structures. Interpretations from outside observers failed to understand this. National urban interest was piqued, however, and stereotypes that last through today promulgated. Appalachians were painted as uncivilized, filthy, and dangerous savages.

Applying Emile Durkheim's social theory to these events uncovers a substantially different portrait. Using such concepts as mechanical and organic solidarity and repressive and restitutive law, the Hatfield-McCoy conflict emerges as a product of social upheaval and the resulting anomie. Labeling these events a 'family feud' provides little explanation. However, utilizing Durkheim"s concepts, contemporary misinterpretation becomes understandable as well. It is just as important to understand why the more urban regions interpreted evens as they did. This was not the only 'feud' that had occurred in the area. While none of the earlier conflicts did so, the Hatfield-McCoy conflict captured national attention. This essay will both attempt to interpret the Hatfield-McCoy conflict from a Durkheimian standpoint and provide a preliminary explanation for the national urban view of events.

As indicated above, most of the events took place during the 1880"s. After the Civil War, the United States economy shifted dramatically from an agrarian to an industrial society. Appalachia paralleled this shift. While agriculture was still important in the area, many were beginning to enter the timber and coal industries. With industrialization, the division of labor became more pronounced. As the division of labor increased, societies shifted from mechanical to organic solidarity. This changed the social structures and most importantly the legal process. Again, Appalachia paralleled this transition.

These transitions are central to understanding the actual events and urban interpretation. The conflict occurred largely because the transition was not complete. The resulting anomie led to the attempt to resolve issues as they had always been in the mechanical society when restitutive law had already encroached upon Appalachia. Urban labeling resulted from Appalachia lagging behind in this transformation. United States urban centers had nearly completed the transformation to organic solidarity, but the transition had been uneven nationally. Urban interpretations arose from the view that restitutive law was more evolved than repressive law, which Durkheim argued himself.

There are two obvious phases. The first stage blends elements of restitutive law with repressive law. The two factions are comfortable with this, and it functions well for them. In the second phase, outside interests intervene on the side of the McCoys. The McCoys increasingly use restitutive law to contain and criminalize the repressive law still used by the Hatfields.

Tensions between the McCoys in Pike County, Kentucky and the Hatfields in Mingo County, West Virginia had simmered since the Civil War. However, most scholars date the beginning of the conflict from 1878. In this year, Ranel McCoy accused Floyd Hatfield of stealing his (McCoy's) hog. The jury arranged by Devil Anse Hatfield, the local justice of the peace, contained six McCoys and six Hatfields. Floyd Hatfield was found not guilty. Ranel McCoy was outraged but accepted the judgement. A year later, two of Ranel's nephews killed one of the witnesses against him. However, another jury found that the nephews had acted in self-defense.

Most people are content, and the peace lasts for several years. However, on Election Day in 1882, Ranel McCoy's son attacked Ellison Hatfield with a knife. When Ellison attempted to defend himself with a rock, McCoy's other sons shot him. Devil Anse and a posse rounded up Ranel McCoy's sons and held them hostage at a schoolhouse. They were told that if Ellison lived they would also live. However, if Ellison died, they would be shot. When word came that Ellison had died, the three sons were executed. The state of Kentucky filed charges against Devil Anse and the others involved. Officially, no one could locate Devil Anse or any of the posse members. Yet, none of the executors were in hiding. They went about their daily routines. This indicated that the local sentiment believed justice had been served. This is further supported by the fact that there is no more bloodshed or altercations until 1888. A year earlier, a very interested outsider persuaded the governor of Kentucky to reorder the extradition of Devil Anse and the others.

Several years before the 'hog trial', a young lawyer named Perry Cline had illegally cut timber on Anse Hatfield's land. Cline had been forced to deed all of his property to Hatfield. In the intervening years, geological surveys had revealed rich veins of coal in southern West Virginia. Hatfield was poised to take advantage of this resource because he owned a tremendous amount of land. In 1887, Cline persuaded the governor of Kentucky to reorder the extradition for Anse Hatfield, and the second stage of the Hatfield and McCoy feud began. However, the West Virginia governor refused to cooperate. Therefore, Cline sent bounty hunters into the mountains of Mingo County. When one of the bounty hunters killed a Hatfield at point-blank range, this disrupted the whole area.

In 1888, the Hatfields staged a raid on Ranel McCoy's house. They set it on fire, killed two sons, a daughter, and beat his wife. Ranel hid in a shed and escaped. Nonetheless, the rash action caused the Kentucky authorities to escalate their pursuit. By this time, national attention was focused on the area. Cline had arranged for several major newspapers to cover the events. By the time the Hatfields were brought to trial, the entire area was awash in journalists painting the local inhabitants as ignorant, violent savages. Devil Anse and his fellow posse members were the representative savages.

In the first stage, only local area individuals and groups were represented. Though the area is in transition, repressive law operated alongside restitutive law with little uneasiness. The local people were as comfortable with the legal jury trials as they were with lynch mobs. They recognize both forms of justice. Durkheim argued that social change should be slow and gradual to avoid upsetting the balance. The second stage of the Hatfield and McCoy saga is an example of what can happen if the change is too rapid or forced. Once outside groups and individuals began imposing 'foreign' laws on the Appalachian groups, the problems really began. As long as the conflict remained among local people and groups, everyone understood what was happening and their role. Justice was clearly defined. But, when the more fully evolved restitutive justice system intervened, the norms were altered. The repressive laws were not recognized as legal but considered criminal. It was at this point that anomie set in, and the irrational violence truly began. National urban perception of events in West Virginia and Kentucky can also be understood from a Durkheimian perspective. Although Appalachia was going through the same transition the rest of the nation was, it was much farther behind than places like New York City and Chicago. Urban centers were much more organic. Restitutive law dominated, and repressive law such as lynchings were criminal. Therefore, events in West Virginia and Kentucky were outside the norms for urban America. This deviance served to solidify urban sentiments for restitutive law and against repressive law. The deviance also served to label Appalachians as inferior.

What occurred in the 1880's in Pike County, Kentucky and Mingo County, West Virginia was more than a feud between rival families. It was an example of a society in transition from a mechanical society to an organic society, blending both elements with little difficulty. It was also an example of what happens when change is forced or too fast and leads to anomic conditions. The legacy of the Hatfield's and McCoy's conflict reminds scholars of the need to look at the norms from the specific society, not just the perspective of dominant outsiders. There is also the need to avoid reductionist arguments. Explanation that is merely the application of a label distorts real events into caricatures and degrades real human society.