Uncategorized Patrick Mead on 22 Oct 2012 08:48 pm
In the recent mini-series, Frank Philips was depicted as a small, dark haired, amoral killer for hire. They got it right. If anything, they softened his image for TV. He was ready for money, glory, and blood and the situation along the border between Kentucky and West Virginia offered all three to him.
He gathered a band of shooters and crossed into West Virginia to hunt and kill Hatfields and their allies. The Hatfields were canny enough to be on the alert for such incursions, but two men slipped up… the last men you would have expected to do so. Cap Hatfield (Devil Anse’s brother and the one who led them on most of their violent adventures) and Jim Vance (Anse’s uncle and an all around bad guy) had not rejoined the bulk of their people when Frank Philips crossed the Tug. They had been delayed by Vance’s illness, thought to have been caused by food poisoning after eating raccoon meat prepared by his wife. When he was strong enough to travel, he, Cap, and his wife, Mary, set off for Devil Anse’s cabin and the relative security of that compound.
Mary was walking ahead of the two men when she called back – there was “a whole passel” of men in the woods headed their direction. They called her back as the two men rushed forward, dropping behind cover, and emptying their guns as fast as they could shoot. Cap would later say he hoped the men coming up the hill at them would think there were a lot of them so they fired without aiming, as quick as they could. Philips was not fooled – it was an old trick. In the ensuing gunfight, Jim Vance was shot in the stomach. He ordered Cap and Mary to get out of there which they did, leaving him alone.
If he expected mercy, he was sorely disappointed. Phillips walked forward and, with a smile, fired a shot straight into his face. Jim Vance, one of the major players in the beginning of the feud and one of the men who kept it going all those years, was dead. Phillips and his men retreated to the other side of the river where their friends and the local militia could keep them relatively safe from any counterattacks by the Hatfields. Unable to stay away or lay low, Phillips moved his men forward again on January 19th but this time the Hatfields were ready. At Grapevine Creek, Phillips and eighteen of his men ran into an ambush by thirteen Hatfield men. Alongside the Hatfields was J.R. Thompson, a law officer who had a warrant to arrest Phillips and a long list of other men for the murder of Jim Vance.
Gunfire broke out immediately. Bud McCoy was the first to be wounded. The McCoys then badly wounded Bill Dempsey, a young man – almost a boy – who had taken up with the Hatfields. Frank Phillips and a handful of his men found Dempsey hiding in a small barn and began beating him. Dempsey tried to get them to stop by telling him he was following the lawful orders of the sheriff who had called them together to keep Kentuckians out of the county. Phillips, not impressed, once again pulled his revolver and shot Dempsey in the face, blowing the back of his head off.
The battle petered out after this. Nobody carried enough ammunition for a prolonged battle and there was always the fear that the other side would get reinforcements if the battle went on too long. Both sides moved back into the woods. So far, there was no doubt – Frank Phillips was winning. He had captured eight Hatfields or associates in a handful of raids. They were now locked up in Pikeville’s jail. One of them was a justice of the peace in West Virginia. That triggered the West Virginian government to offer rewards for the capture or death of Phillips and a very long list of men believed to be traveling with him.
Nancy McCoy had already left Johnse Hatfield in all but name. Left out of the mini-series were the two children they had by this time. After the shootings in January, Nancy sent word that she and Johnse were quits. She moved in with Frank Phillips shortly thereafter. Phillips was separated from his wife but not divorced at the time. It was two months later before both of them got the appropriate papers and simultaneously finalized their divorces and married each other. Johnse’s first love, Rose Anna, had slowly wilted away and died – most likely from depression – at almost the same time Nancy and Frank got married. Her poor, sad, lonely life was now over.
The governor of West Virginia still refused to dispatch troops to the border. He told the people to organize their own militia even after receiving a formal request to respond to the murder of a sheriff’s deputy – Bill Dempsey – who was killed while engaged in official duties. The governor still maintained that this was a Hatfield-McCoy issue while more and more of the people of Logan County (and elsewhere in West Virginia) were writing letters to the editors of newspapers and proclaiming in speeches that this was a battle between the authorities in West Virginia and murderers in Kentucky, not all of whom were McCoys. It was at this time that the first attempt to trace the history of the feud appeared in print. State Senator John Floyd wrote a long story for the Wheeling Intelligencer right after the battle on Grapevine Creek. Before this, many accounts of this or that battle or incident had been printed in newspapers on both sides of the Tug River but they were almost all universally inaccurate – seriously inaccurate on nearly every detail. Floyd tried to get it right, but many discounted his version since he was known to live near the Hatfields and some declared him to be their life long friend.
Floyd believed the feud began during the Civil War and would have been forgotten had it not been for Perry Cline’s political ambitions. It was Cline who went to get warrants sworn out for the death of the three McCoy boys (five years after the fact) and it was Cline who got reward money (of which he was said to get a cut up front) for this or that Hatfield. State Senator Floyd believed Cline was trying to ride the feud to national office and personal riches.
Regardless of whether Floyd was correct about Cline, his article elevated the feud to the consciousness of other cities and their newspapers. The Pittsburgh Times sent a reporter down to Pike County. After three days, he wrote a very long article about the feud that was heavily biased for the McCoys. Dozens of serious factual errors litter his account, but now the story had hit the big time. Sadly, several books about the feud follow articles like this and get the details wrong. It was this Pittsburgh reporter, a man named Howell, who painted the picture of the McCoys as the broken hearted, wronged people that many believe to this day. Randolph McCoy was “a man who had been bent and almost broken by the weight of his afflictions and grief.” Howell depicted Devil Anse as a monster, a dictator whose word was law and whose orders were never questioned by his mindless family and allies. In his account, the McCoys could do no wrong and the Hatfields were devils incarnate. Not that I need to remind you, but a quick count of the incidents and their instigators show that the McCoys were to blame for about two thirds of them. That didn’t get into the northern papers.
Frank Phillips, of course, was a hero to the Pittsburgh reporter. In fact, the article said he was so brave and true and so dedicated to eradicating the menace of the Hatfields that corrupt officials had removed him from the sheriff’s office and given it to a Hatfield sympathizer. The reporter also loved Perry Cline and thought of him as “patient, brave, and untiring.” Had he stopped there, it would have been bad enough. But the reporter went on to give a picture of mountain life that doomed West Virginians to the hillbilly, Li’l Abner stereotype of ill educated, dim witted killers for generations. He wrote:
“There is a gang in West Virginia, banded together for the purpose of murder and rapine. There is also a gang in Kentucky whose cohesive principle is the protection of families and homes of men and children. An unresisting family has been deprived of five of its members, a father and mother of five of their children, their homes burned, their effects sent up in smoke, their little substance scattered to the wind, themselves forced out at midnight as wanderers on the bleak and inhospitable mountain side, almost naked in the blasts of winter…Farms are destroyed, religious meetings are broken up, men and women whipped… To repress the gang that has committed all these crimes was the Kentucky gang organized.”
The Wheeling paper wrote counter articles, blaming the Kentuckians, but the press had the scent now and stories were printed as fast as they could be made up. Now this was a national problem, not a problem between two families. Pressure came on both governors to solve this problem but just as much pressure came on them to punish the other side. The governor of West Virginia held firm: he would not extradite his people as long as Frank Phillips and those who hired him and protected him ran things in Kentucky. As far as he was concerned, Phillips had killed a West Virginia deputy on West Virginia soil. Kentucky had dirty hands and had no right to a single citizen of his state. He used the reward money solicited by Perry Cline as yet another example of Kentucky stirring up hateful and violent men against his citizens. He reminded the Kentucky governor that Phillips had murdered Jim Vance and not attempted to take him prisoner. The governors exchanged letters for some time (I count eight but there might have been more – all sent in January 1888) and they are interesting reading but they boil down to: I won’t stop until your people stop and I won’t give you anybody you’re hunting until you give me the people I want.
The governor of West Virginia finally tired of the correspondence and launched a lawsuit against Kentucky for the release of his nine citizens “held illegally” in the Pike County jail and their immediate return to the State of West Virginia. Back then, you didn’t have to wait years to get a trial. It took eight days for the US District Court in Louisville to hear the case. It became a Constitutional case within a few hours when it asked the question “does the right of an American citizen trump the laws of individual states?” The war had just been fought on issues like these and it was in the courts that the new reality that war had forced upon the states was hammered out. That court case is fascinating reading, not least for the closing argument made by West Virginia’s lawyer where he details the feuds in Kentucky – mountain warfare, he called it – that had no equivalent in the (relatively) peaceful state of West Virginia. In other words, this is a Kentucky issue and a Kentucky problem and you need to release West Virginia citizens who were kidnapped and illegally imprisoned by your ruffians.
The Judge hearing the case found that the taking of the nine West Virginians was illegal and demanded that they be delivered to his courtroom in Louisville. The Kentucky papers their friends in Pittsburgh went nuts, saying that “for the first time in history” a judge was using the law to protect criminals and not the victims. West Virginia papers, of course, saw it differently and praised the judge for having the courage to follow the law instead of the mob.
But it wasn’t over. The lawyers had it now and they weren’t going to let it go.