Hatfields and McCoys series is family affair

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Boyd and Susie Phillips of Shelby County both came from the McCoy family, but they bear no grudges against Hatfields.

By Lisa King

A miniseries about Kentucky’s infamous Hatfields and McCoy feud isn’t just theater to one Shelby County couple.


The series, which has attracted about 17 million viewers since its debut on the History Channel on Memorial Day, has been of peculiar interest to Shelbyville’s Boyd and Susie Phillips, who are both are descendants of the McCoy family.

Susie Phillips said she is not sure which McCoy she is related to – “I have McCoys in my family tree also,” she said, laughing. “I can’t remember who they were, but they say, if you’re from the mountains, then you’ve got it in there somewhere” – but Boyd Phillips has researched his family history extensively.

He said he is the great-great-grandson of Asa Harmon McCoy, the first member of the two families killed by the other, and that sparked a feud that lasted nearly 25 years and led to more than a dozen people were killed.

As you might expect, Phillips says his family has been following the series with interest and enthusiasm.

“My brother and his family, who live in Louisville and also some family in Washington have been having a Hatfield-McCoy party every night,” he said with a chuckle. “My sister lives here. We are all watching intently.”

The Phillipses, both from Pike County, have been in Shelby County for 40 years. They both retired from teaching at Shelby County High School in 2002. She had taught math, and he was a history teacher and a former football coach at SCHS.

And their siblings also are retired teachers; Jay Phillips has taught in Shelby County and then in Jefferson County, where he lives, and Liz Fremd taught in Henry County.

She and her husband, George, also live in Shelbyville, in Aqua Shores.

“I’ve really quite enjoyed it [the movie], in fact, I’ve been glued to it,” Liz Fremd said. “It was quite overwhelming to me, because it brought back memories of stories I’d heard as a little girl.”


The feud

Hatfields and McCoysstars Kevin Costner as “Devil” Anse Hatfield, Bill Paxton as Randall McCoy, and Tom Berenger as Jim Vance and is set in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia, where the two families lived.

Some theories say the feud started because of the theft of a pig, but historians, Phillips included, say it began when the Southern-sympathizing Hatfields murdered a McCoy who had served in the Union Army.

“He [Asa McCoy] came home from the [Civil] war and had been wounded in the leg,” Phillips said, and Hatfield clan members, who had served in the Confederate Army, set out to get McCoy.

“Word got out that they were going to try to kill him, so he hid in a cave and had a servant bring him food on a daily basis,” Phillips said. “Then one night it snowed, and then when they took food to him, they [the Hatfields] followed his tracks in the snow and caught up with him and shot him and killed him.”

That first killing in 1865, done by Jim Vance, uncle of “Devil” Anse Hatfield, who had formed the guerilla band that hunted Asa McCoy down, sparked the feud, Phillips said.

There was no prosecution in the killing.

The next incident – the infamous pig-stealing – took place in 1878, when Randolph McCoy accused Floyd Hatfield of stealing his pig and went to court to prove it, but Bill Staton’s testimony won the case for Hatfield.

Then, in 1880, Staton was murdered by Paris and Sam McCoy, with the latter being tried and acquitted of the crime.

The feud escalated that same year when Roseanna McCoy fell in love with Johnse Hatfield and moved in with him. She came back home the following year, pregnant, and Johnse Hatfield was captured by some McCoys.

Roseanna rode out to warn Hatfield about the danger, which saved his life, but when she arrived back home, she contracted measles and miscarried the baby.

Other random killings between the families followed, and in 1887, a Kentucky governor – Boyd Phillips’ records doesn’t specify which of the men who held the office that it  was – appointed Frank Phillips, Boyd’s great-great grandfather, to capture the murderers of some McCoy family members.

An ensuing string of accusations, botched trials and killings culminated in the burning of Randall  McCoy’s home and the murder of his son and daughter, Alifair and Calvin, in 1888.

In all 13 members of the families died violent deaths.


Fairly accurate

Phillips said he and his brother, Jay, and his sister, Liz, agree that the miniseries has been accurate for the most part, except for a few variations that he attributes to theatrics.

“I guess that’s just Hollywood,” he said.

Fremd said that one part of the movie was a bit different from the story that she remembers the most from her childhood.

“I remember my grandfather telling the story about how his father, who was Bad Frank [Phillips], got shot in the leg, and they brought him back to the house,” she said. “They sent him [her grandfather] away, but he sneaked back to the window and watched them saw his dad’s leg off. That was one story that stuck with me all my life. But in the movie, he didn’t lose his leg. He was just crippled.”


No hard feelings now

Boyd Phillip’s family feud timeline has hostilities ending in 1891, when Ellison Mounts was executed for Alifair McCoy’s murder.

There was no further violence after the deaths of the two clan leaders, Old Randall McCoy and Devil Anse Hatfield, in 1914 and 1921, respectively.

The families finally made peace years later, and Phillips says in his lifetime, he cannot ever remember any hostile feelings between them, even as a child growing up in Pikeville.

“We always talked about it [the feud], but there has been no animosity for many years,” he said.

Fremd can attest to the fact that the families buried the hatchet long ago:

“My best friend growing up was a Hatfield.”