Known more for documentaries, the History Channel will depart from its usual format with the premier of “Hatfields & McCoys,” a six hour mini-series that explores America’s most well known family feud. Debuting on Monday, May 28, at 9 pm, “Hatfields & McCoys will run on three consecutive nights, with numerous rebroadcasts throughout the near future. Directed by Kevin Reynolds, the program features Kevin Costner as Hatfield patriarch “Devil” Hatfield and Bill Paxton as McCoy family head, Randall McCoy. Based entirely on actual events that took place in 19th century America, “Hatfields & McCoys” well undoubtedly become the authoritative work on a subject that is well known, but has never been entirely told on film.
The saga of the Hatfields and McCoys dates back to 1865 in a region near the Kentucky-West Virginia border. Asa Harmon McCoy, a returning Union Army soldier, was murdered on January 7, 1865, supposedly by a group of men led by “Devil” Hatfield, who were not happy that Asa had sided with the North during the Civil War. No suspects were ever brought to trial. Tension between the two families festered for several years, until 1878 when a dispute over the ownership of a pig led to open hostility. Floyd Hatfield had possession of the pig, but Randolph McCoy claimed rightful ownership, asserting that it had merely wandered on to Hatfield property. The matter was brought before a judge, who ruled in the Hatfield’s favor, largely because of the testimony of Bill Staton, a relative of both families. Staton was killed later by two McCoys, who were acquitted on grounds of self-defense.
The feud reached a higher level in 1880 when Roseanna McCoy became romantically involved with “Devil” Hatfield’s son, Johnson “Johnse” Hatfield. The Roaseanna-“Johnse” courtship contributed to an escalation of the hostilities that would eventually cost the lives of a dozen men over a 20 year period, not to mention the destruction of livestock and property. Trials resulting from criminal charges brought against the warring clans lasted until 1901.
Stories about back country family feuds have been part of American popular culture for many years, often in the form of comedy. The image of mountain people chasing each other around with shotguns has always been a sure source of humor, whether it was the comic-strip “Lil’ Abner” or TV’s “Beverly Hillbillies.” Well, viewers will find nothing funny in “Hatfields & McCoys”…the program is dark, cynical and violent, with Costner’s “Devil” Hatfield bearing no resemblance to Jed Clampett. But despite the beatings, killings and home burnings, “Hatfields & McCoys” promises to be compelling television, and hopefully will generate the kind of ratings that will encourage the History Channel to produce similar fare in the near future.
Trivia: Contrary to some speculation, the term, “The real McCoy” was not inspired in any way by the famous feuding family. The expression, which is used to identify something as “the real thing” or the “genuine original,” first appeared as “The real Mackay,” in 1856 Scotland as part of an advertising campaign for G. Mackay & Co. Ltd’s whiskey (“A drop of the real MacKay). The term was altered to “McCoy” in Canada in 1881, when a short story made reference to a “real McCoy.” Over the years, there have been several bogus explanations for the phrase’s origin, including the theory that it had something to do with the West Virginia-Kentucky Hatfields. A once common myth held that “The real McCoy” was actually boxer Norman Selby, best know for his fighting name Kid McCoy. Selby/McCoy fought during the 1890’s, and there are at least a half a dozen stories that explain how “The real McCoy” is linked to the colorful middleweight. The “Kid” may have been “The real McCoy,” but he wasn’t the first.