The infamous feud between two fighting families, the Hatfields and the McCoys, is well known throughout the country. Years of fighting, feuding and hatred led to the death of many family members on both sides of the Tug Fork River that borders West Virginia and Kentucky. Unbeknownst to many, a direct descendent of the fighting McCoys lives in Johnson County.
Both families lived in a region of Appalachia that was famous at one time for coal mining. Many of the McCoys lived in Pike County, Kentucky. Across the Tug Fork River, crossing into West Virginia, lived the Hatfields. This area of Appalachia was remote, rugged and mountainous.
The leader of the Hatfield family was William Hatfield, known as Devil Anse. Randolph McCoy, also known as Ranel, led the McCoy family in their ongoing battle against the Hatfields. The feuding is believed to have begun during the Civil War. The majority of the McCoys joined the Union Army. The Hatfields sided with the Confederates. A group of ex-Confederate Homeguard was referred to as the Logan Wildcats, and Devil Anse Hatfield was believed to be the leader of this group.
Asa Harmon McCoy was discharged from the Union Army because of a broken leg. As he was returning home, he was warned that the Wildcats were seeking him out. Hiding in a cave, Asa Harmon McCoy was discovered and shot to death. At first, Devil Anse was the main suspect, although he was at home, sick in bed. This first act of violence is believed to have been the beginning of the long ongoing dispute between these two mountain families.
The feud continued as Roseanna McCoy and Johnse Hatfield fell in love. Roseanna left her family to go live with the Hatfields across the river in West Virginia. When Roseanna returned to her McCoy family and Johnse Hatfield tried to resume his relationship with her, he was arrested by the McCoys on bootlegging warrants. The Hatfields rescued Johnse, taking him back across the river to West Virginia before he could be taken to the authorities. The marriage of Roseanna McCoy and Johnse Hatfield never occurred, although Roseanna was pregnant with their child. Johnse soon married another woman. Roseannas baby died after a bout with the measles, and she died shortly after, believed to be from a broken heart.
In 1892, Ellison Hatfield was killed by three of Roseanna McCoys brothers. Ellison was stabbed repeatedly before being shot. The brothers were arrested and taken to trial in Kentucky. However, before they reached the courthouse, a group of Hatfields captured the three McCoy brothers. They were tied to pawpaw bushes and each one shot multiple times.
In 1888, the constant feuding and fighting continued with the murders of several McCoys. Members of the Hatfield family began firing into the house of Randal McCoy. Randal escaped, but two of his children were murdered and his wife was beaten. The feud between the two families continued as more than a dozen members of the families were murdered.
In 1891, the families agreed to make peace, but it wasnt until 2003 that a peace treaty was finally signed by members of both families.
Benjamin McCoy was the brother of Randal McCoy. His son, Benjamin Harrison McCoy, was killed in one of the battles between the families. He was known as Bad Harrison McCoy. His son was Harrison Eli McCoy, the father of Chester McCoy. Chester McCoy was the father of our own Gwen Bell, making her the great-granddaughter of Benjamin McCoy.
Bells father, Chester, was born in 1920. According to Bell, her father told her many stories of the continuous fighting that occurred between the Hatfields and the McCoys. She relayed that the houses were more like shanties with caverns dug underneath the houses. It was believed that this would provide a hiding place should the Hatfields come to call. The caverns provided protection from bullets and fires. Although the families had agreed to stop fighting, Bells father recalled mothers hiding their children under metal washtubs and sending them into the fields for protection when members of the Hatfield family would ride up on horses. Bell added that members of the McCoy family would add poison to their moonshine and deliver it to a location close to where some of the Hatfields lived, hoping they would drink it and die.
Gwen McCoy Bell was one of five children. Many of the local residents were coal miners. According to Bell, this was a very poor region of the country. As a child, she and her siblings played in shut-down mines and would slide down coal chutes. Bell relayed that everybody, including the McCoys, made moonshine. The children were assigned the duties of peeling peaches used in making it. Bell shared that when her father was 17 years old, the revenuers came to shut down the stills. Chester McCoy somehow survived being shot in the head during a raid. Mr. McCoy died recently, with that same bullet still lodged in his head.
In recent years, a study has shown that members of the McCoy family may suffer from an inherited disorder known as Von Hippel-Landau disease. Members of the McCoy family have been diagnosed with the disease, which causes high blood pressure, elevated heart rates, tumors of the adrenal glands, eyes, ears, kidney, brain and spine. According to various reports, these individuals have too much adrenaline, possibly explaining some of the familys issues with rage and temper outbursts.
According to Bell, both she and her older sister, Nita, had tenancies in their youth to be hot-tempered. Although these outbursts no longer occur, Bell recalls getting into many scraps with her siblings and other family members as a youngster. I used to be a fighter, she said. She added that one of her children and a grandchild also appear to be affected with a hot temperament.
According to Bell, as a youngster she got into an altercation with the principal of her elementary school. She recalled that she was on her way to see the principal when she came across her on a stairway. According to Bell, the principal pushed Bell, shoving her backwards and hitting her leg on the back of the stairs. She says the next thing she knew, she had shoved the principal, who fell and broke her arm. I was justifiably suspended from school for three days, added Bell. Gwen McCoy Bell had the reputation for being a fighter amongst her family members. She not only fought, but was also beaten up.
Bells mother suffered from tuberculosis. At that time, the standard treatment was to send patients to a sanitarium. Chester McCoy had to call upon his family to help out with his five children during this time. Gwen stayed with caring and loving family, but also with family members that treated her poorly. She recalled her grandfather coming to her rescue. Gweny, get your clothes, said her grandfather, to which she replied, Grandaddy, I aint got none. Grandaddy replied, Come on anyway.
Bell grew up hearing family stories that were repeated over and over. The family history portrayed the Hatfields as murderous people. The stories her family shared with her still stay with her today. Not that long ago, Bell and her husband were living in South Carolina. Deciding to visit Boone, North Carolina, to go skiing, they arrived late at night in Boone. All the larger hotels were booked. Finding a small, family-owned hotel, the Bells checked in. They didnt stay long. Gwen Bell discovered the hotel was owned by a Hatfield. They packed up and left.
Growing up poor in the mountains of Appalachia was difficult for Bell and her family. Every day was a struggle. Regardless, Its made me into a better person, said Bell, I think growing up hard and rugged taught me a lot about life. Her determination and strong will has become an asset as Bell has become well known for her fight for people in need within Johnson County.