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“Before the law made us citizens, great Nature made us men.”
“When one has an enemy, one must choose between the three S’s — schiopetto, stiletto, strada: the rifle, the dagger, or flight.”
“There are two presents to be made to an enemy — palla calda o ferro freddo: hot shot or cold steel.”
The Corsican code of honor does not require that vengeance be taken in fair fight. Rather should there be a sudden thrust of the knife, or a pistol fired point-blank into the enemy’s breast, or a rifle-shot from some ambush picked in advance.
The assassin is not conscious of any cowardice in such act. If the trouble between him and his foe had been strictly a personal matter, to be settled forever by one man’s fall, then he might have welcomed a duel with all the punctilios. But his blood is not his alone — it belongs to his clan. Whenever a Corsican is slain his family takes up the feud. A vendetta ensues — a war of extermination by clan against clan.
Now, the chief object of war, as all strategists agree, is to inflict the greatest loss upon the enemy with the least loss to one’s own side. Hence we have hostilities without declaration of war; we have the ambush, the night attack, masked batteries, mines and submarines. Thus we murder hundreds asleep or unshriven. This is war.
Moreover, while a soldier must be brave in any extremity, it is no less his duty to save himself unharmed as long as he can, so that he may help his own side and kill more and more of the enemy. Therefore it is proper and military for him to “snipe” his foes by deliberate sharpshooting from behind any lurking-place that he can find. This is war.
And the vendetta, says our Corsican, is nothing else than war.
When Matteo has been slain by an enemy, his friends carry his body home and swear vengeance over the corpse, while his wife soaks her handkerchief in his wounds to keep as a token whereby she will incite her children, as they grow up, to war against all kinsmen of their father’s murderer.
Then a son or brother of Matteo slips forth into the night, full-armed to slay like a dog any member of the rival faction whom he may find at a disadvantage. The deed done, he flies to the maquis, the mountain thicket, and there he will hide, dodging the gendarmes, fighting off his enemies — an outlaw with a price upon his head, but pitied or admired by all Corsicans outside the feud, and succored by his clan.
It is a far cry from the
Mediterranean to our own
Long, long ago, in the
mountains of eastern
Afterwards Baker returned.
In flat violation of the Constitution of the
In 1898, Tom Baker, reputed
to be the best shot in the
Thereupon Jim Howard, son
of the clan chief, sought out Tom Baker’s father, who was county attorney,
compelled the unarmed old man to fall upon his knees, shot him twenty-five
times with careful aim to avoid a vital spot, and so killed him by inches.
Howard was tried and convicted of murder, but it is said that a pardon was
offered him if he would go to the State Capitol at
Governor Bradley sent State
I quote now from a history of this feud published in Munsey’s Magazine of November, 1903. —
“Captain John Bryan, of the
“‘Mrs. Baker, why don’t you leave this miserable country and escape from these terrible feuds? Move away, and teach your children to forget.’
“‘Captain Bryan,’ said the widow, and she spoke evenly and quietly, ‘I have twelve sons. It will be the chief aim of my life to bring them up to avenge their father’s death. Each day I shall show my boys the handkerchief stained with his blood, and tell them who murdered him.’”
Corsican vendetta or
Shortly after Baker’s death, four Griffins, of the White-Howard faction, ambushed Big John Philpotts and his cousin, wounding the former severely and the latter mortally. Big John fought them from behind a log and killed all four.
On July 17, 1899, four of the Philpotts were attacked by four Morrises, of the Howard side. Three men were killed, three mortally wounded, and the other two were severely injured. No arrests were made.
Finally, in 1901, the two
clans fought a pitched battle in front of the court-house in
This is a mere scenario of
a feud in the wealthiest and best-schooled county of eastern
In reviewing this feud, Governor Bradley stated:
“The whole fault in
“The laws are insufficient for the Governor to apply a remedy.” One naturally asks, “How so?” The answer is that the Governor cannot send troops into a county except upon request of the civil authorities, and they must go as a posse to civil officers. In most feuds these officers are partisans (in fact, it is a favorite ruse for one clan to win or usurp the county offices before making war). Hence the State troops would only serve as a reinforcement to one of the contending factions. To show how this works out, we will sketch briefly the course of another feud. —
As usual, in feuds, no
immediate redress was attempted, but the injured clan plotted its vengeance
with deadly deliberation. After five months, Dick Martin killed Floyd Toliver.
His own people worked the trick of arresting him themselves and sent him to
The leader of the
Young-Toliver faction was a notorious bravo named Craig Toliver. To strengthen
his power he became candidate for town marshal of
Morehead, and he won the office by intimidation at the polls. Then, for two
years, a bushwhacking war went on. Three times the Governor sent troops into
In 1887, Proctor Knott, Governor of Kentucky, said in his message, of the Logan-Toliver feud:
“Though composed of only a small portion of the community, these factions have succeeded by their violence in overawing and silencing the voice of the peaceful element, and in intimidating the officers of the law. Having their origin partly in party rancor, they have ceased to have any political significance, and have become contests of personal ambition and revenge; each party seeking apparently to possess itself of the machinery of justice in order that it may, under the forms of law, seek the gratification of personal animosities.
“During the present year
the local leader of one of these factions came in possession of the office of
police judge of the town of
“This act of atrocity fully aroused the community. A posse acting under the authority of a warrant from the county judge attacked the police judge and his adherents on the 22d of June last, killed several of their number, and put the rest to flight, and temporarily restored something like tranquility to the community.
“The proceedings of the Circuit Court, which was held in August, were not calculated to inspire the citizens with confidence in securing justice. The report of the Adjutant General on this subject shows, from information derived ‘from representative men without reference to party affiliations,’ that the judge of the Circuit Court seems so far under the influence of the reputed leader of one of the factions as to permit such an organization of the grand juries as will effectually prevent the indictment of members of that faction for the most flagrant crimes.”
The posse here mentioned was organized by Daniel Boone Logan, a cousin of the two young men who had been murdered, a college graduate, and a lawyer of good standing. With the assent of the Governor, he gathered fifty to seventy-five picked men and armed them with the best modern rifles and revolvers. Some of the men were of his own clan; others he hired. His plan was to end the war by exterminating the Tolivers.
The posse, led by
Logan and the sheriff, suddenly surrounded the town of
Boone Logan was indicted for murder. At the trial he admitted the killings; but he showed that the feud had cost the lives of not less than twenty-three men, that not one person had been legally punished for these murders, and that he had acted for the good of the public in ending this infamous struggle. The court accepted this view of the case, the community sustained it, and the “war” was closed.
A feud, in the restricted sense here used, is an armed conflict between families, each endeavoring to exterminate or drive out the other. It spreads swiftly not only to blood-kin and relatives by marriage, but to friends and retainers as well. It may lie dormant for a time, perhaps for a generation, and then burst forth with recruited strength long after its original cause has ceased to interest anyone, or maybe after it has been forgotten.
Photo by U. S. Forest Service
“Dense forest luxuriant undergrowth.” — Mixed hardwoods, Jackson Co., N. C.
Such feuds are by no means prevalent throughout the length and breadth of Appalachia, but are restricted mostly to certain well defined districts, of which the chief, in extent of territory as well as in the number and ferocity of its “wars,” is the country round the upper waters of the Kentucky, Licking, Big Sandy, Tug, and Cumberland rivers, embracing many of the mountain counties of eastern Kentucky and adjoining parts of West Virginia, Old Virginia, and Tennessee. In this thinly settled region probably five hundred men have been slain in feuds since our centennial year, and only three of the murderers, so far as I know, have been executed by law.
The active feudists, as a
rule, include only a small part of the community; but public sentiment, in feud
districts, approves or at least tolerates the vendetta, just as it does in
When a feud is raging,
nobody outside the warring clans is in any danger at all. A stranger is safer
in the heart of Feuddom than he would be in
What causes feuds?
Some of them start in mere drunken rows or in a dispute over a game of cards; others in quarrels over land boundaries or other property. The Hatfield-McCoy feud started because Randolph McCoy penned up two wild hogs that were claimed by Floyd Hatfield. The spite over these hogs broke out two years later, and one partisan was killed from ambush. The feud itself began in 1882 over a debt of $1.75, with the hogs and the bushwhacking brought up in recrimination. Love of women is the primary cause, or the secondary aggravation, of many a feud. Some of the most widespread and deadliest vendettas have originated in political strifes.
It should be understood that national and state politics cut little or no figure in these “wars.” Local politics in most of the mountain counties is merely a factional fight, in which family matters and business interests are involved, and the contest becomes bitterly personal on that account. This explains most of the collusion or partisanship of county officers and their remissness in enforcing the law in murder cases. Family ties or political alliances override even the oath of office.
Within the past year I have heard a deputy sheriff admit nonchalantly, on the stand, that when a homicide was committed near him, and he was the only officer in the vicinity, he advised the slayer to take to the mountains and “hide out.” The judge questioned him sharply on this point, was reassured by the witness that it was so, and then — offered no comment at all. Within the same period, in another but not distant court, a desperado from the Shelton Laurel, on trial for murder, admitted that he had shot six men since he moved over from Tennessee to North Carolina, and swore that while he was being held in jail pending trial for this last offense the sheriff permitted him to “keep a gun in his cell, drink whiskey in the jail, and eat at table with the family of the sheriff.”
Feuds spread not only through clan fealty but also because they offer excellent chances to pay off old scores. The mountaineer has a long memory. The average highlander is fiery and combative by nature, but at the same time cunning and vindictive. If publicly insulted he will strike at once, but if he feels wronged by some act that does not demand instant retaliation he will brood over it and plot patiently to get his enemy at a disadvantage. Some mountaineers always fight fair; but many of them prefer to wait and watch quietly until the foe gets drunk and unwary, or until he is engaged in some illegal or scandalous act, or until he is known to be carrying a concealed weapon, whereupon he can be shot down unexpectedly and his assailant can “prove” by friendly witnesses that he acted in self-defense. So, if a man be involved in feud, he may be assassinated from ambush by someone who is not concerned in the clan trouble, but who has hated him for years on another account, and who knows that his death now will be charged up to the opposing faction.
From the earliest times it
has been customary for our highlanders to go armed most of the time. This was a
necessity in the old Indian-fighting days, and throughout the kukluxing and
white-capping era following the Civil War. Such a habit, once formed, is hard
to eradicate. Even to-day, in all parts of
Among them I have never seen a stand-up and knock-down fight according to the rules of the ring. They have many rough-and-tumble brawls, in which they slug, wrestle, kick, bite, strangle, until one gets the other down, whereat the one on top continues to maul his victim until he cries “Enough!” Oftener a club or stone will be used in mad endeavor to knock the opponent senseless at a blow. There is no compunction about striking foul and very little about “double-teaming.” Let us pause long enough to admit that this was the British and American way of man-handling, universal among the common people, until well into the nineteenth century — and the mountaineers are still ignorant of any other, except fighting with weapons.
Many of the young men carry home-made billies or “brass knucks.” Every man and boy has at least a pocket-knife with serviceable blade. Fights with such crude weapons are frequent. There are few spectacles more sickening than two powerful but awkward men slashing each other with common jack-knives, though the fatalities are much less frequent than in gun-fighting. I have known two old mountain preachers to draw knives on each other at the close of a sermon.
The typical highland bravo always carries a revolver or an automatic pistol. This is likely to be a weapon of large bore and good stopping-power that is worn in a shoulder-holster concealed under the coat or vest or shirt. Most mountaineers are good shots with such arms, though not so deadly quick as the frontiersmen of our old-time West — in fact, they cannot be so quick without wearing the weapon exposed. When a highlander has time, he prefers to hold his pistol in both hands (left clasped over right) and aims it as he would a rifle. To a Westerner such gun practice looks absurd; but it is accurate, beyond question. Few mountain gun-fights fail to score at least one victim.
The average mountain woman is as combative in spirit as her menfolk. She would despise any man who took insult or injury without showing fight. In fact, the woman, in many cases, deliberately stirs up trouble out of vanity, or for the sheer excitement of it. Some of the older women display the ferocity of she-wolves. The mother of a large family said in my presence, with the calm earnestness of one fully experienced: “If a feller ’d treated me the way ——— did ——— I’d git me a forty-some-odd and shoot enough meat off o’ his bones to feed a hound-dog a week.” Three of this woman’s brothers had been shot dead in frays. One of them killed the first husband of her sister, who married again, and whose second husband was killed by a man with whom she then tried a third matrimonial venture. Such matters may not be interesting in themselves, but they give one pause when he learns, in addition, that these people are received as friends and on a footing of equality by everybody in their community.
That the mountaineers are
fierce and relentless in their feuds is beyond denial. A warfare of
bushwhacking and assassination knows no refinements. Quarter is neither given
nor expected. Property, however, is not violated, and women are not often
injured. There have been some atrocious exceptions. In the Hatfield-McCoy feud,
Cap Hatfield and Tom Wallace attacked the latter’s wife and her mother at
night, dragged both women from bed, and Cap beat the old woman with a cow’s
tail that he had clipped off “jes’ to see ’er jump.” He broke two of the
woman’s ribs, leaving her injured for life, while Tom beat his wife. Later, on
New Year’s night, 1888, a gang of the Hatfields surrounded the home of Randolph
McCoy, killed the eldest daughter, Allaphare, broke her mother’s ribs and
knocked her senseless with their guns, and killed a son, Calvin. In several
instances women who fought in defense of their homes have been killed, as in
the case of Mrs. Charles Daniels and her 16-year-old daughter, in
The mountain women do not shrink from feuds, but on the contrary excite and cheer their men to desperate deeds, and sometimes fight by their side. In the French-Eversole feud, a woman, learning that her unarmed husband was besieged by his foes, seized his rifle, filled her apron with cartridges, rushed past the firing-line, and stood by her “old man” until he beat his assailants off. When men are “hiding out” in the laurel, it is the women’s part, which they never shirk, to carry them food and information.
In every feud each clan has a leader, a man of prominence either on account of his wealth or his political influence or his shrewdness or his physical prowess. This leader’s orders are obeyed, while hostilities last, with the same unquestioning loyalty that the old Scotch retainer showed to his chieftain. Either the leader or someone acting for him supplies the men with food, with weapons if they need them, with ammunition, and with money. Sometimes mercenaries are hired. Mr. Fox says that “In one local war, I remember, four dollars per day were the wages of the fighting man, and the leader on one occasion, while besieging his enemies — in the county court-house — tried to purchase a cannon, and from no other place than the State arsenal, and from no other personage than the Governor himself.” In some of the feuds professional bravos have been employed who would assassinate, for a few dollars, anybody who was pointed out to them, provided he was alien to their own clans.
The character of the highland bravo is precisely that of the western “bad man” as pictured by Jed Parker in Stewart Edward White’s Arizona Nights:
“‘There’s a good deal of romance been written about the “bad man,” and there’s about the same amount of nonsense. The bad man is just a plain murderer, neither more nor less. He never does get into a real, good, plain, stand-up gun-fight if he can possibly help it. His killin’s are done from behind a door, or when he’s got his man dead to rights. There’s Sam Cook. You’ve all heard of him. He had nerve, of course, and when he was backed into a corner he made good; and he was sure sudden death with a gun. But when he went out for a man deliberate, he didn’t take no special chances....
“‘The point is that these yere bad men are a low-down, miserable proposition, and plain, cold-blooded murderers, willin’ to wait for a sure thing, and without no compunctions whatever. The bad man takes you unawares, when you’re sleepin’, or talkin’, or drinkin’, or lookin’ to see what for a day it’s goin’ to be, anyway. He don’t give you no show, and sooner or later he’s goin’ to get you in the safest and easiest way for himself. There ain’t no romance about that.’”
And there is no romance about a real mountain feud. It is marked by suave treachery, “double-teaming,” “laywaying,” “blind-shooting,” and general heartlessness and brutality. If one side refuses to assassinate but seeks open, honorable combat, as has happened in several feuds, it is sure to be beaten. Whoever appeals to the law is sure to be beaten. In either case he is considered a fool or a coward by most of the countryside. Our highlander, untouched by the culture of the world about him, has never been taught the meaning of fair play. Magnanimity to a fallen foe he would regard as sure proof of an addled brain. The motive of one who forgives his enemy is utterly beyond his comprehension. As for bushwhacking, “Hit’s as fa’r for one as ’tis for t’other. You can’t fight a man fa’r and squar who’ll shoot you in the back. A pore man can’t fight money in the courts.” In this he is simply his ancient Scotch or English ancestor born over again. Such was the code of Jacobite Scotland and Tudor England. And back there is where our mountaineer belongs in the scale of human evolution.
The feud, as Miss Miles puts it, is an outbreak of perverted family affection. Its mainspring is an honorable clan loyalty. It is a direct consequence of the clan organization that our mountaineers preserve as it was handed down to them by their forefathers. The implacability of their vengeance, the treacheries they practice, the murders from ambush, are invariable features of clan warfare wherever and by whomsoever it is waged. They are not vices or crimes peculiar to the Kentuckian or the Corsican or the Sicilian or the Albanian or the Arab, but natural results of clan government, which in turn is a result of isolation, of physical environment, of geographical position unfavorable to free intercourse and commerce with the world at large.
The most hideous feature of
the feud is the shooting down of unarmed or unwarned men. Assassination, in our
modern eyes, is the last and lowest infamy of a coward. Such it truly is, when
committed in the civilized society of our day. But in studying primitive races,
or in going back along the line of our own ancestry to the civilized society of
two centuries ago, we must face and acknowledge the strange paradox of a valorous and honorable people (according to their
lights) who, in certain cases, practiced assassination without compunction and,
in fact, with pride. History is red with it in those very “richest ages of our
race” that Professor Shaler cited. Until a century or two ago, throughout
Christendom, the secret murder of enemies was committed unblushingly by nobles
and kings and prelates, often with a pious “Thus sayeth the Lord!” It was
practiced by men valiant in open battle, and by those wise in the counsels of
the realm. Take
“No tenet nor practice, no
influence nor power nor principality in the
“For centuries such justice as was exercised was haphazard and rude, and practically there was no law but the will of the stronger. Few, if any, of the great families but had their special feud; and feuds once originated survived for ages; to forget them would have been treason to the dead, and wild purposes of revenge were handed down from generation to generation as a sacred legacy.
“To take an enemy at a disadvantage was not deemed mean and contemptible, but —
all the arts in which the wise excel
To do it boldly and adroitly was to win a peculiar halo of renown; and thus assassination ceased to be the weapon of the avowed desperado, and came to be wielded unblushingly not only by so-called men of honor, but by the so-called religious as well. A noble did not scruple to use it against his king, and the king himself felt no dishonor in resorting to it against a dangerous noble. James I. was hacked to death in the night by Sir Robert Graham; and James I. rid himself of the imperious and intriguing Douglas by suddenly stabbing him while within his own royal palace under protection of a safe conduct.
“The leaders of the Reformation discerned in assassination (that of their enemies) the special ‘work and judgment of God.’... When the assassination of Cardinal Beaton took place in 1546, all the savage details of it were set down by Knox with unbridled gusto. ‘These things we wreat mearlie,’ is his own ingenuous comment on his performance.
“The burden of George Buchanan’s De Jure Regni apud Scotos is the lawfulness or righteousness of the removal — by assassination or any other fitting or convenient means — of incompetent kings, whether heinously wicked and tyrannical or merely unwise and weak of purpose; and he cites as a case in point and an ‘example in time coming,’ the murder of James III., which, if it were only on account of the assassin’s hideous travesty of the last offices of the Church, would deserve to be held in unique and everlasting detestation.” — (Henderson, Old-world Scotland, 182-186.)
Yet the Scots have always been a notably warlike and fearless race. So, too, are our southern mountaineers: in the Civil War and the Spanish War they sent a larger proportion of their men into the service than almost any other section of our country.
Let us not overlook the fact that it demands courage of a high order for one to stay in a feud-infested district, conscious of being marked for slaughter — stay there month in and month out, year in and year out, not knowing at what moment he may be beset by overpowering numbers, from what laurel thicket he may be shot, or at what hour of the night he may be called to his door and struck dead before his family. On the credit side of their valor, then, be it entered that few mountaineers will shrink from such ordeal when, even from no fault of their own, it is thrust upon them.
The blood-feud is simply a horrible survival of medievalism. It is the highlander’s misfortune to be stranded far out of the course of civilization. He is no worse than that bygone age that he really belongs to. In some ways he is better. He is far less cruel than his ancestors were — than our ancestors were. He does not torture with the tumbril, the stocks, the ducking-stool, the pillory, the branding-irons, the ear-pruners and nostril-shears and tongue-branks that were in everyday use under the old criminal code. He does not tie a woman to the cart’s tail and publicly lash her bare back until it streams with blood, nor does he hang a man for picking somebody’s pocket of twelve pence and a farthing. He does not go slumming in bedlam, paying tuppence for the sport of mocking the maniacs until they rattle their chains in rage or horror. He does not turn executions of criminals into public festivals. He never has been known to burn a condemned one at the stake. If he hangs a man, he does not first draw his entrails and burn them before his eyes, with a mob crowding about to jeer the poor devil’s flinching or to compliment him on his “nerve.” Yet all these pleasantries were proper and legal in Christian Britain two centuries ago.
This isolated and belated people who still carry on the blood-feud are not half so much to blame for such a savage survival as the rich, powerful, educated, twentieth-century nation that abandons them as if they were hopelessly derelict or wrecked. It took but a few decades to civilize Scotland. How much swifter and surer and easier are our means of enlightenment to-day! Let us not forget that these highlanders are blood of our blood and bone of our bone; for they are old-time Americans to a man, proud of their nationality, and passionately loyal to the flag that they, more than any other of us, according to their strength, have fought and suffered for.