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A Tale of Fatal Feuds and Futile Forensics

A Smithsonian anthropologist digs for victims of a West Virginia mob murder

The name John Hartford rings a bell with country music lovers, for he's a talented performer and composer ("Gentle On My Mind"). He's also devoted to the lore of Appalachia's hazy hill country that often inspired the old fiddle tunes. The music of "Blind Ed" Haley, for example, set toes tapping until the 1940s, and can still be found on CD. And John Hartford knows the story of Blind Ed's dad, Milt Haley — how he and another fiddle player, Green McCoy, were killed by a mob in 1889 because of a bitter dispute that could have grown into a mountain feud like the storied vendetta between the Hatfields and the McCoys. (No coincidence in the likeness of names of those McCoys and Green McCoy. He was, I'm told, first cousin once removed to Old Randolph "Randel" McCoy, leader of the clan.)

What happened to Green McCoy and Milt Haley is a cruel story, and John Hartford has puzzled over how much of it is true. After reading an article in this magazine on Smithsonian forensic digs (West Virginia, not far from Kentucky. That dig might prove or disprove the gruesome story of the killings. Hartford and a colleague wrote to renowned Smithsonian forensics expert Douglas Owsley, inviting him to excavate, and Owsley couldn't say no.

On a bright afternoon in early spring 1998, a van and an SUV bursting with tools and people finally discovered the village of Harts — barely big enough to make it onto a West Virginia road map — and parked at the fire station beside Hartford's big concert tour bus. Hartford, a slim, thoughtful man in a cowboy shirt, greeted Owsley, youthfully fit from hard exercise in the field. Others came, too: "Rich" Richardson, field boss of Owsley's team, two expert diggers (in forensics, a lot of digging is done with sharp trowels the size of tablespoons), recorders and photographers. Local people ambled over—kindly folk who don't lock their doors or their pickups, and treat strangers with perfect courtesy. Hard to believe their recent ancestors once had it out — with Winchesters at 50 paces.

Brandon Kirk is one of them — related to most everyone involved in the trouble that seethed in these winding glens in the 1880s. Young Kirk had been working with Hartford to produce a book based on the taped memories (sometimes pretty shaky) of old folks whose parents and grandparents talked about the killings. As the group from the Smithsonian went to look over the grave site — a short drive up the creek, then a steep scramble to a small promontory — Kirk was swamped with questions, patient with answers. His account of the fate of Green McCoy and Milt Haley remains the best, and so, with a bow to him, here's pretty much what folks recalled of mayhem in the misty hills, just over a century ago.

Start with two families, prideful early settlers along Harts Creek, one named Dingess, the other Brumfield. Since their young folk intermarried, they were drawn together. Even old Paris Brumfield, head of his tribe, tried to get along with the Dingesses. Paris had served in, then deserted from, the Confederate Army. He'd been a logger and played a little politics, and he carried two six-shooters and might "shoot someone's ducks in the road" just for the hell of it. He'd killed a man, too. Didn't like him.

One man that Dingess patriarch Henderson Dingess didn't like was his own brother-in-law, Ben Adams, tall and mean as a snake. Mightily ambitious, Ben vowed he'd get rich in the timber business then flourishing along Harts Creek, but Paris Brumfield's oldest son, Al, set up a boom across the creek to snag his neighbors' logs. He charged maybe 10 cents to release one. This didn't sit well with folks, especially with Ben Adams, who swore Al was rustling his logs — sawing off Ben's brand and searing the butts with his own. Ben naturally took a shot at Al, but his bullet ricocheted off a metal button.

One night, Ben decided to slip his logs past the boom in the dark. He set out with his wife in the lead — she was a Dingess, and Ben figured that if there was trouble, maybe her family wouldn't shoot at her. Wrong. The Brumfields and Dingesses got wind of Ben's plan, set up an ambush, levered their Winchesters and cut loose. Bullets flew. Didn't kill anyone, but tensions along Harts Creek twanged like the banjos that sang in the night.

Enter Milt (Thomas Milton) Haley, a rambling man and, when he wasn't "awful bad to drink," a grand fiddler. Tough father, too. They used to say that when Milt came home from work he'd tell his boys, "Right now we got to have a fight and get everything settled and we'll be all right." And when his baby son had a fever he dipped him in ice-cold water — "that's what he done, and it put him blind." That baby son grew up to be the famous fiddler "Blind Ed" Haley.

Milt Haley made friends with another music man, Green (William Greenville) McCoy. Green McCoy was married to Spicie Adkins, a banjo picker and dulcimer player. Paris Brumfield hated her dad, so of course Green had to hate Paris and the rest of the Brumfields.

McCoy and Haley made good music together. Their names were linked. So, at least as one version has it, when Ben Adams figured he just had to get back at Al Brumfield — by having him killed — he hired Brumfield's enemy Green McCoy and his friend Haley to do it.

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