A Tale of Fatal Feuds and Futile Forensics

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

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 1)

On September 22, 1889, Al Brumfield and his beautiful wife, Hollena, had noontime dinner with her family, the Dingesses. Then they rode home, both on one horse, Hollena's young brother clopping along in the rear on another. The road hugged the creek, chuckling beside them on this serene Sunday afternoon. As the road veered away and headed to the mountain, the couple spotted two men ensconced behind rocks farther up the hill.

Hunching forward as if to weather raindrops instead of bullets, they kicked up their horses. Rifles crashed and echoed through the hills. A bullet hit Al's arm. Another one plowed through lovely Hollena's left cheek. While her brother wrapped her wounded face with his shirt, Al rode for help, bullets singing past him.

Raging, the Brumfields and the Dingesses swarmed out to look for the snipers. So many folks hated Al for his log boom that it seemed anyone could have done it — until it was noticed that Haley and McCoy had skipped town. After a bit, they were found in Inez, Kentucky, and Al Brumfield led a posse across Tug Fork, which forms the boundary between the two states, and picked them up. Arms bound, they were driven "like a pair of mules in a plow line" back toward Harts.

The pair's best chance was rescue by Ben Adams, who had presumably hired them to do in Al Brumfield in the first place. So now Ben Adams recruited men to cut off the Brumfield posse and their captives at Harts Creek. Suspecting an ambush, Al Brumfield's brother headed to the creek on a white horse to scout. He cantered along in the dark, then heard a sound like a brushfire crackling. He suddenly knew it — the snapping of many guns being cocked. Spinning around, he rode for his life, a white ghost in the night, and tipped off the Brumfield posse.

The posse veered over a hill to the safety of a large Dingess cabin, and stashed Milt Haley and Green McCoy upstairs, bound and under guard. Downstairs jugs went around — corn liquor, apple brandy, "red whiskey." Some say Milt was fetched down to play, and the mob danced, bearded men stomping and whooping. Then they took Milt outside, gagged him and went back in to Green. "We hung Milt," they told him. "If you've got anything to say, you'd better say it." Breaking, McCoy admitted ambushing Al and Hollena, but said Haley had done the shooting.

Ready to kill, the mob moved the pair to another house, and threw them onto a bed. Some ladies, among them Brandon Kirk's great-great-grandmother, cooked a chicken dinner for their last meal. Now the story gets rough: memories of a scream, "You cut my leg!" And of Paris Brumfield "just as bloody as he could be where he had stabbed on them men." Finally, the two were shot — in the bed? At a table? Out in the yard? One Brumfield "put his toe at the hole and said 'I put a bullet right there.'" But there were many holes — and other damage: "They took a pole-ax and beat their brains out. The brains spattered up on the door...." A local preacher organized a burial party and brought the corpses to the burial site. Brandon Kirk's great-grandfather helped with the grave.

So, 109 years later, Owsley's forensic crew expected to find tattered remains quickly. The excavation soon struck slabs of shale that had likely been thrown in to fill up what was clearly a burial site. John Hartford thought he might play tunes, serenading his long-dead fellow fiddlers. "If they like it," he explained, "maybe they'll slip out of the ground nice and easy."

Then again, maybe not. As the hole deepened, and the mound beside it grew, diggers approached Owsley with items in their spades. Is this a finger joint? A button? Owsley would look and feel — and toss it away. Not what he was after. If someone had handed him a gold nugget he'd have glanced and tossed.

Local people hiked up to watch, often to help dig. Some McCoys showed up. Some Haleys. An old-timer revealed that he had some Brumfield in him. That evening, John Hartford nestled a fiddle under his chin and played tunes Milt and Green would have played: "Brownlow's Dream," "Hell Up Coal Holler," others as old. Titles tend to shift from tune to tune, says Hartford. "Some tell a story. A favorite of mine is 'Old Jimmy Johnson Bring Your Jug Around the Hill; If You Can't Bring Your Jug Bring The Whole Damn Still.'"

On the second day, rain turned the dig into wet misery. As the spades got deeper, freshets flooded into the hole. By late afternoon, only Owsley, wet to the bone, was still at it. Doggedly he struck his spade into the shale, stared at its contents, and tossed it disgustedly on "Disappointment Hill." For once, he was licked. When rain continued the next day, his team gave up, refilled the grave and cleaned the site of all signs of activity. The deer, the occasional bear, were free to roam and sniff, and lick up tiny crumbs of hamburger.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus