A Tale of Fatal Feuds and Futile Forensics

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

The Hatfield clan in 1897
The Hatfield clan in 1897 Wikimedia Commons

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.

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.

As for Haley and McCoy, Owsley and Richardson suggest that decades of water, streaming through the grave, may have deteriorated the bones, washing away their traces. Alternating periods of wet and dry would have done the same, even more quickly. Artifacts like buttons and buckles were never there if the corpses weren't clothed. Bullets? Handcuffs? The answer is a shrug. Kirk says he and Hartford feel the remains are there — maybe deeper, or tucked in an undercut. There's no evidence of grave robbery.

The mystery fits the region. The old hills are part of nature's plan, and so are the leather-tough country people who live in their shadows. Just as nature floods out the green and fertile glens, and burns off dry timber with a lightning strike, so bad times come to the hill people. Hardship and frustration can fuse a brutal human explosion. Then, as in ravaged land, wounds heal and are blessedly forgotten. The dig for Milt Haley and Green McCoy followed all forensic rules, yet failed. But rules don't always hold up around here. Sometimes all you can do is shrug, and listen to a little mountain music.

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