Last year’s cable miniseries, The Hatfield and McCoys, provided a vivid dramatization of what is probably the best-known feud in American history; however, as brutal as that conflict was, the two families were pikers when it came to the sheer volume of bloodletting, compared to several other feuds that occurred in the same region. John Ed Pearce, in his fascinating history, Days of Darkness: The Feuds of Eastern Kentucky, has put together a detailed history of half a dozen feuds that raged in the 19th and early 20th centuries in that violence-prone area, and the carnage was, indeed, extraordinary.
There is no single theme that underlies the conflicts. Some of them stemmed from resentments lingering from the Civil War, some of them were rooted in commercial rivalries, others involved the clash of big business and small land owners. One thing that does seem to seem to be common to all of the feuds was the distrust, by many of the participants, of local and state governments that were seen (correctly, in far too many cases) of being infested with corrupt officials, overly-ambitious politicians, and rank favoritism, based on both party affiliation and family connections. Add to this mix the long-standing spirit of fierce independence that animated the denizens of eastern Kentucky, and you get a series of truly explosive situations.
The book documents feuds that occurred in Pike, Rowan, Perry, Breathitt, Harlan and Clay counties, with Clay County taking up about a quarter of the volume. The Clay County War went on sporadically for nearly a hundred years, and the final body count, although conjectural based on the incomplete and inaccurate newspaper reports of the time and the embellishments of personal memories, appears to have easily ranged between fifty and a hundred dead. It is an enthralling tale of hostilities that began in the 1840s, when crazy Abner Baker, Jr., convinced that his wife, Susan White, was fornicating with every man in town (including her own father), went completely around the bend and shot his brother-in-law in the back. After fleeing the vicinity, he unaccountably returned, and was arrested. The Baker family strove to prove insanity, but a court disagreed, and sentenced him to hang (on the gallows, Baker shouted, “Go ahead! Finish the whore’s work!”). Although hostilities died down for a while, they cropped up periodically, reaching a new height of violence when, in 1898, Bad Tom Baker and his sons bushwhacked a member of the Howard family and some of his friends after a dispute over timber rights (the Howards were allied with the Whites). The situation grew progressively worse, until eventually the Kentucky state militia had to be called in. Bad Tom was assassinated by a sniper while he was in the custody of military authorities; the murderer was never found.
The book is alive with colorful (and often frightening) characters: “Devil” Anse Hatfield, the murderous patriarch of the Hatfield clan; Frank Phillips, the sometime detective and lawman who was the most effective of the McCoy faction’s gunmen; Fulton French, the ruthless agent of big eastern land companies who, with his partner, gunslinger “Bad Tom” Smith, provoked the wrath of the Eversole family, resulting in a spiral of violence that almost destroyed the town of Hazard, seat of Perry County; there is even a Methodist minister, the Reverend John Jay Dickey, a kindly, but brave, man who attempted, unsuccessfully, to bring peace to the troubled region.
With the passage of time, and the dying off (or killing off) of the original participants, the feuds finally abated. Pearce writes:
Trouble did not end with the feuds. For another half century Eastern Kentucky remained the victim of violence. Strife tore the mining towns, just as worsening floods tore the valleys. For many years the region’s homicide rates remained among the worst in the nation. But roads and colleges and parks have come to mark the mountains. The reputation for violence left by feuds is now like old scars from some long-past, seldom-remembered accident of youth. Gradually, even the scars are forgotten.Days of Darkness is a gripping story of a region that remained something of an internal frontier, even as the wild west was succumbing to the blandishments of civilization. Pearce, in filtering and synthesizing mountains of newspaper articles, court documents, personal letters and family histories, is to be commended for his thoroughgoing research and very readable history.
Yet there must be moments even now when in the mists of twilight the ghost of Wilse Howard rides once more the roads of Harlan; when Bad Tom Baker stands, defiant and doomed on the courthouse lawn; when Big Jim Howard strides the streets of Manchester with his sample case, remembering; or when little Cal Tolliver, in his fourteenth year, stands before the America Hotel of Morehead, a little boy facing death, in each hand a blazing .44.