GILBERT, W.Va. - From atop the mountain, Johnson "Johnse" Hatfield stepped toward the edge of a lush, wooded ridge. Lighting his worn corncob pipe, he took several long puffs of homegrown tobacco and looked over the point, surveying his surroundings. He could see several miles in every direction, even though a thick fog was beginning to roll into the valleys below.
It was still relatively early in the season before the annual summer flooding of the Guyandotte River, though the banks had already overflowed once during early spring. Johnse hoped to have time to build up an even larger inventory of hard timber for transport. In addition to floating logs downstream toward the town of Logan after flooding, and then onward to Charleston, he planned to ship a smaller amount of timber by railcar, still a relatively new form of transportation in the southern West Virginia backwoods.
From the rim, Johnse could see his crew below wrapping things up in the dirty logging camp. It felt good to be home, breathe Appalachian mountain air, and regain the respect of his father, Anderson "Devil Anse" Hatfield, the clan leader and one of the largest landowners and most prosperous timber operators in the region.
n n n
Although historians have long debated on when Johnse Hatfield first headed west, some believing he could have left as early as 1894, Coleman A. Hatfield, the late Logan County historian, attorney, and son of William Anderson "Cap" Hatfield II, related in his writings that Johnse traveled westward in 1896, and returned home to the Appalachian Mountains from the Great Northwest in 1898. Prior to his return from a life on the run, Johnse worked on various logging crews in the state of Washington and British Columbia, while hiding out from bounty hunters and detectives who were seeking the reward that remained on his head from old Hatfield-McCoy Feud charges. From the time he was a pre-teen, Johnse had worked for his father as a logger in Logan County, West Virginia, but being a lumberjack in the Northwest had meant honing new skills in the dense, tall forests of Washington and beyond.
It was during that period that Randolph "Ol' Ran'l" McCoy, patriarch of the McCoys and mortal enemy of the Hatfields, heard rumors in Pike County, Kentucky, that Johnse had left the Mountain State and headed west. Such information likely leaked from the lips of Johnse's resentful ex-wife-Ran'l's niece-Nancy McCoy Phillips, who married Bad Frank Phillips in 1895, the once deputized gunslinger and nemesis of the Hatfield clan. It didn't take long for Ran'l to bankroll an impressive posse of bounty hunters, helmed by well-known dime novel hero and road detective, Dan Cunningham, to track Johnse across the American frontier. Living as a fugitive in numerous timber camps along the Spokane River, Johnse narrowly dodged Cunningham's band, eventually traveling as far as British Columbia to avoid capture.
Weary from being on the run, however, Johnse came to realize that he couldn't travel long enough or far enough to avoid the McCoys' fury, or the greed of recovery agents. He decided that he would likely be just as safe - actually safer - if he returned to the security of the Appalachian Mountains and the protection of his father's faction. Besides, he desperately missed his kinfolk and the way of life back home in the hills. Johnse married Roxie Browning, and was overseeing a growing lumber camp in Mingo County, near the Leatherwood Shoals region, east of the town of Gilbert. The property technically belonged to his wife's family, but Johnse owned and operated the camp and was profiting well from the enterprise.
Sixteen years had passed since the feud wildly accelerated-that's assuming you mark the real troubles beginning in 1882 with the murder of Devil Anse Hatfield's brother Ellison by three of Ran'l's sons at an Election Day gathering at Blackberry Creek in Pike County, and the reciprocal killing (in brutal execution-style) of all three McCoys by the Hatfield gang after Ellison died three days later. Yet, even earlier, Johnse was already deeply embedded in the folklore of the famous American feud. He is likely best remembered for his ill-fated romance with Rose Anna McCoy, the daughter of Ol' Ran'l. Author Virgil Carrington Jones, in his book, The Hatfields and the McCoys, told about how the handsome Johnse first met Rose Anna McCoy at a spring Election Day assembly at Blackberry Creek in 1880; Jones said that Johnse immediately "hatched a plot as old as Eve," and swept Rose Anna off her feet. They slipped away from the crowd into the dense woods, the beginning of their short-lived love affair, which only intensified problems between the two clans. Many believe the doomed association produced an illegitimate child, Little Sally, who died in 1881. The late Logan County historian, Robert Y. Spence, claimed Rose Anna passed in 1888, perhaps succumbing to grief over the loss of her child and Hatfield lover; however, other reports suggest she died a year later.
There were other feud related entanglements during the forthcoming years for Johnse, including the horrifying McCoy cabin raid of 1888, known as the New Year's Massacre (sometimes called the New Year's Eve Massacre), that resulted in the cabin burning and the death of two more of Ran'l's adult children.
n n n
By 1898, with his Appalachian homecoming, Johnse finally felt settled, maybe for the first time in his life. It was especially hot for early June and it had already been a hard day at the Mingo County timber site; so, Johnse and one of his dearest friends, Ock Damron, decided they'd head out a little early. Johnse's trip home, intended to be just a leisurely stroll with his lanky friend along the tracks of the Norfolk and Western Railway, became a trek that would forever change the life of the feudist. The railroad lines were situated across the waters from Kentucky, but ran parallel with the muddy river.
Coleman A. Hatfield wrote about the day's events, saying that Johnse and Ock walked along the tracks and had just emerged from a heavy cut, a place where rock from a mountain had been excavated and leveled to make way for the railway, when three men dressed in dark suits, carrying lever action rifles, stepped from the shadows and stopped the two from the upper end of the opening. Simultaneously, three more armed thugs climbed out from a slightly hidden culvert and moved rapidly toward the men from behind (coming from the other end of the line). The group encircled Johnse and Ock and leveled their weapons within inches of the men's foreheads.
Johnse and Ock were caught like wild creatures in a snare. No gunshots were fired and few words were spoken. Ock, who happened to be carrying one of Devil Anse Hatfield's old Winchesters, trembled as he handed his lever action over to one of the party. Johnse stood motionless and quiet, knowing he was unarmed and exposed.
Forced to his knees, Johnse was secured tightly with heavy cord-hogtied like a wild animal to impede movement-while one of the men went after their horses, which were staked in the nearby woods. Once the animals were led to the scene, Johnse was hurled across the saddle of one of the smaller mares and tied down, while watching helplessly as the men took turns slugging Ock repeatedly about his face and head. Pounded nearly unconscious, Ock yelled out and fell forward with a thud. He was splashed with water, revived, and jerked back to his feet. He was gagged with a dirty rag and hit again. His calloused hands were tied tightly behind his back and his legs secured together with rough binder twine. Dazed from the beating, Ock was eventually freed, with twine still dangling from his wrists and legs. Johnse watched his friend stagger slowly back towards the logging camp.
The posse mounted in unison and ushered Johnse's horse into the fast-moving water. Johnse grimaced as muddy river water splashed in his face, and he grunted in pain while violently flopping around sideways on the mare. Just as the posse crossed with their prize prisoner to the banks of Kentucky, Humphrey "Doc" Ellis, the local timber business rival, stepped from the shadowy edge of the woods along the riverbank on the West Virginia side. Ellis, who had organized the posse, had long been envious of Johnse's recent success in the logging business, and eagerly awaited any chance to shut down the enterprise. Amused at the spectacle of Johnse, (strapped down to the horse) being taken to Kentucky, he fired his rifle in rapid succession into the air, cackling heartily.
Once in Pike County, Johnse was arrested by law enforcement and taken to jail. He was arraigned for trial in September 1898, when he obtained a change of venue to Floyd County, on the grounds of prejudice. Even so, he was soon convicted for the killing of Alifair McCoy, the adult daughter of Ran'l McCoy, and for conspiring with others to raid the McCoy cabin on the early morning of New Year's Day 1888.
During the attack-often referred to as the New Year's Massacre and considered the peak of the Hatfield-McCoy Feud-Johnse and several Hatfield clan members burned Ran'l's cabin, and two of his adult children, Calvin and Alifair, were murdered. Ran'l's wife, Sally, was brutally assaulted with the butt end of a Winchester-by Johnse, according to the McCoys, or by Uncle Jim Vance, if you accept the Hatfields' account. Although she miraculously survived the vicious ordeal, Sally would forever suffer permanent affects from the brain damage caused by the cruel beating.
Johnse was sentenced to life in the state penitentiary for his involvement in the New Year's Massacre. In the March 12, 1900, edition of the New York Times, the headline read: "Hatfield Must Go to Prison. Murderer of Woman in Feud to Serve Life Sentence."
Some say that the time in prison sobered the cockiest of the Hatfields; and, miraculously, according to the writings of Dr. Coleman C. Hatfield, Cap's grandson and state historian, Johnse won parole six years into his life sentence by saving the life of Kentucky's lieutenant governor, although author Dean King later said it was a prison warden who was spared when a prisoner jumped him. Regardless, Johnse saved a life that day when he courageously blocked a violent knife attack and killed the inmate in the scuffle. Having paid his debt to society, Johnse moved back home and eventually resumed his career as a businessman in the timber trade, and later for the railroad industry.
With the coming years, southern West Virginia (Logan and Mingo Counties) and eastern Kentucky (Pike County) slowly modernized with new infrastructure and technology, and the emergence of the booming coal industry. Feud guns eventually silenced and the most violent memories of the feuding Hatfields and McCoys faded.