BOOK REVIEW: Kudos to Woodland Press for Publishing ‘An American Vendetta’ Paperback

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen 
BOOK REVIEW: Kudos to Woodland Press for Publishing 'An American Vendetta' Paperback
Keith Davis and his Woodland Press have done West Virginia history a favor by republishing an 1889 journalist’s account of the Hatfield-McCoy feud, T.C. Crawford’s  “An American Vendetta” (Woodland Press, foreword by F. Keith Davis, introduction by Steven M. Stone, 158 pages, no index, $19.95).
The foreword puts the feud — which Crawford, a reporter for the New York World, compares with the vendettas of Italy for its “barbarism” –in its proper context. West Virginia and adjacent eastern Kentucky were looked upon with wonderment in the late 19th Century. Crawford has little good to say about West Virginia, although he notes that Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield was a man of his word and he paid his debts. In fact, the subtitle of Crawford’s book is “A Story of Barbarism in the United States.”  Crawford calls the patriarch of the Hatfield clan “Ance” rather than today’s usage of “Anse.”

Initially published in 1889, “An American Vendetta” represented one of the earliest journalistic accounts of the now-famous Hatfield and McCoy Feud. During that time period, many across the country first came to hear of the story through the pages of this book. Davis notes that the Louisville Courier-Journal was among the newspapers that covered the feud, but it took a scribe from the media center of New York to tell the rest of the country about the goings on along the Tug River separating the two states.

From the Woodland Press website:

Besides telling the complex and bloody story of the feud—often in blunt and the harshest of terms— this volume, penned by New York World reporter, Theron C. Crawford, presents the only known interview with feudist Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield conducted in Hatfield’s home in Logan County, West Virginia.

In his book, “Land of the Guyandote”, Mountain State historian Robert Y. Spence explained that in October 1888, Crawford traveled to southern West Virginia, and was escorted to Logan County by John B. Floyd, a state senator and friend of the Hatfields. The two men actually stayed over at the home of Devil Anse, as the interview process continued into the night.

Understandably, critics have noted that Crawford, for some unknown reason, comes off with a derogatory tone about the territory—“a barbarous, uncivilized, and wholly savage region”—and also about the Hatfield clan.

 

Yet, Dr. Coleman C. Hatfield, grandson of Cap Hatfield, wrote in his book, The Tale of the Devil: The Biography of Devil Anse Hatfield: “Crawford’s account of the feud is of interest for perhaps two important reasons: this was the first extensive work depicting the troubles between the families, other than occasional articles that appeared in The Louisville Courier-Journal and other area newspapers; secondly, the fact that Crawford worked in New York City, the information capital of the nation, meant it would receive more attention than other accounts.” Dr. Hatfield also felt that because Crawford’s work was illustrated (by a penman named Graves,) it helped set the stereotypical image of the mountaineer in popular imagination.


At the time of Crawford’s writings, the family conflict was at its greatest intensity. The brutal massacre at Randall McCoy’s cabin by the Hatfields, which resulted in the death of two of his children, Alifair and Calvin, had taken place just months earlier, on New Year’s Day, 1888. One week later, “Crazy Jim” Vance was killed by Hatfield archenemy, “Bad Frank” Phillips. It was in the shadow of this bloody backdrop that Devil Anse, during his interview with Crawford, stressed that he wanted peace with the McCoys—but had no intention of disarming or surrendering to law officers or bounty hunters. Peace, it turns out, was still a few years off.


After many decades, this part of feud history, “American Vendetta,” is available again. T.C. Crawford’s colorful interviews, his vivid and raw description of the region, and the brutal feud accounts make this volume fascinating to read and a must for every library collection. 

The takeaway about Crawford’s account: The power of the press in the 19th Century etched the “barbarism” of West Virginia and Kentucky permanently on the American conscience. When I lived in Hinton, while waiting for visitors arriving on Amtrak, I was asked by a couple visiting from Scotland if it was safe to travel in Summers County. They made a reference to the movie “Deliverance”. I said that the events of that novel by James Dickey were fictional and took place in north Georgia/Tennessee (the movie was filmed in Tennessee).   Blame the “Wrong Turn” reputation of West Virginia  on T.C. Crawford and the ink-stained wretches who followed him!

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