Johnse and Cap Hatfield become involved in a deadly holiday scuffle
By F. Keith Davis
For The Logan Banner
LOGAN, W.Va. - As Logan County and surrounding regions plan for the holiday season, many enjoy the visual stimulation of multi-colored decorations in downtown and the many Christmas shopping opportunities that exist. Others relish in the special time spent with family and friends and the chance to give sacrificially to others who are less fortunate. Many attend local church plays during the season, or special school presentations. It’s a time of activity that culminates in the expectation of Christmas Eve—a time of promise, joy, and peace.
However, in rugged Logan County’s distant past, the holiday season could be very different than it is today. In certain circumstances, it could even become explosively violent and extremely dangerous—such as it was on the night before Christmas 134 years ago.
It was a frigid, snow-covered Christmas Eve in 1879 and young men and women from across the territory were preparing to attend a frolic, a dance that was being held at the rural home of the Maynards, a family who lived along Lick Creek.
In preparation for the community gathering, the Maynard family had shoved their few pieces of rough-hewn furniture into the corners of the first-floor rooms to make space, and scattered hands-full of sawdust on the wooden-plank floors. Refreshments had been prepared, and the aromas of spiced apple cider and popped corn, fried fruit pies, and other goodies filled the air.
Local musicians—with handmade banjos, mouth organs, and fiddles—arrived a little early and were already playing enthusiastically as the party-goers started coming in.
Common of the times, many of the young men attending toted rifles or handguns, and an equal number brought their own jugs of homespun whiskey. And, of course, lethal weapons and high-powered moonshine always make for a deadly combination.
As the night grew on, the music became louder and the crowd began to drink more heavily. Before long scraps and fistfights erupted as old sympathies lingered over from Civil War days
and divided the young men at the party into their respective Union and Rebel camps.
The Hatfield boys—Johnse and Cap, the oldest sons of Anderson “Devil Anse” and Levicy—were among the attendees, and they eventually got into the midst of one of the brawls as tempers collided.
Johnse, who was “feeling the corn,” threw his shoulder into Dow Dempsey, one of the most treacherous of the men present during the square dance, and started the scuffle.
Cap, who always considered himself the silent guardian of his unpredictable brother, saw the incident and immediately jumped into the ruckus—throwing punches and blocking hits. Several then joined into the melee and Dow, who had been struck by both Hatfields several times, angrily ran for the rear door. As he did so, Harry Baisden, a friend of Dow, tossed him a loaded revolver as he exited the house.
Tracking through the snow, Dow snuck around the Maynard home until he reached a corner where he peered through the window and saw both Hatfields still fighting with others. Dow took a deep breath, cocked the pistol, and fired—thinking he was shooting at Johnse. With a flash the room filled with smoke. Immediately the music ceased and everyone scattered for cover.
As the gunsmoke cleared, Cap was lying on the floor, seriously wounded in the kidney and lower colon area and bleeding profusely.
Gritting his teeth in pain, he dragged himself up from the floor and leveraged himself against the walls of the house as he slowly made his way out the front door. Once outside, he agonizingly clutched the rail of the porch and tried to catch his breath.
In the middle of the excitement of the gunplay, Johnse had escaped the dance unharmed and climbed into the saddle of his horse, which had been tied up outside. Knowing Cap was in trouble, he reined his mount around, and grabbed the reins to Cap’s horse, as well. As he came to the front porch, he dismounted and pushed Cap into the saddle of his own mare and the two headed toward Cap’s Tug Valley cabin.
By the time the two arrived, Cap was leaned over, bleeding, and nearly falling out of his saddle. Johnse hollered for help and Nan, Cap’s wife, ran outdoors and the two carried the wounded Hatfield into the house and the family summoned Dr. George Lawson, the country doctor. That night, with the aid of candlelight, he crudely dug the ball out of the front part of Cap’s abdomen, cutting away a sizable portion of his descending colon, as well.
On Christmas morning, while others in the region were celebrating the Savior’s birth, Devil Anse’s family solemnly gathered outside the small cabin, fearful that Cap would not survive the gutshot and the rough operation. For hours they stood by as he lapsed in and out of consciousness, but miraculously by late afternoon he started coming around, and even tried to eat
By late that Christmas evening the family rejoiced when Doc Lawson told Devil Anse and Levicy that he thought Cap, with some luck and plenty of rest, could overcome the incident.
Doc Lawson was right—over the following weeks, with the care from Cap’s wife, Nan, and regular doctor visits, he miraculously pulled through, though he had considerable trouble digesting food for a long time afterwards.
In discussing the event later, Cap explained that his brother Johnse had been drinking too much (which was not uncommon), and had just picked a fight with the wrong individual, Dow Dempsey, who was also inebriated. He also said he believed he survived the shooting because of his own will to keep on living, and because of a special blessing on his life.
Although history tells us that Cap and Johnse would go on to face innumerable episodes of danger over the coming decade—often including additional gunfire and drunken brawls—Cap, for one, never forgot the Christmas miracle that delivered him from the claws of death during the Christmas Eve frolic of ‘79.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: At the time this story took place, Mingo County had not yet separated from Logan, so the Tug Valley region was part of the Logan County. Portions of this account are based on the research of Cap’s oldest son, Coleman Alderson Hatfield, which were later retold in the book, The Tale of the Devil by Coleman C. Hatfield and Robert Spence, and The Feuding Hatfields & McCoys by Coleman C. Hatfield and F. Keith Davis, published by Woodland Press. Also, for more on the life of Cap Hatfield, see The Devil’s Son: Cap Hatfield and The End of the Hatfield and McCoy Feud, by Anne Black Gray, granddaughter of former Logan County Circuit Judge Robert Bland.]