How the Newspapers Covered the Hatfield-McCoy Feud | The Feud | American Experience | PBS

How the Newspapers Covered the Hatfield-McCoy Feud | The Feud | American Experience | PBS


In the late summer of 1888, six months after selling his land, Hatfield received word that a reporter from New York City wanted to interview him. For journalist T.C. Crawford of The New York World, an audience with the infamous feudist would be a major scoop. “No one had seen or described Anse Hatfield, his fort and his guard of armed men,” Crawford noted. They were “the talk and terror of the country.” Crawford is practically the first northeastern reporter to get firsthand knowledge of what’s going on in the Tug River Valley. The story he ends up telling is as much fancy as it is fact, and that’s not necessarily because he was a bad reporter. T.C. Crawford is typical of a journalist working in what’s going to very soon be called yellow journalism. The important thing wasn’t so much to get the facts right as it was to tell an elaborate, entertaining story. The first of three articles appeared on Sunday, October 7, 1888. “I have been away in Murderland for nearly ten days,” Crawford wrote. “No one would believe that there is in this country such a barbarous, uncivilized and wholly savage region.” The series continued for three consecutive Sundays, reaching hundreds of thousands of readers. The Cincinnati Enquirer picked it up and took the story national, calling Hatfield the “outlaw king” and giving him equal billing with Jack the Ripper. The Hatfield-McCoy Feud was a media sensation. Every day people would pick up the newspaper wanting to read about what was going on in this little part of America. It is a story of violence. And it’s a story of retribution. But also I think it’s a story of passion. And I think people can identify with that. Crawford soon published the series in An American Vendetta, the first book to tell the tale of the Hatfield-McCoy feud. I think the politics of the word “feud” are quite important. It reinforces the notions of violence, of a certain irrationality. Oftentimes these feuds get framed as having no real reason to exist other than a sort of innate violence and temperament of the people. It was a disaster for mountain people to be turned into this kind of lurid, violent literature in which there was no social content whatsoever or attention paid to their motives. They became two-dimensional and entirely the victims of the journalists and the perceptions of the readers, which were that these people were savages, that they were living in the past, backward, incapable of historical progress. It’s a sort of propaganda, in a way. It’s a justification for what’s about to happen because of capitalists who are making their way into the interior of eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia. It’s not necessarily a conspiracy between the newspapers and the railroads and the coal companies, but there is a symbiotic relationship between the press and big business. And the story that people like Crawford are trying to tell is that these are people who need to be fixed. “This country … is wonderfully rich,” Crawford proclaimed to the world. “And needs only a railroad to come up through it to drive out this outlaw class.”

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