The Funeral of Sarah McCoy


Dear Tyree Cousins,

Here is my grandfather's account of the funeral of Sarah McCoy. It sheds some light on a colorful but tragic bit of American history.

- Robert F. Tyree
Waverly, Ohio

--------------- Forwarded Message ---------------

To: Robert & Mary Tyree, 71151,2020
Date: Tue, Jun 23, 1998, 9:03

RE: McCoy Funeral


Don't know if you have this yet. It is a copy of W.F. Tyree's account of preaching the Sarah McCoy funeral. Wow.

Daniel Tyree


The Funeral of Sarah McCoy

I was pastor of the Methodist Church in Pikeville, Kentucky, for four years beginning in the fall of the year 1902. Jim McCoy, his wife and two daughters were members of my church. Jim was the son of Randall McCoy and Sarah McCoy, and was one of the few survivors, in the McCoy family, of the noted McCoy-Hatfield feud. Randall McCoy was still alive, and resided at Pikeville. Sarah McCoy, the mother of Jim had been dead for some years.

The funeral of Sarah McCoy had not been "preached". To this generation, such a situation may be very peculiar. You should know that in the mountain country, in past days, travel was slow, usually by horseback, Preachers were Circuit Riders whose preaching places were scattered over wide areas. It was a rare occurrence when a preacher happened to be in the community or neighborhood when a death occurred. This situation gave rise to the practice of conducting a brief religious service at the time of the burial, which was usually done by some layman, who read appropriate scripture, offered prayer, and the neighbors would unite in singing familiar and appropriate hymns. Later, the date for the "preaching" of the funeral was told near and far, thus affording them an opportunity to attend the service. Usually, such a service was held within a year after the death of a person, but, occasionally, much longer periods elapsed, as was so in this instance.

Jim McCoy, who was, at that time, Deputy Sheriff of Pike County, "took a likin" to me and asked me to preach his mother's funeral. I was a young man then, and, as I look back to that occasion, I know now that I did not fully understand nor appreciate the historical background of the setting, nor the tense emotionalism of the hour. Neither will you be able to grasp the significance of the occasion, unless I give you an outline of the facts connected with the feud, as they were, in substance, narrated to me, by Jim McCoy, after the funeral service.

But, first, I must give you some idea of the physical and geographical setting. The whole section of country is timbered, rugged and mountainous. Homes are usually located in the narrow valleys, where small farms have been cleared and cultivated. Much of the mountain area is open range where the cattle, hogs and horses of the mountaineers roamed at will. Homes, in the period of the feud, were usually of what was known as "Double bin" construction, which means, two log bins with an open passage way between, while the roof extended over both bins and the passage way. The walls were chinked with bludgeons of wood and daubed with clay, while the roofs were usually of rived oak clapboards.

Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River was the dividing line between Mingo County, West Virginia, on the east, and Pike County, Kentucky, on the west. Subsequent to the days of the feud, Mingo County has been divided into two counties.

Devil Anse Hatfield, who was the dominant leader and head of the Hatfield faction, resided in Mingo County, near Tug Fork, while Randall McCoy, the head of the McCoy faction, resided in Pike County, on Blackberry Creek, a few miles west of Tug Fork.

Bad blood existed between these two families from the time of the War Between the States, but the feud proper did not begin until about the year 1890. The real genesis of the trouble is found in the fact that about the time mentioned, Jonse Hatfield, one of the sons of Devil Anse, "stole" Rosanna, a daughter of Randall McCoy. He took Rosanna to the home of his father, Devil Anse, and the common understanding seems to have been that he held her out, in the neighborhood, as his wife. Both West Virginia and Kentucky were, what is known as, Common Law states. Under the common law, no civil authority or ceremony, and no religious ceremony were necessary to the creating of the status of husband and wife, which might be done by the mutual consent of the parties, and a public declaration of their intentions to become husband and wife.

Whatever the facts in the case may have been, the wild young Jonse soon became infatuated with another woman, and life in the home of Devil Anse became a burden to Rosanna. Her mother, Sarah, and her brothers and sisters wanted her to return home, which she finally did, but Randall, her father, could not forgive her for what was to him a betrayal of the McCoy honor. She was soon to have a baby, the child of Jonse. She was a "one man" woman. She loved Jonse with all of the devotion of her heart. Her father could not become reconciled, and, as a way out of the family dilemma, Rosanna went to live with her aunt, at Stringtown, a small settlement not far from her father's home. Here the baby was born, lived a while, contracted measles, and died. Those were days when the hearts of women broke for love. Rosanna, still loving Jonse with all of the desperation of a primitive nature, broken by neglect, could not survive the loss of her baby, which she had hoped might be the means of bringing Jonse back to her, so she died. It does not seem that there was any disease, or that she took her own life; she seems to'have died of a broken heart. Thus came the first great grief into the life of Sarah McCoy.

From the viewpoint of the McCoys, they could hardly be expected to look with approval and equanimity upon the treatment, which Rosanna had received at the hands of a Hatfield. Yet, considerable time elapsed before matters came to an open break. But that time did come.

An election was being held in Pike County in which a voting precinct was located in the McCoy community. Ellias and Ellison Hatfield, sons of Devil Anse, came over from Mingo County and attended the election, which, as was always the case in the mountains, had more social than political significance. Tolbert, Phamer and Little Randall McCoy were there. Tolbert was grown, while Phamer was yet in his teens, and little Randall was only a child.

Without going into the preliminaries which led up to it, a fight was staged between Tolbert McCoy and Ellias Hatfield. The fighting was with bare fists, and Tolbert was victorious. After he had whipped Ellias, Ellison challenged Tolbert, who though wearied somewhat by his fight with Ellias, accepted the challenge and the fight began. This, too, was with bare hands. Ellison was getting the better of Tolbert, which so affected Phamer McCoy that he rushed in and stabbed Ellison several times in the back. A rude litter was prepared and Ellison was carried by Hatfields and their sympathizers across Tug Fork to the home of a friend.

Ellias Hatfield and his friends took charge of Tolbert, Phamer and Little Randall. Later, Devil Anse, having been informed by a messenger of the trouble, appeared on the scene and under his direction the three McCoys were taken over into West Virginia and confined, under guard, in a school house on Mate Creek. Word came to Sarah McCoy that her boys were held prisoners in the school house. She left her home and hurried to the place of their detention. The guards permitted her to see her sons, but would not release them. They were thus held for three days, at the end of which time word came that Ellison Hatfield had died from his wounds. Early the next morning, the Hatfields took the boys back across Tug Fork into Pike County, tied them to trees and shot them to death. Thus the feud was launched in all of its fury. Many homes were to be destroyed and many lives lost before peace would again come to these mountains. Thus came the second great sorrow into the life of Sarah McCoy.

Something like thirty men were implicated in the slaying of the McCoy boys. Indictments were returned against them by the Pike County Grand Jury. Warrants were issued and in due course were sent by Kentucky authorities to West Virginia authorities, for service. (But West Virginia failed to serve the warrants, and month after month passed without any results. In the meantime, feeling ran higher and higher. Rewards were offered by the state of Kentucky for the apprehension of those who were under indictment, and private agencies sought to earn these rewards, without success.

About this time, one Frank Phillips, a native of the Kentucky mountain region, appears on the scene as the special representative of the Governor of Kentucky. He turns out to be a fearless and unique character. He unified and organized the McCoy faction and their friends until, at one time and another he must have had under his direction and control, over one hundred and fifty men. These men traveled on horseback, knew the mountains, were fearless and swift. In the fact of the inactivity of West Virginia authorities, Phillips organized and executed raids into Hatfield territory in West Virginia. Members of the Hatfield faction were captured and brought over into Pike County and placed in jail, tried, sentenced and sent to the penitentiary.

The raids engineered by Phillips were so effective that the Hatfields seem to have concluded that they must do something to change the situation, and decided that the best way to end the matter would be to destroy the head of the McCoy faction, Randall McCoy. To this end, on a winter night, when the ground was covered with snow, certain of the Hatfield faction crossed Tug Fork and made their way to the home of Randall. Surrounding the house, they demanded that Randall surrender. The only men of the family at home that night were Randall and one son, Calvin. They, of course, refused to surrender. The McCoy home was constructed after the plan I have described. Randall and Calvin were sleeping in one of the rooms, while across the passage, in the other of the rooms, were Sarah and her daughter, Allifair. One of the raiders, "Cotton Top" Mounts entered the passageway in an effort to dislodge Randall and Calvin. He came in contact with Allifair at the door of her room. He shot and killed her. He then caught Sarah, the mother, by the hair and dragged her out into the snow and struck her with his rifle, and she fell to the snow and he kicked her and stamped her, leaving her for dead.

In the meantime, others of the party had set fire to the roof of the house and it became necessary for Randall and Calvin to get out or be burned to death. Calvin went first, while his father tried to cover his escape. The boy did not make it. He was shot to death. In the disturbance caused by the collapse of the roof, Randall made his escape, remained in the woods all night, and returned to the location of his home about dawn, the next morning. To his surprise, he found that Sarah, his wife, was still alive, although she had remained lying on the snow from the time of the raid until he found her.

Thus, with Allifair dead and Calvin dead, and herself broken in body, came the third and crowning sorrow into the life of Sarah McCoy.

Mounts was later captured, tried, sentenced to death and was hung on a gallows built in the little swale in the side of a hill back of Pikeville. It is said that there were more people present to witness that execution than ever before assembled, for any reason, in all of eastern Kentucky. The estimates of the number present ranges all the way from seven to ten thousand persons, which is a lot of people to get together in a sparsely populated region such as Pike County was at that time.

This, then, is the background for the funeral of Sarah McCoy. Little did I know or understand what mighty passions, what terrible experiences, what infinite sorrow were to be brought back to memory in that service.

The service was to be held on Sunday afternoon at Jim's home on Ratliff's Creek, immediately across the river from the town of Pikeville. The home was located in the creek bottom, which was between one eighth and one quarter of a mile wide. Just above the house was an apple orchard of old and large trees. The lower limbs were ten or fifteen feet above the ground. Jim had men go up into the mountain side and cut long straight timber, trim it up and snake it down to the orchard, where it was laid in parallel rows about six feet apart. Upon these timbers were laid, cross-wise, sawed two-by-tens for seats. A neat platform was erected for a pulpit, and everything was ready.

Weeks in advance of the funeral, the word went from lip to lip, up the valleys and across the hills, that on a certain Sunday afternoon, at Jim McCoy's house, the funeral of his mother would be preached. That Jim would provide plenty of meat and bread for everybody who cared to come. Jim knew, in advance, although I did not know it, that there would be many people in attendance who would have to leave home on Friday to make their way slowly by farm wagon, hack, buggy, horse-back, mule-back or on foot, to enable them to reach Ratliff's Creek in time for the service on Sunday afternoon. They began arriving early Saturday. Jim furnished beeves, sheep and hogs, together with flour and meal. The travelers did their own killing and dressing of the meat.

The time was late summer. The apples were taking on their colors of red and pink. The corn was just about "made". Water and wood were plentiful. The nights were pleasantly cool. By the hour of noon on Sunday, the valley was filled, from hill to hill, with a quiet throng of plain mountain people, who had come to pay their last loving tribute to the memory of a stalwart character, a faithful woman, a victim of the wrath of men, but withal, a loyal wife and mother and a devout Christian.

Standing upon that platform, I could look down the valley of Ratliff's Creek, across Levisy fork to the hill where, a few years before, "Cotton Top" Mounts had paid, with his life, for the slaying of Allifair, while in the other direction, thirty miles away, within the crest of a little mound, lay sleeping, the tired and broken body of Sarah McCoy, sleeping beside the ashes of Allifair and the dust of Tolbert, Phamer and Little Randall, her children, while still farther on, near the back of Tug Fork, beside her nameless baby, in her last love, reposed the body of Rosanna, who gave all for love, but was cheated in its fruition.

Perhaps my ignorance of the true meaning of this hour was my security for error. As simply as I would begin the service of any other funeral of a good woman, I entered into this service. Appropriate and familiar songs were announced and were sung with deep reverence by the vast assembly; a prayer was offered and scriptures read. A most solemn hush was upon the multitude. Before me sat men who had risked their lives and fortunes in a daring adventure which they held in highest honor. Doubtless, for the first time since the last assembly of Phillip's forces had been called years ago, these survivors from these dangerous and stirring days had met again. I could not know the surging memories which now shook their very souls.

What was my text? I do not know. What did I say? I do not know. I only know that I viewed it as a tremendous occasion, and the largest body of people I had ever been called upon to address. I know that I said something about immortality and eternal peace, "where the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary are at rest." I am sure that I had not been talking ten minutes when a tall and very old man, of fine features and snow hair rose from his seat, near the middle of the audience, and with most impressive solemnity and deliberation raised his arms toward the skies and cried, with a voice indescribably full of emotion, and with tears rolling down his cheeks, "GLORY TO GOD."' ............THE SERMON WAS HERE COMPLETED! In less time than it takes to write these words, the congregation was transformed into a weeping, shouting, hand shaking, embracing throng. Happiness and sadness, joy and sorrow mingled to make the beautiful fabric of life, woven in the loom of time, while the shuttle of experience flies across and back again, thread by thread, until it is done.

The mountains keep their silent vigils over the sacred dust of Sarah McCoy while she sleeps with her loved ones and her lost ones beside her.

Sept. 22, 1937
Wm. F. Tyree


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