Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Kentucky's Famous Feuds & Tragedies by Charles G. Mutzenberg (Book Review #1 of 2016)

Kentucky's Famous Feuds and Tragedies
by Charles G. Mutzenberg

This book was a second edition published in 1916 and is public domain now. I am glad Roger Melin at librivox discovered it and read it for a free audio download.

I work for the Commonwealth of Kentucky and much of what I do revolves around the January-April period where the General Assembly comes to Frankfort to do business. I read books related to Kentucky and its governance during this period to help me put historical context on the milieu before me. (Sadly, most of the legislators and staff do not seem to engage in the same practice.) Night Comes to the Cumberlands is still the must-read when it comes to Appalachia, and this book can only provide supporting evidence of what Harry Caudill gave his own history about. I recommend Kentucky's Famous Feuds as further reading into the unique culture that is Appalachia-- the second edition had to be written because feuds were still going on and needed updating less than a century ago. Despite having a relatively small population and contributing among the least of the regions to economic output, Appalachia has continued to maintain an outsized influence on the state and its politics. I live in a county that sees a lot of migration from Eastern Kentucky and it also helps to understand the culture my neighbors are coming from.

Mutzenberg begins his retelling of feud stories by giving credit to the "culture of fighting the Indians" in the late 1700s for toughening up frontiersmen and making them quick to go to arms. I disagree. Having read one good biography of Daniel Boone, I would note that endemic to that period of Kentucky was the fear of being called a "coward" or "yellow," and many good men were lost to Shawnee warriors by doing something stupid to prove they were not cowards-- but blood feuds seem rare among the earliest settlers. Boone and company were not really mountain men, most settled far away from the mountains where they could farm-- mountain territories were settled a bit later by those who had no means to go elsewhere.

I find it interesting that Mutzenberg writes that psychologists would have to determine the causes that feuds turning into wars are more common in Appalachia than elsewhere; psychology was still a relatively young field at the time, and psychologists are still writing about the phenomenon. Caudill would write later about the dearth of churches in the Appalachian counties, it seems to me that there may have been little to bind the community together under a common ethic. Yo'av Karny wrote a book called The Highlanders which focuses on the hundreds of ethnicities in the Caucasus mountains. Karny notes, however, that the culture he describes is not dissimilar from the culture described by other authors in the Alps, the Balkans, the mountains of Spain, or of Appalachia. Having lived in such places, I agree, mountain people are very similar-- particularly in the area of family/tribalism and blood feuds.

It is interesting, however, that these particular feuds took place at a similar time, in the late 1880s. There is not much speculation on that point, other than coal interests suddenly allowing some to profit at the expense of others; perhaps that was enough. Perhaps it was a perfect storm of Civil War grievances, coal interests, nationwide economic depression, etc. Or perhaps the author simply leaves other feuds out and has better records on these.

I agree with Mutzenberg's assessment that it is largely the failure of law enforcement that bears the blame for violence growing to such a state as no one was safe. The failure of justice by the state caused people to take matters into their own hands, exactly what J.S. Mill argued in regards to capital punishment. Multiple times, Governor Buckner (who has an incredible biography) refuses to send state troops to enforce the law because it is on the locals to show the backbone to enforce it. It helps to understand that Kentucky's counties are small-- there are 120 of them. Most of the feuds remarkably did not spill across county lines, even though a short distance away. This suggests something about the difference in laws or enforcement between those counties mattered.

Mutzenberg also thinks like an economist, noting that there is no correlation between wet and dry counties and their feudal tendencies. One county where feuds are common may be dry in order to prevent disturbances believed to be caused by drunkenness whereas the neighboring county might be "wet" and see no such feuds. Alcohol, however, did play a major role in local elections; the candidate who gave or promised the most booze to those who voted for him would win. (This is why many Kentucky localities still have laws about alcohol sales on election day.)

Most of the feuds are, at their heart, very uninteresting. An unpaid debt, a drunken mistake, etc. that simply spirals out of control as others are enlisted into the fight-- often with money. These get complicated when an aggrieved party is a relative of a judge or a sheriff, or maybe the judge and sheriff are on opposing sides of the feud.

The first feud covered is the Hatfield-McCoy war between Pike Co. and West Virginia. The second is the lesser-known "Rowan County War," or the Tolliver-Martin-Logan vendetta, from 1884-1887 but the roots of which were Civil War-related. In Rowan, the battle lines were drawn Republican-Democrat, and the state militia had to be dispatched to maintain order on court days. 20 people died and the county was almost dissolved. 

The third feud is the French-Eversole War in Perry County from 1887-1894, which killed several dozen people. The root of the particular feud lay in the land-grab of coal interests and concern by the locals; although Metzenberg also gives the romantic version of the story. But the law in Perry Co. appeared to be weak before the feud. Governor Buckner, a Confederate veteran, declined to authorize state troops when he received a letter from the County Judge that it was impossible to hold court. Buckner put the onus on the locals to organize law and order and did not want to set precedents. However, the list of untried crimes was growing and eventually the Adjutant General sent troops in as it became clear locals had lost control. Mutzenberg cites sources that the state troops witnessed both poverty and incest among their mountain fellow Kentuckians. The "Battle of Hazard" took place during court days in 1889 and the court house was burned down. After a sort of martial law allowed court proceedings in 1890, the feud appeared to die until certain actors returned to the county in 1894 and were summarily killed. The feud kept existing under the surface and the final murder was committed in 1913.

The last feuds covered are that of Breathitt County which gave it its nickname "Bloody Breathitt." These feuds lasted for 40 years. In Breathitt, as in Perry County, Governor Buckner again declined to send troops even though it was impossible to hold court; the terse correspondence between judge and Governor are reprinted by Mutzenberg. Again, troops are eventually sent to Jackson.

Mutzenberg concludes with thoughts about patriotism-- those who don't obey the law are not loyal and not patriots. The ultimate cause of feuds in these counties, Mutzenberg concludes, is an unwillingness of the majority of people to stand up and do something-- a tyranny of a minority. This, Mutzenberg concludes, is un-American and "unpatriotic." I think there is a good lesson here about the importance of the rule of law in property right enforcement. I give this work 3 stars out of 5.

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