Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

The Supreme Court in the Hatfield-McCoy feud

May 29, 2012 by Scott Bomboy


The deadly feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys, which was set off with a dispute over a hog, was partially settled by a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1888.

The Hatfields in 1897.

The decades-long feud is getting the Hollywood treatment this week as Kevin Costner stars in a mini-series about the bloodshed between the families from West Virginia and Kentucky.

But the event that led to a trial of eight Hatfield clan members was a high-court decision in 1888 that allowed Kentucky to try the men and execute one family member.

The Kentucky trial ended the bloodshed part of the feud, which saw 12 people killed between 1865 and 1890. (The feud started in earnest after the 1878 dispute over the pig.)

The case of Mahon v. Justice (1888) centered on Plyant Mahon, a Hatfield family member who was forcibly taken from West Virginia for trial in Pike County, Kentucky, the home area of the McCoys.

Mahon was related to the Hatfields by marriage. He took part in a raid on the home of Randolph McCoy, the head of the McCoy family. Two of Randolph McCoy’s children died in the incident.

A posse from Kentucky delivered Mahon and seven others to the jail from West Virginia.

Link: Read the Supreme Court decision

The court acknowledged that Mahon was taken “without warrant or other legal process, arrested by a body of armed men from Kentucky, and by force and against his will, conveyed out of the State.”

There were writs in Kentucky seeking Mahon’s arrest and presentment at court, but the governor of West Virginia wanted Mahon returned to his home state, claiming he wasn’t given due process.

Abner Justice was the Pike County jailer and named in the case.

A divided Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that Mahon could remain in custody and face trial in Kentucky, even though he was taken against his will from West Virginia. (The ruling applied to the other men taken by the posse.)

“Whatever effect may be given by the state court to the illegal mode in which the defendant was brought from another state, no right, secured under the Constitution or laws of the United States, was violated by his arrest in Kentucky, and imprisonment there, upon the indictments found against him for murder in that state,” said Associate Justice Stephen Johnson Field.

Associate Justice Joseph Philo Bradley wrote the dissenting opinion.

“In my opinion, the writ of habeas corpus was properly issued, and the prisoner, Mahon, should have been discharged, and permitted to return to West Virginia. He was kidnapped, and carried into Kentucky in plain violation of the Constitution of the United States, and is detained there in continued violation thereof,” Bradley said.

In 1890, Ellison Mounts was executed in Kentucky for his role in the McCoy killings. He was one of the men captured along with Mahon.

The feud started to abate with Mounts’ execution.

Recent Constitution Daily Stories

The Supreme Court in the Hatfield-McCoy feud Constitution Check: Do women have a constitutional right to serve in military combat? Martin Van Buren becomes a social media star

Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of Constitution Daily.

Sign up for our email newsletter