It was an epic story, commanding headlines across the nation during its time. However, the feud between the Brumfields and the McCoys, in West Virginia, quickly faded from the press.
Brandon Ray Kirk, a history professor at Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College and a descendent of the Brumfields, has brought the story back to life through his book “Blood In West Virginia,” published by Pelican Publishing Company. The book is available from Amazon.com and at Tamarack in Beckley.
The story stems from the 1889 attempted murder of Al Brumfield, a Lincoln County businessman, and his wife, Hollene. She was nearly killed and left permanently disfigured as a result of the attack. In the ensuing weeks, Brumfield extracts his revenge when the two culprits – Milt Haley and Green McCoy – are brutally murdered.
In a feud that is equal to the infamous Hatfields and McCoys, the violence and characters seem larger than life. Kirk uses stories from family members along with historical documents and newspaper accounts to bring the story to life.
“I think the elderly people who first told me the story of the feud inspired me to want to know more about it,” Kirk said. “I think Alex Haley, who wrote the best-selling classic ‘Roots’ had a similar experience listening to the stories of his family’s slave past while a boy sitting on his grandmother’s porch. I totally relate to that.
“From the time the old people spoke to me about the events of this feud – and other stories too – I could see the sights and smell the smells. I was there. Mentally, perhaps because these people could weave a good story or perhaps because I have an artist’s mind, I could place myself in that time, that place.
“I thought the stories were as powerful and amazingly epic as anything I could ever hope to see in a Hollywood movie,” Kirk emphasized.
Kirk descends from Paris Brumfield, Al Brumfield’s father. Paris Brumfield was a hard-drinking womanizer, who made a lot of enemies with his exploits.
“He is my great great great grandfather. I also descend from Stella Abbott, who helped to cook Haley and McCoy’s last meal, and also from Melvin Kirk, who helped to bury Haley and McCoy,” Kirk noted.
“I spent nearly 20 years researching my family history and local history. I interviewed nearly every elderly person I could find in my community. I called people who had moved away to Texas or Michigan or Washington. I just wanted to hear as many of their stories as I could.
“I realized right away, in talking to my grandparents, that my region was rich in history. It became an obsession. So I collected hundreds of cassette interviews and filled many more notebooks of information relating to the history of my area.
“This book represents one of the stories I learned about. I created it from oral histories and newspaper accounts, as well as research in courthouses, archives and so forth. I applied my formal education in all of my research techniques, but chose to write the story in a more literary, as opposed to an academic style, to appeal to a larger audience. Some have called it ‘pop history.’
“I was surprised by the fact that this story was so big in its time, but that it had been forgotten except in the local memory,” Kirk said. “In its day, the Lincoln County feud commanded headlines in newspapers all over the country. It was predicted to rival the Hatfield-McCoy feud – then it just faded away.
Kirk is a passionate historian and has a vast collection of oral histories, photographs and other items from the Guyandotte Valley. He has worked as a library assistant, written numerous articles for newspapers and books, and has taught in both Logan and Lincoln County schools.
He was appointed to the West Virginia Sesquicentennial Civil War Commission.
Kirk was also a contributer to the PBS series “West Virginia” and served as a consultant to the History Channel’s “Hatfields and McCoys” miniseries.
He helped co-author an Ed Haley biography on singer-songwriter John Hartford (1937-2001) and was a chief consultant for the John Hartford documentary.
“I am also very interested in gathering history about traditional Appalachian string music, which I have researched nearly as long as the feuds.
“I’m also busy compiling information on Antebellum slave life in southwestern West Virginia and the stories of local freedmen after the war.
“My professional history has been a blend of teaching and writing,” he noted. “I began teaching in 1995, the same year I began my work on the Ed Haley biography with the late John Hartford.
“I taught in Lincoln County public schools from 1995 to 1998, then moved to Nashville and taught privately until 2001. While there, I also completed my work on the Ed Haley biography. Afterwards, I returned to teach in Lincoln and Logan county schools. I taught advanced placement courses in our local high schools until I began teaching at Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College. I began teaching here in 2010. I teach at the Boone and Wyoming campuses.
“I began collecting history in 1987, my freshman year of high school,” he notes.
“I had always liked history and art and writing, but I was lucky to have in that year an incredible teacher who required us to bring in to class an elderly person who would talk about their memories. The speakers we brought in were mostly born between 1904 and 1930, so their memories went back amazingly far for someone my age.
“It was the first time I realized that people are histories, and that little places have histories, and that history is not always found in a textbook,” he emphasized.
“I remember sitting in that classroom writing down everything these old people said and then I would go home and type their information. I still have those notes.
“Later, in college, I began to gain even more interest in my genealogy and local history. I would come home from Marshall and spend the weekend with old folks collecting their memories. They became my dear friends. And they are all gone now. I would like to think that they would be happy to know that their memories live on.
“While at Marshall, I discovered the Fred B. Lambert Collection, which showed me how a person – in this case, Mr. Lambert – might devote years of their life to collecting local history. I saw that it was a possibility. And I just started collecting old stories, old photographs, old documents, and so forth. I did it relentlessly. I spent most of my 20s befriending people who were aged in their 70s, or beyond, and also tracking down cemeteries, old traditional tunes, and so forth.
“I was also able to find a mentor, Bill Adkins, a former grade school principal and teacher, who had been collecting local genealogy and history since the late 1960s. He was an invaluable source in opening doors for me and teaching me how to gather information.
“So I have been at this for most of my life,” Kirk explained. “I guess it is my life’s purpose: To collect, preserve, and promote the history and culture of my section of Appalachia.
“One of my social media sites declares that I prefer the dead to the living. That is mostly true. My thoughts are always in the past, whether teaching or writing.
“My plan is to publish a sequel to this book,” Kirk noted. “The Brumfields had additional feuds with local families during the 1890s and I’d like to write about it. I have already completed most of the research for the sequel, having begun it many years ago. I just need to find time now to write it.”