Review: Blood in WV by Brandon R. Kirk

Back in the 1990’s when I was leaving home, wanting to erase my history and blaze new trails, another person from my hometown, Brandon Kirk, was digging deep in the soil that grew us, undertaking an extensive project exploring our town’s history. There’s a meta-story here, but I’ll let him tell it in his own time (maybe).

In his first book, Blood in West Virginia: Brumfield versus McCoy (Pelican Publishing, 2014), Brandon Kirk takes the reader back in time and deep in the hollows of our hometown, Harts, West Virginia. The [unincorporated] town where we grew up is situated in Central Appalachia in the southern section of Lincoln County. In addition to being a distant cousin, Brandon is a good friend to our family, particularly my step-dad, Billy Adkins, who is himself an expert on local history. It was enjoyable reading this book featuring so many characters I’d heard about over the years.

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Brandon Kirk selling his book at an event at Chief Logan State Park. [Photo courtesy of Brandon Kirk]

Harts rests on the edge of the coalfields, but this true crime drama is set against the backdrop of the timber boom of the latter half of the nineteenth century. Kirk provides an exhaustive account of the feud involving the Brumfields, a family who helped settle the region. Written in the vernacular of the time, the book is divided into three sections.

[SPOILERS AHEAD] In the first section Kirk introduces the readers to Green McCoy and Milt Haley, key figures in the feud who allegedly were hired to kill prominent businessman Al Brumfield and his well-connected wife, Hollena (Dingess) Brumfield. Unlike many simplistic feud accounts of one family against another (think Hatfield versus McCoy), Kirk shows that the violence in the Harts area was the result of complex social relations and tensions surrounding the timber boom.

Hollena

Hollena Dingess in late life. [Photo courtesy of Brandon Kirk]

The second section details the aftermath of the shooting of Al and Hollena Brumfield and ends with the capture of Haley and McCoy. Kirk shows how the shooting was portrayed in the national media. Undoubtedly pulling on interviews, Kirk imagines the trail of McCoy and Haley as they traveled around in eastern Kentucky, awaiting their next move. While waiting to hear word from Harts, they are captured and given up to the law enforcement in Inez, Kentucky.

The third section of the book relies heavily on newspaper reports of the killings of McCoy and Haley and the aftermath. Kirk highlights contradictory reports and how national newspapers tended to sensationalize the events—as if they weren’t bad enough. It seems that because Green McCoy shared the last name of another famous feuding family in the region, reporters were overzealous in assuming that the McCoy family was also feuding with the Brumfields of Lincoln county.

dingess homestead

Dingess homestead where Hollene Brumfield was taken after being shot. [Courtesy of Brandon Kirk]

Kirk draws on a rich collection of interviews he collected over the years. Indeed, the most impressive part of his book, in many ways, is the bibliography of primary sources—hundreds of interviews with people in the community who had knowledge of the feud. Kirk spends a considerable amount of time pouring over old newspapers, the content of which he often records on his blog.

Blood in West Virginia is a worthwhile study for anyone interested in feuds, Appalachian history, studies in violence, and musical history (McCoy and Haley were fiddlers). It would be an excellent choice for a graduate course on Appalachian history or culture. Serious students of the Appalachian region will appreciate Kirk’s nuanced account of the violence and feuding that took place in the late 19th century in rural West Virginia.

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