Book Excerpt: ‘Blood in West Virginia’

Posted by | July 21, 2014

Brandon Ray KirkPlease welcome guest author Brandon Kirk. Kirk is a historian as well as a descendant of Lincoln County, WV feudists. The Lincoln County Feud (1881-1890) arose out of personal grievances between two prominent residents in a rough-and-tumble West Virginia timber town, and escalated into a struggle for supremacy between business competitors and political rivals. Kirk has spent the last twenty years researching the history of the once-famous vendetta. He has conducted numerous interviews with other feud descendants (most born prior to 1930) and collected many period newspaper articles and photographs. His newly published book Blood in West Virginia is the result; we’re pleased to present an excerpt from the first book-length account of this sensational dispute.


Al Brumfield made his way down Harts Creek toward home, his belly full of food and liquor. He sat at the head of his horse, his wife seated sidesaddle immediately behind him. Hollene’s brothers, Harve and Dave, rode on separate horses nearby. It was three o’clock in the afternoon.

At Thompson Branch, some two miles downstream from Henderson Dingess’s farm, the trail narrowed and took to the hill. Al, looking up toward the Hot Rock—a cluster of large rocks and brush—spotted two men hiding in a sinkhole. Instinctively, he slumped away from that direction.

Blood in WV cover

“Hollene…” he said.

Before Hollene had time to react, a single shot from a high-powered Winchester rifle exploded into the air. Al’s startled horse jumped and spun wildly.

Another shot. Hollene fell to the ground, her face torn to pieces, black from powder burn and smattered in blood.

Dave Dingess, riding nearly beside Al and Hollene, had also spotted the two men hiding among the rocks. He had put up his hand before the second shot, then felt it go numb. Feeling little pain, he had quickly turned his horse and slid over toward its side opposite the shooters, and clung to his saddle, keeping his arms around the horse’s neck, until he maneuvered to safety. He and Harve galloped back up the creek toward home and help. No shots came their way. But Dave’s hand was covered in blood.

Al, meanwhile, tried to regain control of his horse. He looked down at his wife, then up toward the rocks.

Another shot—this time finding its mark.

Al fell to the ground, rolling in the dust. He felt pain at his right elbow and all through his arm, then numbness. His arm was covered in blood—shot and broken—useless from the fall.

His horse sped away down the creek.

Al crawled toward Hollene, reaching under his jacket for a pistol. Then came another shot, this time grazing his breast and ripping the fabric of his vest. The pressure was intense.

Al followed his horse downstream to safety.

For a brief moment, the scene was completely quiet.

Two men wearing hats came off the hill to survey the damage.

“We made a mess of this,” one said to the other as they stood over Hollene. “They’s goin’ to be hell to pay.”

Al Brumfield, prominent merchant, whisky boat operator, and feud leader. Photo courtesy Lilly Brumfield Ray.

Al Brumfield, prominent merchant, whisky boat operator, and feud leader. Photo courtesy Lilly Brumfield Ray.

“We got to kill her now,” said the other. “She’s seen us.”

Hollene, barely conscious, could hear the men but not see them. Her eyes were filled with blood.

“Please don’t shoot me again,” she gurgled, trying to speak. “You’ve already killed me.”

About then, the men heard shots in the distance.

It was Al Brumfield, returning up the creek under cover with his pistol pointed in their direction. Due to his broken arm and the distance between them, his shots were errant; still, they caused the two attackers to scramble back up the hillside. Brumfield did not pursue them. Instead, he continued on toward his wife, hoping his assailants would not shoot him again.

By the time Al reached Hollene, his wife was in the arms of Mrs. Jane Adkins, a twenty-four-year-old midwife who lived nearby in a single-story log cabin with her husband and four children. Jane sat in the road, Hollene propped against her.

Al bent down toward his wife. It was a gruesome sight. The entire right portion of her face was torn open. Al could hardly look at her.

“So help me God!” he swore. “I’ll kill whoever it was did this. Did you see who it was, Jane?”

“No, Al,” Jane said, remaining calm. “I saw two men, but I couldn’t make out who they was.”

“Hollene,” he said loudly, taking her hand in his.

“She’s knocked plumb out,” Jane said. “But she’s still alive.”

“Oh God,” Al cried. “How can she possibly be alive?”

Al mostly kept his eye on Hollene, figuring she might die at any second, but also looked anxiously toward the mountain where, just a few moments earlier, his attackers had waited in ambush. For all he knew, the men still lurked up there, watching, ready to shoot again. He had never felt as helpless as he did at that moment, hunkered in the road with his mauled wife. He had no horse, no way to move Hollene, and no friends to help him should his attackers return to finish them all. He knew that his pistol was useless against Winchester rifles and that his ability to fire it was limited by the poor condition of his arm. All he could do was hold Hollene’s hand, feeling the faint pulse in her wrist, unsure if each passing breath would be her last.

At that moment, two horses thundered toward them from up the creek.

Al rose up, feebly clutching his pistol.

It was Dave and Harve Dingess.

“Are you and Hollene all right?” Harve asked, riding up to the scene, kicking up dust.

Green McCoy and Milt Haley: timber men, fiddlers, suspected murderers. Photo courtesy Nellie Richardson Thompson

Green McCoy and Milt Haley: timber men, fiddlers, suspected murderers. Photo courtesy Nellie Richardson Thompson

A bit closer, he could see for himself.

“Oh my God,” he said.

For a moment, everyone was quiet. The horror of the scene was complete.

“She’s still alive,” Jane said, trying to keep everyone calm. “She ain’t in no pain cause she’s knocked out. But we need to wrap somethin’ tight around her face or else she’ll bleed to death.”

Dave climbed down from his horse and took off his shirt, tearing it into pieces. His hand was bleeding.

“You get shot too, Dave?” Al asked.

“Just a nick here in my hand,” Dave said. “It ain’t nothin’.”

“Who in hell did this?” Harve asked, looking up toward the rocks.

“Hell if I know,” Al said. “I couldn’t see ‘em good.”

As Harve spoke with Al, Dave carefully wrapped his sister’s head in the tattered pieces of his shirt, following Jane’s instructions.

Harve noticed that Al’s arm was hurt.

“How’s your arm?” he asked.

“It’s broke,” Al said.

Al looked at his wife, the greater portion of her face disappearing under the remains of Dave’s shirt.

“Harve, you ride back up the creek and get help,” he said. “Find Burl or Charlie or Hugh. Get a wagon, too. We’ll need it to get Hollene back up Smokehouse. And tell your paw to send for a doctor.”

“All right, Al,” Harve said.

He turned his horse, looking again to the mountains, not sure if his sister would be alive or not when he returned.

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