Recently, there has been a rash of historical movies released, and I am a huge fan of most of them. I love anything and everything that has to do with history. One of my all time favorites is the miniseries: Hatfields and McCoys. In the miniseries, Tom ‘Skunkhair’ Wallace is a close friend of Cap Hatfield. In one scene, Bad Frank Phillips kills Tom and removes his scalp, taking it to Randolph McCoy and Perry Cline as proof of the kill. Being that I am not a Hatfield McCoy researcher, I did not question that Tom Wallace died during the feud.
Now, don’t take me the wrong way. I really enjoyed Hatfields and McCoys because it chronicles important events in West Virginia and Kentucky history. It also has a double appeal for me as Kevin Costner is one of my favorite actors. We have all heard one version or another when it comes to the Hatfield McCoy Feud. This article will not delve into all of the details of the feud, and is not written to condemn the Hatfields and McCoys miniseries. I am a BIG fan of these historical productions. I simply want to point out that, while these movies do a wonderful job exciting your curiosity about history, you should not take them as whole truths. Luckily, real history can be even more interesting than the movies!
As it turns out, one historical error in Hatfields and Mccoys, the killing and scalping of Tom ‘Skunkhair’ Wallace by Bad Frank Phillips, led me on quite the adventure here in Wyoming County – far away from the original events of the Hatfield and McCoy feud.To my surprise, a family member reached out to me via email shortly after they saw the movie. They explained that Tom Wallace did not die during the feud. In fact, he lived to be 84 years old! With a little digging, I found an old photo of Tom Wallace and an excerpt from G.T. Swain’s The History of Logan County written in 1927: Blood flows thicker
In those days, to offer an insult to a person, was to strike every one of his relatives. They were bound together by bonds of blood relationship that would stand the test of fire. However, the feud subsided to some extent, with an occasional flare-up between some of the younger men of the factions. In 1886 an incident occurred to fan the smoldering flames again.
One Jeff McCoy was accused of murdering Fred Walford
One Jeff McCoy was accused of murdering Fred Walford, in Kentucky, and McCoy fled and sought refuge in the home of Johnse Hatfield on the West Virginia side [of the Tug River]. Johnse had recently married Nancy McCoy, a sister of Jeff McCoy. Hatfield had long since refused to take any part in trouble between the factions. Near Johnse Hatfield lived [his brother] Cap Hatfield who employed Tom “Skunk-Hair” Wallace. The Hatfield faction felt that there was a spy in their community, due to certain reports, that kept reaching the McCoy clan. They desired peace, but these reports kept fanning the old flames and the McCoys were sending back [death] threats.
Through that strange and mysterious medium by which news travels in the mountainous regions—known as the “grapevine” method—reports flew thick and fast. Some of the friends of the Hatfields finally accused a Daniels woman [Mary Daniels] of being the spy [along with her sister, Nancy McCoy Hatfield], and a mob [which included Tom Wallace and Cap Hatfield] visited her house one night and gave her a thrashing [whipping the two women with a thick bull’s tale]. Mrs. Daniels was also the sister of Jeff McCoy.
Jeff McCoy, who was at the time hiding at the home of Johnse Hatfield, reached the conclusion that Skunk Hair Wallace was the instigator and leader of the outrage perpetrated upon his sisters. He vowed to kill him and, accompanied by a friend, visited the home of Cap Hatfield on November 17, 1886, when he knew Cap Hatfield was absent and Nan Hatfield, his wife, lay ill in bed.
Wallace was busy working in the yard of the home when Jeff McCoy and his friend rode up, drew their weapons and commanded Wallace to surrender. McCoy pretended to arrest him for the purpose of taking him to Pikeville.
Wallace knew no mercy would be shown him by his captors, and they had hardly left the Hatfield home when Wallace made a break for liberty. He was shot down, but gained to his feet and succeeded in reaching the Hatfield home, secured weapons, and drove his enemies off after they had poured shot after shot through the house while Nan Hatfield lay ill in bed.
At first, I didn’t understand why they were contacting me with this information. I am not a Hatfield and McCoy researcher. Nor did the Wyoming County Historical Museum have any ties to the feud – or so I thought.
The family member claimed to be contacting me because Tom Wallace was buried at Palm Memorial Gardens in Matheny, West Virgnia. If true, Skunkhair’s remains are not only in Wyoming County, but less than a ten minute drive from the Wyoming County Historical Museum.
The family wanted the Wyoming County Historical Museum to know that the movie got this part of history wrong. They also wanted to inform us that we did, in fact, have ties to the famous feud. Armed with this information, I began my research.
According to Tom Wallace’s death certificate, he was buried in Mingo County, West Virginia, not Wyoming County. However, in the 1970’s the R.D. Bailey Dam was constructed, and many family cemeteries were moved to Matheny. A move I am personally familiar with, as some of my own family members were moved as well.
Now, I had to find out for myself if Skunkhair’s grave had really been moved to Wyoming County. I set out to Palm Memorial Gardens to verify the story. In true Hollywood fashion, I pulled up to the cemetery and rain began to pummel my windshield. For a moment, I thought of putting the venture off for another day, but curiosity got the best of me. I grabbed my umbrella and my camera, and began trekking up the steep, muddy hill behind the mausoleum.
Folks, I’d like to give you some advice here “Do not try this in flip flops!”
I ended up walking the through graveyard barefoot as I cleared away mud and freshly cut grass from the stones one by one. At this point, I was certain that I would not find the infamous Skunkhair. Then all of the sudden, I was standing there looking down at a stone that read “Tom Wallace 1849 – 1933.” He was buried between two of his wives, Nancy Jane and Serilda, just as I was told.
If only I had heard this story many years ago, I could have asked my grandfather about Ol’ Skunkhair. Tom Wallace died in the same district where my grandfather grew up. I would have been intrigued to hear whether or not Grandpa had ever heard of the escapades of Tom Wallace.
Tom Wallace may have led an adventurous life, but he will lie peacefully in Wyoming County for all eternity.
Jennifer Cline has been assistant curator at the Wyoming County Historical Museum since 2012. She is also a member of the board of directors since 2013 and currently holds the position of President. Jennifer also heads the museum’s reference library, which she set up to respond to out-of-state genealogy inquiries. Ms. Cline chairs the Civil War Christmas program and is co-chair of the annual Wyoming County Civil War Days. Both of these events provide educational opportunities for area children. She also serves on the Historical Sites Committee and is active in fundraising efforts. Recently, Jennifer played an important role in researching, locating, and documenting five petroglyph sites in Wyoming County.