The Stories Behind 9 Of History’s Deadliest Family Feuds

Published December 1, 2023
Updated December 8, 2023

From Scotland's Glencoe Massacre to the Lee-Peacock rivalry of the Old West, these historical family feuds led to violent bloodshed.

Since 1976, the television game show Family Feud has entertained viewers by pitting two families against one another in a trivia-based standoff for a cash prize. But for centuries before the debut of the show, family feuds were often far bloodier — with long-lasting repercussions.

Perhaps one of the most famous family feuds in history was the dispute between the houses of York and Lancaster that spawned a series of civil wars in 15th-century England. Known now as the Wars of the Roses, these bloody conflicts lasted more than 30 years and tested the alliances of the houses devoted to the English throne.

But while the Wars of the Roses may have been one of the largest family feuds in scale, it was far from the only famous one in history. From the infamous rivalry between the Pazzi and Medici families to the Black Donnelly massacre that saw an entire town turn against one family, these are history’s bloodiest family feuds.

The Feud Between The Hatfields And The McCoys

Family Feuds

Wikimedia CommonsMembers of the Hatfield clan.

Just 13 days after Asa Harmon McCoy returned to his Kentucky home in December 1864, he was murdered. The culprits were a group of pro-Confederate guerrillas led by a man named Jim Vance, who despised McCoy for fighting in the Union Army during the Civil War.

To make matters worse, Vance was the cousin of a man known as “Devil” Anse Hatfield, head of the prominent Hatfields from neighboring West Virginia. Unbeknownst to Vance, the murder would mark the inciting incident of a decades-long feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys.

The situation was further complicated because the families were, despite how much they might have disliked it, connected in several ways. A man named Bill Stanton was, technically at least, related to both families, so when he was called in as a witness when the McCoys accused the Hatfields of stealing one of their hogs, his testimony was seen as neutral.

Unfortunately, the judge proceeding over that case happened to be Justice of the Peace Anderson Hatfield, who ultimately ruled in favor of his family. Two years later, two McCoy sons wound up killing Stanton for the perceived slight against them. In the end, though, they argued that they had killed him in self-defense and managed to be acquitted of the murder.

Then, the saga took another turn reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet. Roseanna McCoy, Randolph McCoy’s daughter, and Johnse Hatfield, the son of “Devil” Anse Hatfield, had fallen in love and run away together. The McCoys saw this as a betrayal and disowned Roseanna — but in time, she came back to the family, as Johnse was a known womanizer who had constant affairs with other women.

Johnse eventually tried to win Roseanna back, only for the McCoys to take him hostage, leading the Hatfields to organize a rescue party, ambush the McCoys, and free Johnse. In the end, Johnse Hatfield wound up leaving Roseanna, who was pregnant, for her cousin Nancy.

The whole thing came to a head on New Year’s Eve 1888 when Cap Hatfield and Jim Vance gathered a party of Hatfield men and set fire to the McCoy family cabin in the middle of the night. When the McCoys fled from their home, the Hatfields opened fire, ultimately killing two of Randolph’s children.

The Governor of Kentucky eventually stepped in and dispatched Sheriff Frank Phillips to protect the McCoys. Working together, they devised a plan to kill Jim Vance, then captured a number of other Hatfields, who were ultimately sentenced to lengthy prison sentences, effectively marking an end to the feud.

Austin Harvey
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Point Park University.
Cara Johnson
A writer and editor based in Charleston, South Carolina and an assistant editor at All That's Interesting, Cara Johnson holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Washington & Lee University and an M.A. in English from College of Charleston and has written for various publications in her six-year career.