April 5, 2007

Hatfields v. McCoys

I don't think this is an April Fools' Joke. Perhaps they could call it Yosemite Sam Syndrome:

Disease underlies Hatfield-McCoy feud

The most infamous feud in American folklore, the long-running battle between the Hatfields and McCoys, may be partly explained by a rare, inherited disease that can lead to hair-trigger rage and violent outbursts. Dozens of McCoy descendants apparently have the disease, which causes high blood pressure, racing hearts, severe headaches and too much adrenaline and other "fight or flight" stress hormones....

The Hatfields and McCoys have a storied and deadly history dating to Civil War times. Their generations of fighting over land, timber rights and even a pig are the subject of dozens of books, songs and countless jokes. Unfortunately for Appalachia, the feud is one of its greatest sources of fame.

Several genetic experts have known about the disease plaguing some of the McCoys for decades, but kept it secret. The Associated Press learned of it after several family members revealed their history to Vanderbilt doctors, who are trying to find more McCoy relatives to warn them of the risk....

Back then, "we didn't even know this existed," she said. "They just up and died."

Von Hippel-Lindau disease, which afflicts many family members, can cause tumors in the eyes, ears, pancreas, kidney, brain and spine. Roughly three-fourths of the affected McCoys have pheochromocytomas — tumors of the adrenal gland.

Her adoptive father, James Reynolds, said of the McCoys: "It don't take much to set them off. They've got a pretty good temper...

Still, many are dubious that this condition had much of a role in the bitter feud with the Hatfields, which played out in the hill country of eastern Kentucky and West Virginia for decades.

Some say the feud dates to Civil War days, when some members of the families took opposite sides. It grew into disputes over timber rights and land in the 1870s, and gained more notoriety in 1878, when Randolph or "Old Randal" McCoy accused a Hatfield of stealing one of his pigs. The hostilities left at least a dozen dead. ...

"The McCoy temperament is legendary. Whether or not we can blame it on genes, I don't know," said Randy McCoy, 43, of Durham, N.C., one of the organizers of the annual Hatfield-McCoy reunion. "There are a lot of underpinnings that are probably a more legitimate source of conflict."

"There was a lot of inter-marrying" that could have played havoc with the gene pool, he conceded. ...

Altina Waller, a professor of history at the University of Connecticut and author of a book about the feud, agreed.

"Medical folks like to find these kinds of explanations. Like the Salem witchcraft thing. That book came out about how that was caused by wheat that was grown that had this parasite or mold or fungus or something that caused everybody in Salem to go nuts," she said.

"How does it explain the other dozen or so feuds that I've looked at in other places?" she asked, citing disputes over coal and other issues. "The rage and violence as such was not confined to McCoys."

It sounds like a combination of the genetic and social effects of cousin marriage: bad recessive genes and excessive extended family loyalty, respectively. Update - Greg Cochran says it's a dominant genetic disease, not a recessive one.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

I wonder if there's any info on family feuds in societies with a higher rate of cousin marriage and kin loyalty.

Xhevahir said...

There's a less exciting explanation for this. Remote, difficult terrain has historically made it difficult for a state to project rule of law (or for a state to form in the first place); people living in those places resolve their disputes in ways that are probably going to look irrational to those of us living in well-policed areas. Look at the pashtunwali, or the Albanian kanuni i Lek√ę Dukagjini.

Anonymous said...

There are other strange genetic diseases native to the Appalachians. There is one illness that imparts a bluish tint to the skin.

I've already mentioned that I carry beta-thalassemia trait, a supposedly Mediterranean disease. Apparently, there are a number of people with ancestry in the states of Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, and the Carolinas that claim the same thing. Perhaps it is a novel mutation (though it has spread amazingly quick if so).

Anonymous said...

“They were bluer’n hell”

Anonymous said...

Anyone who has lived in areas the press and academics call "hardscrabble"-usually places with a lot of Scots-Irish-knows that this comes with the territory. They are attracted to this kind of place and they inbreed, and the smart ones, or the ones who don't love fistfighting and macho behavior, leave. Over a few generations you get some clans of really bad hombres.

I'd like to figure out how to move a few thousand of them to the highlands of Durango. The elite of Mexico would have a thorn in their ass over that.

joycegraff said...

It's not a curse, not caused by inbreeding. It's a tiny misspelling in one little gene. 20% of people with VHL are the first in their family ever to have VHL.

And besides, the problem in the McCoy family is not VHL, it's the pheochromocytomas. Pheos occur in the general population. They can also run in families, caused by one of six different genetic flaws, one of which is VHL. So this is not confined to the McCoy family.

If anyone feels they are having uncontrolled high blood pressure, palpitations, unexplained bursts of panic or rage, and/or excessive sweating, they should ask their doctor to do a test called "plasma free metanephrines". This is the most accurate test for a pheo. Other tests only find 60-80% of pheos. They are not easy to diagnose.

Still today half of all pheos are diagnosed on autopsy. They are very dangerous. The good news is that once they are diagnosed they are almost always treated successfully.

And no medical issue is an excuse for bad behavior. No matter how lousy we feel, everyone is still responsible for his or her actions.

We wish you the best of health.
Joyce Graff, Executive Director
VHL Family Alliance
www.vhl.org 800-767-4845

Anonymous said...

The McCoys were clearly in the right. The Hatfields stole that land. STOLE it.