Ben Adams — the man who supposedly hired Milt Haley and Green McCoy to assassinate Al Brumfield — was born in 1855 to Joseph and Dicy (Mullins) Adams on Big Harts Creek in Logan County, (West) Virginia. His older sister Sarah married Henderson Dingess and was the mother of Hollena Brumfield, Hugh Dingess and several others. He was a first cousin to Jackson Mullins, Milt Haley’s father-in-law, and a brother-in-law to Chloe Mullins, Milt’s mother-in-law, by her first marriage to John Adams.
In 1870, 17-year-old Ben lived at home with his mother, where he worked as a farmer. He was illiterate, according to census records. His neighbors were Andrew Robinson and Henderson Dingess, both of whom had married his sisters (Rhoda J. and Sally). In the next year, according to tradition, he fathered an illegitimate child, William Adams, who was born to Lucinda Brumfield (niece of Paris).
In 1873, Ben married Victoria Dingess. Victoria was born in 1856 and was a first cousin to Hollena Brumfield and Hugh Dingess. The marriage made for an interesting genealogical connection: Ben was already Hugh’s uncle; now he was also his brother-in-law, as Hugh was married to Victoria’s sister, Viola (his first cousin). Ben’s daughter Sally, who was named after Hollena’s mother, later married a cousin of Spicie McCoy, Green’s wife. For all practical purposes then, Ben Adams was genealogically connected to all sides of the feud — making it a true intra-family feud from his perspective.
For the first decade or so of his marriage, Ben lived with his mother on family property, although he did acquire land and open a general store business. In 1880, he was listed in the Lincoln County Census with his mother Dicy, aged 63, and family. He was 26 years old, Victory was 23, Sally was six, son Charlie was four, daughter Patsy A. was two, and son Anthony was a few months old. George Greaar, age 20, was a boarder. In 1881, he purchased 25 acres on the Meekin Branch of Trace Fork. Three years later, he was listed in a business directory as the proprietor of a general store. At that same time, his brother-in-law and neighbor Henderson Dingess was a distiller.
Later in the decade, Ben fathered three more children: George “Greasy” (1885), Harvey (1886), and May (1889). In 1889, the time of Milt Haley’s ambush of Al Brumfield, Adams owned 260 acres on the Boardtree Branch of Trace Fork valued at $1.00 per acre in Logan County.
Anthony Adams — Ben’s brother and ally in the 1889 troubles — was a prominent timberman on Harts Creek. Anthony had been born in 1849 and was the husband of Pricie Alifair Chapman, Burl Farley’s half-sister. In 1884, Adams was listed in a business directory as a blacksmith. In 1889, he owned two 50-acre tracts of land, one valued at $3.50 per acre with a $30 building on it, the other valued at $2.00 per acre. By that time, he had three sons of fighting age who may have participated in the feud: Solomon Adams (born 1869), Horatio “Rush” Adams (born 1871), and Wayne Adams (born 1874), as well as a son-in-law, Harrrison Blair (born c.1867).
A quick examination of the Adams genealogy gives a clue as to Ben’s other 1889 allies. First there was brother “Bad John” Adams. Adams was deceased at the time of the Haley-McCoy incident, but he had been married to Chloe Gore — mother of Emma Jean (Mullins) Haley. He had three sons of fighting age in 1889: Joseph Adams (born 1859), John Frock Adams (born 1861), and Ticky George Adams (born 1865)…as well as son-in-law Sampson Thomas.
Rhoda J. Robinson was a sister to the three Adams brothers. She had several children who may have allied with Ben: David Robinson (born 1860), Ben Robinson (born 1866), John R. Robinson (born 1868), and Joseph Robinson (born 1870). There was also brother Solomon Adams, who may have offered his loyalty to Ben, along with sons John M. Adams (born 1869) and Benjamin Adams (born 1867), and sons-in-law David Robinson and Peter Carter (c.1873).
As for Ben himself, he stayed busy with timber after the feud. According to an 1896 article from The Logan County Banner: “Benj. Adams, of Hart, is hauling some fine poplar from trace fork.” In 1901, he married Venila Susan Abbott, a daughter of Wilson and Elizabeth (Workman) Abbott, and had at least eight more children (born between 1901 and 1921). Not long after his remarriage, he was accused of murdering a local postman named Jim Martin — and nearly went bankrupt paying for his legal defense. He died in 1910 and was buried on the hill near the mouth of Trace Fork.
Brandon kept me up to date on his research by writing me incredibly detailed letters. I was becoming a fan of his writing style. In one letter, he identified the “murder house” where Green McCoy and Milt Haley were killed at Green Shoal.
“As you might recall, when we were trying to locate the George Fry home at Green Shoal, old-timers kept mentioning the homes of Tucker Fry and Baptist Fry as well. To avoid any confusion, I want to clarify so that you might keep the three names and the two houses straight. Baptist Fry was an uncle to George Fry. (His wife, Marinda, was the mother of Ben Walker, who helped bury Haley and McCoy.) Baptist’s home stood against the mountain at Fry across Route 10 where a maroon and white house stands today. When he died in 1881, it passed into the hands of his son Tucker Fry, who lived there with his wife and two children in 1889. The George Fry home — the one where Milt and Green were killed by most accounts — stood across present-day Route 10 and just upriver where Lonnie Lambert’s house is today.”
In another package, Brandon sent this scrap of information from the Doris Miller Papers at the Morrow Library in Huntington, West Virginia. “Al Brumfield — Harts,” it read. “Hollena. Logging people. — tied up logs. Kept overnight. Washed and ironed clothes. They went out and broke off tops of winter onions as they went thru garden to creek.”
Brandon also visited Dick Thompson at Thompson Branch of Harts Creek. Dick was a first cousin to Lawrence Kirk and a grandson to Bill Brumfield. He killed a man back in the early ’30s and served time in the state penitentiary. Dick welcomed Brandon into his home, which, incidentally was just down the hill from the site of the 1889 ambush of Al Brumfield.
Every six months or so, Dick said, Ed Haley and his family came to Harts by train. Not long after they arrived in Harts, somebody would haul them up the creek where they stayed all over. Everyone knew Ed, Dick said, and he “had some of the finest boys you ever seen.” He stayed with Dick’s father Andy Thompson and his grandfather Brumfield, two local moonshiners in the Cole Branch area of Harts Creek. (This was an interesting revelation, of course, because it meant that Ed, son of Milt Haley, visited with Bill, son of Paris Brumfield.)
Dick said Ed “could play anything on that fiddle” but he only remembered “Old Dan Tucker”. Ed used to tell a story about how he’d never stay at Old Dan Tucker’s again because he had to sleep in a feather bed that threw him to the floor. Dick said Ed played a lot in taverns with Bernie Adams, an excellent guitar player. Sometimes they made up to one hundred dollars a night. Ed played periodically in Dick’s tavern on Harts Creek. One night, around 1936-37, Dick closed up and took several men (including Ed) to a tavern in the head of nearby Crawley Creek. A little later, Ed got into it with Millard Adams and hit him over the head with his fiddle. (Another variation of the “fiddle over the head story…” Sol Bumgarner had told me that Ed did that to a Stollings, while Dave Brumfield implied that it happened around 1945, not in the late ’30s. Maybe Ed was just fond of using his fiddle as a weapon in fights.)
A few days after visiting Earl Brumfield, Brandon dropped in on his good friends, Charlie Davis and Dave Brumfield. Davis was an 88-year-old cousin to Bob and Bill Adkins. Brumfield was Davis’ son-in-law and neighbor. They lived just up Harts Creek near the high school and were familiar with Ed Haley and the story of his father, Milt. Charlie said he once saw Ed in a fiddlers’ contest at the old Chapmanville High School around 1931-32. There were two other fiddlers in the contest — young men who were strangers to the area — but Ed easily won first place (a twenty-dollar gold piece). He was accompanied by his wife and a son, and there was a large crowd on hand.
Dave said Ed was mean as hell and laughed, as if it was just expected in those days. He said Ed spent most of his time drinking and playing music in all of the local dives. Sometimes, he would stop in and stay with his father, Cecil Brumfield, who lived in and later just down the road from the old Henderson Dingess place on Smoke House Fork. Dave remembered Ed playing at the Cow Shed Inn on Crawley Mountain, at Dick Thompson’s tavern on main Harts Creek and at Ellum’s Inn near Chapmanville. Supposedly, Ed wore a man out one time at a tavern on Trace Mountain.
Dave said he grew up hearing stories about Ed Haley from his mother’s people, the Adamses. Ed’s blindness was a source of fascination for locals. One time, he was sitting around with some cousins on Trace who were testing his ability to identify trees by their smell. They would put first one and then another trype of limb under his nose. Dave said Ed identified oak and walnut. Then, one of his cousins stuck the hind-end of an old cat up under his nose. Ed smiled and said it was pussy willow.
Dave said he last saw Ed around 1945-46 when he came in to see his father, Cecil Brumfield. Ed had gotten drunk and broken his fiddle. Cecil loaned him his fiddle, which Ed never returned. Brumfield later learned that he had pawned it off in Logan for a few dollars to buy a train ticket to Ashland. Cecil bought his fiddle back from the shop and kept it for years.
Dave’s stories about Milt Haley were similar to what his Aunt Roxie Mullins had told me in 1991. Milt supposedly caused Ed’s blindness after getting angry and sticking him head-first into frozen water. Not long afterwards he and Green McCoy were hired by the Adamses to kill Al Brumfield over a timber dispute. After the assassination failed, the Brumfields captured Milt and Green in Kentucky. Charlie said the two men were from Kentucky — “that’s why they went back there” to hide from the law after the botched ambush.
The vigilantes who captured Milt and Green planned to bring them back to Harts Creek by way of Trace Fork. But John Brumfield — Al’s brother and Dave’s grandfather — met them in the head of the branch and warned them to take another route because there was a rival mob waiting for them near the mouth of the hollow. Dave said it was later learned that Ben and Anthony Adams — two brothers who had ill feelings toward Al Brumfield — organized this mob.
The Brumfield gang, Dave and Charlie agreed, quickly decided to avoid the Haley-McCoy rescue party. They crossed a mountain and came down Hoover Fork onto main Harts Creek, then went a short distance down the creek and turned up Buck Fork where they crossed the mountain to Henderson Dingess’ home on Smoke House Fork. From there, they went up Bill’s Branch, down Piney and over to Green Shoal, where Milt played “Brownlow’s Dream” — a tune Dave said (mistakenly) was the same as “Hell Up Coal Hollow”. Soon after, a mob beat Milt and Green to death and left them in the yard where chickens “picked at their brains.” After Milt and Green’s murder, Charlie said locals were afraid to “give them land for their burial” because the Brumfields warned folks to leave their bodies alone.
Brandon asked about Cain Adkins, the father-in-law of Green McCoy. Charlie said he had heard old-timers refer to the old “Cain Adkins place” on West Fork. In Charlie’s time, it was known as the Fisher B. Adkins place. Fisher was a son-in-law to Hugh Dingess and one-time superintendent of Lincoln County Schools.
In the years following the Haley-McCoy murder, the Brumfields continued to rely on vigilante justice. Charlie said they attempted to round up the Conleys after their murder of John Brumfield in 1900, but were unsuccessful.
In West Virginia, Brandon was busy interviewing local folks about Ed Haley and his father’s 1889 murder. He first dropped in on Earl Brumfield, a grandson to Al Brumfield, who lived at Barboursville, near Huntington. Earl was born in 1914 — nine years after Al’s death — and was a Depression era schoolteacher in Harts. At the time of Brandon’s visit, Earl was bed-fast and withered with age and in poor health and was barely able to speak plainly. Brandon started asking him general questions about the Brumfields.
Earl said Al Brumfield was bad to chase women throughout his marriage to Hollena. He had a mistress in a little town downriver named Betty Meade, who bore him two illegitimate children. When Hollena found out about his affair, she enlisted the help of her brother-in-law Jim Brumfield to kill the woman. Supposedly, Al knocked Jim’s gun away just before the shooting started and did it with such force that he broke his younger brother’s arm.
Earl said Al had other affairs. One time, Hollena was in the yard and saw him with a woman hid behind a log across the river. Outraged, she fetched a shotgun and shot at him every time he poked his head out from the log. This, of course, sounded like a tall tale — but it surely had a glimmer of truth in it.
Apparently, Al’s infidelity was a constant source of trouble in his marriage. Earl laughed telling about it, but it would have made for a terrible situation, especially since Hollena was a shattered beauty. Maybe Al’s infidelity was what drove Hollena to have her reported affair and love child with Fed Adkins in the early 1890s. Either way, Hollena had her revenge when Al was sick and near the end of his life. According to Earl, she often confined him to the upstairs of their house while she stayed downstairs. If he needed something or was feeling contrary, he would peck his cane on the floor to get her attention.
A few days later, Pat Haley called me from Ashland with news that Mona was visiting. This was a new development: Pat and Mona were apparently patching up some of their differences. Pat knew I would want to speak with Mona and, in spite of whatever hard feelings existed between them, she was willing to give me access to her.
When Mona took the telephone, I told her about getting the new copies of Ed’s recordings. She immediately began to talk about her father making them.
“I was only about fourteen, fifteen,” she said. “I didn’t pay much attention. My oldest brother made the records, him and his wife.”
The whole thing took place around the dining room table.
“You know, they were made on plastic,” Mona said. “And they would brush the plastic strips away as the thing would cut the records. It was kinda tedious, I do remember that.”
Mona said Ed sat about three feet across the table from the recording machine, while Ella was a little closer.
“It shows in the records, don’t it?” she said. I didn’t want to say anything but I totally agreed.
She remembered that Ed listened to each record after it was made and liked what he heard.
“He was talking mostly to my oldest brother,” she said.
I had other questions for Mona, mostly dealing with her general childhood memories. I asked, “Do you remember the house being dark when you were growing up, because obviously they didn’t have any need for light.”
“We had gas lights at home, and after that we had electric,” she said. “Not overly dark, no. We had plenty of light. Always except bedtime, and then my mother would get her big New York Point books out and read to us in the dark.”
“Could your dad see any light at all?” I asked.
“No,” Mona said. “They were both completely blind. My mother said the only thing she remembered was daylight. And I don’t know how old she was when she went blind, but it was infancy, toddler, something like that.”
Mona seemed to be in a particularly talkative mood, so I pressed her for clues about Ed’s music. I asked her how her father’s eyes appeared when he played and she said, “He looked straight out. He never slouched unless he was drinking and then he put one leg behind him and one in front of him.”
Mona said Ed was not a short bow fiddler.
“Long bow, except where it was needed. But he always played that bow to the end,” she insisted.
She didn’t remember her father “rotating” the fiddle at all, although Lawrence Haley (and others) had sure made a big deal out of it. She said Pop always rosined his bow up “real good” before playing but never had any caked on the fiddle. She thought he used Diamond steel strings, which he bought in a local music store named Wicks. He patted his foot in what I call two-four-time when fiddling but “it didn’t override the music.”
I asked Mona if Ed was a loud fiddler and she said, “Oh, yes. You know his voice was strong, too. I’ve been around places with Pop and Mom and people would hear him from far off and come to him. You know, like in the workplace. He always had a crowd around him — always. Always when he played on the street or at the court house square or when he played at the Catlettsburg Stock Market.”
I asked if she remembered Ed playing on trains and she said, “Yes, we’d get in the backseat longways the width of the train and he’d play.” People sometimes gave him money but he mainly played for himself. “Just to pass time,” Mona said.
I was very curious about Ed’s mode of travel, especially considering his blindness and the great distance of ground he covered in his lifetime. I asked Mona if her father hitchhiked a lot and she said, “I don’t think he did. I think he walked more than he hitchhiked.”
Did he sing or whistle while he walked?
“No,” she said. “My mother did that for our benefit, you know. To pacify us, I guess.”
Mona said Ed loved playing for dances because he “enjoyed hearing people dance” and preferred it to the street “a hundred percent.”
I told her that someone said Ella didn’t care a whole lot for playing on the street and she said, “I never heard Mom complain about nothing except Pop drinking.”
I wondered if Ed drank on general principles.
“Whenever he felt like it,” she said. “Whenever somebody brought him something and asked him to take a drink, he would. And there’s times he has gone out and got it, too. Aw he’d cuss real bad. He’d say, ‘god almighty goddamn,’ like he was disgusted with the whole world. We lived down on Greenup Avenue between Greenup and Front and trains went by. His bedroom was in the front, and he cussed one time. I’ll never forget it. He said, ‘Them god almighty goddamn trains just act like they put their damn whistles in the window and blow.'”
I said, “Let me ask you this. In their relationship, was your mother or your father the dominant one, would you say?”
Mona surprised me a little bit when she said, “I’d say my mother was the dominant one until Pop was drinking.”
Ella was also the disciplinarian.
“Mom, she’d pinch a piece out of you, buddy,” Mona said. “She wouldn’t make a scene in a store or anything but she’d just grab you and pinch you and say, ‘Quieten down.’ She did it to me.”
Just before I hung up with Mona, I told her some of the things I’d found out about Ed’s genealogy on my recent trip to Harts. She listened quietly, then said, “Well see, the story I got was that Green McCoy shot this lady. And that’s the story that Pop told me, that I understood. Now, it may be wrong. My memory might be wrong or maybe I didn’t want to believe it the other way.”
When I got back to Nashville, I had this boxed package in the mail from Mark Wilson, the folklorist who co-produced Parkersburg Landing. Inside the box was a pile of wire recordings, looking very much like a gossamer bird’s nest, which Mark said were Lynn Davis’ recordings of Ed Haley from the forties. I had no idea why Mark had these wires, or really why he had sent them to me. Some years before, I had called him about Ed and received a cool reception, sort of like, “Why don’t you leave all of this to the real folklorists?”
I took the wire recordings to Lee Hazen, a studio engineer and friend whose life-long hobby was wire recordings, and he told me right away that they were way beyond hope. “Even if you took pieces of them and run them through and taped them and then assembled the tape?” I asked.
He said it would require someone with enough patience to spend the rest of their life untangling them. I decided to keep them safe though and maybe someday, who knows? But wouldn’t it be awful to get them all together and discover that they were not even of Ed?
Later that spring, Bruce Nemerov notified me that he’d completed his work on Ed Haley’s recordings. I got a hold of the new copies, which included an audio log. There were several records that Bruce didn’t copy.