Arthur Smith, banjo, Ben Walker, Benny Martin, Bernie Adams, Billy Adkins, blind, Brandon Kirk, Buddy Emmons, Clayton McMichen, Doug Owsley, Durham, Ed Haley, fiddlers, fiddling, Green McCoy, Haley-McCoy grave, Harts, history, Imogene Haley, Indiana, Jeffersonville, John Hartford, Johnny Hager, Lawrence Haley, Mark O'Connor, Matt Combs, Melvin Kirk, Michael Cleveland, Milt Haley, Mona Haley, music, Nashville, North Carolina, Smithsonian, Snake Chapman, Tennessee, Texas Shorty, Ugee Postalwait, Webster Springs, West Virginia, Wilson Douglas, writing
When Ed first went out into the neighborhood with his dad’s fiddle and armed with his melodies (as interpreted by his mother) I think he probably caused not a small sensation amongst family and neighbors and his ear being as great as it was I think he picked up an incredible amount of other music really fast. I think he played with a lot of ornaments when he was a teenager and up into maybe even his thirties. Snake Chapman and Ugee Postalwait have alluded to this. Snake said the dining room recordings just didn’t sound as old-timey as he remembered Ed playing and Ugee said she remembered him and her dad talking about the little melodies between the notes. Of course Ed had to have been through a lot of subtle changes in style since that time. I think in later years he stripped a lot of the ornaments out of his fiddling in order to appeal to the Arthur Smith-Clayton McMitchen crowd who loved the radio style that was so much in vogue at that time. This might have helped make a little more money on the street. People have always liked to hear someone play and sound just like what they hear on the radio or a record. But I think if someone had asked Ed if he had done that consciously that he would have denied it and if he was in a bad mood they might have even had a fight on their hands.
I keep having this idea of Ed imitating other instruments on the fiddle because I’ve tried it myself and wouldn’t it be something that some of these great parts was really an imitation of John Hager’s banjo playing. I’d love to know where that passage is or whether it even exists.
It’s obvious that when Ed had good firm second that wouldn’t slow down for anything, he really leaned back on the beat and got in that little pocket where so many great musicians like to be. Ella and Mona really held up a good solid beat, but I’ll bet Ed was hard on them — a real taskmaster. It’s all in that rhythm section. Wilson Douglas told me one time that Ed always told him to play it real lazy. Texas Shorty, Benny Martin, and Buddy Emmons refer to it as holding on to the note as long as you can before you start the next one. This is an important part of Ed’s feel and sound and it really comes through on the dining room recordings. I get it by playing as slow as I can against a beat I hope is not gonna move, and then I swing the notes with a dotted note feel — a real lilt if I can get it — and just drag on the beat as hard as I can ’cause I know it’s not gonna slow down. I’d love to know just when Ed figured that out or if it was always there. I always think of Ed in his younger years playing on top of the beat or even ahead of it like I did when I was young and full of piss and vinegar. Actually when you’re playing alone you do hafta pretty well stay on top of the beat to hold the time or at least set it, cause you are the beat but you have to keep from rushing which we will tend do when we get to hard passages in order to get them over with. We’ll not do that no more. Mark O’Connor told me one time that while he is playing a tune he’ll play on top of and behind the beat on purpose. He described playing behind it as letting the beat drag you along…almost like water skiing. Oh, to have known what Ed and John Hager or Bernie Adams sounded like together.
I think Ed worked on his fiddling probably daily most of his life so it is fair to say that it was changing all the time. This would explain the varying descriptions of his playing that have come down. I’m sure they’re probably all accurate. Lawrence, Ugee, and Mona always said Ed played with great smooth long bow strokes and Snake Chapman always was adamant about him playing with short single strokes and Slim Clere said the same thing — that he bowed out everything — no bow slurs. Of course, in the dining room sessions you can hear both ways. It’s amazing how well Ed did without the feedback of working with a tape recorder. What an incredible ear he had. As far as I know, the only time he probably heard himself played back was the recordings we have. I hope there are others out there but I’ve come to doubt it.
Brandon and I have always had a gut feeling that if we’d dug down into the hillside a little further at Milt and Green’s grave we might have found something. We only went down five feet and then we were defeated by the rain. What if we had gone down the requisite six feet? What if, like the probe, Owsley had misjudged the bottom of the grave shaft due to the mud and water? What if it hadn’t rained and muddied up the work area? If Melvin Kirk and Ben Walker went so far as to bury the men in a deep grave, why not assume they would have gone for the standard six feet grave traditionally dug? In the following weeks, old timers around Harts kept telling Brandon and Billy, “If they didn’t dig at least six feet, it’s no wonder they didn’t find anything.” We didn’t want to question the professionalism of experts like the Smithsonian forensic team or seem like we wanted to find Milt and Green so badly that we couldn’t accept the concept that they were gone…but what if? The explanation that Doug Owsley gave us about the coal seam and underground stream made a lot of sense. Needless to say we were really disappointed. I had started to rationalize that not finding anything might indicate that they were buried in the nude and just thrown in the hole with no box or winding sheet or anything.
I was in Durham, North Carolina, the other day and I saw a fiddler on the street and I automatically found myself thinking of Ed. I didn’t have to fill in or rearrange much in my imagination to see him there playing on the street — even though this man was standing up, and played nothing like him. Of course when Ed was younger he probably stood up to play all the time like in the Webster Springs picture…dapper and wearing his derby. I always seem to picture Ed sitting down. Another great thrill for me is a young blind fiddler from Jeffersonville, Indiana, named Michael Cleveland who when he plays I can see Ed at nineteen. He stands up so straight he almost looks like he’s gonna fall over backward the way Lawrence said his dad did. When he plays I can’t take my eyes off of him thinking of Ed. Now my friend Matt Combs, who has done a lot of the transcriptions for this book, sits with me and plays Ed’s notes off of the paper, and I play off the top of my head, so in that sense it’s like playing with him.
I guess it’s time to just leave this alone and get back to my study of the fiddle. Maybe get geared up for “Volume Two.” I spend long hours here at the dining room table with my tape recorder and I can hear Lawrence and feel Ed as I try and play my way back into the past. I find that the study of Ed’s music leads me to the study of all music and the way it’s played.
blind, Brandon Kirk, Cacklin Hen, Cas Baisden, Clyde Haley, Ed Haley, Ella Haley, Ewell Mullins, fiddling, Harts, Harts Creek, history, John Hartford, Logan County, music, Peter Mullins, Robert Martin, Trace Fork, West Virginia, World War II, writing
Early the next morning, Brandon and I arrived on the bus in Harts and drove to see Cas Baisden, who we spotted in a porch swing up main Harts Creek, just above the mouth of Smoke House Fork. It was a pastoral scene: a somewhat old farmhouse, several chickens in the yard and a few cattle in the distance who’d done a marvelous job of clearing the mountainside just back of the place. As we pulled up to the house, I realized that it was built fairly high off of the ground — probably as a precaution against flooding. Cas just kind of stared down at us as we unloaded from the car.
Once he figured out who we were, he invited us in to the living room. There we learned that Cas was eighty-seven years old and had spent his whole life on Harts Creek.
“I was born in 1910,” he said. “The only five years I was gone from here was when I was in the Army. I left here the second day of April ’42. I spent five year in the Air Force. Never was off the ground.”
Wow — I had to ask, “What is the secret to living so long?”
“Working, working, buddy,” Cas said. “I work ever day a little bit. I wish you’d a seen the coal and stuff I packed in this morning. I got two calves down there and chickens and cats and dogs. I live on tobacco, Cheerios, and milk.”
Ever drink any whiskey?
“Barrels of it,” he said. “It’s been ten or twelve years since I quit fooling with drinking. Yeah, I went up here and joined the church and things. A fella never knows what he misses when he gets in a church. I used to be rougher’n a cob.”
Cas was partly raised by Uncle Peter Mullins, so he remembered Ed Haley well.
“He’d come up there to Peter’s and just go from house to house playing music and eating,” he said. “He used to go up to Ewell’s — I guess where he was raised — and come down that road just a running and hollering and whooping and cutting the awfulest shine that ever was and you wouldn’t a thought he could a stayed in that road. I don’t know how he done it, but he’d take spells like that. If he got a hold of you with a knife, though, he was dangerous. Hang on you and cut as long as they’s a thread on you. Him and that old woman, they’d get drunk and they’d fight up there. You know, it’s a wonder they hadn’t a killed one another. I believe they did try to cut one another up there at old man Peter’s one time.”
What about the Haley kids?
“Why them young’ns would do anything,” Cas said. “Clyde went out here where Robert Martin used to live on that mountain and went down in the well and they had a time a getting him out. And up here a little bit was a big sycamore and he was up in there and we’d throw rocks at him, son, and if we’d a hit him and knocked him out of there he’d been killed. I believe Clyde was the meanest one among them, I don’t know.”
I asked Cas if he ever played music and he said, “Nah, I done well to call hogs. But now Ed was about as good a fiddler as they was. Nobody could play better than Ed. He could play anything on earth he wanted to play.”
Cas had memories of Ed playing at Uncle Peter’s, either outside for small crowds or inside for “big dances” before “they finally broke up and quit.” The old dances started about the “edge of dark” and people would just “jump around — most people never could dance” – until sun-up. There was no trouble — just “fiddle, dance, drink” — although a person had to watch out for what Cas called the “old hedgehogs.”
I asked him if Ed ever drank much at the dances and he said, “Sure. He’d get to drinking and have more fun than the one’s a dancing.”
When Ed wasn’t around to play dances on Trace, Robert Martin would show up and fiddle tunes like “Cacklin’ Hen”. Martin had the first radio “that was ever in this country” so people went to his house “out on the mountain” and listened to it until “way late in the night.”
Alton Conley, Big Creek, blind, Blood in West Virginia, Brown's Run, Burl Farley, Charles Conley Jr., Charlie Conley, Clifford Belcher, Conley Branch, crime, Ed Belcher, Ed Haley, Ella Haley, fiddler, fiddling, Green McCoy, Green Shoal, Guyandotte River, Harts Creek, history, John Brumfield, Lincoln County Feud, Logan, Logan County, Milt Haley, Mona Haley, music, Robert Martin, Smokehouse Fork, Warfield, West Virginia, Wirt Adams, writing
From Clifton’s, we went to see Charlie Conley, Jr., a fiddler who lived on the Conley Branch of Smokehouse Fork of Harts Creek. Wirt Adams had mentioned his name to us the previous summer. We found Charlie sitting on his porch and quickly surrounded him with a fiddle, tape recorder, and camera.
When I told him about my interest in Ed Haley’s life, he said Ed played so easy it was “like a fox trotting through dry leaves.”
Charlie said Ed was a regular at Clifford Belcher’s tavern.
“Right there, that’s where we played at on the weekends,” he said. “He used to play there a lot, the old man Ed Haley did. Me and another boy, Alton Conley — he’s my brother-in-law, just a kid… I bought him a guitar and he learned how to play pretty good. He could second pretty good to me, but he couldn’t keep up with that old man. He knowed too many notes and everything for him. The old man realized he was just a kid.”
Charlie told us an interesting story about how Ed came to be blind.
“Milt and Burl Farley, they was drinking where Burl lived down at the mouth of Browns Run. And Ed was just a little baby — been born about a week. Old man Burl said to Milt, ‘Take him out here and baptize him in this creek. It’ll make him tough.’ And it was ice water. He just went out and put him in that creek and baptized the kid and the kid took the measles and he lost his eyes. That’s how come him to be blind.”
That was an interesting picture: Milt and Burl hanging out on Browns Run. We had never really thought about it, but there was a great chance that all the men connected up in the 1889 troubles knew each other pretty well and maybe even drank and played cards together on occasion. For all we knew, Milt may have worked timber for Farley.
Brandon asked Charlie if he knew what happened to Milt Haley.
“They said the Brumfields killed him,” Charlie said. “Him and his uncle was killed over at a place called Green Shoal over on the river somewhere around Big Creek. They were together when they got killed. That was way back. I never knew much about it.”
Obviously Green McCoy wasn’t Ed’s uncle, but I had to ask Charlie more about him.
“All I can tell you is he was old man Ed’s uncle,” he said. “They lived over there on the river, around Green Shoal.”
So Ed was raised on the river?
“No, he lived down here on the creek, right where that old man baptized him in that cold water at the mouth of Browns Run,” Charlie said. “That’s where he was born and raised at, the old man was.”
I guess Charlie meant that Green lived “over there on the river,” which was sorta true.
He didn’t know why Milt Haley was killed, but said, “Back then, you didn’t have much of a reason to kill a man. People’d get mad at you and they wouldn’t argue — they’d start shooting. Somebody’d die. I know the Conleys and the Brumfields had a run in over there on the river way back. Oh, it’s been, I guess, ninety year ago. Man, they had a shoot-out over there and right to this day they got grudges against the Conley people. I’ve had run-ins with them several times. I say, ‘Look man, this happened before my time. Why you wanna fool with me for?’ But they just had a grudge and they wouldn’t let go of it.”
When we asked Charlie about local fiddlers, he spoke firstly about Robert Martin.
“They said Robert was a wonderful fiddler,” he said. “I had a half-brother that used to play a guitar with him when he played the fiddle named Mason Conley. I used to play with his brothers over there on Trace and with Wirt and Joe Adams. Bernie Adams — he was my first cousin. They said Robert was a wonderful fiddler.”
What about Ed Belcher?
“Yeah, Ed was pretty good, but he couldn’t hold old man Ed Haley a light to fiddle by. Belcher was more of a classical fiddler. Now, he could make a piano talk, that old guy could. I knowed him a long time ago. I noticed he’d go up around old man Ed and every oncest in a while he’d call out a tune for him to play. Ed’d look around and say, ‘Is that you, Belcher?’ Said, ‘Yeah,’ and he’d set in a fiddling for him. Maybe he’d throw a half a dollar in his cup and walk on down the street.”
Brandon said to Charlie, “Ed Belcher lived up at Logan, didn’t he?” and Charlie blew us away with answer: “Well now, old man Ed Haley lived up there then at that time. They lived out there in an apartment somewhere. The little girl was about that high the last time I seen her.”
Well, that was the first I heard of Ed living in Logan — maybe it was during his separation from Ella, or maybe there was an earlier separation, when Mona was a little girl.
I asked about a tune called “Warfield” and Charlie said, “That ‘Warfield’ is out of my vocabulary, buddy. I’ve done forgot them old tunes, now.”
Ashland, blind, Cincinnati, Crosley Radio Weekly, Ed Haley, Ella Haley, feud, fiddler, fiddling, Green McCoy, Hamlin, history, Kentucky, Lincoln County Feud, Lincoln Republican, Milt Haley, music, Ohio, West Virginia, WLW
About that time, Brandon found this teeth-rattling article while scanning through microfilm of the Lincoln Republican at the public library in Hamlin, West Virginia. It was titled “Ed Haley and Wife Play for the Radio” and dated Thursday, August 28, 1924.
The Crosley Radio Weekly, published at Cincinnati, Ohio, contains a good picture of Ed Haley and wife, the blind musicians so well known in Hamlin, with an interesting story of Mr. Haley, which we reproduce as follows:
The picture above is that of Mr. and Mrs. Ed Haley, of Ashland, Ky., blind fiddlers, who soon will entertain WLW listeners with a most interesting concert. They have the reputation of being the best old-time music makers of the mountains of West Virginia and Kentucky, making a living for themselves and their three children by playing at dances and county fairs. Mr. Haley is shown playing a fiddle connected with which there is a very interesting story of the old mountain feud days. His father was involved in the famous Brumfield-McCoy feud and was captured by the Brumfields. He was told he was to be shot to death in five minutes, during which time he calmly played his fiddle, the same one his son plays for radio listeners and which he was holding when the above picture was taken. The feudist and a friend was shot to death when the five minutes expired and both their bodies were buried in a wooden box. The fiddle, however, was kept by the Brumfields for some years and later returned to the son of the murdered man.
Alabama, blind, Brandon Kirk, Calhoun County, Clyde Haley, Ed Haley, Ella Haley, genealogy, history, Jack Haley, John Hartford, Lawrence Haley, Mona Haley, Noah Haley, Ralph Haley, Rogersville, Ugee Postalwait, West Virginia, writing
Ugee said, “I never will forget the first time I seen Ella. I’d fixed cabbage for supper — big head of cabbage. Next morning, Ed said, ‘Where’s the cabbage?’ I said, ‘Well you don’t want cabbage for breakfast.’ ‘Oh,’ Ella said, ‘We love cabbage for breakfast.’ I went and got that cabbage and heated it up. I wish you’d a seen her eating that cabbage. I didn’t know anyone ate cabbage for breakfast. I was a fixing eggs and bacon.”
Brandon asked about Ella’s appearance.
“Ella wasn’t no bad looking woman at all,” Ugee said. “She was a nice looking woman, I thought. When I seen her, she had had three kids and she was a little heavier then. She kept herself nice-looking. She liked to wear nice dresses and she liked to wear hose. You’d be surprised to see her wash them kids and clean them. Now really you would. She’d pick them kids up and say, ‘Come here, you’ve got a dirty face.’ How she knowed they had a dirty face, I don’t know.”
I asked Ugee if Ed ever got into any fights, because his face looked lop-sided in one of his pictures.
“Aw, he’s fell a lot of times,” she said. “I’ve seen his boy Clyde and that Ralph — wasn’t his son, but he called him his son — I’ve seen them lead him across logs and let him fall down and laugh about it. Yeah, they didn’t care for doing anything like that. No wonder when he’d get up, if he could get to one of them, he’d whoop one of them. They was into everything. I never seen Lawrence or Jack either one into anything. But you turned Ralph or Clyde loose anyplace, they might ‘weigh’ chickens and kill your chickens. Maybe put a string around their neck and hold them up and maybe kill two or three hens — choke them to death. Why, Ed’d get mad. Ella would, too, over things like that. She’d say, ‘My, my, my.’ They’d run in and grab their purse and take their money. Ella’d buy anything they wanted.”
Even though Ed’s kids treated him rough, Ugee said he “liked to joke and talk and laugh. I never seen Ed Haley mad but once in my life. Me and him almost fit, too, that time. He whooped Clyde. He oughta whipped Clyde but not like he did. Clyde aimed to jerk him off the porch. If he had, he’d a killed him. And he jerked his belt off and he went to whooping Clyde. And he was whooping hard. He was trying to beat him to death. I walked out on the porch and said, ‘That’s enough, Ed.’ And he said, ‘Damn him. He tried to kill me.’ I grabbed a hold of the belt. He said, ‘Ugee, let loose of it.’ I said, ‘I ain’t letting loose of it. You’ve whooped him enough and I don’t want to see no more of that. While I’m living, don’t you ever hit one of them kids with a belt. I don’t allow that.’ He said, ‘I’ll whip them with a belt when I’m damn good and ready.’ I said, ‘You’ll not whip them here — not like that.’ I mean, he was beating him.”
Brandon asked if the other boys were mean to Ed or ever got whipped and Ugee said, “Clyde’s the only one I ever seen him whoop. They was about to send him to reform school — stealing, I think. He musta been about fourteen years old. That there Ralph, he was ornerier than… That Ralph even shot hisself with a gun to see how it’d feel to be shot. That was up where we lived. My mother doctored him. Mona, she was ornery. She’d steal off her mom. Take stuff out and destroy it. She was pretty as she could be. She’d just look at you as if to say, ‘I’ll do as I please.’ Ed swore she was just like her aunt on her mother’s side. And Noah was sneaking — dangerous sneaking. He was into everything and he’d lie. Noah was awful bad about gambling.”
Ugee really contrasted Ralph, Clyde, Noah, and Mona with Jack and Lawrence.
“Jack and Lawrence was gentlemen,” she said. “None of them come up with Lawrence, far as I’m concerned. He would lead his mom and dad anyplace. I can see how careful he was. That little hand of his leading his mother around this mud hole, ’round this log and stuff. Really, I’m not taking up for him because he’s dead or anything like that. I always called him ‘my little boy.’ He was always littler than the rest of them.”
Akron, Alabama, blind, Brandon Kirk, Calhoun County, Christmas, crime, Ed Haley, Ella Haley, fiddle, fiddling, Harvey Hicks, history, John Hartford, Johnny Hager, Laury Hicks, Marietta, measles, Milt Haley, music, Ohio, Parkersburg, Rogersville, Soldiers Joy, Spencer, Stinson, Ugee Postalwait, Webster Springs, West Virginia, writing
On April 12, 1997, Brandon and I went to see Ugee Postalwait in Rogersville, Alabama. For the most part, she repeated a lot of the same stories I’d heard before, maybe with a new detail or two here and there. We began with her memories of Ed and Johnny Hager, who came to her father’s house around 1913. Brandon asked her specific questions about Johnny, which caused her to say: “He was a little short fella, slender. He was a nice person. Well-mannered. He was a good banjo-player. John Hager was a good friend of Dad and Mom’s both — all of us. Us kids, too. He used to write Mom and Dad. He wrote them from Webster Springs and he wrote them from Greenbrier. Different places where he was at. John wrote a letter back home and said he quit traveling with Ed ’cause Ed drank. He couldn’t take it. I’ve often wondered and studied about what become of him.”
Later, Ed sometimes came with a guitar player, but Ugee couldn’t recall his name.
Brandon was curious to know how far Ed traveled with his music, so he asked if Ed and Ella ever played around Parkersburg.
“I’m pretty sure they have,” Ugee said, “and Marietta, too. Harvey took them up to Akron to play music and they crowded that street so bad up there that they passed a law up there, you couldn’t stand on the corner and play music any more. They wouldn’t allow them to stand on the street. They had to move. See, they was such a crowd got around them.”
I asked, “How much do you reckon Ed would take in of a night?”
Ugee said, “I have seen Ed and Ella take in as much as a hundred dollars right there in Spencer.”
Wow, were they using a cup or a hat to collect money?
“They never used no cup. Just sit a box down or hat down and people come through and throwed money in it. Anyone that come along and dropped money in there, they’d play just the same.”
Would he play me anything I’d ask for?
“Why sure. He’d play it for you and then maybe if you asked for it again he might play you something else and call it that. He didn’t care to rename songs, like ‘Soldiers Joy’. He might call that ‘Runnin’ the Soldier’ or ‘Runnin’ the Track’ or something like that.”
I reminded Ugee that she heard Ed say he just picked up a fiddle and started playing it when he was small and she said, “Oh, yeah. He’d sit in the floor and play on that fiddle. Somebody brought something in that had two strings on it. He wasn’t very old. Just barely a walking, he said. Just like him a talking to me one time, telling me about his dad. Telling about them a lynching him. He said, ‘Goddamn him, they oughta lynched him.’ And I never asked him why. Why would a man say that about his dad? Maybe he was thinking about that man putting him in that barrel of water and causing him to be blind. But Ella’s eyes, they was ate out with blue vitriol.”
Ugee fully believed that measles had caused Ed’s blindness because they almost “put her blind,” too, when she was a girl.
“I must have been about five years old,” she said. “Well, Ed musta been there, too. Musta been the same year he was there that I had the measles and I went blind in my eyes. Couldn’t see nothing for three or four days. Had Granny’s bed set up by the side of the fireplace. I remember that instead of springs, it had rope. And Christmas time come up. And Dad, he played Santa Claus, I reckon. He got me jellybeans. I couldn’t see nothing for two or three weeks. I didn’t think I’d ever see again. Back then, they called them the ‘big’ measles and the ‘little’ measles. The big ones, they called the German measles. And I had them bad. Harvey come around — he was older than I was — he’d say, ‘You stink’, ’cause he could smell that fever on me.”
Brandon asked Ugee what year she was born in, to kind of help us better understand the time frame of her memories.
“I was born in 1907,” she said. “I got married in 1924. I left and went to Akron, but we come back ever month for a long time. If we knowed Ed was a coming in, we was there. I moved back in 1930. We lived on the farm until 1941. Then we went to a farm at the mouth of Stinson.”
At some point, Ugee moved back to Akron, where she lived when I first met her in 1991.
Al Brumfield, banjo, Billy Adkins, blind, Bob Bryant, Brandon Kirk, Burl Farley, Charley Brumfield, Ed Haley, Fed Adkins, fiddlers, French Bryant, Green McCoy, Harve "Short Harve" Dingess, history, Hollene Brumfield, Hugh Dingess, John Hartford, Kentucky, Lincoln County Feud, Martin County, measles, Milt Haley, music, Nashville, Piney, Smokehouse Fork, Tom Holzen, West Fork, Wolf Creek, writing
Brandon and I also called Bob Bryant, a son of the infamous French Bryant, who lived with his son at the mouth of Piney Creek on West Fork. Billy Adkins had encouraged us to call Bob, saying that he would probably tell us what he knew of the Haley-McCoy murders. When we called Bob, his son said we were welcome to talk with his dad, although he warned us that his memory wasn’t very good.
Bob said he was born on Piney in 1911.
When I asked him about French Bryant he said he knew very little about him because his dad “was pretty old” when he was born. He said he did remember his father talking “some” about the Haley-McCoy affair.
“Milt and Green were pretty rough fellers who got in a lot of trouble all the time,” Bob said. “They were bad to drink. Milt Haley and Green McCoy was fiddlers — I think so. Maybe they was. Yeah, I almost know they was. One of them picked the banjo, I believe, but I don’t know for sure.”
Bob said Hugh Dingess, who was “kind of an outlaw,” organized a posse to fetch Milt and Green after they shot Al and Hollena Brumfield. They found them over around Wolf Creek in Martin County, Kentucky.
“Them Dingesses up there killed them,” Bob said. “It didn’t take much to get them to shoot you back then. People’d shoot you just to be a doing something.”
I asked Bob if he ever heard anything about who took part in what he kept calling “the shooting” and he said, “Hugh Dingess and four or five more.”
He paused, then said, “A few of them I wouldn’t want to tell you.”
We were just waiting for him to say his father’s name when he said, “Short Harve Dingess was pretty rough. Seems like he was in that bunch some way.”
Some of the others were: Al Brumfield, Charley Brumfield, Fed Adkins, and Burl Farley.
Bob never identified his father as a member of the mob but mentioned that his father was a friend to the Dingesses on Smokekouse.
He said he remembered seeing Ed play at the schoolhouse above the mouth of Piney when he was nineteen years old.
“He was a real fiddler,” Bob said.
In subsequent weeks, Brandon and I went through most of our information — processing it, sorting it, discussing it. We thought more about the story of Milt causing Ed’s blindness by dipping him in ice water and wondered how anyone would have ever equated those as cause-effect events. I got on the phone with Dr. Tom Holzen, a doctor-friend of mine in Nashville, who said Milt’s dipping of Ed in ice water, while a little crude, was actually the right kind of thing to do in that it would have lowered his fever. Based on that, Milt seems to have been a caring father trying to save Ed’s life or ease his suffering. Was it the act of a desperate man who had already lost other children to disease?
Andy Mullins, Ashland, blind, Brandon Kirk, Columbus, Dobie Mullins, Ed Haley, Edith Dingess, Ella Haley, Ewell Mullins, Ferrellsburg, fiddling, genealogy, Harts Creek, history, Huntington, Imogene Haley, John Hartford, Kentucky, Lancaster, Lawrence Haley, Liza Mullins, Liza Napier, Logan, Mud Fork, music, Nashville, Ohio, Ora Booth, Pat Haley, Peter Mullins, West Virginia, writing
By the spring of 1997, Brandon and I were at a reflective point in our research efforts. We had begun to lose our edge. After all, how many times could we ask, “Now, how did Ed Haley hold the bow?” or “Do you remember the names of any tunes he played”? We decided to step away from interviewing people and focus on writing what we knew about Ed’s life and music. I spent long hours in Nashville at my dining room table listening to Ed’s recordings and working with the fiddle, while Brandon — in his three-room house in Ferrellsburg — transcribed interviews, re-checked facts, and constructed a manuscript. This went on for quite some time.
Eventually, Brandon came to visit and we decided to telephone a few people and ask more questions. Our first call went out to Edith Dingess, the only surviving child of Ed’s uncle, Peter Mullins. Andy and Dobie Mullins had told us about her several months earlier when we visited them on Harts Creek. Edith, they said, had recently moved from her home on Mud Fork in Logan to stay with a daughter in Columbus, Ohio. When we dialed her up, her daughter said, “She might be able to give you some information. Her memory is pretty bad. She’s 81 years old and she’s had a couple of real major heart attacks.”
I first asked Edith if she knew about Ed’s mother — her aunt — who apparently died in the early 1890s. Unfortunately, Edith didn’t know anything about her. As a matter of fact, she said she barely remembered Ed, who we knew had been practically raised by her father. She said he was a “nice person, likeable” who would “laugh and joke and go on.”
“I know Ed Haley used to come to our house with Mrs. Haley and they had a little girl. Might’ve had some boys — older,” Edith said. “I believe they lived down around Huntington. They’d come up home when my dad was a living and we was all home — I was young then — and they’d play music and we’d have company. We used to have some square dances at our house. We had some good times when he come up there.”
Edith said Ed’s children led him around, but he also got around using a cane.
Before we hung up, Edith gave us the telephone number of her niece, “Little Liza,” who lived with a daughter in Lancaster, Ohio. This was wonderful; I had first heard about Little Liza from Lawrence and Pat Haley in 1991. Little Liza had grown up in Uncle Peter’s home and was a featured face in family photographs. Prior to this lead, I wasn’t even sure if she was still alive.
When we called Liza, we first spoke with her daughter, Ora Booth, who gave the familiar introduction: “I don’t know if you’ll get too much out of her or not. She’s kinda forgetful and she repeats herself a lot. All I can do is put her on the phone and see what you get out of her. She’s seventy-six and her mind just comes and goes on a lot of things.”
I told Liza that I was good friends to Lawrence and Pat Haley, had heard a lot about her, and was very interested in Ed’s life. She said Ed used to stay a week or two with Uncle Peter — who she called “Poppy” — before heading back to Ashland. To our surprise, she had no idea exactly how Ed was related to her family.
“It’s been so long and you know I’ve been sick and everything and been operated on for cancer and stuff and I just don’t feel good,” she said. “When you get old, your mind just comes and goes.”
Just when I thought Liza’s memories of Ed had all but disappeared, she said, “I tell you, he was awful bad to drink all the time. Lord, have mercy. Anything he could drink, he’d drink it. That might have been half what killed him. He was a mean man. Just mean after women and stuff. I don’t know whether he could see a bit or not, but you’d get and hide from him and he’d come towards ya. I was scared of him.”
I asked Liza who Ed played music with when he visited at Peter’s and she said, “He just played with his wife. He didn’t have nobody else to play with. Lord, him and her’d get into a fight and they’d fight like I don’t know what.”
I wondered if Ed fought with his kids.
“Yeah, they liked to killed Ed Haley one time up there,” she said. “They’d just get into a fight and the kids’d try to separate their mommy and daddy and it’d just all come up. I had to holler for Ewell to come down there and get them boys off’n Ed Haley ’cause I was afraid they’s a gonna kill him. I didn’t want that to happen, you know? He got down there and buddy he put them boys a going. They was mean. I guess they took that back after Ed Haley. Yeah, he’d come up there and go here and yonder. After Mommy and Poppy got so bad off, people’d bring him down there and set him off and I had to take care of them, so Poppy just told him, said, ‘Ed, she has to wait on us and she can’t wait on you. You’ll just have to go somewhere else.’ He did.”
That was a horrible image.
Al Brumfield, Albert Dingess, Anthony Adams, Ben Adams, Bill Brumfield, Bill's Branch, Billy Adkins, blind, Blood in West Virginia, Boardtree Bottom, Brandon Kirk, Buck Fork, Burl Farley, Carolyn Johnnie Farley, Cecil Brumfield, Charley Brumfield, Charlie Dingess, crime, Ed Haley, Fed Adkins, fiddling, French Bryant, George Fry, Green McCoy, Green Shoal, Hamlin, Harts Creek, Harve "Short Harve" Dingess, Hell Up Coal Hollow, Henderson Dingess, history, Hugh Dingess, John Brumfield, John Dingess, Kentucky, life, Lincoln County Feud, Low Gap, Milt Haley, murder, Paris Brumfield, Polly Bryant, Smokehouse Fork, Sycamore Bottom, Tom Maggard, Trace Fork, Vilas Adams, West Fork, West Virginia, Will Adkins, Williamson, writing
Al rounded up a gang of men to accompany him on his ride to fetch the prisoners in Williamson. Albert and Charlie Dingess were ringleaders of the posse, which included “Short Harve” Dingess, Hugh Dingess, John Dingess, Burl Farley, French Bryant, John Brumfield, and Charley Brumfield. Perhaps the most notorious member of the gang was French Bryant – “a bad man” who “did a lot of dirty work for the Dingesses.” On the way back from Kentucky, he tied Milt and Green by the arms and “drove them like a pair of mules on a plow line.”
“French Bryant run and drove them like a pair of horses ahead of these guys on the horses,” John said. “That’s quite a ways to let them walk. Old French, he married a Dingess. I knew old French Bryant. When he died, he was a long time dying and they said that he hollered for two or three days, ‘Get the ropes off me!’ I guess that come back to him.”
When the gang reached the headwaters of Trace Fork — what John called “Adams territory” — they sent a rider out ahead in the darkness to make sure it was safe to travel through that vicinity.
Waiting on the Brumfield posse was a mob of about 100 men hiding behind trees at Sycamore Bottom, just below the mouth of Trace Fork. This mob was led by Ben and Anthony Adams and was primarily made up of family members or people who worked timber for the Adamses, like Tom Maggard (“Ben’s right hand man”).
As the Brumfield rider approached their location, they began to click their Winchester rifles — making them “crack like firewood.” Hearing this, the rider turned back up Trace Fork, where he met the Brumfields and Dingesses at Boardtree Bottom and warned them about the danger at the mouth of Trace. They detoured safely up Buck Fork, then stopped at Hugh Dingess’ on Smokehouse where they remained for two or three days, not really sure of what to do with their prisoners. They made a “fortress” at Hugh’s by gathering about 100 men around them, fully aware that Ben Adams might make another effort to recapture Milt and Green.
While at Hugh’s, they got drunk on some of the red whiskey and apple brandy made at nearby Henderson’s. They also held a “trial” to see if Milt and Green would admit their guilt. They took one of the men outside and made him listen through the cracks between the logs of the house as his partner confessed on the inside. About then, the guy outside got loose and ran toward Bill’s Branch but was grabbed by “Short Harve” Dingess as he tried to scurry over a fence.
After this confession, the Brumfields and Dingesses considered killing Milt and Green on the spot but “got scared the Adamses was gonna take them” and headed towards Green Shoal.
John didn’t know why they chose George Fry’s home but figured Mr. Fry was a trusted acquaintance. He said they “punished” them “quite a bit there” but also got one to play a fiddle.
“These people that killed them, they made them play their last tune,” John said. “One of them would play and one guy, I think, he never would play for them. I forgot which one, but they never could get one guy to do much. The other one’d do whatever they’d tell him to do. That’s just before they started shooting them. The tune that they played was ‘Hell Up Coal Hollow’. I don’t know what that tune is.”
After that, the mob “shot their brains out” and left them in the yard where the “chickens ate their brains.”
A neighbor took their bodies through Low Gap and buried them on West Fork.
John said there was a trial over Haley and McCoy’s murders, something we’d never heard before. Supposedly, about one hundred of the Brumfields and their friends rode horses to Hamlin and strutted into the courtroom where they sat down with guns on their laps. The judge threw the case out immediately because he knew they were fully prepared to “shoot up the place.”
This “quick trial,” of course, didn’t resolve the feud. Back on Harts Creek, Ben Adams often had to hide in the woods from the Dingesses. One time, Hugh and Charlie Dingess put kerosene-dowsed cornstalks on his porch and set them on fire, hoping to drive him out of his house where they could shoot him. When they realized he wasn’t home, they extinguished the fire because they didn’t want to harm his wife and children. Mrs. Adams didn’t live long after the feud. Ben eventually moved to Trace Fork where he lived the rest of his life. Charlie never spoke to him again.
John also said there seemed to have been a “curse” on the men who participated in the killing of Haley and McCoy. He said Albert Dingess’ “tongue dropped out,” Al Brumfield “was blind for years before he died,” and Charlie Dingess “died of lung cancer.” We had heard similar tales from Johnny Farley and Billy Adkins, who said mob members Burl Farley and Fed Adkins both had their faces eaten away by cancer. Vilas Adams told us about one of the vigilantes drowning (Will Adkins), while we also knew about the murders of Paris Brumfield, John Brumfield, Charley Brumfield, and Bill Brumfield.
Just before hanging up with John, Brandon asked if he remembered Ed Haley. John said he used to see him during his younger days on Harts Creek.
“When he was a baby, old Milt wanted to make him tough and he’d take him every morning to a cold spring and bath him,” he said. “I guess he got a cold and couldn’t open his eyes. Something grew over his eyes so Milt took a razor and cut it off. Milt said that he could take that off so he got to fooling with it with a razor and put him blind.”
John said Ed made peace with a lot of the men who’d participated in his father’s killing and was particularly good friends with Cecil Brumfield, a grandson of Paris.