Hatfields, McCoys, and Mental Issues

For all the attention that political and social issues receive in historical dramas, it seems mental issues are rarely addressed.

That being said, when I started the History Channel miniseries “Hatfields and McCoys,” I had no inkling that this topic would even surface—and was wholly unprepared for what followed.

The series itself features Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton opposite one another as the respective patriarchs of the two families (Anse Hatfield and Randall McCoy) whose notorious conflict came to define our understanding of the term “feud.” As I became increasingly captivated with the complexities and plot twists, I remember thinking to myself, “Oh, I’m sure the directors added that to make it more interesting.” Parts like the forbidden love story between Johnse Hatfield and Roseanna McCoy. Some of the familial ties to judges and lawyers. Even some of the characters, who I had assumed were fictional additions, were real people with real roles in the feud.

In short, my subsequent research showed me that the History Channel did a certain amount of justice to the actual events and players in the legendary feud.

But the part that I found most emotionally difficult to watch was the portrayal of Ellison “Cottontop” Mounts, a member of the Hatfield family with some apparent mental challenges.

Against the vicious backdrop of the feud, Cottontop appears as one of the few gentle, innocent souls in the narrative. Because of his slowness and childish naivete, he remains blissfully ignorant of the bloodshed between the families until his father (Anse’s brother) is murdered. In all honesty, he was the character I cared about most, largely because of my own inherent sensitivity toward individuals with mental disabilities, but also because of how much time the directors spend framing him as a lamb-like victim—who is eventually sacrificed to end the feud.

During the series, we see Cottontop as the brunt of insults and pranks from non-family members, who condescend on him for his lower intellectual capacity.

Today, we would call this bullying, discrimination, slurring, and a host of other unsavory titles that label such actions for what they are: cruelty.

But in the 19th century boondocks, such things were common, as there was little scientific understanding of mental retardation and disabilities. 

All the same, I had to wonder: was this element of the story added for dramatic effect, or was it historically accurate? The answers I found were somewhat unsatisfactory.

While it appears Cottontop did have mental struggles, accounts vary as to whether he suffered from simply mental challenges or a more malicious form of mental illness.

The History Channel’s background publication on the feud reiterates that Cottontop was in fact mentally retarded, but they do not address in writing whether he was as innocent as his portrayal. Considering that he was hung for murdering a young McCoy girl (which the series portrays as basically an accident), a lot of ethical weight for his character hinges on whether he intended harm or was truly as oblivious as the series suggests.

What I found has some heavy ethical implications for how society treats those with mental disabilities.

According to William Keith Haltfield, a modern-day descendant of Anse Hatfield, Cottontop’s slowness led to a level of social ostracization, leaving him desperate to please his family at any cost. Some have posited that his life record indicates a darker, cruel streak that characterizes those whom we would call mentally deranged. But William Keith Hatfield attributes Cottontop’s overall disregard for his actions to an insecurity and desire for acceptance, commenting,He never really considered the people he hurt or the pain he might cause others.”

Which is still a step above his family, who consciously worked to inflict harm and vengeance.

Even though Cottontop’s innocence and obliviousness was likely embellished for dramatic effect, I still find his involvement in the feud one of the saddest, most disturbing parts of the whole story. Regardless of the degree to which he experienced mental challenges or illness, the History Channel series does an effective job of capturing the contagiousness and tragedy of violent revenge. And I think it’s a reminder of the fact that, although everyone is responsible for the choices they make, we have to be mindful of how society influences those who are more mentally vulnerable.

Does withholding of social acceptance drive outcasts to desperate measures? Sometimes.

Does condescension on those with specific challenges lead them to de-value themselves? Sometimes.

But at the end of the day, there is still individual responsibility. Social pressure does not relieve people of their personal accountability. And yet the way we handle people who are vulnerable can play a huge role in their life trajectory—and it can either exculpate us from their poor choices, or incriminate us for exploiting them.

And that is something that holds true in every generation and culture.

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