Hatfields & McCoys: Remembering “Cotton Top”

Ellison “Cotton Top” Mounts was hanged in Pikeville, Kentucky on February 18, 1890. Cotton Top was one of the last people to be hanged in Pike County, and many believe his hanging was the final incident of the infamous Hatfields & McCoys feud.

In my 8 years as Marketing Director of Pike County Tourism CVB, I have had the privilege of speaking with descendants, historians and feud experts on the lesser known tales of the feud. Some painted Cotton Top as a victim, an innocent boy with a mental condition that prevented him from truly realizing the horror that he caused. Others characterized Cotton as a vicious man, who was a loose cannon, eager to earn his place among his Hatfield kin. Each story was told with such a fever that one would think the storyteller knew Cotton personally.

So, in remembering Cotton Top, I feel it would be best to let a descendant of the Hatfields share his perspective on who Cotton was, and how the family, from his perspective, views this complex character from feud lore. So I reached out to William Keith Hatfield, descendant of Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield, who has spent many years tracing his family’s lineage and studying the intricacies of the feud story.

The Site of Cotton Top Mount’s hanging is open to visitors, and features an historic marker detailing the circumstances around Cotton Top’s hanging.

The Real “Cotton Top” Mounts

1. Who was the real Cotton Top, as compared to how he is portrayed in stories and media? Was he a ruthless man? Was he consumed with proving that he belongs as a “true Hatfield”?

He was a man full of pain and the desire to belong. He was never fully accepted by the Hatfields. He was the butt of jokes and rough horseplay. He was rather slow and developmentally challenged. He was not so much ruthless, as he was just unaware. In his desire to belong and to be accepted, he would do bad things for the Hatfields, either at their direction, or, if he thought it would bring him their favor. He never really considered the people he hurt or the pain he might cause others.

2. Are there any elements to the story of Cotton Top that is not widely known?

(Concerning the 1888 New Year’s Night Massacre) Cotton Top was made fun of for the way he tried to disguise his voice as he called out to the McCoy cabin inhabitants. The Hatfield’s laughter was incongruent with the grim business of what they were about to do. Cotton Top was teased about this and mocked by the others using disguised voices long after the raid. Also, Cotton Top was the most easily recognized that night. Alifair knew who he was by his hair right away.

3. How does the Hatfields remember Cotton Top? 

A poor addled boy, a victim of pain and illegitimacy.

4. Was Cotton Top’s execution necessary to end the feud?

No. It did cause the McCoys to urge Randall to give it up. The Hatfield move to Sarah Ann, the pressing problem of caring for Aunt Sally, the lack of funds to continue the bounty hunter incursions, and the lack of enthusiasm from the law in pursuing Ran’ls vendetta, all would have ended it without the hanging.

With so many questions, what if’s and strong opinions, we may never know the full story of Cotton Top. But it is important that we never forget the price of unforgiveness, the ramifications of a vendetta gone too far, and the victims such things leave in its wake. On February 18, 1890, yet another life was claimed by the feud, and it serves as a reminder that anything, left unchecked, can spiral out of control.

William Keith Hatfield

William Keith Hatfield is the pastor of Charity Baptist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he has served for thirty-six years. After he moved Charity from its traditional building into a nine-apartment project, it now ministers to many broken and poor people. William and his wife, Sharon, have six children and thirteen grandchildren.