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.

5 Things to Look Forward to in Pikeville-Pike County, KY 2019

Without a doubt, the last several years have been incredible for tourism in Pikeville Pike County, Kentucky. According to the Kentucky Department of Travel and Tourism, tourist spending in Pike County, Kentucky has increased by over $7.2 million since 2014. This is a great sign for a region rich in heritage, culture, scenic beauty, and of course the Hatfield McCoy Feud Tour. But the greatest news is, there are no signs of slowing down. People from all across the globe are inthralled with the feud history, and the unique experiences that can only be had in Eastern Kentucky. So what can visitors expect for 2019 in Pikeville Pike County, Kentucky? Let’s take a look:

Eastern Kentucky’s first joint brewery/distillery, Dueling Barrels has made a big splash with visitors since opening in June. With each passing month, more and more experiences have been added to what has already been an experience rich attraction. A host of amazing special events have already been held there for 2018, from the Hatfields and McCoys descendants having a meet, greet & taste for Hatfield McCoy Heritage Days 2018, to a special three-course dinner with Town Branch’s Master Distiller, Mark Coffman. The popular Hoptoberfest also kicked off in 2018, as well as a variety of fun block parties, making Dueling Barrels Brewery & Distillery a place to keep an eye on for 2019.

With the addition of the Randolph McCoy statue in 2018, as well as the completion of the Hatfield McCoy historic sites restoration project, there could be further plans in the works for the popular heritage tour for 2019. Pike County Tourism CVB commissioner and McCoy Well property owner Bob Scott has spearheaded many of these improvements, and despite the red tape and hurtles that still exist, hopes to possibly have the McCoy cabins rebuilt on the legendary property, a project he has been working on for several years. While there is no promise that this will be accomplished in 2019, there is still plenty of interesting things that will no doubt become available as the year progresses.

The East Kentucky Expo Center has featured a plethora of excellent events in 2018, seeing an increase not only in the frequency of events, but variety as well. Now under new management, there are more exciting things to come for the expo in 2019, with Tri-state MX, City Rockfest and Travis Tritt with the Marshall Tucker band shows scheduled for the opening quarter. If Cirque Musica’s Wonderland is any indicator of the variety that is to come, 2019 should feature a whole slew of unique entertainment experiences at the East Kentucky Expo Center. 

Elkhorn City’s Artist Collaborative Theatre is one of Kentucky’s most award-winning community theatres, capturing a bevy of awards over the past several years for awe-inspiring performances and stage design. 2018’s schedule was packed full of standout shows, such as The Crucible, Send Me No Flowers and The Christians just to name a few. The shows currently announced for 2019 include the literary classic Desire Under the Elms and Mary Poppins Jr. Cotton Patch Gospel, (which features a live bluegrass band), along with the hilarious Beverly Hillbillies are also on tap, making 2019 an already exciting year for live theatre in Pike County, Kentucky. 

Perhaps one of the most exciting new events coming to Pikeville-Pike County in 2019 is Preservation Kentucky Tour 120, May 18-19. The focus of the Preservation Kentucky 120 event is to showcase the diverse architectural styles of Kentucky, with the Pike County Courthouse being featured as a part of a state-wide initiative. A special production of Blood Song: The Story of the Hatfields and the McCoys will be showcased at the courthouse on the May 18th. More information on this exciting event is to be announced, so stay tuned.