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Scoop Opinion: The Origins Of Offence

When Prime Minister, Helen Clark, made her now infamous remarks about West Coaster's, she included a comment that Coaster's had lynch-mob mentalities, like Kentucky. That set me thinking about the origins of the comment. John Howard writes.

When Helen Clark made the comments about West Coasters it caused outrage which is still echoing through the country. Afterall, the children and relatives of many Coaster's live and work across New Zealand.

Coasters didn't see themselves as anything like Kentuckian's and worse, many of them took her comments to mean she was lumping them in with people like the Ku Klux Klan.

But the PM's comments also caused mirth and finger-pointing against Coasters from other areas of New Zealand - and it still does.

So what could be the origins of the "lynch mob mentalities like Kentucky," comment.

It is likely to be the historic fued between the Hatfields and the McCoys which has been immortalised by Hollywood film-makers.

It's not entirely clear what started the fued between the families of Randolph McCoy of Kentucky and William Anderson "devil anse" Hatfield of West Virginia.

But competition over timber in the mountainous area and a pig a McCoy accused a Hatfield of stealing escalated tensions.

On election day 1882, three of the McCoy sons fatally shot and stabbed Ellison Hatfield. Devil Anse Hatfield and others got revenge by tying the three McCoys to pawpaw bushes along a riverbank and killing them.

Newspaper reporters were sent from across America to cover the conflict with the families often portrayed as illiterates who carried guns and settled things with violence.

The fued left 12 people dead and cemented the image of Appalachia in Kentucky as a place full of hillbillies with guns.

The lasy victim of the fued was Ellison Mounts, who was rumoured to be the illegitimate son of Ellison Hatfield. He was hanged in Pikeville in 1900 for taking part in a raid that left two McCoys dead.

"I think probably more than any other single event it helped to set the stage in the popular mindset for many of the negative images that have persisted," said Ron Eller, director of the Appalachian Centre at the University of Kentucky.

After the fighting ended the fued was mostly treated with silence by family members.

"They'd been really berated and degraded in the press as being wild, backward hillbillies," said Altina Waller, author of "Fued: Hatfields, McCoys and Social Change in Appalachia,1860-1900

"They wanted it wiped out and not to talk about it."

But now, a hundred years after the end of the legendary fued, the Hatfields and the McCoys are getting together this weekend for their first reunion - and they're leaving the shotguns behind.

Two thousand descendants are expected to attend, as well as thousands of others, including the Governors of Kentucky and West Virginia.

The only confrontation this time will come during a tug-of-war and a softball game between the families.

"I expect the public will come to see us slug it out on the softball field," said Bo McCoy.

The families say the goal is to learn about their shared history.

There will be banquets, bus tours to fued sites, bluegrass and gospel music, an arts and crafts festival and lectures about the fued and how it helped perpetuate stereotypes of the people of Appalachia and Kentucky.

"We want people to see where the families have actually gone," said Sonya Hatfield, a teacher.

"We are not ignorant, illiterate hillbillies who killed each other over a pig," she said.

It was the McCoys who made the first peace overture - though, in truth, hostilities ended in 1900 and any hard feelings were long gone.

But, after all this time, the myths, legends and negativity about Kentucky still persists in America - and even in the mind of our Prime Minister and some of her Labour colleagues.


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