Disease may have fueled Hatfield-McCoy feud
POSTED: 5:57 p.m. EDT, April 5, 2007
Story Highlights
Hatfield-McCoy feud may have been partly caused by rare, inherited disease
Dozens of McCoy descendants appear to have Von Hippel-Lindau disease
Disease's effects can lead to hair-trigger rage, violent outbursts.

MILWAUKEE, Wiconsin (AP) -- The most infamous feud in American folklore, the long-running battle between the Hatfields and McCoys, may be partly explained by a rare, inherited disease that can lead to hair-trigger rage and violent outbursts.

Dozens of McCoy descendants apparently have Von Hippel-Lindau disease, which causes high blood pressure, racing hearts, severe headaches and too much adrenaline and other "fight or flight" stress hormones.

No one blames the disease for the whole feud, but doctors say it could help explain some of the clan's notorious behavior.

"This condition can certainly make anybody short-tempered, and if they are prone because of their personality, it can add fuel to the fire," said Dr. Revi Mathew, a Vanderbilt University endocrinologist treating one of the family members.

The Hatfields and McCoys have a storied and deadly history dating to Civil War times. Their generations of fighting over land, timber rights and even a pig are the subject of dozens of books, songs and countless jokes. Unfortunately for Appalachia, the feud is one of its greatest sources of fame.

Several genetic experts have known about the disease plaguing some of the McCoys for decades, but kept it secret. The Associated Press learned of it after several family members revealed their history to Vanderbilt doctors, who are trying to find more McCoy relatives to warn them of the risk.

One doctor who had researched the family for decades called them the "McC kindred" in a 1998 medical journal article tracing the disease through four generations.

"He said something about us never being able to get insurance" if the full family name was used, said Rita Reynolds, a Bristol, Tennessee, woman with the disease. She says she is a McCoy descendant and has documents from the doctor showing his work on her family.

She is speaking up now so distant relatives might realize their risk and get help before the condition proves fatal, as it did to many of her ancestors.

Back then, "we didn't even know this existed," she said. "They just up and died."

Von Hippel-Lindau disease, which afflicts many family members, can cause tumors in the eyes, ears, pancreas, kidney, brain and spine. Roughly three-fourths of the affected McCoys have pheochromocytomas -- tumors of the adrenal gland.

The small, bubbly-looking orange adrenal gland sits atop each kidney and makes adrenaline and substances called catecholamines. Too much can cause high blood pressure, pounding headaches, heart palpitations, facial flushing, nausea and vomiting. There is no cure for the disease, but removing the tumors before they turn cancerous can improve survival.

Rita Reynolds' adopted daughter, another McCoy descendant, 11-year-old Winnter Reynolds, just had an adrenal tumor removed at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital. Teachers thought the girl had ADHD -- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Now, Winnter says, "my parents are thinking it may be the tumor" that caused the behavior. "I've been feeling great since they took it out."

Her adoptive father has seen a difference. "Before the surgery, Winnter, when we would discipline her, she'd squeeze her fists together and get real angry and start hollering back at us, screaming and crying."

As for the older McCoys, "they just started dropping dead of the tumors," he said. "They didn't know what it was. A name wasn't really put on the disease until 1968. That's when one of my brothers-in-law had to have surgery, to have some tumors removed in his brain. They started to notice tumors occurring in each of the family members."

Dr. Nuzhet Atuk at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and geneticists at the University of Pennsylvania studied the family for more than 30 years, Rita Reynolds said.

"They went back on the genealogy and all of that stuff," she said. "They called it madness disease. They said that it had to be coming from the VHL. Our family would just go off, even on the doctors."

Now 85 and retired, Atuk said he could not talk about his work because of medical confidentiality.

Still, many are dubious that this condition had much of a role in the bitter feud with the Hatfields, which played out in the hill country of eastern Kentucky and West Virginia for decades.

"The McCoy temperament is legendary. Whether or not we can blame it on genes, I don't know," said Ron McCoy, 43, of Durham, North Carolina, one of the organizers of the annual Hatfield-McCoy reunion. "There are a lot of underpinnings that are probably a more legitimate source of conflict."

These days, the "feud" has taken a far more civil tone and all but disappeared, members of both families say. The last time it surfaced was in January 2003. McCoy descendants sued Hatfield descendants over visitation rights to a small cemetery on an Appalachian hillside in eastern Kentucky. It holds the remains of six McCoys, some allegedly killed by the Hatfields.