Skip directly to content

Justified and the Family Blood Feuds of Kentucky

on Wed, 05/11/2011 - 00:00

During the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, the backwoods of Kentucky were inflicted with various feuds between warring families in the region. These personal vendettas ran rampant but burned themselves out over short periods of time as the main antagonists inevitably died during the bloodletting. While the majority of these feuds have subsided from memory, the decades-long conflict between the Hatfields and McCoys has evolved into a national folklore and become intimately associated with the history of the state. The FX drama Justified, which features an Old West-style US Marshal assigned to the Eastern Kentucky area where he was raised, mined that history during the show’s second season by highlighting a still-simmering feud between the fictitious families of Raylan Givens and those of criminal matriarch Mags Bennett.

While the conflict between the Hatfields and McCoys was not sparked by any singular event but a succession of smaller disputes that eventually boiled over—including an alleged theft of a hog and drunken election day fisticuffs—the feud between the Bennetts and the Givens on Justified had a clear-cut starting point during the era of Prohibition. “Bennetts were running moonshine across the state line and agents busted them,” Raylan Givens explains midway through the season. “They got it in their heads it was the Givens tipped the Feds. My great uncle Harold took a bullet to the chest and back and forth it went.”

In his book The Hatfields and the McCoys (University Press of Kentucky, 1982), author Otis K. Rice explores the infamous feud between the two notorious families by not only offering an historical reconstruction of events but a deeper understanding of the times and culture in which it took place. “Of considerable importance to an understanding of the vendetta are the characteristics and background of the two families, the nature of the environment in which they lived, the social mores of the Kentucky and West Virginia mountains, the prevailing economic patterns, the viability of political and social institutions, and even the impact of outside influences in perpetuating the feud once it started,” he writes. The same holds true for the bad blood depicted on Justified.

The Harlan County of the series is a rugged terrain with an economy stimulated by coal mining, an equally harsh profession. The majority of the local law enforcement, including Sheriff Hunter Mosley and Chief of Police Doyle Bennett, are corrupt and the criminal element is more-or-less allowed to run rampant in the region. The Bennetts, for instance, control the weed business with “a good thousand acres from here to West Virginia” to grow and cultivate marijuana. They also do not tolerate anyone infringing upon their enterprise and are not above taking violent actions against those who cross them.

Raylan Givens’ father Arlo, meanwhile, is a more well-rounded criminal. “It’s not every day I run across a man who’s been a leg-breaker and a grifter,” Chief Deputy Marshal Art Mullen remarks in season one of Justified, and the observation proves accurate as the elderly Givens is still capable of pulling scams, beating younger thugs with a baseball bat and conniving his way to a personal advantage regardless of the situation. It was this kind of environment that Raylan Givens was able to escape from at a young age, only to be drawn back years later when he is assigned to the Lexington office of the US Marshal Service.

The feud between the Bennetts and the Givens had even ensnared Raylan 20 years earlier after a run in with Mags’ son Dickie during a high school baseball game. “I was playing for Everetts, Dickie was pitching for Bennett,” he explains of the altercation. “I had already gotten two hits off him. So I come up a third time and Dickie’s first pitch was just Linda Ronstadt, you know, just ‘blew-by-you.’ Then the second pitch I got a hold of but it went foul. The third pitch Dickie put right into my head. I hit the dirt. When I looked up the benches had cleared and Dickie was pulling his foot back, put his cleats in my face. I just picked up the bat, swung it, got my third hit. Made his left leg bend sideways at the knee.”

Dickie is one of three sons belonging to Mags Bennett, with Doyle and Coover being the other two. While Doyle evolved into a level headed, albeit criminally minded, offspring, the same cannot be said of Dickie and Coover. Throughout the early episodes of season two, the duo are often seen drinking and getting high while also trying to secretly expand the illegal activities of the Bennett family—much to the annoyance of their mother.

“The upbringing of the mountain boy requires special notice,” Otis Rice observes in The Hatfields and the McCoys. “He often grew up untempered by strong parental or social discipline and with ‘neither training nor example in self-control.’ Sometimes his father, in furious temper, whipped him, and at times his exasperated mother carried out an oft-made threat to ‘wear him out with a hickory,’ but most of the time he remained free to follow his own impulses.”

The Bennetts boys, meanwhile, grew up fatherless. “I had every intention of living a simple life,” Mags remarks to Raylan Givens. “Raising my boys, keeping house. Then Purvis got killed and I accepted this role. Did what I had to do for my family.” Despite such noble intentions, Coover and Dickie Bennett still developed socially in much the same fashion as Randolph McCoy and Devil Anse Hatfield and other children born in pre-Civil War Kentucky. While they did not have a father with a “furious temper” who “whipped them,” their mother dispensed her own brand of tough love nonetheless. During season two, for instance, Mags Bennett takes a hammer and beats the left hand of Coover after he defies one of her edicts. “I’m saving your gun hand,” she tells him. “Cross me again and I will leave you nothing.”

It is neither Mags Bennett nor Arlo Givens who resurrects the feud between the two families on Justified but their wayward sons instead. Raylan Givens reignites the animosity when he shoots Coover in order to protect a 14-year-old girl whose father had been murdered by the Bennett clan. While Mags makes an agreement with Raylan’s Aunt Helen to not seek revenge, Dickie find the arrangement unacceptable. “Do I need to remind us that a Givens murdered a Bennett here?” he incredulously asks. Dickie later escalates the conflict when he shoots and kills Aunt Helen, causing Raylan Givens in turn to be the one to now seek vengeance. “This is who we are,” the US Marshal tells Dickie after dragging him into the woods in order to execute him. “This is who we’ve always been. Givens, Bennetts, going on what? Nearly a 100 years now. And this is how it ends.” Raylan, however, ultimately backs down and allows Dickie to live.

The blood feuds in the region during the Nineteenth Century abruptly came to a halt with the advent of railroads and the coal mining industry—with so much money on the line, bloodshed was no longer seen as good for business. Ironically enough, a deal between Mags Bennett and a national coal company unwittingly serves the same purpose on Justified. The Bennett matriarch had originally intended to leave the criminal life behind following the transaction. This left a void within Harlan County, however, one that both Dickie Bennett and Boyd Crowder, with the assistance of Arlo Givens, separately hoped to fill. The resulting “war” between the two factions led to yet another Bennett death, that of Doyle Bennett, as well the arrest of Dickie Bennett at the hands of the US Marshals.

Although the Bennetts can easily be considered the equivalent of the Hatfields on Justified, given their superior numbers and the family’s status as a respected pillar of the local community, in the end Mags Bennett is reduced to the role of Randolph McCoy, who lost five of his own children at the hands of his sworn enemy. While McCoy lived out his later years as a ferry operator filled with woe and anguish, Mags Bennett apparently had no intentions of doing the same. “We should end this feud now the way it should have ended a long time ago,” she tells Raylan Givens in the final episode of season two. Unbeknownst to the US Deputy Marshal, however, she speaks those words after giving herself a lethal dose of poison hidden in a glass of homemade moonshine.

“Put an end to my troubles... get to see my boys again... get to the know the mystery,” she softly continues as her life fades away, bringing conclusion to not only the sophomore effort of Justified but the Bennett-Givens feud as well—a peaceful ending after so many years of violence.

Anthony Letizia

Follow Geek Pittsburgh: Facebook - Twitter - RSS Feed