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Letters from prison offer new window into Hatfield-McCoy feud

Lawrence Pierce
West Virginia state archivist Randy Marcum, a descendant of Alexander Messer, talks about letters written from prison by Messer to his daughter, Haney Prater. Messer was sentenced to life in prison in 1888 for killing Randolph McCoy Jr. during the infamous Hatfield-McCoy feud.
Lawrence Pierce
The letters were donated to the West Virginia State Archives by Messer's great-grandson, Charles Allen Reed.
To see the Alexander Messer letters online, go here.  CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In jail for more than a decade for allegedly killing a member of the McCoy family during the infamous Hatfield-McCoy feud, Alexander Messer wanted to know how his daughter was getting along.Messer sent his daughter, Haney Prater, 10 letters in the early years of the 20th century. Those letters - passed down by Prater's descendants - were given to the West Virginia State Archives earlier this summer."I am 76 years old," Charles Allen Reed, Messer's great-grandson, said during a telephone interview from his home in Gastonia, N.C., expressing happiness that West Virginia's archives accepted the letters."That is all I wanted. I did not want them to die with me. I wanted them to live and people to know a little about my great-grandfather, Alexander Messer," said Reed, who didn't even realize he had the letters until a few years ago. West Virginia archivists have since put photos of the letters online, as well as transcripts that are easier to read.Alexander Messer allegedly helped execute three McCoy brothers in 1882 in a revenge killing after Ellison Hatfield, brother of clan leader "Devil Anse" Hatfield, was shot dead. Messer reportedly shot one of the young men, Randolph McCoy Jr., himselfAfter his role in the McCoy killings, Messer was captured near the town of Big Ugly, on the Logan-Boone county line.Messer went to jail in 1888, said state archivist Debra Basham. He was tried in Pike County, Ky., and was sentenced to life in the Kentucky State Penitentiary at Eddyville, near the Illinois state line. The prison had opened there recently (and remains open).His first letter to his daughter is dated Oct. 7, 1901. Messer apparently dictated the letters he sent to his daughter, since he could not read or write. That explains the differences in handwriting and spellings of names in the letters, which spell his daughter's name as Haney Prater, Hanie Prather and Haynie Pratter, among other variations.The letters mostly contain personal details, although there are some mentions of Messer's efforts to win parole.His June 1, 1906, letter to his daughter, then living in Goodloe, Ky., said, "I am sorry to hear of your troubles; Sorry to know your mother was dead; but we all must have troubles while we are in the flesh."I want you when you get this if you know to write to me and tell me whether your mother married. Hope you are all well now and that there is less sickness in your neighborhood. ... God bless you."
Elizabeth Bowen, Messer's wife while he lived on Marrowbone Creek, was Haney's mother. State archivist Randy Marcum - who also is a Messer descendant - said Messer was married at least four times.Messer's Aug. 15, 1906, letter said, "Dear Daughter: I hope this will find you and husband and children well. I am still alive and as well as usual.
"There is no news here. Write me as soon as you can and let me know all the news of that county. It has been raining here a great deal. I hope you all are getting along well. Your Father, Alexander Messer."That same year, 1906, Messer was paroled. It didn't last; he was sent back to prison a few months later for threatening people. He ended up in the Western State Hospital in Hopkinsville, Ky., where he died in 1923 at age 85.As for how Messer ended up with the Hatfields in the first place, Marcum said, "Legend has it that Alexander Messer was a deputy sheriff and a farmer down in Perry County, Ky.Messer also was a member of the Union Army at the beginning of the Civil War and fought in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama."When he came to West Virginia, he began working for Devil Anse Hatfield, who was in the timbering business. Messer also farmed at his home on Marrowbone Creek in Mingo County," Marcum said. "Messer was one of several men who were part of firing squads. He was not related to the Hatfields, but one of their supporters."Reed, Messer's great-grandson, said he inherited the letters from his aunt, Elizabeth Compton, who lived in West Virginia. He had them for 29 years, without realizing it for most of that time.
"It was only a few years ago that I found out about them," he said. "My grandmother [Haney] never talked about it. She had the letters from 1901 through 1906 and kept them all that time until she died in 1963."Reed was born in West Virginia. His parents died before he was 3, and he was raised by an aunt and uncle in McDowell and Mingo counties before moving to North Carolina.After a North Carolina newspaper wrote about the letters earlier this summer, Reed said, he was surprised at the interest they generated. "I got letters from people in Kentucky, Indiana and California," he said. "People wanted to get a glimpse of history."Reed said he would like to hear from the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Haney Prater and her husband, Lewis Prater. He can be reached via email at"We have kids scattered all over the country," Reed said, "And some are still in Logan."Reach Paul J. Nyden at or 304-348-5164.
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