The pipe-smoker's mythology and persona grows more complex

It is hard to imagine that pipe smokers and collectors are so hungry to attach celebrity to pipe-smoking that they would draw inspiration from the likes of Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield, the infamous patriarch of West Virginia’s Hatfield clan. Nevertheless, the History Channel’s superb mini-series chronicling the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys has prompted not only broad critical acclaim for the series, itself, but also considerable interest in the pipe smoked by Kevin Costner in what, for him, is a particularly memorable performance.

Costner is not only convincing in his portrayal of Hatfield, but he also manages to smoke his character’s stubby cutty like a long-time pipe smoker. By way of contrast, other pipe-smoking characters in film and television handle their pipes like foreign objects. It’s not hard for an experienced pipe man to spot a novice; Costner is no novice. At least he appears experienced.

Like most of my pipe smoking friends, I found myself doing a lot of research into the Hatfield-McCoy war, principally to discover how accurate the show was in depicting the bellicose yarn about a feud that nearly prompted an armed conflict between the states of Kentucky and what would become West Virginia.

The more I read, the more impressed I was with the accuracy of the story, at least on a writ-large basis. The facts about who was killed by whom in what order conformed with historical accounts. Of course, the art of the story cannot be found in the facts. It is found in how the characters are conceived by the actors and the director.

Some romancing of the character cannot help but creep in. It is an actor’s job to seduce his or her audience into relating with and understanding the character, if not actually liking him or her. We understand a person’s character in paradoxes and in tensions between aspects of a person. These aspects are often internally inconsistent and seemingly unexplainable.

The real Captain Anderson “Devil Anse” HatfieldHow, for example, could a father who cherished his children fail to understand how killing another father’s children would prompt an insatiable bloodlust? That question lies at the heart of the conflict between the Hatfields and the McCoys. Finding them dead, their corpses tethered to paw paw bushes, conjured what can only be described as Ranel McCoy’s desire for Old Testament vengeance.

Likewise, how could either family not understand the desire for love and marriage between Roseanna McCoy and Johnsie Hatfield? The two families’ absolute rejection of their desire to be together made the story one of mountain Montagues and country Capulets. Theirs was a bloodier and longer conflict than even Shakespeare might have imagined.

Kevin Costner’s pipe-smoking Devil Anse Hatfield was clearly at the center of the story. Bellicose and belligerent as he was, Costner made the character sympathetic at times, even in the context of a relentless, hard-boiled, unforgiving narrative – one of which he not only was a part, but also an author. Nowhere, by the way, did I find any hard evidence that Devil Anse actually smoked a pipe, but I assume that the writers uncovered it, and that he did, in fact, smoke a pipe.

I found myself liking Devil Anse in spite of myself. I even found myself understanding him. Every time he lit his pipe, or gestured with it, I found myself trying to see it better as if understanding its shape might help me better understand him.

Rad Davis’ take on the Devil Anse pipe shape (photo courtesy Rad Davis)Maybe this is where the new pipe-smoking mythology arises from. Costner’s portrayal is far from the thoughtful C.S. Lewis who so many of us admire. He is likewise universes different from J.R.R. Tolkein and so many other pipe-icons of days past.

But, he is no less compelling. Maybe this is why we see pipemaker Rad Davis already making and marketing his Devil Anse shape.

The mythology of the pipe smoker grows. And this time, the character is far more complex and not nearly so sympathetic.

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Reader Comments (11)

Excellent piece, Mr. Roan. I was not familiarized with this production. I would only add that Kevin Costner had already played the role of at least one other pipe smoking character: the New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, in the 1991 film JFK. Although he smokes the same billiard throughout most of the movie, there is a scene showing a small pipe rack in his office. It's a very subtle use of the pipe, at times it even seems like he isn't smoking at all but merely holding the pipe in his hand. In any case I'm fairly certain that Costner is much more comfortable with the pipe now than he was twenty years ago.
June 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBruno de Figueiredo
Although it has no references to Anse Hatfield's pipe smoking, I can recommend Lisa Alther's new book: Blood Feud: The Hatfields & the McCoy's: The Epic Story of Murder and Vengeance. She gave a reading and talk last night at our local library. I've only begun to read it myself, but it's a fascinating story thus far. Lisa was born here in Upper East Tennessee and is distantly related to the McCoy clan, but she bends over backwards to present a balanced and fair account of the feud and the people of the Tug Fork River Valley.

I'm also happy to see Rad Davis' take on the pipe Costner used throughout the series. I hope other pipemakers take up the challenge and do their own versions of the shape.

If anyone out there can find out where the original pipe was purchased, I'd really like to know. I been searching for the e-mail address for the Property Master, Alexandru Dinca, but have had no luck. I'd really like to get one of the originals for my collection.
June 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTerry Carpenter
Excellent Article, Neill!! I live roughly 2 miles away from Devil Anse's home on Island Creek in the community of Sarah Ann. The History Channel did a wonderful job in depicting Devil Anse, the Hatfield Clan, and McCoy Clan. Devil Anse is actually a cousin of mine; However, I was not aware that he ever smoked a pipe. That shows we learn something new everyday!
Best Wishes!
June 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterElijah C. Hooker
I wish it was a more interesting actor smoking a pipe. Perhaps Kevin Spacey or Morgan Freeman, or Josh Brolin. Now, to me, those are interesting fellows.
But best of all would be Carmen Diaz and Penelope Cruz!

Had to go a bit lowbrow here folks - but it would be great to have a laudable hero smoking a pipe on the big screen.
I wish the "Twilight" vampires would have a nice bowl after a big "meal". 8^)
-we could use an influx of younger blood. ( sorry)
Thanks for all your work over the past half-decade Neil!!
June 9, 2012 | Unregistered Commentersteve morrisette
How does anyone know that Anse smoked a pipe? How do we even know that some researcher found that he did? They could simply have written it into the script since it wasn't unusual for people to smoke pipes in those days in that area of the country. My ancestors moved to that area after arriving in this country. I'm from Tennessee and remember a lot of clays and cobs being smoked. By women as well as men. Kentucky, West Virginia, North Carolina and folks covered a lot of ground and it seems they liked tobacco and many of them liked their pipe. Nothing unusual at all about it. Is the big deal the fact that Costner smoked one in his role as Anse?
June 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChuckMac
That's a really cool pipe. Further, I enjoyed the series very much and can honestly say it was the first time - ever - I thought Kevin Costner did a fantastic job acting. All of his other movies have him acting and sounding exactly the same - like someone was holding up cards off camera for him to read. His portrayal of Devil Anse Hatfield was his best character, IMO, and he did seem very natural with the pipe.
June 11, 2012 | Registered CommenterAdam Davidson
I'll happy take just about any depiction we can get of pipe smoking in popular culture.
June 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRick H.
Great post Neill. I haven't seen all of the series yet, but I have already pre-ordered the DVD's and look forward to a marathon veiwing when they come in. I noticed that Chris Askwith also did a take on the Devil Anse pipe and is planning on making more. I might just have to get one.
June 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMark Hendren
Elias ("Good 'Lias) Hatfield was my great-grandfather, and Anse, therefore, my great-great uncle. I know that Anse was a smoker. There is an article (circa 1920) in an early issue of Confederate Veteran magazine in which the author visits Hatfield, and mentions his pipe smoking; in fact, he refers to Capt. Hatfield as a "great smoker." I have no idea what kind of pipe he smoked, but I imagine it was a clay pipe. My father was born in 1915, and for a while in his boyhood lived with Elizabeth Hatfield, Elias' widow. Dad told me that one of his evening chores was to clean her clay pipe, and to put it to soak in clean water overnight. He said she believed that practice lead to a cooler and more enjoyable smoke the following morning. With this in mind, I figure they all smoked clay pipes. As a point of interest (not mentioned in the show) Elias and Anse married sisters...Elizabeth and Levisa Chafin. Anyway, I hope this sheds some light on the subject.
June 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSeth White
nice movie an all the actors done a great job, I wish someone from the movie props and or costumes would just tell us what kind of pipe it was...
September 2, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermike hatfield
In the interview Kevin Costner did with 'Cowboys and Indians' Magazine he said: " I had to make a decision between this little corn cob pipe and this little almond one -- and I took the almond one." I don't know anything about pipes so I don't know if this is helpful information to those wondering what pipe he used.
October 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJanet

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