New Book Explores W.Va.’s Last Public Hanging, Law Changes
On November 3, 1897, John Morgan murdered three members of the Pfost-Greene family in Grass Lick, near the town of Ripley, in Jackson County, West Virginia with a hatchet.
In just six weeks, he committed the murder, was tried, convicted, escaped from jail and then was hanged in a public event.
National newspapers descended on the Mountain State and reported the story across the country. Morgan’s story changed West Virginia law and has lived on in song for more than 100 years.
Eric Douglas spoke with Merilee Fisher Matheny by Zoom about her book “Swift Justice: The Story of John Ferguson Morgan and the Last Public Hanging in West Virginia.”
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Douglas: Why was this such a national phenomenon? Why were people so interested in this situation in West Virginia?
Matheny: They have said that 1897, the year of the murders, was the year that defined American journalism. At the time, you had the big newspaper titans fighting over headlines. What were the most shocking headlines that would sell newspapers? The most shocking and titillating headlines were murderers and violence. People wanted to read about them and there were formulas they used to describe murders and their happenings.
People could sit in the coziness of their homes, beside their hearths, and hear all about it. And at the same time, there had been this huge debate nationally about the death penalty, and public hangings were being denounced all around the North. In fact, many northeastern states had moved to hide them behind walls. Ohio and New York had gone to the electric chair because they weren't going to get rid of capital punishment altogether, but they thought they were finding a more humane way to do it. West Virginia was one of the few states that still had public hangings,
Douglas: Describe the actual hanging itself. What was that day like?
Matheny: I think the best description you could find would be the New York Sun article. The editor in Ripley described it as an extremely extravagant exaggeration of weird wonders, which left out none of the details. It was a carnival; it appalled West Virginia lawmakers and the people of Ripley.
Remember, most of the people who came — about 5000 people seems to be the general consensus — had no investment other than they came for entertainment. “This might be the last hanging in West Virginia,” that's what people were saying. And they didn't want to miss out on their last opportunity. They were taking babies in arms because they wanted to be able to tell them that they had been there.
Douglas: Let's talk about the aftereffects of the hanging and what happened next in the public, in the newspapers, in the halls of the statehouse.
Matheny: Leading up to this hanging, there had been quite an editorial war with some of the northern papers and West Virginia editors. Northern newspapers were calling West Virginia a “bloody civilization.” They were saying things about our public hangings. We had just been preparing for a triple hanging in Fayetteville. And so there was all this talk about us harkening back to the days of the Roman gladiators and saying, “West Virginia enjoys dabbling in warm blood.” You know, there were really horrible things being said about our governor who was referred to as the “leader of barbarians.”
And then we had this hanging. And at that point, the editors stopped lashing out at northern newspapers and started lashing out at their own lawmakers in West Virginia saying we have no one to blame for this publicity but ourselves. You only have to read what was telegraphed to the northern papers after John Morgan's hanging to see how West Virginia is viewed by the rest of the nation.
Douglas: Talk about how this story has lived on in folklore, in music and ballads.
Matheny: It's a form of oral history. We had oral traditions before we started writing things down and that didn't go away. There were several versions of John Morgan's ballads. One was written immediately after the hanging and then of course, Tom T. Hall's version was performed by the Foggy Mountain Boys back in the 1960s. People said you could never turn on the radio in West Virginia without hearing about John Morgan. It had such a shocking traumatic impact on Grass Lick and, of course, Ripley and Jackson County, that it reverberated for years.
The book “Swift Justice: The Story of John Ferguson Morgan and the Last Public Hanging in West Virginia” is available from the Quarrier Press in Charleston, West Virginia.
This story is part of a series of interviews with authors from, or writing about, Appalachia.