November 3rd, 1897: It is well before dawn in a prosperous little farming community in Jackson County, West Virginia, and the livestock has begun to stir as young Jimmy Greene puts on his jacket and heads out into the dark. His mother Chloe tidies up her bedroom while his half-sisters, Alice and Tillie, add more wood to the kitchen stove and set about making biscuits. What may seem like a normal morning on the Pfost-Greene farm is anything but. These people have only minutes to live. Before the sun rises three members of the prominent family will lie dead or dying, and a young woman will run screaming through the cornfields, blood dripping from the hatchet wound to her head.
This is the story of a young man who, if not exactly the boy next door, was viewed up until the day he went horribly wrong, as having reasonably good character. Yet in the speediest execution of justice ever witnessed in the state, John Ferguson Morgan was captured, indicted, tried, and sentenced to hang despite the frantic efforts of his attorney. He then made a dramatic escape, leading law enforcement on a harrowing chase. Ultimately he met the hangman before a crowd of thousands in a carnival-like spectacle that shocked the nation.
How did a likeable young farmhand suddenly transform into a terrifying ax murderer? Was there an accomplice as he claimed? Was justice really served?
This is a dead man’s tale. In the fall of 1897 John Morgan picked up a hatchet and murdered three members of a prominent family in Jackson County, West Virginia and did his best to murder a fourth, who fortunately survived to bear witness. Within three days Morgan was captured, indicted, tried, and sentenced to hang, despite his attorney’s efforts to mount an insanity defense. He then escaped from the Ripley jail, leading law enforcement officers on a merry chase, while the community lived in terror. Ultimately, he met the hangman in a spectacle that shocked the nation. No one ever discovered what drove this likeable young farmhand to commit murder, yet more than a century later tantalizing clues remain…
Author to discuss book about public hanging
JUN 12, 2019
CHAD ADKINS, Reporter – firstname.lastname@example.org
RIPLEY — On Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Ripley branch of the Jackson County Library, Merrilee Matheny, of Liberty, will be signing copies of her new book “Swift Justice: the Story of John Ferguson Morgan and the Last Public Hanging in West Virginia.”
Matheny said the non-fictional story focuses on a case from 1897 in Jackson County that caught the attention of the entire country, and how its aftermath changed the state forever.
Matheny said the story behind the case started when John Morgan initially met the Pfost-Greene family, that he ended up murdering six years after the introduction.
“He had been fostered by the family,” she said. “He had grown up with them since he was about 16.”
Matheny said after leaving the home as an adult, Morgan became an upstanding member of society. He married and became a father before his wife began complaining that he was acting odd. His peculiar behavior culminated in the fall of 1897 with the murder of the family that took him in as a teenager.
On Nov. 3 of that year, Matheny said, Morgan went to the Pfost-Greene farm and found the oldest son Jimmy Greene in the hog pen where Morgan bludgeoned him to death. She said Morgan then entered the house and found a hatchet used to butcher animals and attacked the other two adult children.
After he struck Alice Pfost with the hatchet, he turned his attention to her mother Chloe and sister Tilly, who Matheny said fought back against their assailant in almost every room in the home before they were consumed by Morgan’s brutality. But Alice survived her attack and was able to go to a neighbors home and report the murder which led to Morgan’s arrest.
Matheny explained that Morgan’s defense lawyer tried in vain to explain that his client was innocent by reason of insanity, but due to a very short timetable, he was unable to get his point across to the jury.
“About 400 to 500 people showed up and made it clear to do it quickly or they would do it themselves,” she said.
She said the intent of the people must have been obvious to the court because testimony in Morgan’s trial lasted two hours with a guilty verdict only taking 23 minutes for the jury to decide.
Matheny said the case made national headlines due to its brutality, and Morgan’s public execution by hanging on Dec. 16 of that year brought disdain upon the people of West Virginia.
The carnival atmosphere of the hanging was a shock to the nation as a crowd size estimated to be between 4,000 and 5,000 people gathered at the site of the current high school football stadium to witness the execution.
“The stereotype of ‘hillbilly’ was just starting,” she said. “We were at a new century with one foot in industry and one in rural frontier community.”
She said the frivolous nature of the event cast a bad shadow over the state causing the state government to combat the image almost immediately.
“Newspapers around the country portrayed the people of West Virginia as savages for still having public executions,” she said. “Very soon after that, the state Senate made them illegal.”
John Faria, director for the Jackson County Public Library, said it was a rarity to have a book signing at the library from a local author.
“To have somebody that actually lives in the area come in and sign books…that doesn’t happen too often,” he said.
Faria said the notoriety of the hanging along with the correlation to state law makes the book a poignant reminder of West Virginia’s past.
“It became a major event, a spectacle almost,” he said. “It’s of major historical significance in the state.”