This date in 1897 marked the last public hanging in the history of West Virginia.
The chief character in the dramatic milestone was a fellow named John Morgan,* condemned for murdering an aged widow named Chloe Greene and her two children near Ripley, W. Va. It was a mean trick indeed, as Mrs. Greene had taken in Morgan when the latter was an orphan, and raised him to manhood; Morgan had married and moved out of the house, but was on good terms with his adoptive family.
On the morning of November 3, as Mrs. Greene’s children James Greene and (by a previous husband) Alice and Matilda Pfost puttered around with their routine chores, Morgan — having spent the night at the house — suddenly took up a hatchet and started slashing. Matilda and James were slain, along with the 70-year-old Mrs. Greene; Alice survived a skulll-fracturing bash from the hatchet and managed to escape when her assailant turned his attention to her sister. Were it not for Alice’s eventual testimony, the author of this ghastly and seemingly purposeless carnage might never have been known. As best one could determine, he butchered his lifelong benefactors for no better reason than to steal the $56 they had in the house thanks to the recent sale of some horses.
Wheeling Register, Nov. 6, 1897.
In a triumph of the “speedy trial” system, Morgan was condemned a mere two days after the murder — “one meting out the swiftest justice to a murderer ever known in the annals of criminal history in West Virginia,” the admiring Wheeling Register reported on Nov. 6. (Not neglecting to note that a greater delay might have invited the verdict of Judge Lynch.)
He hanged just six weeks after that, but proved himself a cool customer in that short time. He sold a confession of the crime for $25, so that he could afford a suit to wear on the gallows … and then made a brave bid to balk gibbet and suit alike of its big occasion.
Boston Journal, Dec. 4, 1897.
It seems that one evening about two weeks before his scheduled (and, since we already know how this ends, his actual) death, Morgan was playing checkers in the jail corridor with one of his guards. He made a great show of exhaustion, and when the guard ducked out to pick up Morgan’s supper, Morgan stuffed a dummy into his bed in a posture of deep sleep, then climbed himself on top of the cell while the guard quietly left the meal for his “sleeping” captive. Once the cell was locked up for the night, Morgan just slipped right out.
The escape was not discovered until morning, but Morgan was recaptured after only a couple of days abroad — not nearly enough to interfere with the execution. His bravado cracked at the end; press reports have him in a state of collapse on that morning. “The scene in the jail this morning beggars description,” the Baltimore Sun reported on Dec. 17. “His spiritual advisers were praying, singing and pleading with the doomed man to surrender his soul to its Maker, while Morgan was a pitching, crying, agonizing man.” He managed to pull himself together well enough to die game.
If only Morgan’s avarice could have abided a little patience! December 16 would have been an excellent day to rob the good citizens of Jackson county, since practically all of them — a reported 5,000 souls at least — turned out for the first hanging in that locale for 47 years. (Ripley had only 700 residents and not nearly enough rooms to handle the swell, so impromptu campings sprang up all around the outskirts of town.)
Baltimore Sun, Dec. 17, 1897.
The uncouth scene, with the usual horror of drinking and carousing even compassing 2,000 women unladylike enough to present themselves led West Virginia to abolish public executions in 1898.
* His actual name by birth was John Raines. Perversely, he used the surname of a man whom his father, Andy Raines, had murdered when Raines was a tot; it was because his father was subsequently killed resisting capture that Raines/Morgan was an orphan.