1897: John Morgan, the last public hanging in West Virginia

Add comment December 16th, 2015 Headsman

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.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions,USA,West Virginia

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1875: John Morgan, slasher

Add comment March 30th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1875, a private named John Morgan was hanged for murdering his fellow.

The London Times reported the trial (March 12, 1875: Morgan did not outlive his victim by so much as a month) thus:

THE SHORNCLIFFE MURDER

Home Circuit.
Maidstone, March 11.
Crown Court.– (Before Mr. Justice Denman.)

The Court was occupied all day with a trial for murder — a case of a very remarkable character.

John Morgan, a private in the 82d Regiment, was indicted for the murder of Joseph Foulstone, another private in the same regiment, at Shorncliffe, on Saturday last.

Mr. Biron and Mr. Denny were for the prosecution; Mr. Norman, at the desire of the learned Judge, defended the prisoner, and was assisted by Mr. Grubb.

The prisoner Morgan and Foulstone, the deceased, were quartered at Shorncliffe. The prisoner and Foulstone occupied the same “hut,” No. 26. At 9 o’clock on the night of last Saturday they were in the same room together, with two boys and a man named Reader, who was fast asleep, sleeping off the effects of drunkenness. Just after 9 the prisoner asked one of the boys to go and get him some sweets, giving him a shilling for the purpose, and when he was gone told the other boy to go and get him some sauce. When they left the hug Foulstone was reading near a bed (not the one on which Reader was sleeping, but another one). Almost immediately afterwards a man named Brown, in the next hut, was horrified at seeing Foulstone, the deceased, coming staggering towards him, holding his throat with both hands and the blood gushing from it rapidly. He motioned for writing materials and wrote something not in evidence. [n.b. — he wrote “Morgan done it” -ed.] The attempts to stop the flow of blood from his throat were vain, and in a minute or two he dropped his head and died. The prisoner was found in his hut, standing over a can of water, evidently in the act of washing. There were marks of blood on his shirt, and one of his sleeves was wet as if recently washed. There were also drops of blood on his coat and trousers and boots. When brought into the presence of the dying man the latter motioned with his hands towards him. The prisoner said, “I did not do it; he did it himself,” and that was the defence set up. The evidence of the surgeon, however, went to show that the wound was such as the deceased could not have inflicted himself. There was a clean fresh cut on the prisoner’s thumb, and there were cuts both on the left and right hand of the deceased. A razor covered with blood was found in the hut, and was evidently the weapon with which the wound was inflicted.

The suicide story seemed so far-fetched that the jury had little difficulty reaching its verdict. In time, Morgan did confess to the crime; according to the London Times of March 31, 1875 he admitted the motive for it only to his chaplain and under a strict seal of confidentiality — an unusual stricture that can’t but put one in the mind of a scandalous subtext like the love that dare not speak its name.


Since consummate professional hangman William Marwood was busy long-dropping Morgan at Maidstone Gaol, a yokel named George Incher had to be recruited to carry out a simultaneous execution at Stafford Gaol. Twenty-three-year-old John Stanton had murdered his uncle in a quarrel earlier that month, and spent his last weeks pleading contrition for this family tragedy to anyone who would listen; this non-Marwood hanging used the old “short drop”, which meant that Morgan just strangled to death.

Part of the Daily Double: Victorian Soldiery.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Soldiers

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