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Swift Justice
Swift Justice: The Story of John Ferguson Morgan and the Last Public Hanging in West Virginia

Our Price: $21.95
Pages: 235
Trim: 6 x 9
Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 978-194229412-2

The Story of John F. Morgan and the Last Public Hanging in West Virginia

By Merrilee Fisher Metheny

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? More than a century later so many questions remain…but so do tantalizing clues…

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…


What makes a story so compelling when you know the ending, the characters are familiar, and you have heard of the events all your life? It’s a writer who has collected material from a wide variety of sources (many not seen before) and has woven an account of the happenings that is a real page turner. It leaves you questioning everything you have heard about the Pfost-Greene murders and the young man hanged for the crime." - Maxine Landfried



Author to discuss book about public hanging

JUN 12, 2019




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.”

Along with refreshments, attendees of the signing at the Ripley branch of the library, at 208 North Church St., will be able to purchase books from Matheny for $21.99.

For more information visit the Jackson County Library’s web site at jackson.park.lib.wv.us or call 304-372-5343.

New Book Explores WVa's Last Public Hanging, Law Change

Interview from WV Public Broadcasting October 27, 2020
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.