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‘The Last Gallows’ depicts final public hanging in WV

By Staff | Jun 27, 2018

Most murder mysteries are based on the premise of “who done it.”

It was generally accepted, however, that John F. Morgan committed the 1897 triple murder of a prominent Jackson County family. The mystery in this case was why the 22-year-old orphan brutally slaughtered three members of the Pfost-Greene family that had cared for him.

The story leading to West Virginia’s final public execution is told in a new documentary dramatization that was written, filmed and features local residents. It was produced by the Ripley Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Two showings have already been held in Ripley of “The Last Gallows: John Morgan’s Farewell.” Matinees will be held in the historic Alpine Theatre at 2 p.m. on Saturday, June 30 and 2 p.m. Sunday, July 1.

“It is a tragic, but fascinating story that gained national attention and had legal ramifications across the state,” said Mike Ruben, CVB director. “This event took place 120 years ago, but it continues to be a topic of discussion.”

Some attribute the brutal hatchet attacks to mental illness while others allude to money matters or even a love interest.

Morgan’s trial in the Jackson County Courthouse attracted newspaper coverage from New York, Baltimore, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. The murders took place in southern Jackson County during the early morning hours of Dec. 3, 1897. With leadership by Circuit Judge Reese Blizzard, the accused was captured, indicted, tried, convicted and sentenced to hang within a week.

Business phenom O.J. Morrison sold copies of his book at the hanging, “The Slaughter of the Pfost-Greene Family.” Morgan actually escaped the local jail and was West Virginia’s “Most Wanted Man” for three days.

Ripley was a town of 500 residents at the time, yet with national publicity, the execution attracted a crowd of 5,000 spectators.

“Gallows” was filmed and directed by Carson Broom in association with Stephen Hanson. Leading roles are portrayed by theatrical majors Jeana Mahan and J.J. Mahan, and recent media graduate Matt Groves. On-screen analysis is provided by Merrilee Matheny, author of the soon-to-be-published book, “Swift Justice” and historian Mike McGrew.

“It is exciting that Jackson County talent was used in the telling of a story that is important to Jackson County history,” Broom said.

Musically, the execution was the topic of “The Last Public Hanging in West Virginia.” The 1965 tune was written by Tom T. Hall and performed by bluegrass legends Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and The Foggy Mountain Boys. The more current “Ballad of John Morgan” is used in the documentary. It was written by Matt Poff and performed by “The Grass Stains.”

Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for students. It is not recommended for children due to the depiction of violence. For information, call 304-514-2609.