The Last Public Execution in West Virginia*
December 16, 1897

     This is one of the few pictures in existence of the last public hanging to take place in West Virginia. The photograph was taken by Will Rogers, former reporter on The Parkersburg News. John Morgan the condemned man, is shown in the center with the noose around his neck; Sheriff J. O. Shinn, adjusting the noose, and his brother, Doug Shinn, pointing. The scaffold sat on the top of a knoll, and the photo was taken from below. Just before Trap was Sprung

The Last Public Execution in West Virginia

     West Virginia’s last public hanging occurred at Ripley, Jackson County, Thursday, December 16, 1897. John Morgan, aged 27, convicted by jury of the murder of three in a family of four persons at Ripley, was the person hanged for the commission of the crime.

     The murder was perhaps the most bloodthirsty in the annals of the state of West Virginia, and attracted nation-wide attention at that time. Scores of newspaper correspondents from different parts of the United States visited Ripley and were present when the hangman’s noose snuffed out the life of John Morgan.

     Reese Blizzard, now a practicing attorney in Parkersburg, was the judge of the court which sentenced Morgan to hang after he had been pronounced guilty by the jury. Members of the jury at that time were: George Gatchel, A. D. Arnold, J. N. Province, J. W. Lambert, W. L. Safreed, M. A. Pinnel, J. D. Bradley, G.W. Franklin, A. L. Arnold, John Alexander, S. B. Carter and J. B. Casto.

     In charge of the execution of Morgan was Sheriff J. O. Shinn, of Ripley. It was the second hanging to occur in Jackson County and the first and last one to be performed by Sheriff Shinn. The hanging of Morgan is given in the following account:

     “Promptly at 11:34 o’clock Thursday morning, December 16, 1897, the procession left the courthouse in the following order: Deputy Sheriffs Doug Shinn and J. M. Weas, on horseback, followed by a surrey in which were hitched two black horses with Lou Bowman of Spencer holding the reins. Seated by his side were Rev. J. J. White, Rev. T. H. Rymer, and in the back seat were Sheriff J. O. Shinn and the prisoner, John Morgan, cool and collected, who was constantly looking about thru the crowd of people, occasionally nodding his head to friends his eyes fell upon.

     “Next came the buggy with Dr. B. E. Harrison and Prosecuting Attorney J. A. Seaman, Then two big wagons filled with newspaper men and the jury, followed by Circuit Court Clerk M. C. Archer, and various other kinds of vehicles, horsemen and people on foot.

     “The scaffold was reached in about 15 minutes after a drive of one mile. The spot where the execution was made was an ideal one for such a purpose and had the crowd been ten times larger than it was all could have witnessed it. Six thousand persons saw the hanging.

     “As 12 o’clock approached Sheriff Shinn and the prisoner Morgan walked up the steps of the scaffold together with a few others. A scripture reading followed while the condemned man look out over the crowd and seemed least concerned of any present.

     “After prayer had been offered Sheriff Shinn held a short conversation with the prisoner, who said: ‘I bid you all farewell. I bid you all farewell.’ Then he stepped on the trapdoor and said: ‘Gentlemen, this is a warning to all young men. Don’t do as I have done. God forbid that you ever go astray as I have’

     “The sheriff then stepped forward and took the handcuffs off, strapped his (Morgan’s) arms behind him, also strapped his ankles and above his knees, then adjusted the noose, while Morgan stood erect and cool and said: ‘Good-bye, gentleman; farewell to all.’ The black cap was put on. The sheriff stepped behind him and adjusted the string and turning quickly pulled the lever that sprung the trap and Morgan was dangling in the air before the people had hardly time to realize what was going on. The sheriff did his work well, without a hitch, and the prisoner’s neck was snapped.

     “The trap fell at 12:09 and at 12:24 Morgan was pronounced dead by Drs. Harrison and Casto.

     “There was not a perceptible move of any part of the body except a quivering of the toes was noticeable.

     “He was left hanging about 51 minutes when Sheriff Shinn untied the rope and he was lowered into the hands of Undertaker Robert Vail and assistant John Connelly who made the rude pauper’s coffin in which he was afterwards placed and taken back to jail. On Friday morning his remains were sent to the home of his wife and were buried on the farm of Hiram Hall, her father, some 12 miles from Ripley.”

     And so ends the account of the hanging of John Morgan, which episode is the closing chapter in the annals of West Virginia’s public executions. Immediately after this hanging the law went into effect that abolished public executions and the next man hanged in the state went to his death on the gallows at this prison.

     Since the year 1899 forty-four men have been executed here for the crimes of rape and murder.

     The remarkable fact about these executions is, that almost without exception, every condemned man has expressed readiness to die and as the date of execution drew near was cool and collected and anxious to “get it over with” Attendance at the executions here is limited to necessary officials, guards, physicians, clergymen, and newspaper men and we can’t help from noting that this plan is a striking advancement over the old one–where thousands of curious persons gathered to watch a fellow creature die.
*The West Virginia State Prison Magazine, Mountsville West Virginia, dated July, 1926.

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