Joe Morgan: Live and Let Die

At every cocktail party, the question pops up.

“People always want to know, ‘What’s the worst you’ve ever seen?’” says Joseph Morgan, rolling his world-weary eyes. “So let’s just get this out of the way.”

Pointing to a slide of an amorphous-looking silhouette that looks like an amoeba wedged into a greasy sofa, he says, “This is the partially denuded skull of a Hapeville lady whose body was cut in half and then not found for at least three months. There was slime on the wall up to here,” he says, indicating his waist. “Her five adult dogs were locked up with her.”

He pauses to let us make the awful connections.

Morgan worked for about 20 years as a forensic death investigator in Atlanta and New Orleans.

“The rest of the slides I’m going to show are graphic and disturbing, so if you need to leave, no problem, that’s totally understandable,” he says.

Morgan will graciously repeat that disclaimer several times, between close-ups of maimed and bloated cadavers in varying states of putrefaction helped along by the industrious handiwork of maggots, but we all stay put, revolted and riveted, in this night class called “Behind the Crime Scene Tape” at North Georgia College and State University in Dahlonega. It is a cursory introduction to sizing up a corpse, to the cell-by-cell sloughing off the mortal coil. His other workshop is whimsically titled “Lunch with Death,” but who could eat?

“Every death is a ‘homicide’ until proven otherwise,” he says, noting that he has assisted in 7,000 autopsies and performed 3,000 next-of-kin notifications. “I despise the word ‘murder,’ which is a lawyer’s word that implies malice, or evil afoot.”

Morgan, 42, does not fear the reaper — at least not clinically. For someone who has logged so many solemn hours at the morgue, he is a remarkably lively fellow, telling Southern Gothic stories in a drawl, with finely honed gallows humor. Sometimes he is as blunt as the sledgehammer that struck one unfortunate person’s skull; he lumps some photos under the heading “stupid human tricks.” Other times he speaks in folksy euphemisms. To say that a lingerie-clad gentleman “was sent to Jesus” just sounds gentler than “autoerotic asphyxiation.”

“I had to slaughter a hog just to get that image out of my mind,” he often says about certain memories. Once he even had to shave his head and agonizingly pluck every hair from his nostrils to shed the stench from one particularly time-consuming scene. “In many ways my mind has been polluted by images I’ll never be rid of,” he says.

Continuing his slide show, he points to a speckled tableau and says, “What do you think those black dots are? They’re flies, second-generation ones that already developed from the original maggots and now are laying more eggs — husks had been shed and left behind. There have been times when I’ve had thousands of flies lighting on me after they’ve been on a body.”
He shrugs stoically.

“But all of that helps in determining how long the body has been there.”

There are other ways, of course, to determine time of death, and his “favorite postmortem change” is livor mortis, or lividity, which refers to the gravitational pooling and settling of blood that begins as early as 20 minutes after death.

“I’m a ‘livor guy,’ and just the fact that I have a ‘favorite’ among these sets me apart from most of humanity,” he says.

Unlike rigor mortis, the stiffening caused by lactic acid (starting in the jaw one to three hours after death), or algor mortis, which involves changes in body temperature (we cool down two to two-and-a-half degrees in the first hour under ideal circumstances, if any could be described as truly “ideal”), lividity generally occurs at the same rate for everybody — that is, every  body — regardless of the weather. Blanched patches in cherry-pink flesh also can signal whether a corpse has been moved.

“The dead will tell you a story if you’re only willing to listen,” Morgan says. “I tried to speak for those who could no longer speak for themselves. Those unfortunate souls who take their own lives, the people who die all alone in an apartment — those quiet, lonely deaths with no fanfare – their stories are just as worthy of dignity and attention as those who go out in a blaze of glory.”

For me, one of the most despair-drenched images in Morgan’s presentation was the least grisly; it was a straightforward suicide by shooting. The man had started a note, but did not bother to finish it, as if his last words were not worth the effort.

This macabre little seminar is an outgrowth of the forensic concentration Morgan, an associate professor of criminal justice, is developing for the university. One of 11 founders of the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators, he has helped standardize procedures by devising a rigorous certification test with methods that are “applicable from Hahira to Manhattan.” This ABMDI exam is administered at only two sites in the country: North Georgia College and Texas Tech.

“There are more fighter pilots and brain surgeons than death investigators,” Morgan says. “There are only about 670 of us practicing, so I don’t have that many people I can talk shop with. There aren’t that many folks who understand what it’s like to slip and fall in decomp fluid.”

Soon, though, he likely will have more colleagues who do. College students across the country are demanding more forensic training in their criminology curricula, and “CSI camps” are popping up for high school students to probe mock crime scenes. Morgan plans to lead such a program for teen-age sleuths this summer, and he is writing a textbook about death investigation.

The rising interest in this field is evidence of the cultish popularity of the “CSI” television shows, which, in a formula that is more howdunit than whodunit, rely on high-tech wizardry to zero in on gore at the mitochondrial level in America’s freakiest cities: Las Vegas, Miami, and New York. (Still waiting for “CSI: Hahira.”) Count Morgan out of this fan club. Of all the horrendous subjects we discuss in class, the “CSI” series and its counterparts, with their slick production values and preposterous plotlines, is the only one that makes him shudder.

At one point, he explains that it is virtually impossible to force another person into a noose. “My predecessors had to deal with that, unfortunately,” he says, referring to lynchings. “Most of the suicides I worked were hangings, not overdoses, which surprises people. But I’ve never investigated a hanging that was initiated by anyone other than the victim — not one.”

Like the classroom know-it-all, I raise my hand to point out that last night’s episode of “CSI: Miami” featured, after a parade of ersatz bosoms, a plastic surgeon who had been drugged — the toxicology screenings involved much thoughtful squinting by supermodel-types in labcoats — and then ingeniously hanged by the nurse he was two-timing. (The “scorned woman” theme never seems to go out of style.)

“THOSE THREE LETTERS ARE VERBOTEN IN MY CLASSES!” he says. “If you come in and say, ‘Last night on CSI…’ you are sunk.”
Like a guilty suspect in the interrogation room, I clam up.

The “CSI Effect,” as it is called, is a much-bemoaned syndrome in the legal system. Jurors and the victim’s family often expect investigations and trials to unfold with TV tidiness: Everyone at the scene gets swabbed for DNA; cars and rooms are dusted and sprayed; and the unambiguous, infallible results handily solve a crime in under an hour. As a result, in real-life cases, eyewitness accounts and even confessions sometimes are not enough for convictions; increasingly juries want to hear about the physics of a blood spatter or the telltale hair left behind on a car seat. Often such comprehensive procedures are unnecessary, and, when fibers and fluids are analyzed, the process takes time. With lawyers for both sides attuned to the persuasive effects of physical evidence, many crime labs end up frustratingly backlogged.

“There is nothing ‘Hollywood,’ about this work,” Morgan says. “In reality, it’s a descent into pure hell. It’s showing up at a chaotic scene where there’s a crowd of people very hurt and angry that you’re there; gunshots are going off in the distance; there’s a mother screaming and writhing on the ground because she’s just lost a child. And you’re trying to show compassion for her, dodge the bullets, and, all the while, apply the scientific method in a clinical, professional manner.”

It might come as a surprise to many Americans, but Jerry Bruckheimer did not invent forensic science, which derives from the Latin forensis, meaning “the forum,” specifically the imperial court of Rome. In fact, a doctor investigated the assassination of Julius Caesar and concluded that, of his 23 stab wounds, only one was fatal. The Chinese, though, were the first to publish a guidebook on medicolegal death investigations in 1247, not long after they invented gunpowder, ironically enough. Morbid curiosity, too, has long been with us. In his “Poetics,” Aristotle writes that we “enjoy contemplating the most precise images of things whose sight is painful to us.”

But, still, what kind of kid thinks dreamily: “I want to work in a morgue when I grow up”? Who wants to “descend into pure hell” day after day? Morgan, who was born in Griffin, Georgia, started his career in New Orleans’ Jefferson Parish after realizing that, while the job might not be as glamorous as “Quincy,” the crime-fighting coroner, made it look on TV, it offers a certain rush, along with deeper satisfactions.

“I was sweeping the floors of the morgue when I was about 21,” he recalls. “Cleaning up blood and decomp fluid. This kind pathologist took me under wing and one day said, ‘You wanna close?’ So we opened the chest down to the pubis and removed the organs and drained the fluids. An autopsy needle is this S-shaped needle that makes sort of a baseball stitch. After sewing the body up after the autopsy, I thought, ‘This is the greatest thing in the world!’ How many other people get to do this? I wanted to prove myself in an arena where few others venture to go.”

It takes guts, after all, to work with guts, and Morgan is proud of his “strong stomach.” “I’ve never thrown up because of a case,” he says. Death becomes him, as they say. Even so, he is happy to be spending more time these days among the living.

“In this line of work, you’re constantly observing the abnormal within the context of the normal,” he says. “You might go to an office park, where there is a lady on the floor by her terminal. She’s wearing perfume and a business suit, and has her shoes off, with pantyhose visible because that’s how ladies relax in their cubicles. …But there’s a gunshot wound to the side of her head. When I sit down to eat dinner that night, these images roll around in my mind, and I can’t believe I saw what I just saw. Each death claims a piece of your soul.”

These visions make him “hug his wife and kids a little tighter,” he says, noting that post-traumatic stress disorder is a common occupational hazard for longtime death investigators. It is alleviated, to some extent, by helping the bereaved.

“With the next-of-kin notifications, you’re meeting people at the single lowest point in their lives,” he says. “I’m conscious of the fact that my image in all its details will be burned into their minds forever — that whether or not I extend my hand or put my arm around them will always be remembered. The thing I’m most proud of is that most of the time I was able to use my forensic tools to help them get in answer to these fundamental, life-and-death questions, to find out what really happened to their loved one. And maybe extend some mercy to someone who’d never received much mercy from a public official before.”

In this way, Joseph Morgan has achieved his own immortality.

Life Can Be So Sweet — & Sour — When You Pickle Beans With Your Lively Grandma

I had wanted the headline to be “Getting Pickled With Grandma,” but the editors balked at that line.

“I need to get home to give my hostages some water,” my grandmother announces nonchalantly over dinner.
Heads turn, and the coffee-drinkers at Ma Gooch’s cafe in Cleveland fall silent and scratch their heads. However, Myrtle West is not a terrorist; what she means is “hostas,” the flowers she lovingly tends. She has a gift — a genius, really — for malapropism, for mixing up words and syllables in ways that end up more interesting, if not more macabre, than intended.
I like to think of her as the Appalachian-Gothic version of Yogi Berra.
So I am not alarmed when she tells me, “I checked the picture of that man with his guts hanging out, and now’s the time to pickle beans.” She is referring to the anatomical diagram in the Farmer’s Almanac, which maps out the custom of “planting by the signs,” a complex astrological system that applies to preservation, as well germination, of crops.
If you’re going to pickle beans, you need to wait for the moon to circulate through the extremities — the arms, legs, even the neck. Once it moves into the guts of the torso, forget about it. Dire things happen during those periods. Smelly, ill-starred, viscous gunk will ferment instead of the artfully tart, briny delicacies that ease an upset stomach months after the harvest.
So we begin the process: stringing and boiling the beans.
Normally my grandmother uses her in-laws’ legumes, gangly “white half-runners” from seeds that boast a century-old lineage. However, today she is using produce from Jaemor’s market, which she, to the consternation of the store clerks, calls “J.Lo’s.” She likes her beans straight; I prefer them tempered with the sweetness of corn, and she defers, as always, to what someone else wants. So we layer beans with corn and salt, over and over, in a voluminous, hand-turned Georgia-clay churn, which also is more than one hundred years old. My grandmother’s mother, and her mother, stored similar essentials in it. That history alone is enough, for me, to sanctify a vessel. I am happy, though, that it is not a quaint museum relic. For the moment, this churn is just another implement in everyday use.
As we work, I picture my grandmother as a young girl, the reputed belle of the county, another homegrown Ava Gardner, more delectable than any farm-fresh produce, with her Cherokee ancestry showing in her black hair and sepia skin — features I always have coveted. How she unassumingly bewitched my rounder of a grandpa who had seen it all!
At 90, Myrtle West remains one of those genetically blessed beauties, a head-turner among the leathery widower-veterans at the American Legion Hall. She knows how to work a room, as well as how to pickle beans. I feel vaguely inadequate as a female just now, but grateful nonetheless, as I watch the sure, sweeping movements of her forearms.
“You need to learn these things,” she says, giving me one of her meaningful nods, “ because who else will?”