Author Joseph Scott Morgan to Speak on Death, Life, and JSU
By Heather Greene
If one had never met Joseph Scott Morgan and had no knowledge of his career or history, simply stepping into his office might provide the evidence needed to deduce his line of work. With dim lighting, a skull candle as desk décor, bullet shells lining the ledges of his windows, and black and white photos of decomposing bodies scattered among his various forensic analysis files, one might accurately conclude that Morgan is in the business of death investigation.
In May 2014, Morgan joined Jacksonville State University’s Center for Applied Forensics as a distinguished scholar of forensics.
Since coming to JSU, Morgan states, he has “hit the ground running,” and hopes to be able to give back to JSU in a way that the university has given to him.
“I want to maximize whatever I can bring to the table that is going to elevate the profile of JSU,” states Morgan. However, he has already brought more to the table than he might humbly admit.
Morgan is often on the Cable News Network (CNN) Headline News channel (HLN), where he utilizes his years of experience to offer forensic commentary on some of the biggest cases in the media today such as Jodi Arias/Travis Alexander, George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and more recently, Justin Ross Harris.
Since his arrival at JSU, Morgan has appeared on HLN about twenty-five times. In addition to these appearances and his teaching role, Morgan is involved in a documentary with PBS concerning one of the most notorious homicides in New Orleans’ history. He has been featured in numerous articles and has recently been published in the rather edgy magazine Vice.
Perhaps one of Morgan’s greatest accomplishments thus far has been the publication of his memoir, Blood Beneath my Feet: The Journey of a Southern Death Investigator, which proved to be somewhat of a cathartic journey for him. Morgan will read from this memoir on Friday night at a free event hosted by the Friends of Houston Cole Library.
“It’s funny how life is…Your life will take this circuitous route and you are even more aware of it when you are dealing with death,” Morgan reflects. “You become appreciative, or at least I have, of the odd little twists and turns that your life takes.”
Though Morgan recently moved to JSU as a forensics scholar, he came in contact with JSU earlier along the journey of his life, which has seemingly ebbed and flowed like a sultry river across the South and back again.
A Lousianian by birth, Morgan still considers himself a New Orleanian. After Morgan’s father returned from Vietnam, he took his wife and eight-year-old Joseph Scott Morgan to Georgia and then abandoned them.
Morgan spent the remainder of his childhood in rural Georgia and attended school in Griffin. As soon as he could leave Georgia, Morgan enlisted in the National Guard.
Eventually, Morgan made his way to Jacksonville, Alabama, in the mid-1980s, where he enrolled at JSU upon the encouragement of a friend, who was a student there. Although his own time as a JSU student only lasted for a year and was what Morgan calls an “abysmal failure,” JSU made a permanent impression.
“Almost immediately after I left JSU, I was in the depths of despair because I loved it here,” Morgan said. “I say that JSU kind of planted a seed in my heart. It was this thing that I was so ashamed of the fact that I had to leave and had done so miserably, but the place had been very endearing to me.”
Morgan found himself back with relatives along the canals of New Orleans and soon landed a job working in a hospital, more specifically, the morgue of the hospital.
Scraping up maggots and decomposing bodily fluids soon earned him the privilege of closing bodies, which led to him being allowed to open bodies. Soon, a forensic pathologist noticed Morgan’s gift for working with the dead and took young Morgan under his wing.
In 1986, Morgan became a forensic investigator with the Jefferson Parish Coroner's Office in New Orleans. He stayed there for six years. At twenty-one, Morgan was the youngest medicolegal death investigator in the United States.
Although as a child he had vowed to never return to Georgia, Morgan was hired as a senior investigator for the Fulton County Medical Examiner's Office (FCMEO) in Atlanta following his time in New Orleans. During the next fourteen years, he managed a staff of eleven medicolegal death investigators while maintaining an average personal caseload of 200-300 deaths per year. The highest number of cases he handled in one year was 450.
Morgan explains that his life “revolved around the ‘how’ factor” as he worked to resolve causes of death, but he found the “‘why’ of death” too overwhelming to contemplate too heavily.
Eventually, those daily face-to-face encounters with death began to affect Morgan and he was diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which forced him into retirement.
“By the time I left the office in Atlanta, I had been around death for so long,” explains Morgan. “It’s like wind blowing on a rock in the Pacific Northwest next to the ocean. You don’t really see the change, but it does change…It wears you down. There’s only so many notifications you can make and so many screaming families you can listen to.”
Morgan then decided to utilize his field experience for the good of future forensics and law enforcement students. He has now taught for nearly a decade – first at the University of North Georgia and now at JSU.
He states, “I think now what I really enjoy is using my life and my experience as a cautionary tale to students because I can reach out to them and give them an idea that they do not need to believe everything they see and hear about forensic practice. This is the reality of it. I have proof. Although my proof is only my little slice of life…Take caution in the choices that you make. It goes back to the little adage: ‘Be careful what you wish for because it can be very, very dangerous.’”
Though he admits that crime investigation television shows benefit the field as they draw students into forensics, Morgan does have to strip away many of Hollywood’s myths.
Morgan describes death as the “fly at a barbeque” that you continually swat, but which never leaves you alone.
“It’s always there,” he says. “It hangs like a residue on your soul. It drips on every aspect of your life. You have a completely different world view of people, places, and things you do.”
Morgan’s wife and one of her friends encouraged him to pen his memoir. As he wrote about his experiences in investigation and their effect on him, he was able to deal with many of his bottled-up memories.
In his book, as in his life, Morgan shows the face of the practitioners and death investigators, reminding society that they have been victimized also.
“The whole world loves to scream and beat their chests about the victims – people who have been victims and their families who have lost people. But people rarely ever consider the practitioners. My field is so small – the medicolegal community and the investigators in it – there are more brain surgeons and fighter pilots out there than people who do what I did for a living,” he says.
Since his book’s publication by Feral House in 2012, Morgan has received numerous e-mails from firefighters and law enforcement officers, thanking him for putting their emotions into words on paper.
In 2013, Morgan was named Georgia’s Author of the Year.
Morgan and his wife Kim have three children: Abigail; Lexi, a freshman at JSU; and Noah, a student at Sacred Heart Catholic School.
On Friday, September 19 Morgan will deliver a free book talk on the 11th floor of the Houston Cole Library at 7 p.m. The event is open to the public and free refreshments will be served. Copies of Morgan’s book will be available for purchase and signing. Blood Beneath My Feet: Journey of a Southern Death Investigator is also available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Walmart.
For more information about JSU’s Center for Applied Forensics, visit us on the web or call (256) 782-8588.