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The death of Officer Morgans

  • DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS  "He was murdered. There is no way it was an accident," says William Morgans, Easton, grandson of fallen Lansford Police Officer Morgan Morgans.
    DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS "He was murdered. There is no way it was an accident," says William Morgans, Easton, grandson of fallen Lansford Police Officer Morgan Morgans.
Published August 19. 2011 05:03PM

It appears Lansford Police Officer Morgan Morgans might have been wearing the proverbial bull's-eye target when he walked his night beat. If that was the case, his death was no accident. The officer might have been set up and murdered.

Morgans died about 4 a.m. on October 9, 1912, two hours after suffering a single gunshot wound to the forehead. He had gone to investigate a reported break-in at the Ridge House, a downtown tavern and residence.

The Tamaqua Evening Courier reported: "Mistaken for a burglar, Morgan Morgans was shot and fatally wounded by Miss Florence Thomas, an 18-year-old school girl."

But Morgans' grandson, William Morgans, 84, of Easton, says it wasn't an accidental gunshot fired by a school girl. Instead, it more likely was deliberate, an execution - a shot between the eyes.

"He was murdered. There is no way it was an accident. I have no doubt in my mind," says William Morgans. Members of the Lansford police department are inclined to agree. Early recorded information about the case just doesn't add up, they say.

Officer Morgans lived at 203 West Abbott Street and was known as one of Lansford's most popular patrolmen. He was described as "careful, conscientious and a fearless officer. " He stood six feet tall, weighed at least 200 pounds, and was known for his toughness. People on the street respected him and criminals feared him. His stature in the community was legendary.

Grandson Morgans, now 84, is a retired tool and manufacturing engineer for Ingersoll Rand in New Jersey. He is a detail-oriented individual and has been studying aspects of the tragedy for years. He was born in Lansford and grew up in nearby White Bear. The son of William Franklin Morgans, Sr., and the former Catherine Gardiner, Morgans graduated from Nesquehoning High School and is well versed in local history.

He believes the reputed Molly Maguires had a direct hand in his grandfather's death. The Mollies were Irish immigrant coal miners accused in a string of murders and assaults throughout the southern coalfields beginning about the time of the Civil War.

The Mollies can be traced to 1843 Ireland, where they were alleged to have battled landlords on behalf of tenants. In a sense, they fought oppression. In America, the Mollies had a presence in northeastern Pennsylvania, supposedly using violence and threats against mine bosses. The Molly story is contentious, and Mollies are viewed as either a band of outlaws or a group of heroes, depending on personal perspective.

Whatever the case, in the 1870s, twenty alleged Mollies were hanged in connection with several murders. On what is called the Day of the Rope - June 21, 1877 - one of the largest official mass executions in American history took place in Carbon and Schuylkill counties with the hanging of ten Mollies in Mauch Chunk and Pottsville.

As it turned out, Officer Morgans was hot on the trail of two such men during the latter days of alleged Molly activity.

"He was about to arrest two Molly Maguires. He was set up," says his grandson. "They were here, but not as active."

Morgans believes Mollies or those connected to Mollies lured Officer Morgans to the east side of Lansford's Ridge House at 8 East Ridge Street under the pretense of investigating a break-in. There, in a very narrow passageway with no easy escape, Officer Morgans was gunned down in the middle of the night. One account says Morgans was seen talking to a Dennis Boyle just before the shooting, although it is unclear if that conversation was in any way related to what took place moments later.

If Morgans was murdered by Mollies, the case would represent yet another cop killing allegedly at the hands of that organization. Officer Benjamin Yost of Tamaqua was murdered four miles away, supposedly by Mollies, in the darkness of night on July 5, 1875.

William Morgans would like to know additional details about his grandfather's final days, and the identity of those who might have been connected to the shooting and to events leading up to the shooting.

He already knows some of the facts thanks to accounts relayed to him by the late Ted Thorne, a Summit Hill mine superintendent. Morgans had worked with Thorne back in the late 1940s.

The same story came to Morgans again years later, but from another source, he says.

"About ten years ago I was the grave site," says Morgans, "and a man came by and said 'did you know of Morgans?' Then he told me a story and it was almost identical to what Ted (Thorne) said."

It must be noted that Officer Morgans was a Welsh Protestant. The Mollies were Irish Catholic. Bad blood was known to exist between the two groups.

In fact, fellow Welshman John P. Jones, superintendent of Lansford's Lehigh and Wilkes-Barre mine, was murdered on the morning of September 3, 1875, while on his way to work. Two Irishmen, Michael Doyle and Edward Kelly, both of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an organization of which all Mollies were members, were arrested in Tamaqua at noon on the same day. Doyle and Kelly were put on trial and hanged on June 21, 1877. However, some argue that the Mollies didn't receive fair trials.

Whatever the case, residual ethnic hostility might have been prevalent in Lansford after the turn of the century.

Morgans' funeral services took place at Lansford's Welsh Baptist Church. He was buried in the Grand Army of the Republic Cemetery, Summit Hill.

Officer Morgans left behind four children and a widow who struggled to take care of the family.

"The uncles and aunts took the two girls, and my grandmother took the two boys," says Morgans. "That's how they handled it."Officer Chris Ondrus searched early police records and learned that a special meeting took place on the evening after the shooting, at which time a fund was set up to assist Morgans' family, having lost their sole means of support.

"He earned $70 a month and was paid every two weeks," explains Ondrus. Council also appointed a temporary officer to replace Morgans.

The widow Morgans reportedly took in boarders to help pay bills, including a dozen or so workers during construction of the power plant at Hauto. Reports indicate she lived to the age of 79.

Officer Morgans also was survived by his mother, three brothers and three sisters.

The tragedy impacted the Thomas family, too. Sadly, Florence Thomas, who may have been wrongly accused in the death, was committed to an asylum and spent the rest of her life institutionalized.

When mother Blanche Thomas took a job in later years at the Kiddie Kloes factory in Lansford, nearby children taunted her, yelling "murderer, murderer!" Her co-workers reportedly circled around as if to protect her, shielding her from harm.

At one point after the tragedy, Blanche reportedly ran into Morgans' widow in a Tamaqua store. In what must have been an especially moving moment, Blanche approached Mrs. Morgans and said she was sorry for what had happened.

Today, Officer Morgan Morgans is not forgotten in the community even though almost 100 years have passed since he walked his final beat.

Chief John Turcmanovich has cut grass at Morgans' grave site to keep it tidy. Officer Brian Horos meets with Morgans' grandson periodically when he visits from Easton. Officer Ondrus has searched old records in the borough vault to determine the extent of early documentation. All parties would like to see more information come forth to help answer some of the questions and to honor the legacy of a fallen officer.

At police headquarters, an 'End of Watch' plaque dedicated to Morgans hangs on the wall near the entrance. It includes a graphite rubbing of Morgans' name as inscribed on the National Fallen Officers Memorial in Washington, D. C.

Almost a century after the tragedy, questions linger. Who, exactly, pulled the trigger? Was Florence complicit in what took place, or was she an innocent victim of an evil scheme? Was Morgans murdered by Mollies out of fear? Or was it an act of retribution? If so, who were the conspirators?

Anyone with additional information or insight is asked to contact Lansford police at (570) 645-5844.

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