BREAKING
Latest plans announced for fourth side of Gainesville Square
Full Story
By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
For a former medical examiner, writing about the horrors of his job was way to slay personal demons
0805coroner1
North Georgia College & State University forensics instructor Joe Morgan has written a book about his life as a medical examiner in both the Atlanta area and New Orleans. He recently was signing copies of his book "Blood Beneath My Feet" and Books-A-Million at Lakeshore Mall.

Meet the author

The author, Joseph Scott Morgan, will be signing copies of the book from 4-8 p.m. Monday at Books-A-Million, 150 Pearl Nix Parkway in Gainesville.

To learn more about "Blood Beneath My Feet" or to read a sample of the book, visit www.josephscottmorgan.com.

Joseph Scott Morgan spent his entire career — and a good portion of his life in general — seeing things that most people would rather hide from view.

From internal organs splattered on walls to inner demons successfully making their play to be seen, Morgan knows all too well what happens when you get caught between dark and light.

"My life had so many shades of gray with it," said Morgan, who was a senior investigator for the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office in Atlanta for 14 years.

"I think that’s part of why I became a scientist. It’s black or white. There’s nothing left for interpretation."

While most people shy away from death, Morgan has embraced it. He’s even written a book about it, "Blood Beneath My Feet: The Journey of a Southern Death Investigator."

His own near-death experiences as a child would impact, if not haunt, Morgan as and adult.

"When I was about 5 years old, my daddy showed up at my grandmother and grandfather’s little ramshackle old home where I lived with them part of the time," Morgan said. "... My daddy showed up drunk with a sawed-off shotgun.

"My grandmother ran outside and pulled me inside. My daddy was throwing furniture against the back of the house and he was screaming for everyone’s blood. He said he was coming in to kill us.

"My grandmother hid me beneath the bed. I have a vivid recollection of looking out from under that bed. ... I could see her, on her knees crying out to Jesus, my granddaddy out in the front room in his bib overalls rubbing his watch and my daddy outside, firing the shotgun in the air threatening to kill us all. I remember how terrified I was."

He escaped death that time, but would later willingly become its more observant partner.

"A lot of the things that I bore witness to as a child, the things I was kind of exposed to (influenced) my formative adult years. As a very young adult when I began to seek out a career path I happened to be working at a hospital (in New Orleans)," Morgan said.

"The hospital had become a temporary parish morgue and I became friends with the coroner’s investigators and pathologists. I was the one who would move the bodies in and out. Finally, out of my own free will, I started going to autopsies.

"I was fascinated by the way it worked, but I think the biggest thing was I always had my grandmother whispering in my ear. She used to say, ‘Baby, God’s preparing you for something.’

"I took it literally. Almost to a fault. I recognized that I had an aptitude for being around dead bodies. Whereas what would make other people flee, I kind of ran to. I interpreted that this was the path I was supposed to be on in life and I became a really good death investigator."

Although most people equate his former vocation with murders only, Morgan would be called in to investigate all kinds of scenarios.

"I did more than just homicide investigations. I did suicides, industrial accidents, motor vehicle accidents, unexplained natural deaths and abused kids," Morgan said.

"Any kind of death that the medical examiner engages in, that’s what we had to bear witness to. Police have kind of a lighter load. They’re not interested in the actual dead bodies. They’re interested in putting the silver bracelets on somebody.

"I have no interest in if anybody gets arrested. That doesn’t mean I don’t care. That means my job is to determine what happened. I’m a scientist."

For 20 years, Morgan studied the "inhumanity of man." Day in and day out, death surrounded him. Until one day in 2004 when it threatened to overwhelm him completely.

"For the last six months of my career, I thought on four separate occasions that I was having a heart attack and I went to the hospital. Every time, it turned out to be a panic attack," Morgan said.

On his final trip to the emergency room — after a ride in an ambulance — doctors ran a variety of tests and finally concluded that Morgan didn’t need a cardiologist. He needed a psychiatrist.

For years, his body gave subconscious warnings that it was reaching its breaking point, but Morgan refused to listen. Until it was almost too late.

"I’d had tremors for years. I was at a point when I knew something bad was about to happen. I looked like I had palsy," Morgan said.

"(The psychiatrist) sat across the desk from me, she looks at me and says, ‘Mr. Morgan, you are the worst case of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) I have seen since my residency working with returning Vietnam vets. We need to make your brain sleep. Your brain is racing too fast, it needs to settle down.’"

Under the influence of the prescribed medication, he slept for four days. On his follow-up visit with the doctor, Morgan received a nightmarish ultimatum.

"She said, ‘Mr. Morgan, we don’t deal with people like you because there’s no point of reference for most people. Most people don’t deal with what you’ve dealt with for 20 years. You either resign and affirmatively tell us you will not go back to your job or we’ll have you judicially committed,’" Morgan recalls.

"The first thing I thought about was how am I going to support my family. Then the selfish question arose — who and what am I?

"For a man, in particular, you’re always wrapped up in what you do. It was my identity. I was Joseph Morgan, senior investigator with the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office."

Left with no other choice, Morgan began to carve out a new identity, which included dealing with the aftermath of his previous ones. There were lingering issues like a case of agoraphobia and handling thoughtless casual conversations that included statements like, "Tell me about the worst case you’ve seen."

"The general public has no sort of compunction about asking people like me or others in public safety about the worst thing we’ve ever seen," Morgan said.

"You want to know my worst? You really want to know? You can’t handle the worst thing I’ve ever seen. I’ve got a whole cabinet full of things you could never fathom, yet they ask the question.

"People view us as cheap entertainment. They’d never have the intestinal fortitude to do the things that I’ve done. There are things that I’ve seen and had to do, that I couldn’t begin to share with people."

After accepting a job as a forensics instructor at North Georgia College & State University in Dahlonega, Morgan decided to do the thing he previously hated — sharing some of the details of his life. Instead of cocktail party conversations, Morgan decided on a written form of his inner dialogs, which is how "Blood Beneath My Feet" came to be.

Not to entertain the masses, but to slay his own demons.

"I wanted to put a compendium together so people would know. There are more fighter pilots and brain surgeons than there are of my peers," Morgan said.

"Who am I going to talk to about my problems? Who do I talk to about the crack addicted mama who slammed her baby down on the bed post four times and impaled it? If you talk to your colleagues about it and you get a tear in your eye, they’ll tell you you’re weak.

"I had to come to some kind of deal with myself where I was going to try and have a purgative event to deal with it all. Writing was perfect because there wasn’t any medications I could take to make me forget, but at least I could get it out."

Regional events