Sunday, January 14, 2018

Hugh Bragg's Execution at the Moundsville Penitentiary

Prior to 1899, any prisoner charged with the death penalty in West Virginia was put to death, typically by hanging, by the county in which the crime occurred. It was the responsibility of the sheriff's department in each county to maintain the gallows and perform the executions. 

However, that all changed with the media spectacle that was the John Morgan hanging in Ripley, WV. On December 16, 1897, John Morgan was hanged for murdering three members of the Pfost-Greene Family. It is estimated that over 6000 men, women, and even children were present at the hanging. That's a LOT of people...and a lot of people were outraged at the fact that so many citizens chose to make a spectacle out of seeing the death of a fellow human being.  Legislation was soon passed that would make any execution open only to a few select individuals. More importantly, it took the responsibility from the individual counties and placed it with the state. Beginning in 1899, all state executions would be performed at the West Virginia State Penitentiary at Moundsville.

Between 1899 and 1959, 94 prisoners were executed at the WV State Penitentiary. In August of 1899, Shep Caldwell, convicted of murdering his mistress, was the first to hang. In 1959, Elmer Bruner was the last to die, being electrocuted in the state's electric chair. And sometime in between, there was Hugh Bragg.  The following is from the May 1st, 1920 edition of the Wheeling Intelligencer

Story of the Crime Shows That There Was No Excuse and No Object

Four tall, clean-cut men stood in the throng in the death chamber at the state penitentiary at Moundsville at 5:30 o'clock Friday afternoon and saw Hugh Bragg, a legless cripple, pay the full penalty for the wanton murder of Sheriff John Dennis Morton, of Webster County, West Virginia, which took place on January 12, 1920. 

Grim and determined were these men in appearance and there were in their eyes expressions that seemed in holding with the 'eye for an eye' injunction.

They were the four brothers of the murdered sheriff, namely W.E. Morton, sheriff of Nicolas County, and George R. Martin, Pearl P. Morton, and Kennedy H. Morton.

They came to see the law of the civilized world claim for its own one who had violated it grossly and who had been sentenced to die for his crime.

Story of the Crime
Hugh Bragg paid the full penalty for killing Sheriff Morton at exactly 5:30 o'clock. The execution was successful in the fact that Bragg's neck was dislocated by the drop. He lived twelve minutes and 55 seconds after the fall through the aperture in the gallows.

Sheriff W.E. Morton, in speaking of the murder of his brother, John Dennis Morton, said: "I cannot feel the least pity for Bragg.  My brother was a kind and considerate man. Bragg had bought an auto with a forged check.  My brother caught him on the street at Cowan and told him to come along.

"Bragg accompanied my brother for a few steps and then asked to be allowed to send to his sister's house for some clothes."

Shot in the Back
"Dennis turned around to send a small boy to get the clothes and like a flash Bragg shot him in the back.  There was no motive, as Bragg was crippled and wore two artificial limbs and could not get away.  And my brother was trying to do him a favor at the time.

"The crippled man then stumped up to the second story of his home, keeping people away with his revolver.  There he secured a Winchester rifle and took up his station at an open window.

"Uncle Ed. Bobbet, a relative of the dead man, slipped up the stairs behind Bragg and the latter turned with his Winchester.  The cartridge jammed and Bobbet floored him.  As it was, Bobbet took an awful chance.

Gloried in His Crime
"Bragg then asked, 'Did I kill Dennis.' When told that he had, he exclaimed, 'Well, I am ____________ glad I did. That's just what I aimed to do.'"

Bragg was tried and sentenced to die on March 30th, last, but received a reprieve of thirty days.  Of late he has occupied himself operating a typewriting machine in his cell.  He has professed repentance and sorrow for his crime and claimed that reading the "Lives of the James Boys" had fostered in him a desire to emulate these murderous thieves of history, whom dime novel authors have thrown a halo around.

At 5 o'clock Friday afternoon the waiting room at the penitentiary was filled with a small throng awaiting the execution.

From Scene of Crime
Riley Cox, D.T. Callahan and Emery Rose, all relatives of the murdered man were present, with the four brothers, together with Dr. R. A. Ashworth and Dr. O.P. Wilson.  Several newspaper men were also present.

Supper was being served to the inmates of the prison and, as is usual, the penitentiary bad was rendering music.

Suddenly, the strains of "Nearer, My God, to Thee," swelled in the air.  What the thoughts of the condemned man were, at that time, as the grand old hymn rose out in full volume, is not known, but each one in the waiting room looked nervously at someone else.

Suddenly Warden J.Z. Terrell appeared in the door and said: 'Gentlemen, you will please form in line and any one that has fire arms on his person will leave them in the office."

Morton's Tombstone from Find-a-Grave contributor,
Sharon Bowers Curry

Took Off Their Guns
Two herculean deputies who were at the prison on business, plunged their hands under their coats and four heavy calibered revolvers were placed on the desk.

Slowly the crowd went through the circular entrance cage and when the last one had entered the steel bound courtyard, the procession was formed.  Guards looked down from their stations high on the walls and though everyone in that little moving throng knew that hundreds of eyes were looking on from the cell houses, not a sound came from these places.

Bragg had been taken from his death cell and removed to a small apartment adjoining the platform of the scaffold. Two of his brothers, Ike and Jim Bragg, had visited him earlier in the day but did not wait for the execution.

Ministers Present
Rev. H.G. Gaunt, the chaplain of the prison, was with him just before his removal from the cell, as were Rev. C. G. Slater and Arch-Deacon B.M. Spurr.  

When called to accompany the guards Bragg had just finished two letters, one to Mrs. Nellie Payne, an aunt, and the other to Miss Hazel Payne, a niece.  They were neatly typewritten and were left lying on the bed in the death cell.

It was stated by Warden Terrell that the young man exhibited the greatest composure while being taken from his cell and being bound, preparatory to his execution.

He made no offer to make any statement on the scaffold and as he did not, was not asked to, as it was decided by the officials, not to prolong the horror of the affair any longer than was necessary.

Grewsome [sic] Scene
The crowd, upon being ushered into the death chamber, stood before a raised platform, which was shrouded with a black, baize curtain.  An electric light globe could be seen through the cloth and the sound of men shuffling about and murmuring was heard.

It reminded one of a horrible movie show.

Suddenly the curtain was whisked aside. 

On the trap with its head shrouded in a black cap, arms and legs tightly strapped, stood a figure, the knot in the rope about its neck twisting its head awry.

The ministers, several guards and the warden stood near the figure.

The warden stepped to the front and said:

"Gentlemen, this is Huge Bragg, to be executed for the murder of Sheriff John Morton Dennis, of Webster County!"

Dr. Spurr then offered a brief prayer.  The warden then reached out and pressed a button.  There was an interval of about two seconds and the doomed man took a long breath, as a drowning man clutches at a straw, and the flimsy cap was drawn in against his mouth.

J.D. Morton 
Was Sudden Shock
The spectators had steeled themselves but the sudden drop of the platform and the fall of the body startled all.

There were no twitchings of the limbs, merely several convulsive movements of the chest.  The physicians applied stethoscopes to Bragg's heard and in 11 minutes and 55 seconds he was pronounced dead.

The body was then taken down and removed in an ambulance for burial.

Bragg lost his two lower limbs some years ago while working as a brakeman on the B. & O. railroad.  it is stated that he got drunk, failed to apply brakes on the train and the cars ran away down a hill.

In the ensuring wreck he sustained injuries that necessitated amputation of his lower limbs. 


  1. According to my Morton family history, John Morton and Hugh Bragg were friends, and that is what led to John letting his guard down.