Interview With A Death Investigator, Part II Of II
Joseph Scott Morgan is a man in the truest sense.
He was a death investigator from 1985 to 2005, first in New Orleans then in Atlanta. Think about that for a second… 20 years on the front lines, staring into the abyss. Then, like the man said, the abyss looked back. Long and hard. Joe, as I like to call him, was medically retired in 2005 with PTSD. Now, what makes him a man to me is that he went through all that and came out even more human than he was when he started. He is one of the realest people I have ever spoken with.
After he left the medical examiner’s office in 2005, he took some time to put himself back together. When he was ready to face his past, he wrote a book called BLOOD BENEATH MY FEET-THE JOURNEY OF A SOUTHERN DEATH INVESTIGATOR, released by Feral House in 2012. I loved it. When I knew I was going to be interviewing him, I knew this would be personal for me. I was an EMT in a 911 system for a chunk of time. There were things I saw and I knew here is a man who has smelled the same things I have.
This interview will be presented in 2 parts. It was a truly cathartic experience for me. I am thrilled to have this opportunity and I am proud of the result. It’s not going to be an easy read for some of you. The nature of the subject matter is heavy. I will tell you that this was one of the most honest and soulful conversations I’ve ever had in my life.
Joe is now a teacher. His proper title is Distinguished Scholar of Applied Forensics. This is really cool to me because he is distinguished to me in every sense. His classroom can be found at Jacksonville State University where he holds the faculty rank of Associate Professor of Applied Forensics. Joe holds a Master of Forensics Sciences degree from National University and is a Board Certified Fellow of the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators.
Joe can be found on TV on CNN, Headline News, and Discovery ID – How Not to Kill Your Husband as unnamed the on air forensics expert. BLOOD BENEATH MY FEET and other works by Joe are being developed for a TV show by Rich Middlemas along with Sean McEwen and Charlie Baby Productions. McEwen produced the Jack Black film “Bernie” among others. Joe is writing the pilot and I for one will be watching when it comes
Joe was the 2013 Georgia Author of the Year.
And I’m proud to call him my friend.
J: I knew on some level I had written something that had reached out to these people in my universe. We’d walk around…you know you said earlier quietly going about our business and doing what we do in order to deal with the world but we would never talk about how badly something bothered us. And we would certainly never break down and cry about it. Cause you know you get a label at that point in time. Nobody wants to work with you. That group of people that read the book, I think their words might be the biggest reward of all. That these people saw it and they kind of understood. They understood what the deal is and from my perspective at least it’s like look I’m not the only one with a tale to tell, people like you and all these other folks walking around out there that have…if the gorehounds want to see pain, if they want to know what true horror is, well there are stories walking around this place that folks could not even begin to fathom. They go about their 9-5 on a day to day…they’ve never broken through that other wall and seen the soft pink underbelly. They don’t know, they have no clue. But at some point in time you have to do something or you’re going to deep throat a shotgun. And that’s one of the things I hope is going to be impactful with my continued writings and hopefully on some level this thing I’m doing on the west coast, it will more than just entertainment, hopefully it will be a view into this world that many people never see. It’s not some ID or Discovery channel thing, it’s not some Nancy Grace thing or some hidden camera investigation thing. It’s a look at not true crime but a look at the people who have to bear witness to the things the rest of society are too gutless to bear witness to or even deal with. And they will see that we are human beings doing a job that’s a very hard job. And a thankless job at that. We do it of our own volition, it’s not like somebody has a gun to our head and is telling us this is all you can do, we don’t live in that kind of society but we choose to do it and once you start mainlining it if you will death, and the adrenaline of death and those things, you become addicted to it. And man, I still swim in these waters. Just cause a boat maker makes boats and one crashes, his only skill set is making boats, I don’t know anything else so I teach now, I talk to people and I’m still around it and part of that is facing the basic fear, part of it has been these college kids because I’m a college professor now, these college kids come around and I’m able to tell them about my life which has almost become a cautionary tale. I’ve got all these bright eyed kids come in and think they want to do this for a living, I’m kind of that little voice whispering in their ear you know be careful about what you want. You need to be wide eyed, you need to be completely aware of your surroundings cause there are no breaks, there is nobody here that is going to protect your hear.
D: That’s very true because nobody really tells you going in hey guess what, you’re gonna see things you’ll never be able to un-see.
J: They can’t peel that back. It impresses onto your mind’s eye, it’s literally beyond a photo, it’s a sculpting or chiseling that’s taken place. I just got back from England with my family, I spoke at the University of Bath, we went to Cardiff, Wales. We went to the Cardiff Castle there. One of the most memorable moments, I was with my 14 year old son, we would go to the foundation. It’s hard for us as Americans, I don’t know if you’ve traveled abroad, but it’s hard for us as Americans when we talk about old, you know I’m from New Orleans, you’re from Boston, those are 2 of the oldest towns in America, that ain’t old. Go to Cardiff Castle and go to the base stones of it, that’s old. You lay your hands over the surface of those stones and you can still see the chisel marks and that’s what these things we bear witness to in life, it’s not a photograph, it’s chiseled. And until the day you die, you’re going to take that with you, there’s nothing that will take it away, the residue will always be with you and you either learn to live with it or it will strangle the life out of you, it will choke every bit of your being out of you. In the end you will completely surrender to it whether it’s the coke you’re mainlining or the alcohol you’re consuming or the next woman you’re gonna crawl in bed with or that final decision to blow you’re brains out, every bit of knowledge you’ve ever acquired, the things that can help somebody else will be gone forever and ever because you, in a universal sense, chose not to fight it. And we live in a world where we think we’re not gonna die. And more so today. I was just at this conference, it’s the only center for death studies in the world, they asked me to come and talk. The title of the talk was Survival. There were people from all over the place, there was this one gal, she was from Sweden, she was a university professor from there and her area of expertise was digital modeling and is coming up with these, I don’t understand it, i don’t know anything about that world. She’s talking about these afterlife existences that people can have and live on in this world where they will literally take the essence of everything you are including photographs, your voice structure, all of these things are being developed and you hate these people man. And when you’re dead that is so far from the reality. When I wrote that Vice article. one of the things I really wanted to make people aware of, my grandparents generation was so keenly aware of…we’re not allowed to grieve in this world, we’re not allowed…it’s considered to be untoward to rip at our clothes and pull our hair and beat the ground and all sorts of things. I talked in that article about how we’re……… I don’t know how it is up there but it used to be that way down here, you would go out and the men would come into the house and they’d take the biggest finest door in the house off the hinges and put it on 2 chairs like a table and the women would come and strip your body and bathe your body and they would weep while they were doing it. Even if you’d been kicked in the head by a mule and your brains were scattered everywhere, they’d get your essence on them. They’d spend 2,3,4,5 days grieving over this person that had been a part of their life and people would eat, they would cry, they’d sing and they would talk about who that person was and now it’s this sterile vacuumed packed bullshit that we have now where you go and they have a flat screened TV and they show how the person used to be. People aren’t aware of death anymore man. They’re not and you know if you’re on the front lines of being a death investigator or EMT or what have you, you bear witness, you know that it’s real, you smell that metallic smell of blood, you smell that sickeningly sweet odor of decomposition fluid. You know what the buzz of the flies sounds like. You know nobody cleans that shit up for you man. And in the world that we live in, that’s not the reality people have anymore. At least not here in America it’s not. You’re separate from it. And we’re so shocked and put off by it when we see somebody clinging to their dead loved one and screaming and we wanna put our hands on them and haul them away and tell them everything is gonna be alright. Well Dude everything is not gonna be alright. This person has died and it ain’t gonna be ok. They’re never gonna have them again. We should let them cry and the world that we live in doesn’t do that. I’m just talking about Dying man.
D: No I hear you.
J: And you see it out there all the time on the streets we walk so quickly to disengage people from their loved ones. We don’t wanna linger because by god some government clock or time limit on everything we do including death and it has to be done in a certain amount of time. There is a full range of emotion that goes with it and it goes with what I did for a living. You bar yourself from all this stuff man and Dave there were times I wanted to comfort these people I had just strafed with their words through a notification, after I told them their kids were dead…First off I wanted to beg their forgiveness because there were times I just wanted to throw my arms around their necks and weep with them but I didn’t have another tear to shed. I’d cry for them in private and I would pray for them in private. I’d remember them, not so much the kid because kids are no longer animated. that countenance that spreads across the face of those parents, or on the face of a wife or husband, you can never not see that again, just like you can’t not see the head that has been blown apart or the dismembered body in the refrigerator, you can’t unseen any of that….you said you have a girlfriend right Dave?
J: OK good for you man. You remember the first time, I’m not trying to get in your life, but do you remember the very first time you made eye contact with her and it was that real eye contact, that moment where you absolutely knew?
D: I do
J: Ok you will probably never forget that for as long as you live… Hey man that happens also with these moments with death.
D: It does
J: It really does, you talk to these people, you look them in the eye and you speak to them of these things and they want to know more and you know you can’t tell them everything you’ve just born witness to.
D: I remember this uh…cardiac arrest and the patient was a male and we hit him with the AED, you know and he came back for a minute and the look in his eyes, I’ll never forget, he was with it for only maybe 5 seconds, you could see the questions in his eyes and I remember looking over at the wife and you could tell she wanted to hear something that was gonna make it ok and I had nothing, I had absolutely nothing because I knew…I’d been in that room 100 times before, the only thing different was the house but I knew it was over. This was it for this man. This 5 seconds were his last conscious 5 seconds and this one particular guy, I’ll never forget that.
J: You can’t. You shouldn’t. I know that’s a helluva thing to say to a man about the horrible things you bear witness to. As soon as you do forget, that part of you is numb forever and I know it seems bad but in some way, remembering is redeeming, it truly is. You have to learn how to see it man. And that’s what I’ve had to do and it’s still a work in progress, I have it nowhere near perfected.
D: For me it got to a point where 9 out of 10 people, I wasn’t helping. I was just picking them up, bringing them to the ER so they could be dusted off and on their way back to repeating the process. And it got to the point where this person may be homeless, have no family, and I came to the conclusion I was the one chosen to bear witness to this particular person’s misery and pain. Before you mentioned the gorehounds, and i would have people ask me what’s the worst thing I ever saw and a lost of times I would just blow the question off and ignore it. But every once in a while, some smart ass smirking person would ask and then I would think ok, fuck this person and I would tell them something and watch their face drop.
J: It’s hard and it makes you angry because it makes you feel like a whore, you really do. You feel like they are trying to get you to whore for them.
D: They want you to give them a vicarious thrill by the horror you’ve witnessed
J: Right and they are onto the next experience and you’re left there with nothing because when you’re young if you do that, and you’re dealing with things inside of you that you’ve born witness to and some pretty girl bats their eyes at you and wants to engage you about what you do for a living, you think she’s engaging you because she likes you or that she cares about you but in essence she just wants to hear what you have to say and how you portray yourself concerning these horrible things and in reality you’re just a source of entertainment, just another quarter in the jukebox and that’s kind of what it becomes and then there are those people out there well you chose to do this so what’s the problem and stop your bitching. Well you were lining up to sign up for the job. I was and I did. And I did a job not many other people could do. And speaking only for myself, last as long as I did doing it. Because many people get into medical death investigation after being homicide detectives and realized this is real death investigation that were doing here, not just focusing on the latest crack dealer who got shot and then going out and trying to catch the guys who did it. They realize they are actually dealing with death here. And the next case is death, as is the one after and the one after that and it keeps going. We don’t get cats out of trees out help find lost children, in this area of the building we deal with death and death alone and if you can get your mind around it and understand that’s all you’re going to see from this point on and for some reason I would have these people that would seek me out, to this day I have students who come to me and say Professor Morgan I want to do what you did for a living. I’ll sit there and shake my head. I’ll try to explain the extent of it, what I did. The landscape never changes but there are some people who are just attracted to it. For instance, forensic pathologists are some of the most bizarre people I have ever met. As one famous forensic pathologist said to me, we’re gonna go make human canoes. You’re around those types of people and then those weird ass funeral directors that come around that just make your skin crawl even though you’ve been in a room with a maggot infested body and this guy with the perfect pompadour and perfectly pressed suit freaks you out more than the maggot infested body did and we haven’t even begun to talk about the family members of the deceased who are so messed up and show up at your door, who never called the deceased, they’d planned on calling for a month but I didn’t see him again until I walked in and saw his mummified body laying on the bed surrounded by maggot husks and he’s probably been dead for 3 months and they want a few minutes with the body and there is nothing I can do, I have no control over that dynamic. There are so many weird and odd things that happen and inhabit that world, I don’t think most people know…If you’re an EMT or when I was going to college, I was a ER tech and the emergency room is one of the most fascinating places on the face of the earth.
D: Oh yeah, Believe me I know that and agree 100%
J: The people that come through there and the story is always changing. Most of the time you’re only gonna be in there about 12 hours but when you’re around those nurses who are some of the wildest people on the face of the planet and you’re around the doctors who are manic cause you know they are working a 24 hour shift and they have to stay going. Then the EMT crews that come in and all of the regular cops who bring the drunks in and all these other people that come it, it’s got a different tenor to it with death, the faces are always changing among the dead obviously
D: The pace. The pace is the one thing that is consistent in the ER.
J: It’s not like being a proactive cop where you’re going out and patrolling for crimes. You’re reacting Death investigators, firemen, EMTs, sit around and wait, you’re reactive, everything is reactive so you’re waiting and we’re all very superstitious, I’m one of the most superstitious people in the world, you get some partner you’re working with who make the inevitable mistake of saying “its really quiet”
D: Oh shit yeah. That’s when the gods say I heard that. I’ll change that for you right now
J: And it’s the worst freaking thing you can possibly say because Dave I worked in the morgue for a long long time and i’ve dissected thousands of bodies, you know you’re almost at the end of the day and you say god that’s great we only had 2 cases today and as soon as you say that you’re gonna have 10 bodies the next day when you walk in. And you’re gonna be running around with your head on fire. Death is the ultimate elephant in the room. He is always lurking and eager to drag you through a keyhole at any moment in time to put you back in your place because you’ve become so arrogant. And the soul of a human is not meant to endure that world for extended periods of time. I far exceeded my limits in my career. I should never have stayed and lingered as long as I did. I should have exited with some modicum of sanity intact. I think in my case I was one of those damaged people that would up seeking out a damaged profession in order to validate myself for what I endured as a child.
D: Brother I am right there with you.
J; I had to uh because I was always told uh that I wouldn’t amount to anything. I had it literally beat into me. And when I had the opportunity to go out and choose something to do I picked the most difficult thing I could find, I chose to be around something almost intolerable and to prove to people in the end I really cared and that I was worthy of something.interview
D: For me, in my early 20s, I was not a good person at all, I did some reprehensible things and I went into EMS because I was looking for redemption. I think I got some of it. I think….I still wonder about that.
J: So you do feel that some part of you was redeemed through that? Like do you feel better?
D: I think that..Ok there are a few ways I’m going to answer that. I think that by bearing witness was part of me paying back some sort of karmic debt. I think that like you I was told I wasn’t going to amount to anything and I wanted to earn the respect of my Dad which I think I did. You know before when you said you didn’t convince yourself a writer? My friend you are a writer and I will not hear you say anything different. I can’t hear it because you have a way of using words…you have a fucking voice so own the fact that you’re a writer hahaha
J: Well Dave thank you.
Joseph has sent us four signed copies of the book to giveaway. If you are interested you have until Sept 10th 2016. Send an email to Jon@crimespreemag.com with your address. Put EVIDENCE in the subject line