The Ore Knob Mine Murders: The Crimes, the Investigation and the Trials

By Powell, Douglas Reichert | The Journal of Southern History, May 2015 | Go to article overview

The Ore Knob Mine Murders: The Crimes, the Investigation and the Trials


Powell, Douglas Reichert, The Journal of Southern History


The Ore Knob Mine Murders: The Crimes, the Investigation and the Trials. By Rose M. Haynes. Foreword by Barbara Moore Pless. Contributions to Southern Appalachian Studies. (Jefferson, N.C., and London: McFarland and Company, 2013. Pp. [xiv], 234. Paper, $35.00, ISBN 978-0-7864-7316-8.)

Met Her on the Mountain: A Forty-Year Quest to Solve the Appalachian Cold-Case Murder of Nancy Morgan. By Mark I. Pinsky. (Winston-Salem, N.C.: John F. Blair, 2013. Pp. [x], 280. $24.95, ISBN 978-0-89587-611-9.)

The Ore Knob Mine Murders: The Crimes, the Investigation and the Trials by Rose M. Haynes and Met Her on the Mountain: A Forty-Year Quest to Solve the Appalachian Cold-Case Murder of Nancy Morgan by Mark I. Pinsky are very different books, but they both demonstrate the impact of violence on people and communities in and beyond the mountain South. Both tell stories of a growing writerly obsession as research on the specific dynamics of an individual criminal case gives way to a cultural and political investigation on a regional scale. Haynes and Pinsky use different sets of authorial skills, but both demonstrate how many vectors--economic, geographical, social--intersect in each book's centerpiece murder. In so doing, they create a composite picture of a region in which violent outbursts are not (just) because of the buck-wild nature of the inhabitants, but also because of complex interactions among culture and politics, infrastructure and development, economics and government. And both authors document how the pursuit of the truth of these relationships can stretch across time and space.

Mark I. Pinsky brings to his work the perspective of a seasoned, professional writer (educated at Duke and Columbia Universities), a career journalist, and a contributor to the national press. Pinsky reconstructs the events surrounding a 1970 rape and murder in Madison County, North Carolina, which he began following as a student-reporter at Duke University. The victim was Nancy Dean Morgan, a college graduate who had moved to the area as part of a Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) delegation dispatched to the southern Appalachian front of the War on Poverty.

As was the case with VISTAs in eastern Kentucky, the Madison County VISTAs found themselves in a fraught relationship with the local political machinery. The labeling of the VISTAs as "outside agitators," Pinsky suggests, created both the preconditions for the attack on Morgan and the conditions for miscarriages of justice that stretched over the next several decades, culminating in the trial (and acquittal) of one of Morgan's fellow VISTAs in 1985, accused of accidentally killing Morgan during an orgy.

Pinsky's own ongoing investigation incriminates a local man with political connections to the county Democratic machine, run by E. Y. Ponder and Zeno Ponder. These brothers cornered the public works and law enforcement in Madison County to build a patronage and influence fiefdom capable of ruining people's lives long after they had left town. Through legwork, hours of interviews, and research, Pinsky documents an Appalachian crime story centered not on xenophobic, sadistic locals--though a couple of them do figure in the story--but on a complex history that created the conditions under which both crime and (in Pinsky's view) cover-up could be perpetrated. Over the course of that unfolding history, Pinsky's account morphs from a whodunit to a courtroom drama to a tale of his own, ultimately thwarted effort to connect all the dots and close the case as his life and career move him around the country. …

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