HOT SPRINGS, North Carolina - Book tours are rarely the stuff of high drama, but when one stop includes the scene of an infamous crime you claim to have solved, the tension and the room temperature tend to rise.
I recently came to this small town to read from my new, true-crime book, Met Her on the Mountain: A Forty-Year Quest to Solve the Appalachian Cold Case Murder of Nancy Morgan. The killing involved a young, federal, anti-poverty worker who was kidnapped, raped and strangled in June of 1970. Her nude and hogtied body was found just outside of town, almost within sight of the Appalachian Trail.
At the time of Morgan's death, Madison County was an isolated, impoverished and corrupt pocket of the southern mountains, along the Tennessee border. Known as "Bloody Madison" for a Civil War massacre of civilians, the county also has a national reputation for fiddlers, balladeers and banjo pickers.
Fifteen years after the murder, in 1985, authorities brought one of Morgan's fellow community organizers from his Florida home and charged him with her killing. I argue in my book that the prosecution's chief witness, a local ne'er-do-well and informer, lied on the witness stand to impugn the outsider. Despite the blatant, political frame-up, a local jury acquitted the Florida man in less than an hour.
Please check your guns and knives at the door
My decades-long investigation concluded that those really responsible for the killing included at least two Hot Springs men. So, before I started my recent reading I asked the crowd of 60 who packed the Chapel at Laughing Heart Lodge here if any were related to the prosecution witness, or to any of those named in the book as being responsible for the killing. When no one raised their hands, I joked that it was just as well since we didn't have a metal detector at the door.
Most of those at the reading, a benefit for the county library, had moved to the county since the killing, but about a dozen residents were natives and old-timers. At least one in the audience knew the victim. As I read a description of one of those involved -- an admitted rapist, arsonist and thug, limned from the pages of William Faulkner or the reclusive novelist and screenwriter Cormac McCarthy -- I could see the residents sitting in a row along the windows, nodding their heads in agreement. Afterward, they asked probing and detailed questions.
What was disconcerting at the reading was the presence of one particular young woman in the audience, Elizabeth McIntosh. She is the first member of VISTA (Morgan's old organization, now a part of AmeriCorps) assigned to Madison County since surviving members were expelled in the wake of the murder. But McIntosh, an upbeat, energetic young woman, was fine with the reading.
"I was expecting it be more uncomfortable than it was," she told me later.
Much has changed in Madison County since the killing. The 35-year political reign of two brothers, with its reputation for a skewed justice system that looked the other way when allies fell afoul of the law, is a faded memory. True, some in the country, including supporters of the old regime, stayed away and had critical things to say about the book to the local paper.
Drawn by its rugged, natural beauty, newcomers are helping the economy -- French Broad River rafters and kayakers, affluent Floridians building second homes -- and are thus more welcome. Yet, while greatly diminished, Madison County still grapples with some of the same issues that Morgan found in 1969: poor nutrition, illiteracy, poverty, alcohol and violence.
Nancy Morgan would likely be pleased that Elizabeth McIntosh is finding fertile soil here, empowering young women. "We're trying to build confidence in these girls," McIntosh says, "to know they can be whatever they want to be."
By coincidence, Elizabeth is also a close friend of my own daughter, through middle and high school in Orlando, as well as at Duke. Her parents are our friends, which made for some understandable unease on their part when I told them about my book. But their daughter, honoring Nancy Morgan's legacy, has already been embraced by the community, and will do just fine.