by Darcia Helle

Met Her on the Mountain: A Forty-Year Quest to Solve the Appalachian Cold-Case Murder of Nancy Morgan is as much a cultural study as a true crime story. Author Mark I. Pinsky takes us deep into the Appalachian Mountains of Madison County, North Carolina. In some ways, the lifestyle there will feel just as foreign to Americans as the tradition of lips plates of some African tribes.

The story got me thinking about how closely related culture and crime really are. We have the honor killings common to Middle Eastern culture, and the different kind of honor killings common among inner-city gang members. These are familiar cultural crimes, not supported by society at large. But the religious-based honor killings feel far more unnatural to Americans than our own homegrown reputation-based honor killings. This perception is, of course, purely cultural.

annee13When humanitarian Nancy Morgan, fresh out of college, accepted a one-year Vista (the domestic Peace Corps) assignment to work in rural Madison County, North Carolina, she stepped out of her own cultural comfort zone without concern, which was to lead to her brutal rape and murder. In reading her story, I realized she was likely oblivious to just how out of place she appeared to those around her. This lack of insight became her downfall.

Nancy was born on January 6, 1946, on the Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. As a military brat, Nancy was always on the move. She spent her middle school years and part of high school in West Germany, where her father was director of international law for the US Air Force. CIA officers were occasional dinner guests at the Morgan home. The family’s lifestyle provided Nancy with a vast array of social and cultural experiences, and consequently she felt comfortable most anywhere.

annee4In 1962, Nancy’s father was transferred to Washington, D.C., where he worked for the Pentagon. The Morgan family settled in Northern Virginia, where Nancy finished her high school years in upper class suburbia.

Nancy had liberal beliefs on major issues of the time, such as race and sex. She was fascinated by the burgeoning civil-rights movement and horrified by JFK’s assassination. In many ways, Nancy was ahead of her time. The discord of the era moved her deeply, and she wanted to do something to make the world a better place.

Midway through her college years, Nancy’s father was transferred to Scott Air Force Base in Belleville, Illinois. Nancy followed her family, transferring from the prestigious and sheltered Radford College to the much different Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. There she mingled with a mixture of Vietnam veterans, antiwar protesters, hippies, stoners, older and very straight white students, young black urban students, and rural “hillbilly” types. Sharing classroom space with individuals from this hodgepodge of cultural backgrounds further fueled Nancy’s desire to help change the world for the better. She chose social work as her major, graduating in June of 1969.

The wife of one of Nancy’s professors remembers this about her: “She always had a social conscience and wanted to help people.”

annee7Shortly after graduation, Nancy decided to commit to one year with VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), which was a national organization similar to the Peace Corps. In October, she went to Atlanta for brief training, which focused on leadership skills and community project ideas. Soon afterward, Nancy was sent to Madison County, North Carolina, where she would, for the first time, be living on her own.

annee2The town Nancy and a handful of fellow VISTA members were sent to was beyond – or perhaps behind – anything Nancy had ever experienced. Only 25 per cent of the homes had indoor plumbing. Tobacco farming was the main source of income. There were no health centers and education was far from a priority. To say the area was poor only brushes the surface of what Nancy’s new environment was like. Madison County was, at that time, very much isolated. They didn’t have televisions. No one there traveled beyond their enclosed world. And few, if any, of the residents were progressive thinkers.

People in the Appalachian Mountains lived by what is called Mountain Justice, which is a code of living that dates back at least 200 years. The code states:

Adhere, believe, do, act, conduct yourself, follow, lead, say and otherwise exhibit, to wit: the straight-and-narrow, biblical, sex-concealing, low-toned, reverent, undemonstrative, Sunday-go-to-meeting way is the only way; be it, get with it brother or sister or reap “mountain justice”.

annee6Sadly, Nancy Morgan was not informed about Mountain Justice during her brief VISTA training. Nor was she properly instructed on the closed culture and distrust of strangers she would encounter. Consequently, Nancy entered this fixed society with her typical carefree attitude, assuming she could assimilate into this community as she had everywhere else during her travels. But Nancy was a progressive thinker, a young woman who rebelled against boundaries based on gender roles. She didn’t understand how her friendly and sometimes flirtatious behavior could be misconstrued as wanton and whorish. And, perhaps most importantly, she didn’t know that a young, independent woman who socialized with men would be seen, in this culturally-closed Appalachian region, as a sinning whore not worthy of protection from the men whose attention she gained. This was particularly true when the victim was an outsider and the criminal was homegrown.

annee3Nancy was killed early in June 1970. She’d been missing for several days before her car was discovered on a secluded mountain trail by a local resident. Her body was in the backseat, hog-tied. She’d been sexually assaulted, most likely by multiple assailants. Her murder, to this day, remains unsolved.

“If it were an outsider who committed that crime… they would be hunted down and prosecuted. But if it were local folks that were responsible for that, then it possibly should be ignored.” – Words of a Local Resident

The investigation, such as it was, made me think of The Beverly Hillbillies, with Barney Fife as Sheriff and the Keystone Cops running haphazardly all over the county. Mountain Justice played its virtuous chords in the background. Corruption isn’t even a word that can be properly applied here, since the “good ol’ boys” mentality was their way of life.

“Everybody said you couldn’t get a fair trial in Madison County.” – Joe Huff, Lawyer

annee10This case is a reminder that, regardless of where we live, we are products of our culture. Even here in the US, we have different beliefs depending on where in the country we were raised. People are often quick to judge one another, basing our opinions on the environment we grew up in. We easily forget, or never acknowledge, that we too might hold different beliefs if we’d grown up elsewhere.

annee12Nancy Morgan’s murder is a cautionary tale for all of us. We need to be aware of our surroundings, not just the beautiful view, but also the cultural differences. In traveling, we cannot expect others to conform to us. No one wants a stranger telling us how we should live or, for that matter, showing us how inadequate we are (in the eyes of the stranger).

I am in no way blaming Nancy for her own murder. She was a young, vivacious woman doing her best to make a difference in a tumultuous time. Blame here lies with the person or people who decided Nancy’s body, and subsequently her life, was theirs to take. But, in fairness, I also think that some of that blame also lies with the culture that produced her killers.


Please click to below to view Darcia’s Helle’s many excellent posts:

Jovial Private Bartender Snaps; Assaults and Drags Obnoxious 84-Year-Old Club Patron

Frank Lloyd Wright and the Great Gasoline Mass Murder

Edward Elmore Rode the Legal Railroad to 30 Years on Death Row: His Crime? Simple! He Was Black and Poor

 “The Wrong Carlos”: Non-Violent Manchild Executed for Murder He Did Not Commit

The Electric Chair Nightmare: An Infamous and Agonizing History

Autopsies: Truth, Fiction and Maura Isles and Her 5-Inch-Heels

Don’t Crucify Me, Dude! Just Shoot Me Instead! Spartacus and Death by Crucifixion

To Burn or Not to Burn? Auto-Da-Fé Is Not Good for Women or Children!

The Disgraceful Entrapment of Jesse Snodgrass: Keep the Narcs Out of Our Schools

Why Should I Believe You? The History of the Polygraph

“Don’t Behead Me, Dude!”: The Story of Beheading and the Invention of the Guillotine

Aileen Wuornos, America’s First High-Profile Female Serial Killer, Never Had a Chance

The Terror of ISO: A Descent into Madness

Al Capone Could Not Bribe the Rock: Alcatraz, Fortress of Doom

Cyberspace, Darknet, Murder-for-Hire and the Invisible Black Machine

darcDarcia Helle lives in a fictional world with a husband who is sometimes real. Their house is ruled by spoiled dogs and cats and the occasional dust bunny.

Suspense, random blood splatter and mismatched socks consume Darcia’s days. She writes because the characters trespassing through her mind leave her no alternative. Only then are the voices free to haunt someone else’s mind.

Join Darcia in her fictional world:


The characters await you.


4 Responses to “Met Her on the Mountain”: Cold Case Social Worker Hog-Tied, Raped and Killed in Appalachia

  1. Ralph Snart says:

    Wow , queue the deliverance banjo someone , stat.

    • Bonnie says:

      FYI the banjo player in the movie didn’t actually play the banjo. Great trick photography didn’t allow us to see the real arms coming out from behind the rocking chair. But anyway the guy we thought played the banjo is actually a Wal Mart greeter in real life.

  2. Bonnie says:

    I am simply appalled but not surprised that folks like Darcia think what happened to this woman was the result of them thinking she was whorish. I have been traveling deep Appalachia since 1986 ALONE and have never once encountered one problem. Recently in going back again, I camped this past June, all by myself, high up on Brasstown Bald which is the highest point in GA. Gave two young kids doing the AT a ride and some cash while there. I wandered around Matewan WV in November by myself and hung out in the total dark drinking moonshine with a local and I am here to tell you all about the wonderful time I had. Yes there is mountain justice but that’s mainly for the folks that live there not outsiders. Truth be told, there are mean and dangerous men everywhere who, when they see a chance to be mean and dangerous, they will be. Walking in big cities at night can get you killed just as going it alone in deep mountain towns can so please stop blaming the Appalachian culture. The Ted Bundys and John Wayne Gacys of this world lived nowhere near these people and look what they did.

  3. Toe Tag says:

    Bonnie, I agree with you. Nothing was stated in this article that led to the erroneous conclusion Darcia drew. I don’t know what facts are known about this case but none of them were included in the writing of this.

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