The first historical artifact in Wyoming: Harvey Morgan's impaled head.
The first historical artifact in Wyoming: Harvey Morgan's impaled head.

Spiked Skull of Harvey Morgan

Field review by the editors.

Lander, Wyoming

In 1870 the Wind River Valley of Wyoming was popular with prospectors searching for gold. Local Native Americans were not happy about that. A number of those prospectors ended up dead.

James Keffer on the gallows: a heartless killer with a normal brain.
James Keffer on the gallows: a heartless killer with a normal brain.

But the death of prospector Harvey Morgan was exceptional.

"He had the misfortune of overestimating his abilities," said Randy Wise, director of the Fremont County Pioneer Museum, where Harvey's skull has been on display for over 100 years.

Harvey and two companions, riding a wagon, traveled where they were warned not to go on June 27, 1870, and were ambushed by a band of native warriors. The Wind River Valley was sparsely settled, so no prospector or rancher heard the gun battle -- or the screams. The corpses of the three men weren't found until the following day. Harvey, his body surrounded by spent ammunition, was apparently the last man standing. A special horror had been inflicted on him: a spike from the wagon was pounded sideways through his head.

(Harvey's martyrdom quickly became a local legend, marked with a rock memorial and visited by U.S. President Chester A. Arthur on his 1883 trip to Yellowstone).

The bodies of the three men were taken to a nearby Army fort and buried. Over time that fort became the town of Lander, and when the town was digging trenches for a water system in 1907, up came the skeleton of Harvey Morgan. His still-spiked skull was instantly recognized.

See? The spike really does go all the way through.
See? The spike really does go all the way through.

Ed Farlow saved the skull so that we could enjoy it today.
Ed Farlow saved the skull so that we could enjoy it today.

Ed Farlow, the old-timer who owned that piece of land, saved the skull. "He didn't want the memory of the frontier to vanish," said Randy, so Ed donated Harvey's impaled head to the town. It became Wyoming relic #1. "It's the first artifact in the first Wyoming history museum," said Randy.

Harvey's head is displayed in a prominent spot in the museum, its spike now wedged into place for over 150 years. An image of the skull is featured on a refrigerator magnet sold in the museum gift shop. The head's exhibit text calls it "priceless" and "a vivid reminder for future generations of the struggles endured by the early pioneers." And isn't the only oddity in the collection. There's a two-faced lamb ("I really don't know where it came from," said Randy) and and iron lung ("A town had to rate to have its own iron lung; they weren't cheap," said Randy) and the jail register from the day that outlaw Butch Cassidy was locked up in Lander for stealing a horse.

One local item of particular note is the noose used to hang James Keffer in 1903. "He wasn't the only person hung in this county, but he was the only person hung legally," said Randy. "As opposed to just taking the guy out and stringing him up." Keffer killed an old man in his sleep, then robbed his corpse. According to contemporary newspaper accounts, Keffer spent his last few hours singing, dancing, and telling stories to his jailers. He claimed to be insane, but a subsequent headline, Brain Was Found Normal, suggested otherwise. "The noose was displayed in the deputy sheriff's saloon on Main Street for decades," said Randy, before finding its way to the museum.

Face #1 of the happy two-faced lamb.
Face #1 of the happy two-faced lamb.

Randy explained that the usual roadblocks that would forbid the display of a human skull really don't apply to Harvey Morgan. Despite over a century of effort on the part of the museum, no relatives have been found, no family, no history, no idea of where he originally came from. "Harvey Morgan" may not have even been his real name. With no one to be personally aggrieved by the skull, plus its #1-in-Wyoming status, Harvey's head seems assured of many more years of public exhibition.

A large Native American population still lives in the Wind River Valley, and although they'd be forgiven for viewing Harvey Morgan's head with a sense of grim justice, Randy said that wasn't the case. "They think it's pretty creepy," said Randy. He said that he hopes to give the skull a more evocative exhibit, perhaps with a wagon wheel, some spent rifle casings, and native plants. "We want to re-create the scene to a certain extent," he said, "but we're not going to have pools of blood."

Spiked Skull of Harvey Morgan

Fremont County Pioneer Museum

Address:
1443 W. Main St., Lander, WY
Directions:
Fremont County Pioneer Museum. North edge of town, on the west side of US-287/W. Main St.
Hours:
M-Sa 9-5 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Phone:
307-332-4137
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

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In the region:
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