There’s an apple orchard at Cook County Jail. West of California and just north of 31st Street, tucked behind a cluster of five blocky brown brick buildings, it’s accessible via guard shaft number two. Cross the parking lot and take a shortcut around a low-slung electrical shop and you’ll find a dozen-plus, maybe 20 trees.
They’re gnarled and uncultivated, 15 feet at their tallest. In the fall they bear fruit—pale reddish gold globes, the largest the size of a regulation baseball. But no one harvests the crop. By mid-September the ground beneath the branches is littered with soft, rotting apples, a lumpy carpet turning brown in the late-summer heat.
The adjacent brick buildings aren’t part of the jail proper, though given the razor wire the distinction may be lost on the casual visitor. They’re headquarters for the Cook County Sheriff’s Department of Community Supervision and Intervention, which runs a handful of minimum-security programs designed to alleviate jail overcrowding. The participants are accused or convicted of nonviolent crimes; some are drunk drivers, most are low-level drug offenders. Many are still awaiting trial, and participating in DCSI programs—which include drug and alcohol treatment, anger management counseling, GED courses, “life skills” training, and jail “day reporting”—might give them a leg up when they finally go before a judge. But mostly they’re a good deal because anything beats sitting in Cook County Jail for six months.
For much of the 20th century, the brick buildings, all four stories high, were home to another species of pariah—the city’s Municipal Contagious Disease Hospital, finished, per the cornerstone of Building One, in 1915 and opened to the ailing public on January 8, 1917. Building One was administration, Two and Three were the hospital wings, and Four was the nurses’ quarters. On the roof of Building Three there are two little structures that look like tollbooths. They’re believed to be isolation huts in which the nurses sat while their patients took some air.
According to a 1985 article in the Journal of the History of Medicine, early patients mostly suffered from diphtheria, though by 1930 cases of scarlet fever spiked while diphtheria rates declined thanks to advances in immunization. During the country’s final polio epidemic in the early 1950s some wards were, wrote the article’s author, Harry F. Dowling, “crammed with patients and paraphernalia—suction apparatus, rocking beds, iron lungs, etc.—and the staff to man them.”
Small numbers of patients afflicted with common infectious diseases like rubella, mumps, measles, and chicken pox were treated at the hospital over the years as well. And during the 1933 World’s Fair, when an epidemic of amebic dysentery swept the city, an entire floor of the hospital was set aside for dysentery sufferers who, Dowling says, would have been treated as outpatients had the eyes of the world not been upon Chicago.
Just south of the orchard sits Building Five; it housed the morgue. And the low-slung electric shop to the west was the crematorium, where the diphtheria-, scarlet fever-, and polio-ridden corpses were dispatched. Or so the story goes.
“It’s folklore,” says Mike Taff, an administrative assistant who coordinates DSCI participants’ work in the University of Illinois Extension garden, just north of the orchard. “People don’t want to eat the apples because that’s where they used to throw the ashes.”
Taff’s only been with DCSI for four years and doesn’t know whether the ashes of the dead were actually scattered where the apple trees now grow. He doubts it. But it’s true that apple trees in Illinois do best in soil with a pH between 5.6 and 7. And ashes are a reliable way of boosting soil pH. And, as Taff says, the story’s both widespread and creepy enough that few are interested in eating the fruit.
While on the phone with me Taff calls out to Matt Sekula, deputy director of the Sheriff’s Work Alternative Program. SWAP, as it’s known, is a DCSI program that puts nonviolent offenders to work cleaning up graffiti and picking up litter. During the 1995 heat wave SWAP participants helped haul the bodies of the more than 700 victims to the Cook County morgue. Sekula says the trees were in residence when he started—”so they’re at least 14 years old,” Taff explains.
Sekula has eaten the apples.
“They’re good,” he says. “But at first when I was eating them everyone looked at me like I had three heads, and I was like, ‘What’s wrong?’ And they said, ‘You don’t wanna know.'”
The development of new vaccines and antibiotics all but eradicated diphtheria, smallpox, whooping cough, poliomyelitis, measles, mumps, and rubella in turn. By the 1970s the hospital, which opened with 450 beds and in 1930 accommodated nearly 4,000 patients, saw only about 20 patients a day. Various wings were turned over to an alcoholism treatment center, a winter shelter for the poor, a lead poisoning clinic, and a TB research lab. The MCDH closed January 1, 1977. It was believed to be the last contagious-disease hospital in the country.
Ed Simmons was a patient there in 1952, hit by polio when he was four years old. He went on to work for the department of corrections for most of his adult career—retiring in 2006 after “35 years, six months, and too much BS.” In March of 1993, as the director of support services for DCSI, he hooked up with U. of I. urban gardening educator Ron Wolford to start the jail’s garden. DCSI executive director David Devane, whom Mike Taff describes as “a big fan of trees,” had read about a similar program in San Francisco and thought it was a good idea. The following year, says Simmons, a GreenCorps worker named German Gonzales, hired to help with the garden, turned up one day with a gift: a bunch of young apple trees. So they planted them.
Simmons scoffs at the rumors about the site. “You know how people are,” he says. “They have to create their own myths.” But even he doesn’t know what kind of apples they are. German Gonzales might have, but he passed away several years ago.
They’re close in heft and hue to a Cortland, or maybe a Wolf River, which Michael Pollan describes in The Botany of Desire as having “the yellow, wet-sawdust flesh of a particularly tired Red Delicious, without even a glint of that apple’s beauty.” I ate a few, and while they’re not terrible, they’re no Northern Spy. The flesh is soft and bland; the skins are often bruised, scabbed, or pocked with holes. Cut one open and the carpel may be black with rot—the probable handiwork of codling moths or apple maggots—or fuzzy with mold.
Apple trees don’t thrive in isolation. Almost all are cross-pollinators, dependent on the pollen from a different breed of tree and the busy integrative work of bees to set a bumper crop of fruit. Inadequately pollinated trees—even the rare self-pollinating versions—turn out stunted and misshapen apples that are slow to ripen and fall early from the branch.
Perfect apples will keep for up to four months, given proper handling. But if a good apple comes in contact with a rotten spot on another, look out. Pile apples from this grove into a bag with outsiders and the spoilage will quickly spread. Better to press them into cider quickly and be done with it, or take your bad apples, excise the rot, and through careful application of time, heat, and sugar make dessert.
If you do that, are they then rehabilitated?v