It’s quarter to one on a Saturday morning, and although I’m in a room with more than 200 other people, I’m the only one in shoes. Everyone else is wearing green toe tags on their naked feet. Everyone else, if you haven’t guessed by now, is dead.
At 12 o’clock this rainy night, I joined the only three living people at the Cook County morgue.
The first body came in at 12:30, unloaded from a police wagon at the rear entrance of the building, which is officially called the Cook County Institute of Forensic Medicine. Bill Lee, the night intake clerk, rolled the body of an 83-year-old black woman off a stretcher and onto a stainless-steel cart and body tray that looked like a giant cookie sheet. After weighing, measuring, and photographing her, Lee tagged her pale and chalky feet with the number 221 and wheeled the cart up to the enormous body storage room that is known as the cooler.
As he opened the door, a cold burst of air swept past my body and rattled my senses. The smell was like nothing I had ever experienced. Because there was no formaldehyde to mask its odor, the sickly sweet stench of death lingered thickly in the air.
“Be sure to breathe through your mouth,” Lee instructed me as he placed the cart by the inside wall and turned back toward the cooler door.
I was trying not to breathe at all, and I’m sure he could tell this by the look on my face. To reclaim my composure, I asked if I could stay in the cooler for a few minutes while he went back to the desk.
“Do watcha want,” he said before leaving the cooler and shutting the door. “But I gotta go.”
So here I am alone with row after row of ashen-faced corpses lying belly up under thin sheets that cover their mostly naked bodies. On television shows like Quincy and movies like Night Shift, the bodies are kept on long trays that slide out of wall lockers. But in this enormous cooler, which is about 70 yards long, the bodies are stacked six-high on 15-foot-high racks that can hold 24 cadavers apiece.
I’ve been to funerals, but those dressed-up corpses didn’t prepare me for these bodies. Some of the newer ones that died of natural causes look so much like they are sleeping that I want to slap them to make sure. Others with gaping wounds or hacked-off limbs look too ghastly to be anything but deviously well constructed wax sculptures.
A few minutes go by, and as I’m making a note about the no-smoking sign in the cooler, I carelessly let a strong whiff of corpse in through my nose. It’s time to leave. I can come back later.
Out in the admitting room, I gladly inhale the usually repugnant smell of cigarette smoke. Bill Lee has a Benson & Hedges dangling from his lips and a stack of body tags in his hand. Lee, 63, is a chain-smoker with a raspy, wheezing voice that spouts truncated sentences in a distant southern accent. Except for the lime green lab coat he is required to wear, he looks and sounds a lot like a blues singer from the Mississippi delta.
“Ain’t nothin’ I can’t handle,” he tells me over and over and over again. “You do anythin’ for 30 years and you just gotta get used to it.”
Lee has been at this job since 1958, when the morgue was a small brick building known as the Morris Fishbein Institute of Forensic Medicine. Like most county employees, he got his job through political patronage. In fact, until 1976 there was no medical examiner in Cook County. The morgue was run by an elected coroner who was subject to political pressures and was usually not even a doctor.
Although the morgue moved to its current address, 2121 W. Harrison, in 1984, Lee’s job didn’t change one bit. He still unloads close to 2,000 bodies a year, and he still forgets to wear his plastic gloves.
“Sometimes I wear them, but usually I don’t bother,” he says.
He’s like Charon, the ferryman who brings the dead across the River Styx. No one wants his job, though everyone respects him for doing it.
During the course of the night, police officers and ambulance drivers drop by for a 10- or 20-minute break, talking to Lee or watching the old black-and-white Sears television with the wirehanger antenna that Lee keeps on the admitting desk.
At 1:30, two policemen arrive with the night’s second body, a 34-year-old male truck driver rushed from his bed to the hospital with chest pains after a night of heavy drinking.
“DOA at 12:30,” says one of the cops, Frank, as he shakes the rain off his hat.
“Comin’ down hard?” asks Lee as he lights up another cigarette.
“Real hard, Mr. Lee. You get in many drivers tonight?”
“Ain’t none so far. We’ll get a couple later on, after the bars close up.”
Twenty minutes later, Frank’s partner, who’s been watching a UHF station, drops his chin to his chest and falls asleep. Lee and Frank finally get up and pull the corpse from the wagon to the body tray. They check his weight on the digital counter, sign the paperwork, and bring the corpse into the cooler. After everything is done, Frank steps on the floor scale to weigh himself.
At 2:15 AM I go wandering. The viewing room down the hall is where next of kin are taken to identify bodies via closed-circuit television. It’s one of the stylish features of this five-year old, $18-million facility, which lies at the center of the newly developed Chicago Technological Park on the west side. And Room 113, the investigators’ room, looks like an IBM office. Cream-colored cubicles and carpeting brighten a space filled with police maps, computers, and bulletin boards. Pop music is on the radio and a half eaten pizza on the counter. Here, across the way from the admitting room, is where the bureaucracy of death functions–even at night.
Marv Menconi and Rudy Rios are the two case investigators tonight. Their shifts, unlike Lee’s, change every month.
“Let’s just say that the night shift isn’t our favorite assignment,” says Menconi, who’s wearing a blue snowflake sweater over a large belly swelled with lasagna and beer. Within ten minutes of meeting me, he’s showing me the scars on his knee from an old college football injury.,
“The worst part of my job is dealing with next of kin,” Menconi says. “Take a suicide. I have to talk to the parents about an 18- or 19-year-old who just died. I got to ask them if their kid did dope or drank.”
Rios fills me with statistics. He says more than one death in three is reported to his office–“and our job is to type up the reports for the medical examiner and his pathologists.”
About 18,000 of the 50,000 deaths each year in Cook County are investigated by the office of the medical examiner. Some 5,000 bodies are actually brought to the morgue, and nine out of ten are autopsied. According to Rios, suicides, homicides, drownings, deaths in custody, police shootings, and any death of somebody not under medical supervision must be investigated.
But by 3:30 AM, it’s been all auto accidents and heart attacks. Rios, a Mexican-American wearing an old brown shirt with wide collars and brown polyester slacks, tells me about the more exciting days.
“My first year was in 1978 when we were digging up the Gacy house for the 33 kids he killed,” says Rios. “We never did identify eight of them.”
“Was that the worst you’ve seen?”
“Nah, the DC-10 was the worst,” he says; this was the American Airlines crash one year later in which 275 people were killed.
At 4:15, Lee calls the room to tell me that two bodies have arrived. I hurry across the hall to the admitting entrance, where a hospital ambulance is waiting.
“No need to run,” Lee says to me. “They ain’t goin’ nowhere soon.”
Although I know he’s right, something seems strange about a body lying in an ambulance for 15 minutes. Lee calmly lights another cigarette and adjusts the tuner on his radio.
These are the eighth and ninth victims of the night. According to the police report, they’re probable DUIs.
While Lee slides their credit cards and cash into a manila envelope stamped Personal Belongings, I stare into the face of a 45-year-old man who was alive and well just hours ago.
A few minutes later, a City News Bureau reporter drops by on his nightly check.
“Anything important happen tonight, Mr. Lee?”
“Ain’t nothin’ I can’t handle.”
The reporter picks up the admitting chart and scans through the cause-of-death sections. After 30 seconds, he puts down the chart and looks discouraged.
“Well, I’ll drop by again, just in case something happens. I’ll see you later, Mr. Lee.”
The reporter leaves and I look back at the 45-year-old man on the body tray. His eyes are open, staring vacantly at me.
At five o’clock I decide to return to the cooler to see what is behind the pyramid of empty wooden coffins stacked in front of the far wall. After opening the door, I walk quickly past the now-familiar racks of inanimate statistics. Holding my nose and staring straight ahead, I twist by the wooden coffins and catch sight of a stainless steel rack that rests firmly against the wall.
On the bottom shelves are filthy blankets, torn-up pants, piles of shoes, and olive green plastic bags containing stillborn babies. Yet what catches my eye is directly above, on a middle shelf that looks like it is coated with hamburger grease.
At first it looks like a black baby girl, with hauntingly bright ebony skin. But as I peer, the absence of paleness and the glossy veneer convince me that this is only a toy doll that came in with one of the corpses. After all, the feet are untagged and the body is lying randomly between garbage bags.
Yet, without actually touching her, I can’t be sure. After leaving the cooler for the last time, I enter the admitting room, where Lee is muttering something about meat hooks into the telephone.
When he hangs up the receiver, I ask him why a doll is in the cooler.
“What are you talkin’ about?” he says in a gravelly voice. “There ain’t no doll in the cooler.”
So I describe her to him. By the look on his face, he knows exactly what I’m talking about.
“Oh, that’s the little girl who came in yesterday. She was four months old.
“But why was her body on the shelf, without any cover?”
“I don’t bring in everyone. How should I know?”
I feel sick and disgusted and need to take a walk. So I move into the investigators’ room, where Menconi offers me the last piece of cold pizza. It’s sausage and I turn it down politely.
“I still smell the cooler,” I tell him. “I can’t get it out of my head.”
“It stays in your nostril hairs, so you’ll smell it all week,” he tells me. “Better wash your hands, before you forget.”
I walk down the hall to the bathroom and as I wash my hands I notice them shaking.
At 5:34 AM, the man who directs the morgue’s 125 employees, Dr. Robert J. Stein, strides into the admitting room. Although he’s the chief medical examiner for Cook County, Dr. Stein comes in at this time every day, a full hour before sunrise and two hours before most of his pathologists arrive.
When Dr. Stein enters the room he takes the admitting chart from Lee and scans it like a general reviewing the latest casualty figures. So far, ten bodies have arrived on the night shift. And Dr. Stein will spend the next hour reviewing the typed reports that Menconi and Rios have been compiling on these cases.
When Dr. Stein walks into the investigators’ room to pick up reports, Menconi and Rios snap to attention and say good morning. Dr. Stein replies with a grunt. Then he retires to his office to prepare for the day ahead.
Dr. Stein’s office has achieved a record of remarkable success in solving cases and identifying bodies. In 1986, for example, only 17 out of the 49,007 persons who died in Cook County were never identified–that’s only 0.04 percent.
Dr. Stein, 77, is a silver-haired man with a Bronx Jewish accent and a manner as serious as the night crew’s was relaxed. He always wears his wire-rim glasses and he always wears a tie under his gray lab coat, which is emblazoned with a gold Cook County seal.
The rest of the day staff begin arriving a little after six. They’ve dressed more casually, in surgical scrubs or short-sleeved shirts. Many of the early arrivals proceed to the various autopsy rooms on the west side of the building. Like cafeteria workers before the breakfast rush, these lab employees busily wash and scrub the scalpels, knives, and other utensils that will be needed later on.
By seven, another two bodies have been dropped off at the morgue. One is a possible drug overdose and the other was in an auto accident. After Lee wheels them into the cooler, he lays his head on the table for a nap, using the admitting book as a pillow.
At about this time, Dr. Stein tells me that we can talk for a few minutes.
“Twelve in a night is about average,” he says. “But for about two weeks this summer, we sometimes had almost 40 cases a day. Mainly older people who just couldn’t take the heat.”
How would you rank this facility with others in the United States?
“Well I think it’s the best facility in the world and that’s because of the staff,” he says. “We have 12 board-certified forensic pathologists and they make sure that things run smoothly.”
When I ask about the uncovered body of the baby girl in the cooler, Dr. Stein interrupts me.
“I’ll take a look when I have a chance to visit the cooler,” he says. “But I’ve got other things to do now.”
At about 7:45, Menconi and Rios are relieved by two fresh case investigators. After they leave, I put on my overcoat and head for the rear entrance. Lee is dozing as I walk up to the desk. His replacement is checking the tag board and drinking coffee.
“Be sure to come back sometime,” Lee mumbles, coughing up some phlegm. “Hope you can visit.”
I nod my head and say good-bye. Unless I’m on a stretcher, I will be steering clear of the morgue for a long time.
That’s not to say it was a bad experience. Like a first roller coaster ride, the challenge was to do it. And based on what Bill Lee, Rudy Rios, and Marv Menconi have told me, being here gets easier with time.
By eight o’clock the downpour has subsided and the sun beams through the morning clouds. I steer my car onto the Eisenhower ever so carefully, and hold it down to the speed limit all the way home.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.