Why would anyone want a key to the Cook County Morgue?
I’ve been a key collector since my high school days. By the time I was a senior, I had a small collection of master keys that gave me complete access to the entire school. I was a good kid, basically—well mostly good. That is to say, I only got into a little mischief with the keys and I graduated with my class in good standing…with no disciplinary record…so that means I was a good kid, right?
Fast forward to last week when I was searching through my holster box. Every cop has a holster box, filled with new and used holsters of every size shape and description. Some of them worked out and they are well worn. Others just didn’t suit the task and for some reason they were never returned and they are essentially brand new.
But on the bottom of the box, beneath all the leather was a key ring with an odd assortment of keys. A key to the Chicago traffic control boxes, a few I did not recognize, and a strange shaped key with the bottom edge machined off…the key to the back door of the old Cook County Morgue.
One of a homicide detective’s occasional duties was to morgue dead bodies—the word morgue here is used as a verb. (See a related story at Morgue, a Verb.) When a body arrives at the morgue before a homicide detective has had an opportunity to view it, a team will be dispatched to make a detailed examination of the remains, that is, they “morgue the body.” They gather a myriad of details by means of a detailed external inspection many hours before forensic pathologists begin their exam by means of an autopsy. This gives the detectives on the street sometimes crucial evidence hours or sometime days before formal results are available.
The morgue facility of course operates twenty-four hours a day because it serves the many millions living (or dying) in Cook County. One would think that a city homicide detective would have twenty-four hour access and you would be correct…99.9% of the time. However, on the midnight shift, there would be rare occasions when we would find the door locked and we had no recourse but to wait until Freddie, the midnight attendant glided silently through the inside shadows to unlock the doors for us. Freddie was not an overly communicative individual and he never offered an apology or excuse for his absence from his post at the first floor reception counter, directly above the hundreds of bodies stored in the basement crypts immediately below.
He was a relatively short man, just a tad overweight, with thinning hair and coke bottle glasses. His manner of dress was approaching what one might describe as unkempt. His most disturbing habit was that of twirling his index finger, much as one might twirl a lock of hair, but there wasn’t enough hair left to twirl, so instead he twirled the surface of his belt just above his trouser pocket. His half smile was vaguely indicative of someone in mild pain. When you approached the counter Freddie would half grimace a smile and look over the top of his thick glasses and greet us with sort of a plaintive whine, all the while twirling his finger at his belt line. It presented a disconcerting image, especially in the very subdued lighting he preferred for the midnight hours of his shift.
Those of us in homicide learned to accept the sight that greeted us each time our duties took us to the morgue during the midnight hours. What we could never accept however was not knowing what Freddie did during those occasional absences from his assigned post. Being cops and homicide detectives our theories were both morbid and macabre, indicative perhaps of some cluster of brain cells nestled deep within our psyches—an area that could only be shared in the company of cops after several beers.
At some point in my homicide career, my partner and I came into the temporary possession of a key to the back door to the morgue. Being a “key guy,” my immediate inclination was to duplicate the key but this was easier said than done. The bow of the key was boldly stamped “DO NOT DUPLICATE.” That shouldn’t be a problem…we knew people. But the vertical dimension of the blade of the key appeared to be only about two-thirds of that of conventional keys. That would be a problem for our regular people. This would require no less than artistic machinist—but we knew other people.
“Why in the hell do you want a key to the morgue?” asked my partner.
“Well…on those nights when Freddie doesn’t answer the door, we can let ourselves in and go about our business,” I replied.
It only took a split second for my partner to realize the possible ramifications of that scenario.
“Let’s do it!” he said with just a hint of a smile.
So it came to pass, that for the next several years, my key-ring carried a key to the morgue. It worked! We tested it—with precautions of course.
“Why do you have a key to the morgue?” would be an embarrassing question to try and answer.
Alas. After testing it that one time, we never had occasion to use it. For some strange reason, I took the key with me when I was promoted and left homicide. After all, having a key to the morgue was a heavy responsibility and I was a key guy. I would handle it appropriately.
The old Cook County Morgue moved to a new facility many years ago and is now housed in a facility called the Medical Examiner’s Office. I’m sure they have new locks.
What did Freddie do during his unexplained absences? I can only leave that to your individual imaginations. I am sure Freddie was a nice man…I have no good reason to believe otherwise…although my mind still wanders after a few beers.
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