A Key to the Morgue

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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.

EPILOGUE

 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.

 

Did you enjoy this post? Check out our book, On Being a Cop, fifty-three father/son memoirs from the streets of Chicago. www.onbeingacop.com

 

 

Showing 11 comments

  • John Northen
    Reply

    Jim,

    Could Freddie be into necrophilia? Nah!

    • Jim Padar
      Reply

      Well John, if that’s where your imagination takes you…

  • Kaye Aurigemma
    Reply

    Do you still collect keys? I have a BUNCH! Good story! KBA

    • Jim Padar
      Reply

      I am only interested in keys that still work…and to very interesting places!

      Thanks for reading, Kaye.

  • Barry Felcher
    Reply

    Jim — very enjoyable story.My favorite CC Morgue story happened in 1967 when I was a young newspaper reporter. Three children had died in a fire on the West side late in the evening. I needed i.d.’s for my article. I first stopped at Cook County Hospital where a nurse directed me to the morgue. “It is raining very heavily and you are not wearing a raincoat,” she said. She showed me the tunnel that went from the hospital to the morgue. I recall there was a large painted red circle on the door leading to the below ground refrigeration vaults. A sign on the door said no un-authorized entry. Well, of course I entered and found my self surrounded by all the body vaults. Now, I started hearing voices….people engaged in conversation. Since I was alone in the room, you can imagine what went through my mind. I found the stairs and ran up to the lobby. When I told the attendant what I had heard he said “you were just hearing my voice through the heat ducts. I got the i.d.’s of the fire victims and got the hell out of there.

    • Jim Padar
      Reply

      The infamous “tunnel.” Lots of stories in that tunnel!

      Thanks for reading, Barry.

  • Bill Kushner
    Reply

    Jim–I thought I was the only key guy around. While my collection doesn’t include a morgue or ME facility key, I did at one time have a key labeled “barracks housing master” from the ISP academy. back when we were all at the academy, Jim Hamill and myself would have to go to monthly meetings at he ISP academy regarding the Training Board curriculum; that would necessitate and overnight stay, usually in the barracks. It would also require a social visit tot he Troopers Lake Lodge. One morning after a Lodge visit, our hosts slid said key across the meeting table with the comment “with the best wishes of the night staff”. Apparently they were unaccustomed to people ringing the bell because the numbers on the little keypad by the door were unlit!
    Keep up the great stories and stay well, my friend!
    Bill

  • J. Lyden
    Reply

    In 1968 I was a college student dating a student nurse at Cook County Hospital. We routinely used the tunnel from the parking lot to her residence hall. One night she gave me a tour of the morgue and there was no one in there; breathing that is. The trip with her through the leaky dim tunnel had it’s charms, but the return by myself was quick and unpleasant. If you would have opened that door, I would have wet my pants.

    • Jim Padar
      Reply

      Good thing you didn’t meet Freddie! 🙂

      Thanks for reading and commenting…

  • John
    Reply

    As a young kid, whose first job with a star and a gun, was as a County Hospital Police, I got to know those tunnels pretty well and would go into the morgue on occasion and look around, evesdrop on the Dics talking about their latest job, etc. Even looked around the flight 191 “parts room.” I remember that dock on Polk St. Don’t think it was ever washed down. Would look at the stained concrete and wonder “Who, what, how, why.” Morgue was gone by the time I worked as a homicide dic. Now it’s just a parking garage.

    • Jim Padar
      Reply

      Ah, but if you are in that garage in the wee hours of the morning, on days with dense fog wafting in from the lake look closely. You will see the mist take a strange form on occasion and the apparition will move seemingly counter to the breeze.

      (And they say I can’t write fiction!)

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