Most folks don’t know… or remember… or even care… that the Ashland Avenue elevated station on the Lake Street line was an “A” stop back in the 1970’s. But it cost a young man his life.
Even fewer people know that this very same station is known as the Lionel McKesson, Jr. Memorial El Platform, having been so designated by a couple of homicide detectives with an odd penchant for naming public places after persons who had died at those locations. You won’t find those memorial titles in any Chicago guide books, maybe just an occasional one mentioned here, on this blog.
Mike and I were working Area Four Homicide out of the just opened Harrison Street Station. It was new and sterile and had none of the character of the old Maxwell Street digs we had recently vacated. Our sergeant had taken a call on the PAX line, the department’s internal phone system. From listening to his side of the conversation it was apparent he was getting nowhere with the caller.
“Well what is it?”
“Well what happened?”
“Well, what do you think happened?”
“Well if a train hit ’em it’s a traffic case, call Traffic, Major Accidents.”
And then, finally, in exasperation:
“Wait, I’ll give you to one of the detectives.” He looked up at Mike and me and motioned for us to pick up the line. We both got on the line and started to listen to a very frustrated 12th District wagon man.
“Listen guys, I don’t know what the hell happened, but somebody’s goin’ to die here and I think you guys should know about it.”
Most folks don’t realize that homicide detectives, in addition to investigating murders, also look into suicides, unexplained sudden deaths and fatal non-traffic accidents. Many times those cases can be as interesting and challenging as any murder investigation.
“Well what happened?” said Mike and I at the same time. The wagon man took a deep breath of déjà vu frustration and started again.
“We got an assignment from dispatch to check the eastbound Ashland and Lake el platform for an injured person. They didn’t have any further information. When we got up there, at first we didn’t see anything, then we noticed a broken barricade about two thirds of the way down the platform, towards the loop. When we got to the barricade, we saw a briefcase and a large bundle of clothing further down, all the way at the east end of the platform… but when we got down there it was really two bodies, totally unconscious and kind of all tangled up together. These two guys are hurt bad, real bad. We called for a fire ambulance—we didn’t want to move them. We wound up with two ambulances and an engine company and a snorkle. It took them over a half an hour to get them untangled and on backboards and neck braces before they moved them. They took them down to the street on the snorkel. The paramedic says he thinks the one guy is a goner, and possibly the second one too.” He paused for a moment and waited for a question from us—a question he knew he most likely wouldn’t be able to answer.
“What do you think happened?” asked Mike.
“Damned if I know… I’d say they got hit by a train, I’ve seen that before, but they’re both on the platform and the CTA says it has no reports of any of their trains hitting anyone. I gotta kinda believe them—I don’t think any motorman would clobber a couple of people that bad and not report it.”
“Who called?” I asked.
“Well that’s another thing that’s kinda of a mystery. The ticket reads ‘Check the eastbound platform for an injured person.’ There’s nothing more on it, somebody’s going to have to listen to the tape.”
“Where are they now?”
“They’re both at Pres/St Lukes now, but I don’t think either of them are going to be talkin’.
Mike slipped me a scribbled note: “Let’s take it.” Mike and I always enjoyed the off the wall cases and this one certainly appeared like it would hold our interest for a day or two. I nodded in agreement.
“Okay officer, mark us down for the notification and we’ll see what we can figure out on this one.” I gave the wagon man our names and star numbers and we hung up the phone.
“Sarge, we’re taking this one—it’s going to be a death investigation very soon.”
“Okay, but just remember, if they got hit by the damned train, it belongs to traffic.”
“We’ll keep that in mind, but I don’t think that’s what happened.”
Mike and I headed for the hospital where we managed to get all the way to the surgical suites. The Operating Room Coordinator was especially helpful. She told us victim number one was Lionel McKesson, Jr., 18 years of age. He was the most seriously injured of the two with multiple internal injuries and a crushing skull fracture with bone fragments penetrating the brain. The hospital’s premier neurosurgeon happened to be prepping for another surgery when the two came in and he immediately moved our victims to the top of his OR list. If either had any chance, they would be getting topflight attention. She expected Lionel’s surgery to be a long one.
Victim number two was 35 year old Arthur Morgan. Neurologically he was in much better shape although he would require at least a burr hole drilled into his skull to relieve pressure from cranial bleeding. But Arthur had multiple broken bones and other suspected internal injuries. In short Lionel McKesson, Jr was extremely critical, Arthur Morgan was just a half notch better at critical. We would not be able to interview either of them for the next few days.
From the hospital we swung by the Ashland/Lake el station. The system of alternating A – B stops was used by the CTA from the 1950’s through the 1990’s. Since each train made fewer stops the overall trip time was decreased. Certain high traffic stations remained allstops, all others were designated either “A” or “B” stops. Ashland was an “A” stop.
CTA personnel were on the platform cleaning up the debris from the broken barricade. And a formidable barricade it was. The east most stairs to the street were closed and to prevent passengers from exiting on that stairwell, a barrier about four feet high had been installed. It was 5/8″ plywood covered on each side with heavy gauge sheet metal. The plywood had been badly broken and the sheet metal severely deformed but on one distorted piece of the metal we could barely make out bright yellow and black stripes with signage that read
“STOP! No Exit—Do Not Proceed Beyond This Point”
The workmen had no idea how the four foot wall had been smashed to bits. When we told them the police had found two severely injured persons some thirty feet further down the platform they were incredulous. They had no idea how that could have possibly happened. They looked at us expectantly as if we were about to provide them some particulars to explain the scenario. All we could is shrug and shake our heads.
Next stop, the Communications Center. A young man who was rapidly becoming a valuable resource and eventually would become a lifelong friend, Radio Technician Mike Murino, would be our go to guy for the audio tape of the mystery caller who asked the police to check for an injured person. In the radio room we determined that the caller used a public phone located in Chicago’s Union Station. Not much help there.
We held out hope that the audio tape would be more revealing. It was not as enlightening as we had hoped. The caller was a female who was asking that the police check for an injured person on the eastbound Lake and Ashland el platform. The call taker questioned her as to why she thought someone was injured. She related that she was on a “B” train and a boy she recognized from school pulled the emergency cord as the train entered the Ashland “A” stop. The doors opened, he waved to her and stepped off the train onto the platform at a high rate of speed. She was certain that he must have been injured.
“Please!” she implored the call taker. “Just send someone to check!” She hung up the phone.
Mike and I headed back to the hospital to see if any family members might be able to help us put the pieces together. In the surgical waiting room we learned that McKesson’s surgery had been cut short due to his deteriorating condition. He had been placed on life support and moved to Intensive Care. The hospital had not been able to reach any family members.
Arthur Morgan was a slightly brighter story. His family had been notified and they were in the waiting room. Neurologically he had required only a burr hole to relieve some minor cranial bleeding, but he was in surgery having some broken bones set. His condition had improved a half a notch to critical, but stable. The Morgan family descended upon Mike and I hoping to learn what had happened to Arthur. We had some questions first.
We learned that Arthur Morgan was a teacher for the Chicago Public School system. He boarded the CTA eastbound Lake Street train every morning at Ashland. Perhaps Lionel McKesson was the person that stepped onto the platform from the speeding “B” train causing him to collide with Arthur Morgan who was waiting for the next “A” train. Did the two then tumble together to the easternmost portion of the platform? We might not know until we had a chance to interview Arthur, Lionel or both and right now that was not possible and it might not ever be possible given their grave medical conditions.
The homicide detective’s mystique would have you believe that solutions to cases are divined by pure perseverance and superhuman powers of deduction, but all too many times serendipity plays a crucial role. For the moment we had no where else to go and so we returned to the office to type some file notes in the event Morgan or McKesson expired during the night. Our bosses on the afternoon and midnights shifts would be most unhappy if either Morgan or McKesson suddenly appeared at the morgue without our office having some idea of how we spent our day and what we had learned.
Then, serendipity struck.
“Padar! Shull!” yelled our sergeant. “You guys got that el platform… thing? What the hell is it anyway?”
“Yeah, that’s ours. Looks like it might be an accident sarge.”
“If they got hit by the train it belongs to traffic.”
“We know, we know! But we don’t think that’s what happened.” Mike and I rolled our eyes.
“Well there’s a call on the bell for you guys. Pick up 52.” The ‘bell’ meant it was an outside caller on the public phone system. Mike and I picked up separate phones so we could both hear.
“Are you the detectives who are handling the boy that got hurt at Ashland this morning?” said a soft-spoken female voice.
“Yes,” we answered cautiously. “And you are?”
“I’m the person who called this morning. I don’t mean to bother you but I just wanted to ask how he is.”
“Did you see what happened?” Mike and I brought our pens and pads to the ready.
“No, not really… well kinda… I guess… but only part of it.” She identified herself as Marilyn Hardiman and she agreed to talk to us at her home. She lived near Central and Lake, about a 10 minute drive from our office. We headed out of the office and told our sergeant we were going to interview the person who had just called.
“You guys are spending a lot of time on this—if they got hit by a train the Traffic Division should be doing all this.”
“Yeah we remember hearing that somewhere,” Mike said sarcastically.
“What did you say?” retorted the sergeant.
“He said we’ll remember that if it turns out that way,” I said in an attempt to smooth any ruffled feathers. The sergeant glared at us but said nothing further.
Marilyn Hardiman was 18, about the same age as Lionel McKesson Jr. She lived with her parents in a neat west side apartment. Marilyn had just graduated high school and was taking a summer course at Jones Commercial High School downtown to better prepare her for college in the Fall. On class days she walked to the Central and Lake CTA stop, took the el downtown and transferred to a bus that took her to Jones.
Early morning while waiting for the train, she noticed a boy she recognized from school flirting with her. She thought his name was Lionel. Central Avenue was an allstop station. The first train to arrive happened to be a “B” train but it made no difference to her because she was going all the way downtown. Both she and Lionel boarded the train and she made a conscious effort to go to the opposite end of the car from Lionel but because of crowding they remained at the same end separated by about 10 feet and several passengers. Every time she glanced at Lionel he was smiling at her, a friendly smile—but she wasn’t interested. As the “B” train approached the Ashland “A” stop, Lionel made his way to the exit door, then as the train sped through the Ashland el platform, Lionel pulled the emergency cord and the doors opened. He winked and nodded at Marilyn and stepped onto the platform (at about 40 mph as later estimated by the CTA). She thought she saw him take a step or two and then fall as he lost his balance. The train coasted to a stop about two blocks beyond the platform, the doors closed and the train continued on its way. When she got off the train she called the police.
That was all we needed to confirm our theory. Arthur Morgan was hit alright, but not by the train. He was hit by 180 pounds of 40 mph Lionel McKesson, Jr. Our sergeant was not going to be happy—this dashed his hopes of punting the case to the Traffic Division.
A few days passed and Lionel languished on a respirator with no improvement. When Mike and I returned to the hospital, his family had gathered to be with him when they discontinued life support. They spoke lovingly of him in hushed tones. He was a good student and had scored a scholarship to a state college. For the summer he was working with his father at the family import business near Ashland and Lake. Today would be the last of his earthly existence, a victim of a momentary, thoughtless act.
Two floors higher we stopped in to see Arthur Morgan. He was a living caricature of a cartoon depicting a seriously injured person. His was sitting up in bed, his right leg in a giant cast and suspended in traction. Similarly, his left arm was cast from the tips of his fingers all the way to his shoulder all held in place by a chain to an overhead frame. His head was completely bandaged all the way down to his eyebrows. A surgical glove was somehow attached to the side of his head, the fingers each filled about halfway with dark red blood.
“A drain,” explained the nurse. No, I thought to myself… that’s a surgical glove.
Arthur was alert, talkative and animated. As he spoke with us he moved his head a bit from side to side and the ‘drain’ gave the appearance of a hand, waving and gesturing to us. It was the most bizarre distraction I had ever witnessed and Mike and I fought to control ourselves.
“It’s a good thing I was standing there,” he said, nodding his head for emphasis. The hand on his head gestured in agreement. “I probably broke his fall and saved his life.”
I shot Mike a quick glance and shook my head just slightly. No need to tell him that Lionel had not made it. Arthur could remember nothing of the actual accident. All he knew was what others had told him.
Back at our office, we slipped a formset into the typewriter; Hospitalization Case Supplemental/Death Investigation/Injury to Citizen on Public Property…
A few weeks later Mike and I were parked at the curb in our unmarked car, northbound on Ashland at Union Park. We were sitting quietly, working another case— watching the folks coming and going, hoping to spot a witness who reportedly frequented the area. Mike broke the silence.
“I think it’s very fitting,” he said staring straight ahead.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“As a memorial… The Lionel McKesson, Jr. Memorial El Platform.”
I gazed at the structure for a few moments. An ornate copper clad cupola with decades old patina. Two accent hipped dormers. Classic early 1900’s styling. It was old but elegant and it called out “Chicago El.” It would be one of our better memorial designations.
I nodded my head silently in agreement.