The Ear in the Wall by Arthur B. Reeve - HTML preview

PLEASE NOTE: This is an HTML preview only and some elements such as links or page numbers may be incorrect.
Download the book in PDF, ePub, Kindle for a complete version.

21. The Morgue


There had come a lull in the activities which never entirely cease, night or day, in the dingy building at the foot of East Twenty-sixth Street. Across the street in the municipal lodging- house the city's homeless were housed for the night. Even ever wakeful Bellevue Hospital nearby was comparatively quiet.

The last "dead boat" which carries the city's unclaimed corpses away for burial had long ago left, when we arrived. The anxious callers who pass all day through the portals of the mortuary chamber seeking lost friends and relatives had disappeared. Except for the night keeper and one or two assistants, the Morgue was empty save of the overcrowded dead.

Years before, as a cub reporter on the Star, I had had the gruesome assignment once of the Morgue. It was the same old place after all these years and it gave me the same creepy sensations now as it did then. Even the taxicab driver seemed glad to set down his fares and speed away.

It was ghoulish. I felt then and I did still that instead of contributing to the amelioration of conditions that could not be otherwise than harrowing, everything about the old Morgue lent itself to the increase of the horror of the surroundings.

As Kennedy, Carton, and I entered, we found that the principal chamber in the place was circular. Its walls were lined with the ends of caskets, which, fitting close into drawerlike apertures were constantly enveloped in the refrigerated air.

It seemed, even at that hour, that if these receptacles were even adequate to contain all of the daily tenants of the Morgue, much of the anguish and distress inseparable from such a place might be spared those who of necessity must visit the place seeking their dead. As it was, even for those bound by no blood ties to the unfortunates who found their way to the city Morgue, the room was a veritable chamber of horror.

We stood in horrified amazement at what we saw. On the floor, which should be kept clear, lay the overflow of the day's intake. Bodies for which there was no room in the cooling boxes, others which were yet awaiting claimants, and still more awaiting transfer to the public burying ground, lay about in their rough coffins, many of them brutally exposed.

It seemed, too, that if ever there was a time when conditions might have been expected to have halfway adjusted themselves to the pressure which by day brought out all too clearly the hopeless inadequacy of the facilities provided by the city to perform one of its most important and inevitable functions, it was at that early morning hour of our visit. Presumably preparation had been completed for the busy day about to open by setting all into some semblance of respectful order. But such was not the case. It was impossible. In one group, I recall, which an attendant said had been awaiting his removal for a couple of days, the rough board coffins, painted the uniform brown of the city's institutions, lay open, without so much as face coverings over the dead.

They lay as they had been sent in from various hospitals. Most of them were bereft of all the decencies usual with the dead, in striking contrast, however, with the bodies from Bellevue, which were all closely swathed in bandages and shrouds.

One body, that of a negro, which had been sent in to the Morgue from a Harlem hospital, lay just as it came, utterly bare, exposing to public view all the gruesome marks of the autopsy. I wondered whether anything like that might be found to be the fate of the once jovial and popular Murtha, when we found him.

I almost forgot our mission in the horror of the place, for, nearby was an even more heartrending sight. Piled in several heaps much higher than a man's head and as carelessly as cordwood were the tiny coffins holding the babies which the authorities are called on by the poor of the city to bury in large numbers--far too poor to meet the cost of the cheapest decent burial. Atop the stack of regulation coffins were the nondescript receptacles made use of by the very poor--the most pathetic a tiny box from the corner grocery. The bodies, some dozens of them, lay like so much merchandise, awaiting shipment.

"What a barbarity!" I heard Craig mutter, for even he, though now and then forced to visit the place when one of his cases took him there, especially when it was concerned with an autopsy, had never become hardened to it.

Often I had heard him denounce the primitive appointments, especially in the autopsy rooms. The archaic attempts to utilize the Morgue for scientific investigation were the occasion for practices that shocked even the initiated. For the lack of suitable depositories for the products of autopsies, these objects were plainly visible in rude profusion when a door was opened to draw out a body for inspection. About and around the slabs whereon the human bodies lay, in bottles and in plates, this material which had no place except in the cabinets of a laboratory was inhumanly displayed in profusion, close to corpses for which a morgue is expected to provide some degree of reverential care.

"You see," apologized the keeper, not averse to throwing the blame on someone else, for it indeed was not his but the city's fault, "one reason why so many bodies have to remain uncared for is that I could show you cooling box after cooling box with some subject which figured during the past few months in the police records. Why victims of murders committed long ago should be held indefinitely, and their growing numbers make it impossible to give proper places to each day's temporary bodies, I can't say. Sometimes," he added with a sly dig at Carton, "the only explanation seems to be that the District Attorney's office has requested the preservation of the grisly relics."

I could see that Carton was making a mental note that the practice would be ended as far as his office was concerned.

 "So--you saw the story in the newspapers about Mr. Murtha," repeated the keeper, not displeased to see us and at the publicity it gave him. "It was I that discovered him--and yet many's the times some of the boys that must have handled the body since it was picked up beside the tracks must have seen him. It was too late to get anyone to take the body away to-night, but the arrangements have all been made, and it will be done early in the morning before anyone else sees Pat Murtha here, as he shouldn't be. We've done what we could for him ourselves--he was a fine gentleman and many's the boy that owes a boost up in life to him."

 Reverentially even the hardened keeper drew out one of the best of the drawer-like boxes. On the slab before us lay the body. Carton drew back, excitedly, shocked.

 "It IS Murtha!" he exclaimed.

 I, too, looked at it quickly. The name as Carton pronounced it, in such a place, had, to me at least, an unpleasant likeness to "murder."

 Kennedy had bent down and was examining the mutilated body minutely.

 "How do you suppose such a thing is possible--that he could lie about the city, even here until the night keeper came on,-- unknown?" asked Carton, aghast.

"I don't know," I said, "but I imagine that in connection with the actual inadequacy of the equipment one would find reflected the same makeshift character in the attitude and actions of those who handle the city's dead. It used to be the case, at least, that the facilities for keeping records were often almost totally neglected, and not through the fault of the Morgue keepers, entirely. But, I understand it is better now."

"This is terrible," repeated Carton, averting his face. "Really, Jameson, it makes me feel like a hound, for ever thinking that Murtha might have been putting up a game on me. Poor old Murtha--I should have preferred to remember him as the 'Smiling Boss' as everyone always called him!"

I called to mind the last time we had seen Murtha, in Carton's office as the bearer of an offer which had made Carton almost beside himself with anger at the thought of the insult that he would compromise with the organization. What a contrast, this, with the Murtha who, in turn, had been trembling with passion at Carton's refusal!

And yet I could not but reflect on the strangeness of it all--the fact that the organization, of which Murtha was a part, had by its neglect and failure to care for the human side of government when there was graft to be collected, brought about the very conditions which had made possible such neglect of the district leader's body, as it had been bandied back and forth, unwittingly by many who owed their very positions to the organization.

I could not help but think that if he had served humanity with one-half the zeal which he had served graft, this could not have happened.

 The more I contemplated the case, the more tragic did it seem to me. I longed for the assignment of writing the story for the Star- -the chance I would have had in the old days to bring in a story that would have got me a nod of approval from my superior. I determined, as soon as possible, to get the Star on the wire and try to express some of the thoughts that were surging through my brain in the face of this awful and unexpected occurrence.

There he lay, alone, uncared for except by such rude hands as those of the Morgue attendants. I could not help reflecting on the strange vicissitudes of human life, and death, which levelled all distinctions between men of high and low degree. Murtha had almost literally sprung from the streets. His career had been one possible only in the social and political conditions of his times. And now he had only by the narrowest chance escaped a burial in a pauper's grave at the hands of the city which he had helped Dorgan to debauch.

Carton, too, I could see was overwhelmed. For the moment he did not even think of how this blow to the System might affect his own chances. It was only the pitiful wreck of a human being before us that he saw.

I was not an expert on study of wounds, such as was Kennedy, who was examining Murtha's body with minute care, now and then muttering under his breath at the rough and careless handling it had received in its various transfers about the city. But there were some terrible wounds and disfigurements on the body, which added even more to the horror of the case.

One thing, I felt, was fortunate. Murtha had had no family. There had been plenty of scandal about him, but as far as I knew there was no one except his old cronies in the organization to be shocked by his loss, no living tragedy left in the wake of this.

 "How do you suppose it happened?" I asked the night keeper.

He shook his head doubtfully. "No one knows, of course," he replied slowly. "But I think the big fellow got worse up there in that asylum. He wasn't used to anything but having his own way, you know. They say he must have waited his chance, after the dinner hour, when things were quiet, and then slipped out while no one was looking. He may have been crazy, but you can bet your life Pat Murtha was the smartest crazy man they ever had up there. THEY couldn't hold him."

 "I see," I said, struck by the faith which the man had inspired even in those who held the lowest of city positions. "But I meant how do you suppose he was killed?"

The attendant looked at me thoughtfully a while. "Young man," he answered, "I ain't saying nothing and it may have been an accident after all. Have you ever been up in that part of town?"

I had not and said so. "Well," he continued, "those electric trains do sneak up on a fellow fast. It may have been an accident, all right. The coroner up there said so, and I guess he ought to know. It must have been late at night--perhaps he was wandering away from the ordinary roads for fear of being recaptured. No one knows--I guess no one will know, ever. But it's a sad day for many of the boys. He helped a lot of 'em. And Mr. Dorgan--he knows what a loss it is, too. I hear that it's hit the Chief hard."

The attendant, rough though he was and hardened by the daily succession of tragedies, could not restrain an honest catch in his voice over the passing of the "big fellow," as some of them called the "Smiling Boss." It was a pretty good object lesson on the power of the system which the organization had built up, how Murtha, and even the more distant Dorgan himself, had endeared himself to his followers and henchmen. Perhaps it was corrupt, but it was at least human, and that was a great deal in a world full of inhumanities. In the face of what had happened, one felt that much might be forgiven Murtha for his shortcomings, especially as the era of the Murthas and Dorgans was plainly passing.

"Here at least," whispered Carton, as we withdrew to a corner to escape the palling atmosphere, "is one who won't worry about what happens to that Black Book any more. I wonder what he really knew about it--what secrets he carried away with him?"

"I can't say," I returned. "But, one thing it does. It must relieve Mrs. Ogleby's fears a bit. With Murtha out of the way there is one less to gossip about what went on at Gastron's that night of the dinner."

 He said nothing and just then Kennedy straightened up, as though he had finished his examination. We hurried over to him. I thought the look on Craig's face was peculiar.

 "What is it--what did you find?" both Carton and I asked.

 Kennedy did not answer immediately.

 "I--I can't say," he answered slowly at length, as we thanked the Morgue keeper for his courtesy and left the place. "In fact I'd rather not say--until I know."

I knew from previous experiences that it was of no use to try to quiz Kennedy. He was a veritable Gradgrind for facts, facts, facts. As for myself, I could not help wondering whether, after all, Murtha might not have been the victim of foul play--and, if so, by whom?