An intimate look at a 19th century morgue

In 1894, the city of Philadelphia completed construction of a new morgue on Wood Street. Philadelphians were proud of their new state-of-the-art morgue, so proud, in fact, that the Philadelphia Times devoted nearly an entire page of their June 3, 1894 edition to the new structure. This story, reprinted below, is a unique and fascinating glimpse of the day-to-day operations of a large city's death house more than 120 years ago, as well as the gruesome work performed by the "morgue-keeper" and other individuals who kept the morgue running.

The new Morgue on the north side of Wood street, above Thirteenth, is finished and ready to receive the city's unknown dead. Philadelphia is consequently better equipped in this department than any other city in the United States. In fact it is stated that although some of the European morgues, particularly those of Paris, Berlin and London, are larger than the Philadelphia institution, they are not by any means as satisfactorily equipped, the only one coming close to it being the Berlin Morgue, after which the new Morgue in this city has been to an extent patterned.

The old Morgue at Beach and Noble streets which was purchased some time ago from the city by the Reading Railroad for $47,000 has been turned over to the railroad company and will soon be torn down to make space for enlarging the freight yards on the river front.

There is a great deal of weird, uncanny interest attached to the institution set apart for a temporary mausoleum for unknown dead and a contrast between the old and new Morgues, and between the methods that have been used and the methods that will be used in the future, affords as striking an example of progress in municipal affairs as can be found in recent changes.

To many, the exterior appearance of the old Morgue on Noble street is familiar, but, fortunately, comparatively few have been compelled to enter this gruesome place, and those who have have been shocked and most unfavorably impressed by the haphazard way in which the dead have been for there. In recent years the dingy, weatherbeaten building, standing amid a mass of railroad tracks, right in the heart of business activity and bustling everyday life of a great city, has seemed out of place with its surroundings. The new Morgue was not erected before it was badly needed. Although the superintendent in charge of the old Morgue is a competent man, as Morgue-keepers go, it was absolutely impossible for him, with the facilities at hand-- in fact no facilities at all-- to properly care for the bodies brought to his charge. The facilities for preserving them or exposing them for identification were of the most primitive nature, and many a woman with delicate sensibilities, compelled to visit the institution in search of missing relatives or friends, has been shocked and horrified almost beyond conception at the ghastly exposure of corpses, many of them crushed and disfigured beyond recognition.

Naturally they have complained bitterly of the methods pursued, and no wonder, as many of the bodies, especially in summer time, were taken to the Morgue in good condition; upon arrival an eight-pound lump of ice was placed upon the abdomen, and that was all the care given, besides enclosing the body in a pine box, which was allowed to lie in a wooden shed in the Morgue yard. As a matter of course the body rapidly decomposed; more particularly is this the case with those found drowned, and by the time forty-eight hours had passed the body was unfit to be seen, necessitating the burial in a sealed casket from the undertaker's office. As many bodies received were kept at least seventy-two hours and, if possible, longer, their condition at the end of that time can be readily imagined.

In one instance, during the term of the present Morgue-keeper, the body of a sailor drowned by falling off a schooner at Clearfield street wharf, was kept for twenty-two days and was finally recognized upon the return of the vessel, to which the man belonged to this port. It was likely that this identification was made more by the articles of clothing and personal effects taken from the body than by an examination of the corpse.
In the front room of the old Morgue the clothing and effects of the unidentified dead were kept indefinitely. Piled in a conglomerated mass old hats and old shoes by the hundreds were to be seen, besides trousers, coats, vests, dresses and underclothing. It is likely that a view of this room was the most ghastly spectacle presented anywhere in America.

The other day in this room, besides the clothing, an old peach basket was noticed, resting on one of the marble slabs on which bodies were deposited when the old system of preserving them by a spray of Delaware water constantly kept running was in vogue. From this basket protruded a choice collection of human bones. "Whose skeleton is that?" the Morgue-keeper was asked. "That is supposed to be all that is mortal of Johanna Logue, Jimmy Logue's wife, whom he is supposed to have murdered. Her brother and sister were down here looking at the bones, but after so many years it was impossible to identify them beyond contradiction. Now this is supposed to have done the business; she was strangled, you see," and he held up the remnant of a faded silk handkerchief which had evidently been tightly drawn about the woman's neck.

Thomas Robinson, the present superintendent of the Morgue, has acted in that capacity for the last eight years, and many indeed are the strange tales that he could tell of foul deeds, brutal murders and suicides that have brought another case to the institution over which he presides, there to remain for a few days, and unless then identified, buried in the potter's field. It is undoubtedly true that many men and women are buried from the Morgue who have been fully recognized by their friends and acquaintances, in some cases their failure to identify the body being a desire to conceal a crime, in others caused by the poverty of relatives who cannot afford to bury their unfortunate kindred.

Of the old days, before the Morgue was located in 1870 at Noble and Beach streets, and when the "Old Green House", where the city's unknown dead were taken, on Fairmount avenue, above Broad street, was in operation, many stories strange and weird are told of the methods in use at that time. Then the Morgue-keepers lived alone in the same building with the dead, and, as no records were kept, it has often been hinted that many medical institutions were surreptitiously supplied with subjects for the dissecting table beyond what they were entitled to by law.

One Morgue-keeper, because of the solitary life he led among the dead, it is supposed, became insane and was confined to an asylum. For several months before his incarceration he had acted strangely, but the escapade that led to his ultimate restraint occurred in mid-winter, when the streets of Philadelphia were covered with snow. On the particular day in question all the highways were filled with merry sleighing parties and when darkness had fallen the old Morgue-keeper obtained a sleigh and taking the body of a young woman who had committed suicide he placed it in a lifelike attitude on the seat beside him and with this ghastly companion drove through the city, mingling with the merry sleighing parties on Broad street, and finally bringing his charge back to the Morgue.

The new Morgue designed by Architect Windrim under the personal direction of Coroner Ashbridge, has a frontage of thirty-two feet; it is attractive architecturally and provides every necessity for such an institution and many entirely new conveniences. The building is of brick, ornamentally varied in form and finish with redstone trimmings. Above the door a block of red stone is inscribed "The Morgue". The chief beauty of the design of the Morgue is that it is really two structures in one, one in the rear of the other, while between them is the viewing room of the Morgue covered with a white ground-glass skylight.

This form of construction is a necessity, owing to the fact that somebody must live in the Morgue, and it is therefore desirable to separate as completely as possible the living rooms from the apartments devoted to the dead. The latter are in the rear and basement, the viewing room being the limit. The bodies are to be brought in at the back.

The yard-- 15 feet by 32-- is protected by a wall, so that the moment the wagon is driven in and the gates are closed the idle gazers, attracted by the news that a new victim has been brought to the city Dead House, find themselves excluded from all chance of viewing the remains.

An elevator on the ground floor receives the stretcher, with the corpse on it, and it is either lowered into the cellar, where the body is prepared for exhibition, with a view to identification, or lifted up to the post-mortem room on the second floor, in the rear of the building, when an autopsy is necessary. In the basement are the appliances for refrigeration, by which a body can be frozen in five minutes, and for the burning of the clothing when the garments found on the corpses are in a condition that require destruction or disinfection.

Windrim designed over 60 buildings for Bell Telephone in Philadelphia, such as this one on Diamond St.

The main or "viewing room" of the Morgue will be open to visitors at all times. The floor is of colored tiles which extend about the sides of the room to the height of six feet. Taken as a whole, the interior finish of this room compares favorably with the best efforts of builders in these days of handsome materials.

The method adopted for exposing bodies for identification is said to be unique. On either side of the room are large squares of American plate glass, set on a level with the floor tiling and covering a space of thirty-two feet long by three feet wide. Beneath the glass are the cold-storage boxes six feet in length and capable of receiving each two bodies lying side by side, thus furnishing accommodation for twenty bodies.
Only the face will be exposed. An arrangement of incandescent electric lights will render the features of the dead distinctly visible to the person standing in the room above. A brass hand-railing protects the glass from injury, affording at the same time a support for those looking down on the body beneath searching for missing ones.

The Kemble-Bergdoll Mansion displays Windrim's distinctive architectural style.

The "viewing room" of the Morgue is approached from the front door along a short corridor, on either side of which are small rooms. The one on the left is intended for the use of the Coroner and the one on the right for the office of the superintendent. Above these rooms are a bath and two rooms in which the Morgue-keeper will live. It is the Coroner's intention to furnish the room which has been prepared for his use as a parlor to be used for funerals when the deceased is friendless or when his home is far away, necessitating his burial in the city. The superintendent's office will be fitted up with all the latest appliances providing for taking minute measurements of all bodies brought in. All through the building are electric lights, bells, speaking tubes and every possible convenience.

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