My Unique Education at Chicago’s Cook County Morgue

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Chicago, IL—In the early 1970’s I was assigned to remove murder suspects from the Cook County Jail and take them to the CookCounty Morgue.   The old Morgue seen above in rare photos was located at Polk and Woods Streets on Chicago’s West side.  It was near the Cook County Hospital.  It has since been torn down.

From 1960 until 1976 the elected Cook County Coroner was the lateAndrew J. Toman, MD.  Various forensic pathologists appointed by the Cook County Board have since replaced Dr. Toman.  It is now called the Office of The Cook County Medical Examiner.

In those days Coroner’s Inquests into the manner of death were held.   They were presided over by a Cook County Deputy Coroner and a jury of six men hearing the testimony and reviewing the complicated evidence determined if the death was a crime or from some other means.

Homicide detectives would provide testimony and the pathology and toxicology reports were also entered into evidence.  Anyone in police custody charged in connection with the death was asked to testify subject to standard Miranda warnings.

Often I’d eat my carry out lunch inside of the jury deliberation room while the elderly fellows were deliberating.  The jury members played cards and talked sports rather than the business at hand.  They would soon signal signal that a verdict was reached and the foreman would dutifully recite it on the record.  The reality was a secret hand signal from the Deputy Coroner to the jury foreman determined just what the verdict would be!  It was anything but a dramatic scene like the one in that great film, Twelve Angry Men.

The jury foreman recited the Murder verdicts this way: “We the jury, sworn on the remains of (name of the victim) find this occurrence to have been murder and we recommend that the defendant now in police custody be held on a charge of murder until released by due process of law”.

Coroner’s Inquest verdicts were never binding upon prosecutors and they were considered duplicative and unnecessary.  Prosecutors demanded to have the last word on prosecutions and too often the Coroner’s jury disagreed with them.  The new laws of the Medical Examiner system eliminated the Inquest proceedings altogether, at least in Cook County.

In the case of police justified killings the cops were required to testify despite their right to claim protection against self-incrimination.

Laws and attitudes have changed over the years along with the press and public’s right to know exactly what was happening behind the walls of this local government facility.

In 1934 when FBI agents and East Chicago, Indiana cops at Chicago’s Biograph Theater on North Lincoln Avenue gunned down the infamous fugitive gangster, John Dillinger the press and the public had the absolute right to view Dillinger’s remains.  He was put on display for the morbidly curious.  That would not happen today under present laws.

Prior to late 1976, the office of Cook County Coroner existed and operated under laws that have changed considerably.

As for my exposure to forensic pathology, I sat through hundreds of inquests and during breaks I’d go downstairs and watch the autopsies. I can say that I’ve closely watched between 700 and 800 of them.

I’ve seen every conceivable kind of death up close and personal.  Unfortunately they included murdered cops, a very pretty friend and neighbor who was stabbed to death along with two friends killed in car accidents.  Then there was a high school acquaintance shotgunned to death by police when he was caught burglarizing a supermarket one night.

That along with my experience as an Army medical corpsman this was quite an education.   As a police or private investigator understanding related medical documents and testimony is often very important.

The various changes of the law involving the Coroner/Medical Examiner came as the direct result of a Federal Grand Jury probe of the infamous December, 1969 Black Panther Party Raid that resulted in the justifiable deaths of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.

During the many years of litigation that followed the raid, practices of the Coroner were criticized and some politicians demanded reforms. That’s what led to the changes.

The autopsy protocol I became familiar with was long before the fear of HIV and AIDS.  Rubber gloves were used for the most part, but not mandated.  Masks and eye protection was rarely used unless the remains were really over-ripe.

The bodies were kept on somewhat clean stainless steel gurneys and the remains were covered with plain brown butcher paper.  Standard autopsy tables with running water were used and above with the lights were microphones for dictation by the attending pathologists.

The head physician was an elderly man, Jerry J. Kerns, MD who sat at a dest with his back to the autopsy tables.  The body was measured and weighed with a floor scale.  The weight of the gurney was then deducted from the total weight.

The autopsy assistants or dieners (their proper title) were all exclusively African-American males.  They were political patronage workers with limited educations including some that were functionally illiterate.  Let me defend these men because they all knew human anatomy really well.  They taught me a lot!

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