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 drawer-like 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.