‘The Last Place:’ A Day at the City ‘Dead House,’ 1891
“The dead house is about the last place people want to visit,” the Milwaukee Journal wrote in 1891. “Living or dead.”
The line was from a hybrid investigatory/exploitation piece the paper ran on the sorrowful scenes at the little city morgue on Water Street. The morgue in 1891 was a more familiar place for the average Milwaukeean than it is today. The average life span of a city resident of the era was less than 30 years. And it was very often that the dead had no living person to claim them. That year, the city expected to bury about 100 people who passed through the morgue without ever being identified. The coroner’s office had recently adopted the practice of photographing each of the unknown dead before burial and keeping the images in a file open to the public in hopes that someone might claim a body in the months or years that followed their death.
The focus of the Journal’s mini-expose was stories of the nameless dead. The first body the Journal reporter watched being brought in was a rough-looking 40-something man who had died by his own hand. Bearing no identification, he was stripped nude and covered with a white sheet with the word “UNKNOWN” printed on it. The man had drowned himself in the river, with nothing on his person besides a rather large roll of cash. A frail-looking woman of about the same age was admitted to the dead room and led to the body. A police officer lifted the sheet to reveal the man’s face. The woman stared at the man, but breathed a hopeful sigh as she declared that it was not her missing husband – who wore a heavy mustache. The body was clean-shaven, but police had suspected the man had gotten a shave just before his suicide, perhaps to avoid identification. The officer asked the woman to take a closer look. She did and, after a moment, the color ran from her face. “My husband! My Husband! Why did you do this?”
The corner had a name, but the routinely heartbreaking scene quickly took an even more grisly turn. As the officer and coroner were busied with paperwork, the woman’s cries went silent. The men turned to see her rumbled in the corner, an emptied bottle of poison in her hand. Hers was the next body to the slab after her husband was cleared away. “Even the hardened newspaper scribe never become reconciled to the institution,” the paper wrote of the office. “[And] the coroner is always glad when his term of service is up.”
Another body was pulled from the river later that same day. Draped with another UNKNOWN sheet, her beauty was noted by all in the room. She was young and held an attractive glow even after life had left her. Her face and slender shoulders were framed with curly blond hair. She was another suicide. The men surrounding her all wondered why someone so pretty would take their own life, assuming physical beauty to equate with mental well-being. The undertaker guessed that she was a “harlot” and that no one would claim her, while others argued that no one with her smile could have ever done wrong. Such were the times.
The dead girl caused quite a chatter among the newspaper men on the scene, who vowed a campaign to find her family. The next day, after columns about the mystery girl ran in the papers, a “well-known local banker” arrived at the dead house. His daughter had not been seen in several days. He positively identified her and she was buried that same day in the family crypt. Recognizing a good story, the papers followed up on their good deed by getting to the bottom of her tragic death. As it turned out, her parents were about to force her to marry a man whom she did not love. Such were the times.
“And so it is at the morgue year in and year out,” the Journal wrote. “[These stories] are of almost daily occurrence in the large cities and this and other countries.”