Louisville’s 1902 Morgue Scandal

Louisville “Dead House.” Source: Courier-Journal, Louisville, Kentucky, 1902.

In 1894 the Board of Public Safety and Kentucky legislature passed sweeping changes to Kentucky’s laws regarding the morgue in Louisville, Kentucky and unclaimed bodies. The former held that the morgue shall be in charge of the janitor at the University of Louisville and shall be open at all hours of the day and night for the reception of bodies. Two attendants are detailed with duties with one attendant being on duty in the building at all times. A book was required in order for citizens to record the names and descriptions of missing persons. Corpses were not allowed to be received unless in charge of a police officer or upon the order of the coroner or the chief of police. It is the duty of the attendant to record the police officer’s name, number, and the beat to which he was attached. Upon the arrival of a corpse, it was the duty of the attendant to notify the janitor who would cause the corpse to be immediately embalmed. He will then record in a book a detailed account of the recovery of the body, where found, and at what hour; the hour of admission to the morgue, in whose charge or on whose warrant; a description of the body, clothing, papers, and money found on it; and on the margin of the book, opposite the account, state the number in consecutive order of bodies received, which number shall be placed on the body. The papers, money and other valuables shall be put up in a package, marked with the same number, and placed in security by the janitor.

All bodies that were brought to the morgue were to remain there; if they were not recognized, in the hall of exhibition seventy-two hours or less, at the discretion of the janitor. The clothing was to be exhibited by the attendant. When the exhibition of the body could no longer be continued then the unrecognized body was to be buried and their clothing kept for six months longer. Identified bodies were kept, as a courtesy, for twenty-four hours in order for friends and family to provide a funeral. The janitor was tasked with informing the coroner, daily, of all received cases at the morgue. Corpses, under the jurisdiction of the coroner, were not to be removed or interred without (the coroner’s) verbal or consent. Additionally, no autopsy was to be performed without order of the coroner. Friends of the deceased can remove an identified body upon the order of the Health Officer. Under no circumstances was the janitor to ask for or receive from friends or relatives, under any pretext, fees for services rendered.

A complete report and full description of all unidentified bodies were to be forwarded to the Board of Public Safety. An alphabetical register of all identified persons would be kept and a list of the number of persons in consecutive order. Clothing and other effects that belonged to identified bodies were provided to family upon presenting proof. The bodies of all unknown persons in the morgue, and when in proper condition, were to be photographed and one print from each plate was to be delivered to the attendant along with the date in which the photograph was taken and the location and where from. The delivered print was to be placed in a case and shown, at any time, to friends or relatives who are in search of missing persons.

An investigation in 1902 by the Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky) made a number of revelations regarding these rules and regulations. First, it was alleged that the medical collages of Louisville had never, up until that point, legally acquired a single dead body from the public institutions since the passage of the law in 1894. Section five of the law stated that each college or professor received these dead bodies was to give a $1,000 penal bond to be approved by the clerk of the county court and remain on file in his office. A search was conducted, at the time of the article being published, which revealed that no bond had ever been given since the enactment of the law. Failure to comply with this law meant that a penalty would be attached for no less than $100 and no more than $1,000. Additionally, County Clerk W. J. Semonin went on record to say that no medical college or anyone else had ever filed a bond under the law. A number of the deans of various medical colleges in Louisville were asked to respond to the allegations in which they consistently referred questions to Dr. R. B. Gilbert. Gilbert claimed that bonds had been filed but would not reveal a specific date and, ultimately, refused to answer questions.

The “Demonstrators’ Pool” was composed of all physicians connected with medical colleges in Louisville. Dr. Gilbert explained that the “morgue proper” is at the University of Louisville; however, when the Courier-Journal asked employees at the school about the morgue, none of them knew anything about it. The bodies were taken to cold storage on Eighth Street. As it was in 1902, the Courier-Journal alleged that the morgue was anything but public. It was difficult to locate and the entrance was noted as being “impossible.” Indianapolis residents were shocked to learn that bodies had been stolen; families came to Louisville to investigate and Dr. R. B. Gilbert denied admission of all local people; he also denied admission of newspapermen. The janitor of the morgue was just a mystery as the case itself.

Superintend Dr. George B. Jenkins of City Hospital said he turned over the body of one Nathan B. Walker to the demonstrators’ pool some thirty-one hours after his death; the law stipulated the bodies be held for seventy-two hours. Dr. Jenkins claimed that this was in accordance with the wishes of Mr. G. E. Johnson. Mr. Johnson, however, emphatically denied this. An employee, A. H. Garrett, of the city undertaker,  removed the body of Mr. Walker and signed a certificate saying that he had been entrusted with the body and providing that it would be delivered to any relative free and uninjured within thirty days. Additionally, the certificate stipulated that the body would be given burial. Neither of these claims was complied with.

The bodies of the “unfortunate” who are turned over to the demonstrators’ pool were hauled to the mysterious dead house on Eighth Street in a rickety spring wagon drawn by a skinny black horse. It was noted that there were two occupants, aside from the corpse, present in the wagon; “a mulatto and the other a low, black Negro.” The men were feared and shunned. The dead house was a small, two-story frame structure. The lower part was used as a stable and the second floor housed feed and ice cream freezers. One corner of the building contained a small, vault-like closet that was fourteen feet long and seven feet wide. In order to keep the temperature low, the walls were several inches thick. It was noted that “the grewsome (sic) air about the interior of the building would strike terror to the hearts of the timid even during the day.”

Contributed by Shawn Logan | contact@kyhi.org

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