Classic Royko: Tales of the county coroner

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Crash victims brought to county morgue, 1977. Archive photo.

Editor’s note: The Cook County medical examiner’s office has been at the center of a few scandals in recent years. But Mike Royko, in this Chicago Sun-Times column from Dec. 7, 1976, reminds us of when it was all much worse. And more entertaining.

A retired detective remembers going to the County Morgue late one night, after a well known gangster had been killed.

“I saw all these people lined up to see the body. I thought the guy must have more next of kin than Moses.

“Then I realized what was going on. A deputy coroner was charging people five dollars to take a peek at the stiff.”

The same detective recalled when he was working on a paddy wagon and was sent to a hotel room where a body had been found by the night clerk.

When he got there, somebody already was in the room — a stocky man, wearing pointy shoes, a gray fedora, with a  big cigar in his mouth.

“He was yanking on the stiff’s ring finger. He had one foot under the armpit to brace himself, and he was pulling and tugging, trying to get the ring off.

“I said: ‘Who the hell are you?’

“He keeps pulling and says: ‘Coroner’s office.’

“I said: ‘Whadya think you’re doing?’

“He didn’t even blink. He says: ‘OK you can have the wristwatch.'”

Then there was the case of the movie actor who dropped dead while passing through O’Hare Airport a few years ago.

The coroner’s office bundled his personal effects in a box and shipped them to the widow in California.

The widow was surprised to find that her husband’s personal effects included three Chicago telephone directories.

She was even more surprised to find that the personal effects didn’t include his ring, cuff links and silver bracelet.

Ah, Chicago history. This particular chapter ended a few days ago when the political office of the Cook County coroner ceased to exist. It was abolished and has been replaced by a professional medical examiner.

We are told this will make the investigation of deaths more efficient and scientific. Compared with the coroner’s office, even Dr. Frankenstein and Igor were more scientific.

“Gentlemen,” a coroner once declared when a head was found in a city sewer, “this is the work of a murderer.”

In recent years, the office has been rather subdued. But in its heyday, when coroners were political wildmen, they loved to get all the publicity any way they could.

So their main job was to rush to the scene of big murders and pose for pictures, pointing a finger or cigar at the body.

They also liked grisly crimes, in which the victims were put in oil drums, garbage cans and other receptacles. The coroner would pose with his head in the can, peering about for a clue. Or even the killer.

One coroner especially relished the slayings of gangsters who had been shot through the hat, as well as the head. He would then pose for a picture with his forefinger sticking out of the hole in the hat.

Not that they weren’t scientific. A reporter once asked a coroner how deep the wound was in a corpse.

“Lemme check,” said the coroner, using his ballpoint pen to measure.

“Hmmmm,” he said, looking at the pen. “About three inches.” Then he popped the pen back in his vest pocket.

The coroner also held inquests, which had little legal standing, but they provided a few hours’ work for elderly men who always sat on the jury.

It was always a poignant scene when the bereaved relatives of the deceased sat and listened to the terrible testimony, while a jury of old geezers in yellow shirts and purple ties and straw hats sat there loudly snoring.

But the real stars of the coroner’s office were the deputy coroners — a small army of ace investigators who could walk into a room and in 30 seconds give you an accurate appraisal of every piece of jewelry on the corpse.

To qualify as a deputy coroner, you had to possess the following: a letter from your ward boss, a wide-brimmed gray fedora, a diamond pinky ring and a cigar.

When somebody died of anything but natural causes, a deputy coroner rushed to the scene. They always rushed, because they were afraid the wagon men might grab a locket.

Once there, it was the responsibility of the deputy coroner to have the body sent to the nearest funeral home owned by his brother-in-law.

Then he would gather the facts. It was done this way:

He would get the name of the dead person. If the name was “James Doe,” he would go to the phone and call his downtown office and say: “James Roe” is dead. The downtown coroner would say “Got it.” He would write “James Sloan” on his list of dead people. Then he would call a newsman and say: “Blain Cohen is dead.” And the next day, Blain Cohen would read it in the paper and have a heart attack.

Then the deputy coroner would go to Blain Cohen’s house and write down: “James Roe.”

Progress is good, I suppose, but dying won’t be the same without the coroner’s office.

I doubt if a scientific medical examiner will ever match the legendary coroner who was there when a politician named Dingbat Oberta was found with a bullet in his head and a can of aspirins in his pocket. The coroner held up the aspirins and said:

“He died of a headache.”

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