A visit to the morgue in summertime is never a pleasant experience, but it is especially miserable whenever the death house in question resides in a small town, far removed from the sophistication of larger cities. I tried my best to give Gallagher, the morgue-keeper, the impression that I was as calm as the unfortunate customers he worked upon when I arrived to view, and hopefully identify, the body of a man who fit the description of my brother.
Gallagher was a short, bald fellow of an ornery disposition, with the sagging skin of a person who has lost too much weight in too short a period of time. He greeted me with an indifferent nod when I entered the red brick building, where my nostrils were immediately assaulted by the foul stench of decay. I thought there would be a vestibule or perhaps a lobby of some sort– a room that would serve as a buffer between the living and the dead– but I was wrong.
“You must be Newcomb,” said the morgue-keeper. “I’ve been expecting you.” At least that’s what I think he said; I can only recall my visceral reaction, the sheer disgust at the first sight of that dreadful place. Gallagher chuckled. “I see by your expression that the Adams County morgue has exceeded your expectations of excellence,” he said, gesturing grandly toward a row of marble slabs lining the far wall, each one occupied by stinking, bloated, discolored things that had once been living, breathing human beings. They had long since succumbed to the ravages of putrification and, to my surprise, appeared moist and glistening like bullfrogs just out of the pond. I immediately realized that Gallagher was being sarcastic.
“They tell me you’re from Philadelphia,” mused the morgue-keeper. “A lovely morgue you’ve built yourselves there on Wood Street. I’ve seen it with my own eyes and it is quite true what they say, that the new Philadelphia morgue is no less grand that the death houses of Berlin or London. I wager that is the type of institution you were expecting, am I correct?”
“I’m not sure,” I finally replied, the words stumbling around my mouth like a drunkard, foreign and strange like the morgues of Europe to which Gallagher alluded. “My apologies, sir. One so quickly forgets that some modern marvels like refrigeration and electricity have yet to reach a town like this.”
“Death stops for no man. The Grim Reaper doesn’t give a fig about progress,” he stated gravely. “And I reckon I don’t care for it much myself.”
My eyes finally adjusted to the dim interior of the gloomy building, which was illuminated by a handful of gas lamps, before falling upon a curious sight– several large peach baskets, precariously stacked atop each other, lined against the wall. Each basket was filled to the brim with gloves, hats, and scarves, and each item was marked with a paper tag, upon which was written a number in greasy black pencil. “Personal effects of the deceased,” explained Gallagher. “It is how relatives and friends identify the bodies of their loved ones. If they wait too long, that is.” Gallagher reached into one of the baskets and withdrew an expensive silk handkerchief, then nodded toward a glistening torso on the nearest slab whose arms and lower half had been removed, as if by some violent force. The head, thankfully, had been covered by a black sheet.
“A trackwalker from the Reading Railroad brought him in on Thursday. Found him a little after midnight. A few of the trackwalkers went out again after sunrise, but they failed to locate the arms and legs. Probably still stuck on the cowcatcher. That’s usually what happens.”
“How ghastly!” I exclaimed, unable to suppress my horror, but the morgue-keeper couldn’t resist a smile; he was in his glory, reveling in his work and smug in the knowledge that few men had the constitution required for the gruesome position. It was likely Gallagher had few visitors to the morgue, and thus he relished each rare opportunity to interact with those who stumbled into his death house. My attention was then diverted to the long wooden trough that ran the length of the floor, elevated slightly at one end. The strange contraption carried a trickle of water across the room, which spilled through a cast iron grate at ground level. The trickle was coming from the corpses.
“It was the Phillipsburg express what did him in,” Gallagher explained, as he slowly massaged the fine fabric of the handkerchief between his thumb and forefinger like a purchaser of silk examining the wares of a merchant in an exotic market. “Well, go on then!” he finally barked, gesturing distastefully toward the shrouded torso. “Is he your brother or isn’t he? I haven’t got all day.” The morgue-keeper looked down at his pocket watch and grumbled something about having to catch the noon train to Lancaster.
Before I could answer there came a heavy knock at the door. Gallagher opened it and two brawny men barged into the morgue, with ghastly iron hooks dangling from their hands. Clenched like helpless prey between the metal claws were blocks of ice, each one coated with a light sprinkling of sawdust. The men shuffled past and deposited the blocks on the floor before beating a hasty, silent retreat from Gallagher’s morbid castle.
Meanwhile, I peered through the doorway into the blinding sunlight and observed an enormous black mare hitched to a wagon. The impatient animal snorted and pawed at the curbstone as it anxiously awaiting the return of the icemen. It seemed as if the horse recognized the stench of death wafting from the red brick building. Once the icemen departed Gallagher lifted the blocks, one in each hand, and emotionlessly placed them upon the bloated torsos of the unidentified dead. Eight-pound blocks of ice on the chest; this is how country morgues endeavor to delay the spoilage of their gruesome inventory.
Gallagher’s waist-coat opened slightly as he lifted each block, and in the light of the gas lamp I saw that he was wearing my brother’s silver pocket watch. I was certain that it was William’s watch, for I had never seen another like it.
“I’d prefer not to look beneath the shroud,” I finally replied, somewhat sheepishly. Looking into the face of a dead family member, I realized, was a lot like executing a somersault– it is a task far easier to imagine than to actually perform.
“You’ve come all the way from Philadelphia to identify the body!” bellowed the impatient morgue-keeper, who obviously had a keen distaste for dawdlers.
I explained to Gallagher there was another way I could identify the body, while at the same time being spared the horror of seeing William’s pallid face. “My brother possessed a most remarkable silver watch,” I explained. “He never went anywhere without it. Although the limbs are missing, the torso lying on the slab seems to be otherwise intact. Surely his pocket watch would’ve survived the accident.”
Gallagher harrumphed and then subconsciously tugged at his waist coat. He firmly declared, with no small measure of indignation in his voice, that no watch had been found on the body, only the silk handkerchief.
“Strange story about that watch,” I said, recalling the story I had once been told by William. “Back in Philadelphia it has been said that the timepiece is possessed by a hoodoo curse. My brother was something of a collector of curiosities, so naturally the item appealed to him when he came across it. The first owner was a fellow by the name of Dobbs, I believe. One day, many years ago, Dobbs glanced at his watch and saw to his utter consternation that it was seven minutes fast. He’d been meticulous when it came to winding the timepiece, which had never given him any prior trouble, and so he thought he must be late. Fearing that he would miss his train home, he sprinted out of his office and was run down by a carriage speeding down Broad Street.”
“Probably just a coincidence,” scoffed Gallagher, tugging at his waist coat once again.
“Perhaps,” I agreed, “but there are others who swore the watch kept perfect time– right up to the moment of tragedy. The widow Dobbs, for instance. Wishing to keep the timepiece as a memento, she took the watch to a jeweler on Lombard Street for repairs one January. When she returned home with the watch, she complained to her daughter that it was running seven minutes fast. Believing that she had been fleeced by the jeweler she scampered back to the shop for a refund, but in her haste she slipped on a patch of ice on the sidewalk, breaking her neck.”
“Stranger things have happened,” Gallagher replied, though I detected a note of nervousness in his voice. “Work for thirty years in a morgue and you will have seen things you hadn’t thought were possible.”
“Possibly, Gallagher, but you may think otherwise when I tell you about the fate of the junk dealer.” The morgue-keeper shifted his weight from one foot to another, and once again I caught a glimpse of silver beneath his waist-coat.
“Continue, Newcomb, but make it quick,” he barked. “I really cannot afford to miss my train.”
“The daughter, who was quite convinced the watch was cursed, gave it to a junk dealer,” I continued. “He was found dead in his shop the following morning– a bullet through his brain and an antique revolver on the floor. The coroner said it was a suicide, precipitated by business troubles. At least that was the story my brother told me after he purchased the pocketwatch from a curio shop in Fishtown.”
“Sounds like the story is worth more than the watch,” laughed Gallagher. We stared at the limbless corpse for a painfully long and uncomfortable moment.
“I don’t know if I believe in curses, either,” I finally admitted, “but William was always so careful. I just don’t understand how something like this could’ve happened.”
Gallagher’s eyes flashed with alarm, and a sinister gleam in his pupils suggested that an idea had come to him. “Wait right here, Newcomb,” he said, ambling across the damp cement floor toward one of the peach baskets against the wall. Gallagher might’ve been an excellent morgue-keeper, but he would have been an abject failure as a magician. His sleight-of-hand wasn’t the least bit convincing; though his back was turned to me, I distinctly saw him withdraw the watch from his vest pocket and drop it into the basket as he knelt and pretended to rummage though its orphaned contents.
“As a matter of fact, I did recover a pocketwatch from one of the bodies,” he said with a warm smile. “I’d completely forgotten about it, but your unusual story jogged my memory. Would this happen to be the watch that belonged to your brother?”
I looked closely at the tarnished silver and examined the ancient glass and the parchment dial yellowed with age, and then I laughed. “No, thank goodness!” I proclaimed triumphantly. “That most certainly is not William’s watch.” Gallagher sighed with great relief and ushered me toward the door. I thanked the morgue-keeper for his time, shook his cold, clammy hand, and retreated from the Adams County death house just as the church bells chimed their noon song, and when I returned to Philadelphia I made the necessary arrangements to have my brother’s remains shipped home for burial.
Marlin Bressi is the author of five nonfiction books, including Hairy Men in Caves: True Stories of America’s Most Colorful Hermits (Sunbury Press, 2015) and Pennsylvania Oddities (Sunbury Press, 2018). His fiction has appeared in Suspense Magazine, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Mystery Tribune, and other publications. He is also the host and creator of the Pennsylvania Oddities true crime and paranormal podcast.