By Jay Kirk
The Cemetery Lady demurs. We're sitting on the edge of her bed, wading through a filing cabinet full of the probate records of dead gangsters. She doesn't think the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre deserves to be called a massacre. Massacre to her does not imply a multiple of unresisting victims, but an exponential multiple of unresisting victims. It's a question of semantics. "For me, a massacre is where you go in and you shoot, oh, 200 people, you know?" She makes a halfhearted sound effect for a machine gun, shaking the bed a little. The massacre in 1919 in India, the Amritsar Massacre, 379 Sikhs killed in Punjab--now that was a massacre. I suppose I agree. The seven kills on February 14, 1929, sound almost quaint, mere child's play in the annals of mass murder. Still, it's not my desire to count bodies--only to find out if it's true that my grandfather, as family lore has it, was there.
Not as a hit man. But as grim witness to the aftermath, his claim to fame being that he helped clean up gangland's most noted whack. As an embalmer's apprentice.
The Cemetery Lady (alias Helen Sclair) is a historian with the Association for Gravestone Studies. She is also an expert on gangland funerals. There is a flamboyant grandeur to Helen. She is a robust 70-year-old woman who moves swiftly around her apartment, barefoot, with a cane. She is giddy about her subject matter, and has a combustible if tar-stained laugh.
She tells me not to waste my time looking for mobster grave sites. I do not know if she means that it would be a waste of time because it wouldn't add anything to my story or because the graves are too difficult to find without the aid of a docent like herself. Instead she suggests that I look for the probate records of the victims of the massacre: the seven members of "Bugs" Moran's gang slain by Capone assassins. These records might turn up funeral bills and possibly lead to the funeral home where my grandpa (alias "Mac") worked. Struck by the idea, I say I wish I'd thought of it myself. The amulet she wears, decorated with tiny skulls, begins to jiggle. "But it's a completely original idea, my dear," she says. "I'm full of them."
Though they have nothing to do with Saint Valentine's, we are poring over the probate records of other gangsters (some slain, some dead of natural causes) to give me "context." She thinks my knowledge of Prohibition-era Chicago shoddy at best. For my edification, I have in my lap the probate record of "Mad Sam" DeStefano, a loan shark generally understood to have been the most sadistic torturer-killer the mob ever kept on its payroll. Here are the records of Baby Face Nelson, Edward O'Hare, Frank "the Enforcer" Nitti. She pulls out the funeral service for "Big Jim" Colosimo, the first vice lord of what would later become Al Capone's empire. She drags a finger down the list of honoraries. There are police captains, judges, an assistant state's attorney, a congressman. She counts seven Chicago alderman. Five thousand mourners followed Big Jim's hearse to Oakwood Cemetery.
Sclair does not spare me the most peripheral detail. That there were 18 pages itemizing securities in the probate of Mayor "Wild Bill" Thompson. That Jack "Greasy Thumb" Guzik's probate revealed an expenditure of $75 for a prayer shawl. That the "biggest shock news," as she puts it, "is gangsters never even used cement shoes. Why bother? They shoved them full of holes with an ice pick, so the gas wouldn't float the bodies back to the surface. Very few people realize this." As an afterthought on the volatility of decomposition, she adds, "You should see my piece on exploding mausoleums. I have a whole thing that I'm about to take to the government."
We have already watched her slide show, a retrospective of the theater of gangland funerals. The projector was waiting when I arrived, on the dining room table beside a vase of plastic flowers.
The impresario of these extravagant funerals was John A. Sbarbaro, noted undertaker to the underworld. (To prove that she crashed Sbarbaro's own funeral a few years ago, Sclair shows me the prayer card she swiped. She also styles for me, with a coquettish smile, the black mantilla she wore to the wake.) In three short years, from 1924 to 1927, Sbarbaro buried three successive leaders of the North Siders gang--Capone's main competition until the massacre tipped the scales, Dion O'Banion, who took to hijacking Capone's booze, was the first to go. He was shot with his arms full of roses at his florist shop, Schofield's, on North State Street. At his funeral, a chamber orchestra from the Chicago Symphony played. A motorcade of two dozen cars was required to haul the flowers to Mount Carmel Cemetery, where 20,000 mourners watched as O'Banion's $10,000 silver coffin was lowered into the earth. Earl "Hymie" Weiss, who took over the north-side operation, was chopped down in 1926, again outside Schofield's flower shop. Machine-gun bullets shredded an inscription from Saint Paul's Epistle to the Philippians off the cornerstone of Holy Name Cathedral across the street. Sbarbaro laid Weiss to rest in Mount Carmel in a bronze coffin. Vincent "the Schemer" Drucci, blipped out by an angry cop, was interred by Sbarbaro in a silver casket. The fourth successor, "Bugs" Moran, barely escaped being the eighth body in the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre. (He died of lung cancer 28 years later while serving time for petty larceny.)
That this florist shop, Schofield's, was located across the street from the cathedral corroborates Mac's story that the joint where he worked, John Carroll & Sons Funeral Home, was just around the corner from a flower shop that served as headquarters to the North Siders. Mac, who was dispatched on more than one occasion to Schofield's to pick up flowers, said he'd never seen such dog-faced florists in his life.
A few days before meeting Helen, I was thrilled to find John Carroll & Sons still listed at 1035 N. Dearborn. I called, but it turned out Carroll's was sold years ago to Blake-Lamb Funeral Home and today exists as no more than a line in the phone book. The manager at Blake-Lamb, a Bob Hinkey, was extremely reluctant to talk to me and I didn't wonder why. Blake-Lamb now belongs to Service Corporation International, the biggest chain of funeral homes in the world (alias NYSE:SRV). To become, in the words of its CEO, Robert Waltrip, "the True-Value hardware of the funeral-service industry," SCI has conglomerated funeral homes, cemeteries, crematoria, death-care merchandising, and, yes, even florists, at the leisurely pace of Genghis Khan taking Samarkand. Despite annual revenues of $2.9 billion, a steady barrage of negative press in the last few years has contributed to plummeting stocks and a skittish public relations office. Former SCI employees say they're given emergency pocket cards that tell them what to do if the media call. Bob Hinkey, as instructed, would prefer I call the corporate offices in Houston.
After the slide show, Sclair steers me into her kitchen. There's an inert exercise bike with shopping bags slung over the handlebars. Her 18-year-old black cat, Johnny, is slowly cracking its food (its companion, Frankie, is nowhere to be seen). Helen lights a Benson & Hedges and offers me some ginger ale. We're sitting at a table with an ashtray and cordless telephone.
Shaking out her match, Helen tells me that to make the slide show we just watched she relied on a very valuable source, and this source may be of some value to me as well. "If you'd like to speak to the person who helped with this, I spoke with him yesterday--but I cannot, I will not, divulge his name." Her eyes dart mischievously.
"Oh--" she blows a plume of smoke and grins. "He's just related to some of these guys."
I wait. Johnny labors over another hard pebble of cat chow.
"You can talk to him and ask him anything you want, but the agreement is that you're not going to know his name." This is the guy, she says, who helped her find Frank Nitti.
I bum one of my hostess's smokes to asphyxiate the butterflies gnawing at my duodenum. "He's a gangster, you mean."
No, but like she said, he's got some high-profile kin. He grew up in the notorious Taylor Street area. Remembers stuff like sidestepping pools of blood to take out the trash when he was a kid.
He's not a gangster?
She taps her ash impatiently. Do I want to talk to him or not?
Sure, if he's not a gangster. (I must stop here and confess to a recurring nightmare in which I am the stool pigeon in the gangster movie with the wire taped to his chest. I always enter this dream late, realizing they're onto me and that any minute I'm gonna get whacked. I've been having this dream since I was ten.)
She picks up the cordless. "Hi sweetie pie," she says. They talk for a minute about cemeteries, genealogy, and her impending cataract surgery. More preventive than anything. In and out. After a minute she eyes me through the undetectable cataracts. I'm innocently drinking ginger ale. "He's straight up," she tells her friend. "And I have not told him any part of your name, darling. How do you want to identify yourself? No, he can't call you darling!" She bursts into a raspy Benson & Hedges chortle.
I take the phone with instructions from Helen to address the man on the other end simply as Good Friend. I'm not sure I'm not being taken for a ride, so to speak, and "good friend" seems a little corny, so I don't call him anything. But Good Friend gives me no gangster shtick. He's frank and cheerful and describes his interests as those of any historical society volunteer--he's an amateur historian, like Helen. But--given the sensitivity of some of his relatives, omerta and all that--he prefers to carry on his hobby anonymously. One of his proudest finds, he tells me, was sniffing out the grave sites of the Spilotro brothers (beaten half to death with baseball bats and buried alive in an Indiana cornfield) in Queen of Heaven Cemetery. He could be a bird-watcher bragging about spotting a pair of elusive ground-nesting rufous-sided towhees.
"So you want to know about the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre?" he says, and proceeds to tell me all the nuts and bolts I already basically know. How Capone's men, led by "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn (alias Vincenzo Gebaldi), stage it to look like a hit by police. How Capone's assassins lure the victims to the S-M-C Cartage Company garage on Clark Street by arranging for a shipment of Canadian whiskey to be delivered that morning. How at about a quarter after ten the gunmen arrive in a squad car, gong ringing. Two assassins wearing police uniforms enter, find their victims eating breakfast in a front office, and march them to the back of the garage. The victims, thinking it's just another shakedown, line up against the wall. Two more assassins enter the garage, these wearing overcoats and carrying tommy guns and sawed-off shotguns. They mow down the docile bootleggers in a flurry of gunfire, burping the heap on the floor once more for good measure. In this instant, smoke swirling, Al Capone becomes a superpower.
For their escape, the assassins stage a brilliant dumb show--it is for its artfulness as much as its cold-bloodedness that the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre will become famous. The two "cops" jam their guns in the backs of the two in overcoats and march them to the waiting squad car with hands raised. For a time investigators believe cops did the killing. The infant science of ballistics vindicates the cops, yet the gunmen go free. Though Capone is suspected, his alibi is airtight--he was in Miami at the time being questioned for the murder of Frankie Yale, a hit man and, as it so happened, professional undertaker.
The brains behind the massacre, Machine Gun McGurn, will be murdered in a bowling alley seven years later, the day before Valentine's Day, 1936. His assassins leave an idiotic Valentine with his body. I'm prepared to recite it for Good Friend if he asks.
You've lost your job
You've lost your dough
Your jewels and handsome houses.
But things could be worse, you know.
You haven't lost your trousers.
Feeling only a little anticlimactic, butterflies roosted, I press Good Friend, but he won't say anything about his relatives other than "some of them were involved in the shootings." He asks me, again, why I'm pursuing this story, and I tell him what I believe to be the truth. That I want to settle a hotly disputed story in my own family. Whether or not Mac was really there.
The dispute began two years ago, during a slide show. We had come together at my father's to celebrate my grandmother Betty's 90th birthday. The screen was set up in the kitchen and we all huddled with our drinks around the projector, arguing whether or not Betty, in her macular degeneration, could see. My father and uncle were engaged in a tug-of-war, dragging Betty's chair back and forth to the screen, jockeying for inches.
"She can see fine," my dad says, dragging her back. "She's just playing her little games."
"I can't see," Betty warbles.
My uncle Sam levers her chair with his foot and pushes forward an inch.
"How's that, mom?"
"I think I'm a little too near."
The chair reels back with a loud scrape. "I told you," my dad says. "She's just playing games."
"If she can't see, she can't see, John," Sam says. "Are you calling mom a liar?"
"Fine." Dad shoves her forward until her nose nearly touches the screen and he shouts in her ear. "How's that, mom?"
The shadow of grandma's party hat blots out a picture of my brother, age six, eating a slice of bologna with a spork. "That's better," she nods, and pats my dad's hand.
One of my cousins has the good sense to cue the next slide.
"Hey, who's that handsome fella?" Sam says when a picture of Mac appears.
Betty, nose level with Mac's belt, stares for a moment. "I don't know."
"It's your husband. It's Mac."
"Oh," she says, mildly curious.
"Don't you remember?"
"I suppose. What did he do for work?"
"He worked for your dad at the mill."
"But he wanted to be an undertaker," my dad says.
She makes a small, disgusted noise. "Why on earth--"
"Didn't he help clean up the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre or something?" one of my cousins asks.
"He sure did," my father gloats.
"Oh, that is such a load of crap," Sam shoots back. "He did not."
My dad snarls. "Are you calling dad a liar?"
Several elderly undertakers I interviewed told me that they started working during the Depression. It was not work they desired, but work no one else wanted. Mac, on the other hand, always wanted to be an embalmer. He felt a calling. It was his dream to create beautiful "memory pictures," as open-casket send-offs are known in the biz. To usher the bereaved through their first moments of wracking grief. To preserve bodies in formaldehyde.
Mac came to Chicago from Oblong, Illinois, a farming community that after the oil boom of 1908 doubled its population to 1,500, and today hovers at 1,600. Crawford County, on the southeastern border of the state, has the distinction of claiming the only incorporated town in the United States with the name Oblong; it's also home to the Heath candy bar company and the outdoor Oil Field Museum. When I put the screws to the woman at the Crawford County Historical Society, the only notable event she could recall under duress was Spanky McFarland of the Little Rascals flying a biplane over the county in a promo for the Baby Ruth candy bar of Chicago's Curtiss Candy. One can only image how Heath employees felt at this spectacle.
To save money for school, Mac worked part-time at Ray Winter's funeral home ("Ambulance Service. Lady Assistant if Desired"). Mr. Winter had a flair for writing quizzical ads for the Oblong Oracle: "Think this over: Many an alley cat can look at an 'ermine' coat and say: 'There goes papa!'"
When in 1925 Mac left Oblong for Chicago's Worsham College of Mortuary Science--then known as the Worsham Training School of Anatomy, Sanitary Science and Embalming--he left behind a family farm and a dry goods business run by his father and uncle. Very likely farming would have strained his health. Rheumatic fever as a child had scarred his heart. It's uncertain what effect selling overalls and sacked feed would have had on his condition.
My memories of Mac are of a gentle, quiet man with a convalescent air. No one's really sure how many heart attacks he had--he suffered a coronary when I was a baby; the last took his life in 1985. In most pictures his complexion is blanched, clammy. He is usually standing off alone, out of the action. He looks for all the world like a man who would have fainted at the sight of blood. Even in the pictures where he is young, where he still wears a snap-brim fedora, the front brim dopily cocked up, he looks older than his years. He leans on a cane. Feebly jowled, he looks the part of a bookkeeper--which he later became, working for his father-in-law's grain mill, makers of Ho-Maid Poultry Laying Mash and Ho-Maid Pig and Hog Feed. I remember a man in a wool vest with a pocket protector whose sleeves were powdered with the fine dust of grain meal. Maybe this is the reason I find it so compelling to picture Mac crouched in the gore of the biggest gangland slaying in American history.
After I part ways with the Cemetery Lady, I decide to follow through on an idea that Helen told me she thinks really sucks. I visit the apartment building that stands where the S-M-C Cartage Company garage used to. She thinks I should slap down $22 and take it in with Untouchable Tours, a two-hour trolley ride through jazz-era Chicago complete with canned machine gun fire and zoot-suited tour guides (Sclair's taken it so many times, she says, they let her on free). But what I really want is a bit of serendipity. I hope to find--on the off chance--someone who might be old enough to have been, if not a witness to the massacre, at least living in the neighborhood. I guess it's ridiculous, but it's also the only semiplausible reason I have to enter the building.
Clark Webster Apartments is at 2136-40 N. Clark. The massacre site, 2122 N. Clark, is technically the empty, fenced-off lot next door. The postmassacre history of this littered brown lot is interesting enough to warrant a brief digression: In 1949, the front portion of the S-M-C garage was turned into an antique furniture storage business by a couple who knew nothing about the building's history. Annoyed by the constant stream of tourists, they soon closed shop. When the two-story building was demolished in 1967, a Canadian businessman named George Patey bought the bricks of a six-foot-high by ten-foot-wide section of the garage's bullet-riddled north wall and had them "numbered and packed in sequence like fine china." Reconstructing the wall and adding lifelike wax figures (hit men and corpses), sound effects, and dramatic lighting, the Canadian put the macabre tableau, The Capone Wall, on tour in museums and malls for thirty years. The bricks found temporary rest when Patey had the wall rebuilt in the men's bathroom of a nightclub with a Roaring 20s theme. Now, in retirement, Patey has broken up the set to offer a "once in a lifetime" opportunity to anyone who would like to own a chink out of history for $750 a brick. Each brick is accompanied by a "certificate of authenticity," a "fascinating crime booklet" (written by Patey), and a narrated sound track of the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre promised to be "so realistic you will feel that you are a witness to the actual event."
A scrubby honey locust grows where the wall used to stand. The apartment building, just across the street from a Blockbuster Video, is for low-income senior citizens. A sign by the door says Warning We Call Police. I step into the entryway, where I'm immobilized while the security guard, a figure hazy in the shadows of an unlit reception niche, decides whether to buzz me in. From his lobby grotto he watches warily. I try to mime something convincing through the Plexiglas barrier, and he mimes back that he doesn't know what the hell I want. As if it's a badge, I hold up my notebook. I feel like an interloper, but he buzzes me into the lobby. "I can't hear you through the glass," he says. The man, I can now see, is in a wheelchair and wears a blue foam hat that identifies him as Tenant Patrol. He's eating some sort of breakfast sandwich. A skinny janitor is dolefully sweeping crumbs off the red lobby carpet into a dustpan. A prim old lady in a tan old-lady trenchcoat, a small dog at her feet, sits in the lobby's only chair. Aside from a sparsely stocked vending machine, the lobby is desolate. Not so much as a potted plant. I tell Tenant Patrol what I'm after. This ain't even the building, he tells me. Technically, he tells me, the actual thing, the big killing, was over there, past the elevators. Technically, I explain, I already know that. I want him to know I'm not a crime buff on some nut pilgrimage. I'm not after relics. I want to interview his tenants, I repeat. He twists in his wheelchair, and every perturbable part of his sedentary and put-upon being gives me a thorough sheesh. Again I show him my serious notebook. Tenant Patrol tells me, no, that's unlikely, most of the tenants ain't originally from around here. Where are they from? I ask. Not from around here, he says. I briefly consider asking the old lady with the dog if she's from around here, but nix the thought. She's staring rancorously at the janitor, who's just finished sweeping up what looks to be the massacred contents of a bag of potato chips. "Clyde, that was terrible!" she says. Indeed Clyde has missed quite a few crumbs. A vacuum, of course, would have done the job in no time.
During his first ride on the el, Mac had his pocket picked. He would not have known this had the thief, probably an apprentice himself, resisted bragging. The next time Mac opened his wallet he wasn't missing a dollar, but he found a small, hurried note: "You're easy."
Mortuary college went from eight in the morning to four in the afternoon five days a week. The students called it junior medical school. In fact, they had many of the same classes as the med students from Loyola with whom they boarded at the YMCA. One of Mac's classmates, a kid from Chicago, quit the program when the cadaver he was given for embalming practice was his father's.
At night Mac read the newspaper at the dinner table, absentmindedly crushing his napkin in his hand. A gentle, trancelike habit, it found him molesting the same paper napkin until it was as limp as crepe. His brother Merritt, two years older, had graduated from Worsham and started an apprenticeship at John Carroll & Sons Funeral Home. Perhaps they were already discussing plans to start their own parlor back in Oblong. At night, in bed with a well-thumbed copy of The Undertaker's Manual across his knees, he wrote letters to his fiancee, Betty. These moldering letters are now vanished, perhaps at the bottom of a sack of used winter clothing given to a Salvation Army in New England.
When Mac graduated from Worsham in 1927, he would have taken a written examination on the subjects of bacteriology, pathology, anatomy, chemistry, and embalming. The questions were in essay form. Today the exam is multiple choice, and the subjects include funeral service management, funeral service law, counseling, and psychology. Mac, for reasons not entirely known, did not take the exam. Though Merritt got his embalmer's license, Mac never became licensed.
Junior embalmers were required to serve one year as an apprentice embalmer and one year as an apprentice funeral director. When Merritt finished his apprenticeship, he put in a good word for his little brother. One cannot imagine a better start than Mac got. John Carroll & Sons Funeral Home was, without question, the most prestigious Catholic funeral home in Chicago. Carroll's buried the most powerful and wealthy Catholics of the era, including the likes of Archbishop Mundelein, who as it so happens cast an edict refusing gangsters proper Christian burial. This edict gives me pause. For Carroll's to have risked its good standing with the church by embalming a handful of butchered thugs seems unlikely. At the very least, ironic. But considering the ethnic and religious loyalty displayed by most funeral homes, it's as big a wonder that the rich Irish Catholic firm even took on a Scottish Methodist like Mac (who wore the front brim of his hat up at that). But it did.
John Carroll had several parlors--one, apparently, for each of his three sons: Jack, Eugene, and Dennis. It turns out that Mac did not work at the Dearborn place near Schofield's flower shop. Though another of the homes was listed on Clark Street, just a few blocks from the massacre, he didn't work there either. Mac would work for the youngest Carroll son, Dennis, and live above his funeral home at 4542 N. Ravenswood. Once, and no one remembers why, Mac brought Dennis to Oblong for a weekend. As it was a long trip by train, it seems unlikely they went merely because Dennis had never seen a farm. Perhaps Dennis went to help Mac survey a new funeral business. Mac's sister, Kathryn, only nine at the time, still clearly remembers the dapper impression Dennis made on her and her parents. After dinner, when they were sitting around the table drinking coffee, Mac crumpling his napkin, Dennis leaned back in his chair and withdrew an ornate snuffbox. Then, to her marvel, he pulled out a tiny gold spoon, scooped a karat of snuff, and most daintily tooted it up his nose. She had never met a dandy before.
Carroll's was at the height of its business in the 20s. Apprentice embalmers were on call 24 hours, with seldom a day off. Mac would rise at dawn and dust the furniture, vacuum the carpets, empty the ashtrays and wastebaskets, turn up the heat, and sweep the sidewalk. He would not have dealt directly with the bereaved; that would have been Dennis's job. But he went on pickups with the chauffeur, and he helped in the operating room.
As the embalmer's apprentice, he would have washed the corpses' hair, rouged the cheeks, cleaned and clipped the fingernails, plucked unsightly ear and nostril hairs. He would have stuffed orifices with cotton. He would have given the men a shave. To help the mortician keep the face pliable long enough to shape its features, he would have provided a massage. He also would have sewn shut the mouths of the dead and cleaned the pails that caught the runoff from the porcelain table's gutter.
No doubt Mac attempted the finer points of arterial embalming under the cautious tutelage of his employer. He learned to wield the trocar, a large hollow needle used both to siphon off gas and to inject the viscera with disinfectants. He learned to puncture and inject the heart, a job known as a "heart tap," the trickiest job of all. I imagine Mac was gentle.
He dressed the body. He "casketed" the body. He primped the flowers. He set out chairs and stood at the door during wakes with a look of dutiful solemnity. On the day of the funeral he ushered mourners to their seats, and if the decedent were short friends Mac was a stand-in pallbearer.
Home funerals were much more common back then, and undertakers made house calls. They brought their equipment, sent the children out to play, and embalmed in the kitchen. They brought along a folding table and a rubber sheet. Mac bottled the drained blood and loaded the bottles into a carrying case much like those used by milkmen of yore. Back on Ravenswood, he emptied the bottles down the toilet.
For all the business Carroll's took in--upwards of 300 funerals a year--Mac would have been kept busy simply mixing and bottling embalming fluid. Commercial-grade fluid was available by then from companies such as Frigid Fluid, but by and large funeral homes still made their own potions. Mac would have whipped up batches of the stuff, mixing drums of raw formaldehyde with alcohol, glycerin, and coloring. According to Kenneth Iserson, MD, author of Death to Dust: What Happens to Dead Bodies?, the apprentice who huffed too much formaldehyde was at a significantly greater risk of "cancers of the skin, brain, colon, sinuses, nose, throat and blood...cirrhosis of the liver...chronic bronchitis, dyspnea, skin irritation...nasal and eye irritation...breast enlargement, other feminizing characteristics, and a loss of sexual drive." Mac did all this and more for $1 a day. This while Capone paid impoverished Sicilian "alky-cookers" $15 a day to brew homemade whiskey.
My hunch that Carroll's wouldn't have touched these thugs with a ten-foot trocar is soon confirmed. The archives of the clerk of the Circuit Court are on the 11th floor of the Daley Center. It takes the better part of an hour just to decipher the docket numbers on decaying microfiche. But once I have the actual papers I examine each carefully, passing over estate testimonies and final claims from the Peoples Gas Light & Coke Co. until I have a stack of seven funeral bills. In a way, I'm surprised to have what I want. Here is the evidence, the moment of truth, the rumor reified. For a moment it seems too easy. And indeed it is: none of the bills is from Carroll's.
I go back down the elevator. But there's no reason for me to feel burnout. This was only a process of elimination. Anyway, Mac never said he embalmed the hoodlums. He said that he saw the carnage. "A hell of a bloody mess," he told my dad. The poignant image, I remind myself, is Mac crouched in the gore, not powdering a stiff's nose. Other sources remain: old police records reveal little other than the fact that cops in the 20s had fine penmanship, but coroners' reports, I'm told, should give the names of all personnel directly or indirectly involved in the investigation and aftermath. Whether I'll ever get my hands on these records is another question: the medical examiner's office seems to think they're lost. Mike McReynolds, my contact at the medical examiner's, says he's pursuing an outside source, a Good Friend of sorts, who happens to be sitting on the last known remaining copy. I figure McReynolds is due for a reminder, and with nowhere else to go, I impulsively punch a button and get off at the sixth floor.
The lobby is crowded and noisy. It smells like french fries, fast food, puling infants. A dull, impatient mood hangs in the air. It seems I've stopped off at family court. All the benches are taken by young mothers and feckless-looking young men fidgeting with Walkmans. Since I have to wait for a phone, I regret not having looked on the quieter 11th floor. When one clears, I plunk down 35 cents. The receptionist patches me through to McReynolds. While I wait, I watch a young mother with penciled-on black eyebrows who's stuffed herself into a vacant baby stroller, yapping on a cell phone, feet lolling. For a moment on the 11th floor, when I had the funeral bills in front of me, before I knew they were a dead end, I'd been ready to race to a phone to call my father. Not to tell him that he was right and his brother was wrong (I doubt if either of them would even care that there was a memory in dispute if I didn't keep reminding them), but to share what I was certain was going to be a valiant discovery. I've begun to fantasize about lifting my grandfather from anonymity. At the outset his alleged walk-on at the massacre was, if nothing else, a good excuse for me to muck about in mob lore and spend time with brilliant eccentrics like the Cemetery Lady. After all, I never really knew Mac. What little I did know left me unimpressed. He died when I was 15, and to that adolescent self he was nothing more than a kind and threatless old man. More palooka than paterfamilias. But maybe, it occurs to me now on family court floor, that the reason I'm trying to reconstruct this bloody vignette is to make up for not knowing him very well and for not respecting what I did know. It's possible I want Mac to be worth remembering. So when McReynolds finally answers the phone and he tells me that the records are on the way, I'm happy.
The coroner of 1929 was a political animal much different from today's medical examiner. According to Roy Dames, executive director of the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office, the coroner's system was usurped by the medical examiner's in 1976. "Under the coroner's system you were elected to the office. You weren't even necessarily a physician. Medical examiners, on the other hand, are board-certified forensic pathologists." They have nine or ten years of schooling. They decide both the cause and the manner of death. Under the coroner's system, the cause of death would have been determined by a physician; then a panel of distinguished gentlemen, often retired, would listen to the physician and to the police testimony and determine the manner of death: natural, accident, suicide, homicide, or undetermined. The coroner sat as presiding officer. This was known as the inquest.
The inquest into the deaths of the Moran gang members was held on February 23, nine days after the massacre. The jury of six influential men included Bert Massee, president of the Palm-Olive Company. Coroner Herman Bundesen was the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in Cook County at the time. He could arrest the sheriff, if so inclined. Bundesen was an outspoken, beloved, and eccentric figure who sought and lost the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1936. He was a revered health commissioner and president of the Chicago Board of Health from 1932 until his death in 1960. During his career, Bundesen was a pediatrician (his signature appears on Helen Sclair's birth certificate), the author of three best-selling books on infant care, and a staunch crusader in the war against syphilis, a disease that afflicted many, including Chicago's defining personality of the era, Al Capone, whose megalomania may have been as biologically determined by his neurosyphilis as Mac's meek-manneredness may have been determined by his rheumatic heart.
Bundesen, having first dibs on the bodies, arrived on the scene within a half hour of the crime, and after the slain were photographed and searched he ordered them sent to a nearby funeral home. John Carroll & Sons had an outpost at 1158 Clark, but that is not where the bodies went. According to newspapers, the bodies were shipped to 2221 Lincoln Ave., the Drake-Braithewaite Funeral Home. From there, they traveled to the county morgue. Mac drove for Carroll's livery service, a kind of taxi for the dead, so maybe he trundled the bodies off to the morgue? No way. In cases of homicide, transport of bodies was delegated to the police, as it continues to be today.
The only witnesses at the garage other than Bundesen were the police and authorized members of the press corps. One callous newsman for the Chicago Evening American reported that he left the garage with "more brains on my feet than I have in my head." The Oblong Oracle, Mac's hometown paper, did not report his alleged brush with infamy. However it did report that Floyd Perkins, a graduate of the Oblong Township High School, would be lead clarinetist in an upcoming concert at Indiana Central College; that Henry Manhart, 17, was whisked off to the state institution for feeblemindedness; that the Pilgrim Holiness Church held a World Day of Prayer for "the work of Kingdom building"; and that starting with the current issue the Oracle would be printed on the experimental medium of cornstalk paper. We also learned from the country correspondent that:
Ray Smith assisted his father in hauling straw from the Steve Woods place Friday; Mrs. Hester Schwenkie and son Valmore arrived at Mrs. Schwenkie's parents' Thursday night from Denver, Colorado, where Valmore has been in the hospital, and he stood the trip fine; Vernice Mullins, attending an electrical school in Chicago, came home Saturday night for a few days' visit with his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Richard Mullins; Ray Hanson helped Harlen Shoulders of Prior Grove buzz wood last Friday; a Valentine box and pie supper was enjoyed by all at the United Brethren Church, where the decorations were in keeping with Saint Valentine's Day and very artistically arranged and the favors were little baskets filled with candy Valentine hearts; Basil White shipped hogs Tuesday.
The same day, Chicago newspapers reported that an Oak Park housewife discovered that the rank odor of her milk was the taint of formaldehyde; a stay of execution for the first three men to be electrocuted in Cook County was refused by the governor; and the eight-month-old son of a florist swallowed a religious medal. Surgeons successfully removed the medal after its pin lodged perilously close to the child's heart. The medal bore the image of Saint Anne de Beaupre, mother of the Virgin Mary, patron saint of grandparents. Veneration of this saint is possible in shrines worldwide thanks to the wide dispersion of her sacred and multiple tibias, skull fragments, and metacarpals.
More intriguing is a story from the Chicago Daily Tribune of February 14, 1929, covering an inquest presided over by Coroner Bundesen. I find the story by accident when, to tell the truth, I become inconsolably bored reading about the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre and my eyes drift. This is the kind of serendipity I've been waiting for. A 30-year-old woman was dead as a result of an illegal abortion, and in an apparent cover-up her organs were switched with the organs of a much older woman before the coroner's office received them for examination. The names of deputy coroners said to have assisted Bundesen at the inquest are named. One of these deputy coroners turns out to have been Dennis M. Carroll, as in the snuff-tooting dandy who employed my grandfather.
Could this be the rufous-sided towhee I seek? It would seem so. Dennis, as Bundesen's knighted deputy, would naturally have accompanied his boss to the murder site. But would the deputy require his own deputy? Seems reasonable. Though there were four or five other apprentices living upstairs from the Ravenswood home with Mac, considering that Dennis and my grandfather were close enough for Dennis to have endured a weekend journey to Oblong, there's no reason to think Mac wouldn't be the squire Dennis brought to the carnage.
Convinced that this is the link, albeit one that makes Mac the lackey of a lackey, I attempt to sift information about the hierarchy of the old coroner's system. But few grasp the feudal archaisms. Records of the Illinois Funeral Directors Association go back only 25 years. Worsham College of Mortuary Science has no records before 1940. Both institutions suggest I look up an elderly embalmer by the name of Edward C. Johnson. Even the Office of the Medical Examiner defers to Johnson. Johnson, it turns out, was a professor at Worsham for 32 years. He also knows a thing or two about cleaning up massacres.
In the Chicago undertaking world, all roads eventually lead to Edward C. Johnson. Author of over 600 articles for trades like American Funeral Director and Casket and Sunnyside, Johnson is a renowned historian of the art of embalming and an expert on the international laws of shipping human remains. In 1962, while chief of mortuary operations for the UN forces in the Congo, he was awarded La Cavaliere, Italy's highest civilian honor, after he embalmed the bodies of 13 Italian airmen he'd recovered from a mass grave. The airmen had been massacred by renegade deserters of the Congolese army, their bodies dragged behind trucks, mutilated, and cannibalized.
Johnson's home, a stone bungalow on Chicago's northwest side, has the cozy feel of an old professor's cottage. Tidy stacks of papers and piles of books fill every cranny and unused surface but the card table he has cleared for our visit. While he brews coffee, a piano sonata playing softly from the kitchen radio, I glance over his shelves: Who's Who in Egyptian Mythology, The Bedside Book of Death, X-Raying the Pharaohs. An inflated King Tut doll of the weeble-wobble variety stands sentinel by the door. Perched on a shelf is an eight-inch onyx statue of Anubis, the jackal-headed Egyptian lord protector of the dead. Anubis (alias "He Who Counts the Hearts") is by virtue of mummifying Osiris the god of embalming and as close as embalmers get to a patron saint. (If you are an undertaker, on the other hand, you get two patron saints: Saint Dismas--whom you share with inmates on death row--and Joseph of Arimathea, venerated elsewhere as the patron saint of tin miners.) Beside Anubis is another, smaller Tut head under a bell jar.
A large sepia portrait that I take to be of his wife, also an embalmer, hangs on the wall. There is a framed letter from the State Department thanking her for her help with the aftermath of the Jonestown massacre in 1978. She was the principal consultant behind the removal of those 914 dead who committed "revolutionary suicide" a la potassium cyanide-laced grape Fla-Vor-Aid. Gail Johnson, her husband lets me know when he returns with our coffee, died of cancer four years ago.
He is a tidy man with a well-trimmed white goatee and oval tortoiseshell glasses. He wears a knit tie and a plaid sport coat, and a tuft of red silk pokes from the breast pocket. He carries with his gentle, intelligent hand motions the hospitable whiff of bay rum. Gail, he says, was his clone. And he hers. He frequently refers to himself as "we." We both taught at Worsham. We compiled the international statutes. We traveled everywhere together. Following in her parents' footsteps, Johnson's daughter Melissa does disaster emergency response work with the National Foundation for Mortuary Care. When Johnson shows me a picture of young Melissa, posing in Daddy's embalming room, he proudly tells me, "This kid was scraping people's brains when she was nine years old. She was a real helper." Father, mother, and daughter coauthored and self-published a chilling monograph that catalogs the 267 sanctioned executions of Union soldiers during the Civil War (for desertion, murder, rape). They also collaborated to write a chapter on the history of "modern restorative art" for Robert Mayer's textbook, Embalming: History, Theory, & Practice.
Though I have not interviewed any current mort-sci students for this story, I do have the opportunity to read, at amazon.com, a review of Mayer's text by a young embalming student identified only by the E-mail address:firstname.lastname@example.org. I have retained the format of this posting:
"This book has no Idea How and what we are doing today in the FASTPACE world of CORPORATE Embalming!!! I have no time to complete the mentioned tasks in the book. The book outlines to many detailed items that are 'REQUIRED' When I went to school I hardly Cracked this Book, I learned more in the previous 3 years BEFORE school than I learned from this JOKE of a book!!! Maybe MR. Mayer can teach all those Techniques at P.I.M.S. but on the westcoast @ San FRAN. And Cyprees(I attended S.F. for 1 semester and Cypress for 2) it does not cut it and the techniques are BOGUS!!!!"
Another reviewer, also from the Mortuary Science program at Cypress College, claimed that Mayer's text, if a little dry, was his "bible."
I tell Johnson the story of the gold snuff spoon.
"That sure sounds like Denny," Johnson says. The steam from his coffee meanders over his features. Johnson worked in Ravenswood for several years with the man who was the manager of John Carroll & Sons' Ravenswood branch during my grandfather's apprenticeship. Dennis, Johnson remembers, was a dandy. Dressed well. Member of the poshest athletic clubs. Had charge accounts at all the big stores. While he talks, he absentmindedly pinches and rolls the skin over his cheekbone. When he drops his hand to his lap, a welt of raised skin remains, like the little ridge of skin over a relaxed knuckle.
Anyway, the Ravenswood branch is gone. I tell him that I drove over to where the old funeral home should be, the corner of Ravenswood and Wilson, near Graceland and Saint Boniface cemeteries, and found nothing but a parking lot and railroad tracks. Johnson tells me that all the main cemeteries were situated near railroad tracks, the train being at one time the most convenient method to transport bodies. This reminds me of another story, about which my father and uncle are in agreement: the time Mac took a call to pick up a dead infant. To carry the tiny cadaver he used a small portable coffin with a handle that looked like a suitcase. On his way back to the funeral home, he was sitting on the el with the box in his lap when a young woman he knew sat beside him. They chatted. The young woman was on her way home from her work as a nurse at Columbus Hospital. Mac knew her from when he'd been at Worsham and she'd been a nursing student at Loyola. After a while she asked what Mac had in the suitcase, and having no reason to lie--or possibly taken by a sadistic impulse--he told her. She didn't believe him. She must have been shocked by such black humor from the aw-shucks likes of Mac. Maybe she laughed uncomfortably. In any event, Mac popped the hasp and raised the lid right there on the train. At the sight of the slightly bluish infant snuggled in Mac's portmanteau, the nurse fainted.
I ask Johnson if he's ever worked on a mob hit. No, but he knows the work of a machine gun. He tells me a story about a guy who escaped from a mental asylum years ago, kidnapped a woman, and rode with her (again, on the el) at concealed gunpoint until somehow she managed to slip a note written in lipstick to a conductor. When the cops showed up they gave the loony a chance to surrender, but he went for his weapon and they let him have it.
Johnson chuckles as he recalls. "They were shooting with submachine guns at this dummy. One bullet would make four holes. I mean, he threw his hands up and--" Johnson holds up his own arm as a model and points to entry and exit wounds--"the bullet went in like here, out here. In here, out here. In here, out his back. Terrible." He pauses to nurse a slow, stubborn cough. "We had this guy in the morgue for a class session and the kids, every time they'd turn him over, they'd say, 'goddang it, there's another bullet hole, here's another bullet hole!'" He's chuckling and shaking his head. "He must've had 50 holes in him. God, it was an awful lot of work."
I'm about to ask him more about Dennis Carroll when he flourishes with his coffee cup and sits forward, eager and gleaming. He wants to know if I've ever seen any pictures like that. I shrug. There's a picture I've seen of one of the guys killed at the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre. His head is half blown off.
"Am I sure what?" The sonata on the kitchen radio pauses between movements.
"Are you sure half his head is gone?"
I think so. I have with me a biography of Capone. There's a reproduction of the photo.
"Oh, Capone. Oh, oh. Hmm." He seems doubtful. "That's your consulting reference?" He takes out a little pocket magnifying glass and hunches over the book where I've opened it to the black-and-white picture. He slowly scans the seven bodies at the foot of the brick wall: Dr. Reinhardt Schwimmer, the most commonly remembered because he was not a gangster, just a bored optometrist who liked to rub elbows with hoodlums. Dead on his back, the eye doctor still wears his hat rakishly cocked, a carnation in his lapel. Pete Gusenberg, dead on his knees, his upper body slumped over a chair. His brother, Frank Gusenberg, out of the picture, having crawled off with 14 machine-gun bullets in him. Interrogated a few hours later by desperate police, Frank would utter his last defiant words, "I ain't no copper." Albert Kashellek (alias James Clark), a ruthless killer himself, dead on his face. Adam Heyer, the brains of Moran's gang, a thick rivulet of gore streaming from his head. Al Weinshank, dead on his back, a pearl fedora resting on his chest. And clad in overalls, the mechanic and ex-safecracker John May (in his pocket were found two bullet-dented medals of Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travelers), the left half of his face shot clear away.
After a minute or two Johnson shrugs. "Well, you could be right." He tucks away his magnifying glass and asks, almost meekly, "Do you have time enough for me to show you some similar pictures?"
I follow him through the kitchen, where we stop and ponder a picture of his wife on the wall. She is radiant, wearing Jackie O sunglasses, sitting astride a camel in front of a pyramid. He shakes his head and turns to me. "It's damned lonely--living alone." Then he switches the basement light and I follow the lonely old clone down the creaky stairs.
The basement, not surprisingly, is a crowded but tidy archive. There are bookshelves and crates, and bank boxes crammed with decades of research. In one corner are a washing machine and dryer, and in the back is a sparsely furnished workbench; hammers, pliers, and a couple of extension cords hang from pegboard. But sitting on the same shelf with the three-in-one household oil and the baby food jars stuffed with nails is a green bottle of Hizone "cavity fluid." Next to the WD-40 is a bottle of Feature Builder: "for building tissue contour on emaciated cases." A dusty electric embalming pump sits on the floor looking like a giant Slurpee machine. But strangest of all is what sits on the workbench, as if waiting repair.
It is a woman's face. A dull yellow face. She is double chinned, with a dreadful overbite. Despite the verisimilitude it is not a real face but a death mask that Johnson or one of his students made. It is interesting, but not half as glamorous as the gilded death mask replicas upstairs of Tutankhamen. Johnson tells me that they made a death mask of Dillinger at Worsham but the FBI confiscated it. Helen Sclair, too, had a story about Dillinger. Her grandmother-in-law was struck by a bullet during the melee outside the Biograph in 1934, becoming, Sclair claims, the first innocent bystander to be wounded by the FBI. Because the bureau was afraid of the notoriety it would get for shooting "this nice Jewish lady," Sclair told me, they took her to Columbus Hospital and put her in the bed where Mother Cabrini, the hospital's founder, had died. Sclair's husband, ten years old at the time, got to see himself in a newsreel standing beside grandma's bed. Mother Cabrini, who became Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini on July 7, 1946, the first U.S. citizen to be canonized, is the patron saint of immigrants. When she died of malaria in 1917, George Cardinal Mundelein presided over the ceremony. Should you happen to find yourself in Codogno, Italy, you may wish to visit her heart.
Johnson has switched on a light over a desk. He is rummaging through a pile looking for the photo album he wants to show me. He moves aside an old plastic cake-top bride and groom from a stack of folders. I examine a photograph lying on the desk, a picture of three men in lab coats embalming a gorilla. "People send me all kinds of stuff like that," he says, shaking his head. "Novelty pictures." He finally finds the ivory-bound album, the kind in which you might keep wedding pictures. However, these photos are a collection from cases the embalmer handled over his long career. The pictures are mounted on crumbling yellow paper.
The first few pictures, he tells me, are routine fixer-uppers. "Not many of these are serious here." He taps a picture with one of his well-pared nails. "Tumor of the chin." We linger a moment over the grotesque protuberance. "And here's how he looked after we fixed him."
The pictures are arranged with the same before-and-after juxtapositions you'd expect from Weight Watchers. He flips a page and grunts with familiarity. "Kid got a new car for his birthday and he runs it up a telephone pole." In one picture the boy is a heap of meat on a table; in the next the meat is trimmed and dapper in its new coffin. "Let's see here. Hmm. Cancer of the nose...Burned...Oh, this was a terrific case. Run over by a street cleaner--caught up in the axle and tore her head off." He pinches his cheek and flips forward. He pauses. "Do you have children?" He holds the picture closer to give me a better look. The corpse of an infant with hydrocephalitis, its head swollen up like an alien.
"Not yet." Feeling slightly short of breath, I prick the pad of my finger with my pen, hoping it's sharp enough in the event I need to perform a tracheotomy on myself.
He's still flipping, looking for one specific picture. En passant, I catch a glimpse of something that defies words.
"That's pretty extreme decomposition, isn't it?"
"Oh yes, definitely." He grumbles when a corner of a page disintegrates under his thumb. "Oh, here's an interesting one, given to me by my professor. See, this fella was a lion trainer--the damn fool turned his back. You can see for yourself what happened." Looking at these pictures is, in a way, like looking at antique pornography, except not as quaint. Not as naive. This is timeless smut. Repaired, the waxen bodies are just as ghastly as they were dismembered, run over, axed, or eaten. A melancholy is coming over me, and even though I'm very fond of the old man I cannot for the life of me rationalize why I'm here in this basement overdosing on mortality. Undertaking could never just be a job. Or could it? I wonder if Mac, who felt the calling, ever woke in the middle of the night shrieking.
He has finally found the picture: a man who has unequivocally blown his head off with a high-powered rifle. The head is gone from the lower jaw up.
"Now these fellas that you're talking about at the Valentine's Day, they were all facing the wall, they were shot in the back. Your grandfather didn't have all of the equipment that we have today." While he talks, plotting out the hypothetical repairs Mac would have faced, he looks at the album like it might be a choir book. He taps the headless man's shoulder. "If they've been hit in an eye, of course, that area has to be rebuilt and all that sort of thing. For the head wounds, they would have had to drill and wire the heads, or fill them with plaster of paris." Not like today, he says, where they use a foam injection gun not unlike the sort used to shoot insulation between joists. He stops. "How many bodies did you say Carroll's had?"
Actually, I remind him, Carroll's didn't have any of the bodies.
"Why are you thinking about Dennis then?" He looks down at the tuft of silk in his breast pocket and gives it an unnecessary adjustment.
When I hear myself explain it again, I wonder how many degrees of separation I'm willing to go. I am, after all, only at three or four degrees now, depending how you count the chain of witness.
Anyway, he doesn't think that sounds right. He knows that A.L. Bentley, at 2701 Clark, had a few, and one of the Jewish firms had the optometrist. I ask what he thinks about the deputy coroner nexus?
He drops his chin to his chest and coughs his protracted cough. When he's recovered, he says, "I think that they got Dennis that job for something to do." Dennis never went to school, Johnson says. He was unlicensed. Legally, Dennis couldn't even sign death certificates.
What's this mean?
Johnson shrugs. "You could grab a bum off the corner and deputize him." Tavern owners were deputized. They did it because they got to carry a gun. "It was all political. If anything, Dennis was probably a gopher. Get the jurors coffee and so on." Being a deputized coroner didn't mean a damn thing.
He flips the page and brings my attention to one last picture. "Eaten by rats." He waves his hand before I have a chance to ask. "They'll eat a body embalmed or not embalmed. They don't like the hairy parts but..." He trails off, bored. He gives the album a shake and together we watch the brittle confetti sprinkle to our feet. "Oh well," he sighs. "That's the way with things, they go to pieces."
Johnson's discouraging news is soon confirmed by a document I find at the Chicago Public Library. According to the Annual Appropriation Bill for Cook County for the Fiscal Year 1929, there was only one chief deputy coroner. However, there were 23 deputy coroners under the Inquest and Investigation Division, and there were 67 deputy coroners under the Coroner's Physicians Division. Dennis would have been appointed for anywhere from three to nine months, and would have earned $416 a month to $1 a year. The odds that Dennis was in any way involved with the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre don't look so good. Mac's look even less promising.
Especially after the 549-page inquest arrives on my doorstep from the medical examiner's office, bless their hearts. It is, for a tedious proceeding, an interesting read. You learn a good deal about ballistics and the trade of Thompson submachine guns. Otherwise, pretty dry for a courtroom drama. With the inquest is a note of apology. The photographs and autopsy reports are missing. As are the sign-off sheets with the signatures of all officials and quasi officials directly and indirectly involved in the investigation. No deputy coroners' names appear. The stenographer's name appears on practically every page. How glorified his descendants must be.
Betty, now 92, lives at the Buffalo Valley Nursing Home in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, just down the street from the penitentiary where Capone was released after serving eight years for income tax evasion. Betty's served four for dementia. I find her in her room with the curtains drawn, watching Teletubbies. When I point to a portrait on her nightstand taken on their 45th anniversary, she doesn't remember Mac. But once I get her out to the lobby--where a few potted plants soak in the sun with an old man in a wheelchair spitting on the carpet--her memory begins to thaw. She remembers Mac, even that he went to Chicago for embalming school. She thought it distasteful. The idea of gangsters seems to scare her, but she doesn't remember a thing about the massacre. Yet she does remember with alacrity how Mac got yanked from his exam for lying about his age (he was a week shy of his 21st birthday). She thought he'd been too eager. "Oh, I don't think he should have done that," she says, making a stubborn fist. "He shouldn't have fibbed."
It's pretty clear why Mac gave up his formaldehyde dreams to keep books for his father-in-law. Merritt returned to Oblong and worked a couple of years for Mrs. Hall's funeral home. If he and Mac were planning to start their own business, there is reason to believe he spoke of it to his employer. Mrs. Hall would have listened, and Mrs. Hall would have become nervous: How many funeral homes could the hale population of Oblong support? It seems Mrs. Hall hatched a sinister plot. She talked Merritt into buying a funeral home in nearby Macomb. The business went belly-up before the ink dried, as apparently every party to the transaction except Merritt knew it would. Merritt bought a garage in Galesburg and spent the rest of his life drinking and fixing trucks.
It's assumed by the family that Mrs. Hall finked out Mac. (He was already seated in the testing room when he was yanked.) So Mac went on to his apprenticeship without a license. Why he never bothered to take the exam, I don't know. Maybe it was because his friend and boss, Dennis Carroll, got along so well without one.
I remember the first time I heard the story. My dad told us in the car on the way west, to Littleton, Colorado, of all places. Our family would live there briefly, near my uncle in Denver. For the trip I had bought a Pocket Instamatic to document the badlands, Mount Rushmore, the Rockies. We passed through Oblong on our way. Since we had time, Mac and Betty wanted to show us something. So after lunch, and a hushed adult discussion in the living room, we followed their white Cadillac down the dusty roads to the Oblong cemetery. It was a beautiful day. I rode with my window down and snapped pictures of the oil pumps that bobbed in the fields like giant black grasshoppers.
At the cemetery, my brother and I followed our parents, who trailed Mac and Betty through the maze of headstones until we came to two clean, bright white blocks of unadorned granite. Mac and Betty had prepaid for the set and had them installed a few days before. By having their birthdates precarved, Betty joked wanly, they'd save money in the end. When the stone was "updated."
Why they agreed to let me take the picture, I don't know. The sky is arched and bright blue, the summer grass specked with clover, here and there a wreath and the titter of an invisible bird. The stones, side by side, are low to the ground. My grandmother, wearing a brown turtleneck, squinting, stands behind hers as if behind a prize bed of roses. Mac, wearing a golf hat and powder blue slacks, stands proudly over Melvin McLung Kirk, 1906-. The only embellishment in his stone is the Masonic square and compass enclosing the mystic letter G. The front brim of his hat is pulled down. His hands are hidden behind his back. The tops of his shoes are powdered with mealy dust from the mill.
It looks like I'll never know if Dennis was one of the 2 or 3 deputy coroners out of 90 that Coroner Bundesen brought to the garage. Maybe when he got the call, Dennis and Mac were just putting the finishing touches on a dearly departed. Or maybe they were slow that morning, were sitting in the kitchen drinking coffee, talking idly. When the call came, Dennis told Mac to grab his coat and Mac rushed out the door with his napkin still tucked down the front of his collar. Or maybe what Mac really told my father (and others) wasn't what they think they heard. Maybe what he said was that he had been standing on Clark Street cleaning his glasses when the cops happened to bring out the bodies. Or maybe Dennis went, but not Mac. Mac would have heard the story time and again, until he adopted the memory as his own. An innocent enough crime. No one in Oblong would know the difference. Maybe Mac just fibbed.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Russ Ando.