www.common-place.org · vol. 2 · no. 2 · January 2002
"The visitors to the morgue didn't want to know about the histories of these victims of horse-car accidents, domestic strife, or disease. They came for one purpose and one purpose only: to be assured that they would not suffer the same fate as these unfortunates."
The Hungry Eye, Episode 1
At the moment, Padlin's air of restrained wrath seemed appropriate.
His scowling countenance, his head bobbing up and down from subject to paper, subject to paper, his hand moving agitatedly upon the pad's surface, conveyed a revulsion barely kept at bay. At least, that was John Antrobus's interpretation when he entered the viewing room and espied the sketch artist crouched amid the marble slabs.
When the young coroner's deputy saw what he took to be distaste creasing Padlin's features, a heavy gob of emotion slid up his gullet. Suppressing a shudder, he nonetheless felt wonderfully relieved. His own horror at Padlin's horror had been a reawakening of the grief that he thought irretrievable after this long first month of escorting every cholera fanatic and Tammany slug in the city on tours of the new morgue. A month of so many hushed "ohs" and "ahs," so many seemly silences betrayed by popping eyes, so many genteel applications of kerchiefs to flared nostrils, so many semi-swoons with crinoline gowns crackling concentrically up against the tile floor--so much civil distress expressed by types for whom grotesque death was the stuff of Barnum's Museum and not the sordid experience of the streets.
Antrobus's job, as his superior instructed him, was to reassure the populace. The visitors to the morgue didn't want to know about the histories of these victims of horse-car accidents, domestic strife, or disease. They came for one purpose and one purpose only: to be assured that they would not suffer the same fate as these unfortunates. They came to visit the new structure along the East River like picnickers viewing a battlefield from the safety of a ridge or bunker, to witness death close at hand while remaining secure that they were shielded from its effect.
The trouble was that Antrobus had chosen this unorthodox calling for the express purpose of not reassuring the respectable classes. Having conscientiously mapped the landscape of corruption and misery during his years at the Yale Medical College, upon graduation he had packed a nightshirt, several hard collars, and his Bible in a carpetbag, filled his stiff leather satchel with instruments and pills and elixirs, and carried them, along with his new expertise and spiritual mission, to the slums of New York's Five Points. For a year, he ministered to the poor from the House of Industry (replacing the Reverend R_____, who had succumbed to the area's melancholy and mania, leaving his post a hopeless inebriate).
For a year, Antrobus supervised the sewing work of those few wretched women who entered the missionhouse for employment; he cajoled and purchased the meager attendance of neighborhood children at his Sabbath classes; he inspected the hovels surrounding Paradise Park to uncover cholera nests; he withstood the howling threats of the Papist gangs that soared through his window every night. And to what end? To watch the contributions from uptown sponsors recede to a trickle and the Points inhabitants grow more and more surly and resistant to his good works? He prayed for guidance--and, finally, his prayers were answered by a revelation. Albeit a peculiar one.
One dark night--dark only in the hopelessness of the moment, for the illumination from the taunting Mulberry Street Boys' torches played upon his bedroom wall from dusk to dawn--one long, sleepless night, young Antrobus suddenly realized that if he was failing to arrest the terrible fates of his putative flock it was possibly due to a kind of directional confusion. What if he forsook the lives of the deserving and undeserving poor and took a reverse course? What if he started with death and worked backwards, exposing the gruesome lessons of the corpse to enlighten the uncaring, exploiting fear of infection to wrest the attention of patrons?
No, reassurance had not been Antrobus's goal when he won the position of coroner's deputy. Instruction, life lessons, death lessons: these were closer to what Antrobus had in mind. The coroner, however, was a pragmatic man who maintained his post through connections with Tammany Hall and had no use for missionary zeal. So, torn between countering the coroner's aim and keeping his job, Antrobus opted for a wary vigilance, searching for an opportunity to further his mission, hoping for another revelation. In the meantime, he steeled his emotions to the task at hand.
And here now, before him, crouched the possible agent of his deliverance.
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