While Touring With A Friend, A New Yorker Finds Her Missing Brother – 1905

Places A Tourist Should Go in 1905?

Bellevue And The Morgue.

1st Ave. 26th Bellevue Hospital postcard circa 1912

Visiting New York City today there are things that most tourists go and see. Typical touristy places include The Empire State Building, Times Square, The Statue of Liberty . A hundred years ago you might be surprised at what sights people would go and visit. In 1905 for one New Yorker, accompanying a visiting friend to Bellevue and visiting the morgue seemed like an interesting, if not macabre way to spend the day.

They say truth is stranger than fiction, so we’ll let The New York Evening World of September 11, 1905 pick up the rest of this strange story:


Miss Magner, Showing a Friend the Sights, Identifies Photograph.

This isn’t a very big world since the railroad, the telegraph and the telephone annihilated distances, but here is the strange story of what happened at the points of a triangle with sides only a mile long.

On Feb. 26, 1904, the body of a young man was found on the doors of No. 269 Ninth Avenue, dead. No one knew him. At the morgue the body was photographed and a complete description taken. The breast and arms were tattooed with the form of a woman, the emblems of Faith, Hope and Charity and the initials “J.M.”

After a few days the unidentified body was burled In Potter’s Field, where it has lain for nineteen months. Last Saturday Miss Laura Magner, of No. 354 West Forty-sixth Street, who was entertaining a visiting friend from out-of-town, took him to see Bellevue Hospital and the Morgue.

Visited the Morgue.

They viewed the big “bureau” In which each of the hundred drawers held a corpse, and then they looked over the records and photographs of the unknown dead kept by the morgue keeper.

Presently Miss Magner screamed and fell back gasping and pale.

“That is my brother John!” she exclaimed when she had regained self-possession, indicating one of the photographs. “He ran away to sea when he was only a lad.” said she. “Anyone would know him for the tattoo marks on him – a woman, the emblem of the three graces, and his initials.”

The Morgue keeper had turned the leaves of his big record to that bearing the number away up in the thousands, marked on the back of the photograph, and he slowly read from it precisely the words spoken by the woman.

Police Alarm Sent Out.

“Why, when my brother John, home from the sea, disappeared, being unable to find any traces of his shipping at the Shipping Commissioner’s office, and fearing that something awful had happened to him. I notified the police, giving a full description of him and a general alarm was sent out. Yet he died within a mile of our home and lay here dead a whole week.”

Miss Magner received today an old silver watch and chain, a jack knife, a small sum of money and some other pocket properties found upon John Magner and stowed away at the Morgue when he was sent to a nameless grave on Hart’s island a year and a half ago.

New York Evening World September 11, 1905

I think the biggest surprise is that it seems any person back in 1905 could go and get access to the big “bureau,” as they called the holding area for bodies in the morgue, and view corpses and photographs of the dead.

Guide To Points of Interest in New York an 1887 guide to the city, furnishes this tidbit.

“Found floating in the East River yesterday by a boatman, the body of a female, 5 1/4 feet high, of blonde complexion and hair with embroidered skirts. Having on a fine quality of kid shoe the body supposed to have been in the water ten days. Nothing was found to indicate her name and address. It was sent to Morgue to await identification.” An item similar to this can be read almost daily in the newspapers.

To those who are morbidly inclined and have a desire to see the ghastly side of life, they can visit this receptacle of the unfortunate and unknown dead.

The Morgue is located on 26th street near the East river, in a building adjacent to Bellcvue Hospital. From the sidewalk a few steps are descended where the visitor confronts a room partitioned off with glass, in the inside of which can be seen the inclined marble slabs whereon the body rests awaiting identification. Bodies are kept preserved and moistened by a jet of water from pipes projecting from the ceiling. Tickets are not required.

To visit a place like this is not as surprising as you might think. People in the nineteenth and early twentieth century had a different attitude and relationship with death than we have today. One hundred years ago with no antibiotics, limited medical knowledge and few cures for diseases meant life was much more precarious and many people died an early death.

Rural cemeteries like Green-Wood Cemetery and The Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn and Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx were destinations for tourists and were often crowded with visitors. People would stroll among the dead to contemplate life and remember the dead along with sight-seeing of famous or notable graves.

Today many would find that sort of visit to be ghoulish. It is not. Our view of a person going sightseeing to Bellevue in 1905 should not stretch the imagination too far.

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