Still Lips Still Whisper

Meet Dr. Michael Graham, the city medical examiner. He hears dead people.

The city contracts with the university for their services because it saves money. The university also benefits because the doctors teach courses to medical students and train pathologists from both St. Louis University and Washington University. The doctors win because they straddle two worlds -- the practical and the academic -- and can pull the best from both.

Leisure is also the institutional memory, a bridge to the not-so-distant past when St. Louis had a coroner, not a medical examiner.

The coroner was a politician elected by St. Louis voters. Juries assembled and inquests were held in a now-disassembled courtroom in the building. Doctors would make their presentations and a verdict would be reached by everyday folks. "Coroner's Court" is inscribed in the cornerstone of the two-story medical examiner's building on Clark Avenue, next to the 14th Street entrance ramp onto westbound Interstate 40.

Jennifer Silverberg
The main autopsy room in the medical examiner's office. Each bed has its own exhaust fan and drainage tray. The scales behind the bed weigh organs.
Jennifer Silverberg
The main autopsy room in the medical examiner's office. Each bed has its own exhaust fan and drainage tray. The scales behind the bed weigh organs.

But relying on the coroner system made St. Louis seem unsophisticated -- hopelessly rooted in a medieval European tradition -- and it was also a hindrance to law enforcement efforts. So in 1974, the city voters decided to put the office out to pasture. The coroner's office was given three years to make the change, and on January 1, 1977, St. Louis got a medical examiner.

Leisure was hired in 1970 by St. Louis' last coroner, Helen Taylor.

He remembers his job interview for a deputy coroner position more than 30 years ago.

Taylor asked, "Baxter, have you ever seen a dead body?"

"No ma'am, I haven't," Leisure answered.

"What do you say we go downstairs and take a look?" he remembers her saying. Leisure says he followed her like "a little puppy" as they went down to the autopsy room and walked up to a body on one of the gurneys.

"And she just kind of pulls the sheet back and says, 'How does that look to you?'"

"I guess OK," Leisure answered.

"Does it bother you?"

"Well, no," he said.

"I expect you to come down here just about every day to look at these and understand and know what is going on with these cases," she said.

Even though Leisure isn't presiding over inquests and Taylor is dead, he faithfully keeps a promise he made three decades ago to a woman who is now a barely-remembered footnote.

History is an important part of Leisure's job. He's the guardian of the city's past.

In the basement, carefully organized banker's boxes going back as far as 1840 are arranged neatly on a shelf. There are books of the dead, some leather-bound and hand stitched. Neat, cursive handwriting entered more than 120 years ago on pages that are now yellowed list names, ages, occupations and addresses of each person who died.

The street names are familiar but some of the occupation titles are markedly archaic: servant, cigar maker, saloon keeper. An unborn baby is called a "foetus."

A card catalog going back to 1871 stands in another corner. Each drawer has two rows of index cards. The row on the left is the dead listed alphabetically. On the right side, the dead are arranged by cause of death.

On August 3, 1882, a seven-year-old boy who lived on Carondelet Boulevard was thrown from a horse-drawn wagon and died when his head hit a stone near Gravois and Jefferson avenues. On January 20, 1880, a 23-year-old man was shot in a saloon at Sixth and Market streets. In January and December 1886, there were two legal hangings performed by the St. Louis sheriff. Both men were listed as "colored."

On September 1, 1871, a man "under the influence of liquor" fell off the steamer, the Molly McPike, while it was on the Mississippi River between Olive and Pine streets. He drowned. A month later, a man fell overboard from the deck of a steamer, the Hensley, at the foot of Morgan Street. He was "in the state of intoxication."

In 1892, five men were killed when a steam boiler exploded at the Laclede Fire Brick Manufacturing Company. Another man died at the Anheuser Brewery on February 21, 1880, struck by a barrel of cement thrown down a chute.

The malaria segment of the 1890s drawer is thick with index-card entries. In the 1920s drawer, index cards are filed with women who died from criminal abortions performed by "unknown persons."

All of the coroner's records are public documents. But after the changeover to the medical examiner system in 1977, the records became private, treated like medical records. The banker's boxes in the basement are carefully divided between the public and the private.

Protecting patient privacy, even if the patient is dead, is a core principle in the office.

"A dead person has the right of privacy," says Graham in a resolute voice. "They are still people and I think that it is important that you never lose sight that you're dealing with people."

That means that autopsies are generally limited to medical students and people connected with law enforcement. The office frequently has community and student groups tour the building, but the walk-through is very limited. If the autopsy room is being used, they can't even see the metal tables and instruments.

"When people call you wanting to book tours, they're looking for the Freddy Krueger stuff," says Leisure. "They aren't looking for a boring lecture on the medical examiner and the coroner system. They want to see bodies and they want to see blood.

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