On the official website of Cook County, Ill., tucked in in with the parking permit forms and weather alerts you expect to find on local government site, is a bit of chilling reality. The Office of the Medical Examiner maintains a list of all unidentified remains found in Chicago. Each entry for a John or Jane Doe lists a description of the person and their belongings and the location and date they were found. A few have pictures. Before being allowed to view photos of the dead, users are warned that the photos are “from the autopsies of unidentified persons and some may be in a somewhat decomposed or damaged state.”
The longest-standing unidentified remains are those of a black male in his 60′s, found in an abandoned building on September 3, 2009. The newest, found in a vacant lot in November of last year, also belonged to a black male of an undetermined age. Many of the dead, discovered in empty lots, alleys and abandoned buildings, seem to have been homeless people who died while sleeping outside. A few were found alongside blankets and sleeping bags. Next to the skeletal remains of an unknown person found on Cicero Avenue near the Branch river was a canvas wallet containing a fake million dollar bill.
When an image of one of Cook County’s unidentified dead is right-clicked on, a popup urges viewers to “Please respect the images from the Cook County medical examiner.” It’s a fair warning–putting the dead on display online opens the door to vandalism and flippancy. But it’s also the only chance for these unclaimed persons to have a name again.