It was an unremarkable three-story building with rough-faced stone construction, a slate-tiled roof, and an unfinished carriageway that led to a covered stone porch at the front entrance. Where it stood on a remote seventeen-acre wooded tract at the north edge of Cook County, the Almshouse at Dunning Wood was an eternal testament to human frailty and mortality.
Erected in 1835, after the first major outbreak of cholera in Chicago, the hospital played host to patients with highly-infectious diseases, such as cholera, scarlet fever, and smallpox. Patient overcrowding, minimal heating, and poor ventilation hampered treatments and high death rates followed. A mass grave was dug on the north side of the building. When weather conditions did not permit immediate burial, bodies were wrapped in blankets or sheets and carried to the root cellar, where they were sprinkled with quicklime and abandoned.
In 1912, the old hospital was ordered closed. The doors were chained shut.
For more than a decade the old hospital at Dunning Wood sat dark and silent among the tall blades of switchgrass that whispered in the wind through the fields that surrounded the decrepit stone structure. The forlorn building had stood empty for more than a decade, abandoned but not entirely alone. Within its walls, the hallways echoed no sound of footsteps. The bare bulb ceiling fixtures gave off no light. The small Birchfield steam boiler that fed a network of heating pipes was seized with rust and cold. The casement windows and roof dormers were cracked and darkened by years of dust. But the Almshouse at Dunning Wood was not alone. It was never alone.
There were field mice, rats, crickets and cockroaches that scurried through the empty rooms and hid in its dark corners. Outside, crows congregated in the branches of the surrounding black walnut trees, filling the air with the sound of their caws, rattles, and clicks. And on a moonless November night in 1924, Liam Finnegan’s small band of bootleggers and racketeers cut the chains to the doors and entered the old hospital. Once again, the Almshouse at Dunning Wood served its purpose and hosted a terrible new malady.
[This is an unused preface to a short story that is up for consideration in a new anthology.]