Sydney, NSW: Justice and Police Museum

DSC06155Carrying on with the theme of, well, convicts, right after visiting the Hyde Park Barracks, we headed over to the Justice and Police Museum, which is just a short walk away (but be warned, you pass the Botanical Gardens on your walk, which are lovely, but full of what I call scare birds, because they’re so damn scary (they’re actually white ibis, but they look just like plague doctor masks brought to life, and freak me the hell out) and giant orb spiders.  The latter are not giant in the sense of huntsmen or something, but are still plenty big if you’re not keen on spiders).  For some reason, even though it’s not a tiny museum or anything, it’s only open on weekends, so plan accordingly.  Admission is $10, or if you’re visiting a couple of the Sydney Living Museums, you can buy that pass I mentioned in the last post and save a couple bucks.

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The museum is located, as these things so often are, in a former police station, with police courtrooms and a few jail cells at the back, so you can really get a taste of what it was like to be a criminal in Sydney (from the 1850s onward).  We were assured that the museum looped back around, so we could enter any way we wanted and see the whole museum; unfortunately, as I am wont to do, I ended up getting lost, so we had to awkwardly walk past the admissions desk again to see the last two rooms of the museum, but no big deal (except for when the chick at the admissions desk said goodbye to us, and I had to mumble, “We’re not leaving, we just went the wrong way.”).

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The first room we went into, one of the museum’s temporary exhibition rooms, featured an exhibit on mugshots.  Or more particularly, the very peculiar (and rather charming) mugshots that Sydney police stations specialised in.  A short video was playing when we walked in, so we had a seat and learned all about how Sydney refused to conform to the norm where early 20th century mugshots were concerned; instead of standing in front of the traditional height chart while holding up a sign with their name and other identifying information written on it, criminals were allowed to pose in their own clothes in front of various backdrops, pretty much however they wanted, and their names and details were written in later, on top the photographic plate.  We came in halfway through the video, so it was never really explained why they made this unusual “artistic” decision, but we did get to view many of these mugshots, with a wry narrator analysing the stance and expressions of the people in them (some of the people were surprisingly dapper, for, you know, hardened criminals).

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The second room contained biographies of some of the criminals in the mugshots we’d just looked at, including one poor girl who was basically turned into a drug smuggler by her mother (she had her mugshot taken in her ratty old fur coat, but was actually quite pretty, which probably helped get her a light sentence.  Plus the fact that she had a terrible mother didn’t hurt either).  Then, we were on to the old police courts, where up to 120 cases per day were heard while they were in use. The accused were made to sit in a caged area (that apparently they sometimes refused to leave, if the trial didn’t go their way. However, only minor offences were tried here, so the worst they would have been facing was a short spell in jail).  Though I of course posed for the obligatory cage picture (cage can be seen a  few paragraphs up, without me in it), I was most excited when I climbed up to the magistrate’s bench and found the chair pictured above.  In fact, I shouted, “it’s a hemorrhoid doughnut!” and started cackling, because I’m incredibly mature like that.  And then I sat on it, of course (still laughing hysterically, as you can probably tell from the other picture).

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I was, as usual, way more entertained by the confiscated weapons room than I should have been.  I mean, there were a lot of boring guns and such, but some of the more unusual weapons had terse labels explaining how they were used, and oh man, what kind of perseverance do you have to have to murder someone with a hammer?  I guess if you’re strong enough, you can probably smash someone’s skull in pretty quickly, but I imagine it’s more likely to be a case of multiple blows.  Brutal.

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There was a charge room, which was once the entrance to the police station, and had a small partitioned seat for women in the corner that was unfortunately located right across from the barred seat where they kept unruly drunks and other out-of-control criminals, which I’m sure resulted in an uncomfortable amount of ogling/heckling (the women would also have had to be slim, and only in there one at a time, because that seat was tiny).  We also went in some of the old cells that were still decked out to look as they would have in the 1890s; basically you got a hard bench that you had to share with up to 5 other people (up to 12 people could be kept in a cell at once).

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The other cells were full of exhibits, including one about Sydney police dogs (the taxidermied one shown here, and another who they trained to drive a small car, so she could perform at police benefits and such.  It was pretty adorable, but I still feel kind of bad for the dog), and another about bushrangers, who in the early days were simply convicts who slipped away into the outback to try to eke out a living there, but they became more like highwaymen or something, and preyed on travellers and legitimate settlers.  And presumably Aborigines too, but since they didn’t count as Australian citizens until 1967 (an appalling fact I learned at the museum), probably nobody cared if they were murdered.

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The most interesting room, as far as I was concerned, was the forensics room, which focused on a couple of high profile 20th century murder cases.  The first was the kidnapping and murder of Graeme Thorne in 1960.  Poor Graeme was an eight year old boy whose father had recently won the lottery, and he was initially kidnapped and held for ransom, but his kidnapper, Stephen Bradley, decided to kill him less than 24 hours after abducting him (it has been speculated that he initially meant to kidnap Graeme’s younger sister, as she was too young to identify him so she could have been safely released on payment on the ransom, but she was never away from her parents, so he had to kidnap Graeme instead, and then panicked when he realised the boy would be able to identify him.  Which is just dumb, because what the hell did he think he was going to happen if he abducted an eight year old without wearing a mask or anything?!).  One of the things that eventually led to Bradley’s arrest and successful prosecution was his very stupid looking dog, as seen above.  Hairs from the dog were found on the rug that Graeme’s body was wrapped in, and matched with Bradley’s actual dog (still alive at the time, obviously), which is why it has been so cunningly preserved here.  The other big case was the Pyjama Girl murder of 1934, where the body of a comely young woman wearing silk pajamas was found partially burnt on the side of a creek.  Although the case was initially unsolved, it was reopened ten years later; through dental records, the woman was determined to be Linda Agostini, and her husband eventually confessed to her murder (apparently there is still some controversy over this, because someone just wrote a book about it in 2004 claiming the body couldn’t have been Linda Agostini, as for one thing, her eyes were a different colour).  This captured a great deal of attention in its day, as not only was it a brutal murder, but the pajama girl was so young and stylish (in her pajamas) that it seemed especially horrific.

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The final rooms (the ones I had to go back past the entrance to see, after taking a wrong turn past the police court) contained temporary exhibits, including more in-depth biographies of interesting murderers (there was a female poisoner, which is my favourite kind of murderer to read about.  There’s usually an intriguing back story), complete with artefacts like death masks and weapons they actually used to commit their murders.  The final room had an exhibit on lockpickers and safecrackers, with a big safe plonked down in the middle of the room so you could learn more about their techniques.

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I always enjoy a crime museum, and this one was no exception (that’s why I chose it over the many, many other museums in Sydney we could have seen if we’d had the time.  I passed up a medical museum for this, people!).  I liked that it was housed in an actual police station, and the exhibitions were always interesting, and just the right amount of grisly to keep me satisfied. An all-around good effort.  3.5/5.

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4 comments

  1. Ugh, yeah hammer murders turn my stomach. Blech.
    Man, that is some collection of odd-ball weapons. That knuckleduster is not at all what I’d imagine one to be.
    I would’ve loved to see that dog driving a car. I can hardly believe it happened but imagine it would’ve been all kinds of adorable. And as much as I love all dogs, I have to agree – that is a particularly stupid looking dog.
    I think I have a problem – I find a couple of those rogues in the group mugshot kinda dishy.

    1. I should’ve said, but the one they showed her driving wasn’t a full sized car, it was like a little Shriners car or something. Here’s a link to an article with pictures, though it doesn’t really explain the driving: http://www.police.nsw.gov.au/about_us/structure/specialist_operations/nsw_police_dog_unit/history I think Zoe is the one who could drive. Apparently she could also drive a tank?!
      And I don’t think you have a problem, they are kind of dishy. I’m like the queen of odd crushes, so I’m certainly not going to judge you!

      1. Aw, I love her best on the tank – she looks so pleased!
        I’m so glad you understand and agree … wouldn’t want to be thought a lurky, historical pervert. Which I probably am anyway.

      2. Anyone who fancies a young FDR and Duke of Wellington as much as I do has got no room to talk. Ooh, and Rupert Brooke, but he was only 27 when he died, so I feel like I’m getting a bit old for him.

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