Melbourne, Australia: Old Melbourne Gaol

DSC07237(Warning: in case you couldn’t tell from the death mask right at the start, this post has a lot in it about hanging, and pictures of other death masks, so if you’re of a sensitive disposition, you might not want to read on.  Of course, if you’re a regular reader, you’re probably used to me and my macabre ways by now.)

There’s just something about museums that spell jail “gaol.”  They’re always a good time (though presumably not for the prisoners who were originally incarcerated in them), maybe because the “gaol” bit means they’re going to be old-timey.  Old Melbourne Gaol was of course no exception to this rule, despite it giving off the initial impression of being a huge tourist trap.  Fortunately, aside from the price, the Ned Kelly merch, and the slightly gimmicky Watch House “experience,” the gaol was a legitimate museum, with some decently informative displays.

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At $25, Melbourne Gaol is not cheap, not that you’d really expect something that bills itself as “Australia’s premiere award winning heritage attraction” to be (this phrase (and the price) is what made me initially think tourist trap).  And the admission fee does include the Police Watch House experience.  As one of these was set to begin about ten minutes after we got to the museum, we headed there first.

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We took a short walk down the street (there were signs) and queued up in front of the Watch House, feeling somewhat apprehensive as the brochure promised we would “experience a real life encounter of what it would feel like to be arrested and locked up,” and I was worried we were a) going to get yelled at and b) have to participate, both things I dread.  We were greeted by a police sergeant who ordered us to put away our phones and cameras and line up single file, with men along one wall, and women along another.  However, judging by the fact that small children were on the tour, I needn’t have been too worried; she did yell at us a bit, and made us show her our hands and bottoms of our shoes to make sure we weren’t concealing anything (museum visitors are spared a strip search), but it was obviously all done in a humorous way.  Only a few people were handed fake police reports and asked to give their “name” and offense; fortunately I wasn’t one of them, though Marcus was (poor guy, but I did laugh at his misfortune a bit), and then we were all herded into cells for a couple minutes before the “experience” part of the tour was over and we were free to wander around the jail, which only fell out of use in 1994.

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It’s probably worth going on the “experience” simply for the photo opportunities; they have a camera set up behind some bars to make it look like you’re in prison, and though you have to pay for those photos (I forgot to find out how much it was), you can take your own mug shots in front of the height chart for free.  I’m not sure why this is a good thing, but we were certainly all excited about it!  It was the 30th anniversary of the Russell Street Bombing this year, so there was a special exhibit about that in here; the story behind it is that some random criminals decided they wanted to kill as many police officers as possible (I guess in revenge?), so they planted a car bomb outside the Watch House which ripped through HQ and killed one policewoman and injured 22 others.  Three men were eventually convicted of the crime and sentenced to life imprisonment.

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After all this, we headed back to the main museum.  Melbourne Gaol looked grim (I mean, all prisons look grim, but this especially so), because it was built in the 1840s, which is right about when prison “reformers” were keen on the “separate system” famously used by Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.  Prisoners spent their days in solitary confinement, and had to wear horrible constricting masks when leaving their cells so as not to have any contact with their fellow prisoners.  Prisoners who had committed minor offences, such as debtors, were allowed to stay in communal cells with other prisoners and go outside to work in the yards, but the solitary gang on the ground floor would have been driven to the brink of madness.

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As if life here wasn’t bad enough, the gaol also saw its fair share of hangings (133 to be exact), and all the cells in the ground floor were devoted to the stories of executed prisoners, each one containing an informative poster and a death mask.  The first people to be executed in Melbourne were two Aborigine men who were found guilty of murdering a couple of whalers; they were followed by a whole host of people, particularly during the Gold Rush, including several men from China and the Philippines who didn’t speak enough English to properly defend themselves.  There were also some people with obvious mental problems who never should have been executed (I mean, I’m opposed to capital punishment regardless, but there were clear miscarriages of justice here), as well as at least one man who was later proved to be innocent with the help of modern forensic techniques (Colin Ross, hanged in 1922, and posthumously pardoned in 2008, though a fat lot of good that’s done him).

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The middle floor carried on with the whole hanging theme, so we got to see the scaffold and read about some of the executioners who served at Melbourne Gaol throughout the years (they were often prisoners themselves, or shady looking characters at the very least).  The condemned cell was up here too, and also a few cells with dirty mattresses shoved in the corner so you could try out the whole prisoner experience for yourself.

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Though it is, of course, morbid, I found myself studying the snippets from A Handbook on Hanging (written after the long drop had been introduced; before that, you basically just strangled) to see how much of a drop it would have taken to kill me – I think it was something like 7.5 feet.  Of course, hangmen often miscalculated, so the victim was left either strangling like in the old days if the rope was too short, or they could be effectively decapitated if the rope was too long.

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The top floor contained the old whipping triangle, where they whipped male prisoners who misbehaved (again, the whipping was often done by fellow prisoners, or the executioner), and signage about women and children who were imprisoned here (some of the women were executed as well; many of them were “baby farmers” who killed the children left in their care).  This floor also had information about Melbourne Gaol during the war years….the gaol closed in 1924, but was reopened during WWII to house military prisoners, typically soldiers who had gone AWOL.  Their experiences were particularly unpleasant because most of them weren’t criminals, just soldiers who didn’t feel they’d been given enough leave for one reason or another (many of them were just desperate to visit their wives or mothers, and if their families lived on the other side of Australia, three days or even a week wasn’t enough time to get there and back in those days), yet here they were treated as prisoners; demoralised, kept in horrible conditions, etc, and many of them tried their best to block the experience from their minds, even years later.

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However, the most notorious prisoner to be housed and executed here was undoubtedly Ned Kelly, whose death mask is shown at the start of the post.  Ned Kelly is THE iconic Australian outlaw, and still apparently a folk hero to many, so there was a whole section of the ground floor devoted solely to him (we saw this last because there was a school group there when we first arrived).  It not only gave biographical information about his childhood and life up until the famous shootout at Glenrowan, but also contained artefacts from that final stand, even the gun he used during the shootout, with a chip in it where a shot from a policeman hit the butt and shattered Kelly’s little finger.  There is also a replica of his armour that you can try on, which I duly did (I don’t think it fit me properly, as it didn’t cover my chest, leaving my heart dangerously exposed. I’ve no doubt it fit Ned Kelly better), and a clip of a silent film from 1906 where the actor playing Kelly wore his actual armour (grainy footage, but very cool).

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Say what you will about the glorification of a criminal (though in fairness to Kelly, he did save another boy’s life when he was a kid.  It seems to be the death of his father in prison that set him on a bad course), but Ned Kelly also happened to be rather photogenic (with his quiff and big bushy beard, he kind of looks like the original hipster. Seriously, if you dropped him into Hackney or something, he would not look out of place), so much of the gift shop is devoted to Kelly memorabilia, and I confess I bought a t-shirt for my brother, and an apron for myself (it has a picture of Kelly and his last meal, which was apparently lamb, peas, and claret.  Not at all what I would choose).  So in that regard, I suppose it is quite touristy, but even with the hefty price tag, I still think the gaol was well worth the visit, as we managed to kill a couple of hours here, and I really enjoyed myself.  I love crime museums anyway, so getting to learn specific details about so many of the prisoners here was very interesting, and I suppose all the Ned Kelly stuff was just a bonus, since he is so famous in this part of the world.  I’ll give it 3.5/5.


London: The Crime Museum Uncovered @ the Museum of London


A lot of places I’ve always wanted to visit seem to be popping up on here of late (I really must update that page one of these days), and the Black Museum is no exception.  I’ve wanted to see the Black Museum FOREVER, but unless I decided to become a London police officer, it seemed like that was never going to happen, seeing as how the Crime Museum (as the Black Museum is more properly known) has been closed to the general public for the entire 140 years of its existence.  Fortunately, they recently decided to do a collaboration with the Museum of London, called The Crime Museum Uncovered, wherein some of their less-sensitive objects (basically, stuff more than 40 years old) would go on display, open to everyone willing to part with the eye-watering £15 entry fee.

Well, ridiculous entry fee or not (and seriously, why are museums not offering me free tickets by now?  I really need to get my name out there), there was no way I could let this one slip by unvisited, thus, I headed out there with my boyfriend so we could at least take advantage of the National Rail 2-for-1 offer (and I strongly suggest you do the same.  Strangely, I can’t find it listed on their website, but you can pick up a booklet from any train station in London, and just fill out the voucher on your way there).  We managed to go on a weekday, hoping we could at least avoid some of the crowds that way.  How silly we were.

Though we didn’t have to queue to buy tickets, and we were allowed immediate entry, once we got downstairs to the exhibition, I could see it was virtual chaos.  The first three rooms of the exhibition were not very big, and people were positively packed into them.  Although they might limit the number of people allowed entry at any given time, clearly they don’t limit them enough.  And this was early afternoon on a weekday, so I can’t even imagine how hellish it gets at the weekend!

Anyway, my aversion to crowds aside, I was still super excited to see the exhibition.  Because of the nature of the artefacts on show, no pictures were allowed, except at the entrance, so you’ll have to use your imagination.  They did have a very nice free guide available, meant to look like a Victorian newspaper (though not completely accurately, as the front page of every 19th century newspaper I’ve seen was entirely devoted to advertisements), which was good as the captions in the first couple of exhibition rooms were extremely limited, and hard to read in the press of people regardless.

The actual first room simply contained a timeline of the Crime Museum’s history, but the next two rooms had a jumble of objects from the early days of the Crime Museum, including death masks, courtroom illustrations, and the ropes used to hang various criminals (which I was somewhat surprised by, as I’d read many hangmen used to sell the ropes as souvenirs to make a little extra money (or quite a lot of extra money, depending on the criminal), but perhaps there wasn’t as much of a market for ones from less notorious murderers, or else there were some scrupulous hangmen out there).  I was probably most excited to see Franz Muller’s death mask, having read Kate Colquhoun’s book on the first train murder, but my voracious reading of historical true crime books paid off through the whole exhibition, as I’d heard of many of the criminals mentioned here (not sure if that’s really something to brag about, but whatever).  I also enjoyed the Victorian mugshots, and some of the courtroom illustrations.  One of the criminals in the illustrations was rather handsome, so I was relieved he was only a forger, and not, you know, a wife murderer or something.

The main gallery was devoted to some of the most notorious murderers of the first century of the Crime Museum’s existence; it was essentially an illustrated guide to Gordon Honeycombe’s informative book Murders of the Black Museum, which I own and have consulted numerous times, so I was again familiar with almost all the featured criminals. However, this was the most crowded space yet, and would prove the source of my greatest annoyance.

Upon entering, there was a neat display case holding an executioner’s kit right in front of us (apparently ropes could be used a couple of times, which means that not all the hangmen were selling them off, as I speculated above. ETA: I just saw the excellent play Hangmen, which shed a further (humorous) light on the practices of mid-20th century  British executioners), but it took five minutes alone just to get a look at that, because there was a queue of people snaking through the entirety of the gallery, and it was not moving.  I could already spy the Crippen display, and I was stoked to see it, but there was no way I could get close through the masses of people (I was doing my usual impatient/annoying museum trick of forgoing the queue to stand right behind people in front of whatever I wanted to see, and darting in as soon as they moved, but even that wasn’t working, because these people literally would not move.  Just read it and move on!).  So I was forced to give the most interesting things the merest glance, and move on to the less-crowded cases, which obviously weren’t as cool.  I did dart back at the end to re-visit some of the displays, and found it not as busy, but I still couldn’t get right up to anything because people were constantly in the way.  I know I probably need to work on my impatience and hatred of crowds, but if I spend that kind of money to see something, I do expect to at least be able to look at the things I’m paying to see.  They REALLY REALLY need to limit the amount of people they let in for each time slot.

But yeah, the stuff that was here was clearly awesome, from Cora’s alleged hairs found in Crippen‘s basement, the flypaper arsenic samples used to convict Frederick Seddon, and the trunk John Robinson shoved Minnie Bonati’s dismembered corpse into, to the gallstones that were almost all that remained of the corpses in John Haigh’s acid tub. If I could actually get a good look at this stuff, I would have been over the moon.  As it stood, all that was really visible was the description of each person’s crime, which was almost identical to what was written in Honeycombe’s book, when really what I wanted to peek at were the artefacts themselves, which only had small labels that were difficult to read from a distance.  There was some other stuff in this gallery as well, like items used in forgeries or terrorist attacks in London (mostly IRA), but not too many people were looking at those, because they weren’t as grisly.  However, I was grateful that the case of autopsy tools had no one in front of it, because I got a good look at Sir Bernard Spilsbury’s evisceration knife, which was awesome (just to clarify, he was a pathologist rather than a murderer.  It was only corpses he was eviscerating!). The last room just contained a film that I didn’t take the time to watch, so annoyed was I by the crowds, and led into a small gift shop that contained a number of intriguing-looking crime related books, even a few I hadn’t read yet!

So, obviously the objects on display were all things I really wanted to see, but the experience was almost entirely spoilt by the number of people inside the damn exhibition.  I feel like the set-up could have been better, because all the murderers were packed along one wall, with the other glass cases on the other one.  If they’d alternated the murderers with the not-so-interesting cases of non-homicidal crime related stuff, I think people would have moved along a bit faster.  Or if they’d simply had more gallery space to devote to it.  I’m so glad I finally got to see some of the stuff from the Black Museum, but this was far from the ideal space to view it in.  The Museum of London really needs to step up their game, especially at the prices they charge for special exhibitions.  Still, if you’re as obsessed interested in true crime as I am, especially London-based historical crimes, you really do need to see this, just maybe try to get there right when the museum opens to beat the crowds a bit.  It runs until the 10th of April, 2016, so you’ve got plenty of time to get there.  4.5/5 for content, 2/5 for organisation and crowd control (or lack thereof), so about a 3.25/5 overall.



Prague: Czech Police Museum (Muzeum Policie CR)

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The Danish Police Museum and the Criminology Museum in Rome remain two of my most popular posts, so I wanted to carry on the tradition by visiting the Czech Police Museum, despite reading beforehand that virtually nothing was in English.  Perhaps surprisingly, given the subject matter, the museum is housed in a prettily painted building that used to be a monastery (and sick house), in a secluded spot at the end of a residential street.  Admission is a mere 30 CZK (about 80p), so I figured even if I couldn’t read anything, at least I wasn’t wasting very much money on it.

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Well, I may have not been able to read any of the captions, but I definitely got my money’s worth, because the museum is massive!  A lot of the main portion of the ground floor wasn’t terribly interesting, as it just consisted of photos with a lot of Czech text, so I didn’t really know what was going on.  But there were smaller rooms off the main gallery (which wrapped all the way around the building), and these were more promising.

One of the highlights of the museum used to be the preserved body of a police dog called Brek, who apparently was used to “sniff out” dissidents during the Communist era (sounds a bit grim really), but I think he’s now buried in the grave out back.  However, there’s still a stuffed dog in there, so he presumably either isn’t real, or is the body of some other German Shepherd.  I didn’t touch it or anything, but the fact that it was just sitting out on the floor and not in a glass case or anything makes me suspect it was probably not a real taxidermied dog.

As always, I was excited to see the murder section, which contained some death masks of executed criminals, a suitcase that once held a dismembered torso of a woman (bloodstains intact), and a mysterious plank with a box attached that I couldn’t quite figure out the purpose of.  Lo and behold, I found a video player in the next room with English translations available, and learning more about the plank/box was one of the options.  To be honest, I really wish I hadn’t pressed that button, because I was a lot happier not knowing what it was.  I’ll spare you the details; they made me feel sick to my stomach (and this is coming from someone who reads a lot of historical crime nonfiction) but suffice it to say it was a torture box designed by a serial killer.  So yeah, you may want to skip the videos unless you don’t mind learning more than you bargained for.  I should also say that there were a lot of very graphic photos of murder victims who’d literally been hacked to bits, so if you have a weak stomach (I generally don’t, except where torture is concerned I guess), I’d maybe skip this section of the museum (it’s pretty much all concentrated in two rooms, so it would be easy enough to skip).

The only other English part was another video player in the forensics section, which was safe enough for those of a less macabre bent, but kind of boring as it was all basic info about the history of forensics that I already knew from visiting a number of these types of museums.  I think there was meant to be some interactive stuff in the forensics section, but none of it seemed to be working properly, and it was all in Czech besides.

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I was already satisfied I’d gotten my 80p’s worth after seeing the ground floor, but there was still a whole other floor above us, so we went to check it out.  You weren’t supposed to take pictures in the museum, but we couldn’t resist snapping a few shots in the black light room (in my defence, it didn’t contain any sensitive information or anything, but I probably still shouldn’t have done it).  I think this was supposed to show the effects of taking hallucinogens, presumably to deter visitors from using them; however, I gotta say that this room was awesome, so they may want to rethink their anti-drug campaign if this is it.  Same thing with a different room warning about the effects of partying too hard, with its thumping bass and unintentionally funny tableaux.  I was glad these things were there though, since a good chuckle was much needed after learning about that awful torture box.

Alas, there were still some depressing stuff up here, namely a guillotine room/shrine with mournful music.  As far as I could work out, it was dedicated to victims of the Nazis who had been executed on the guillotine (I’m not sure if the one there was the actual one used…I kind of hope it wasn’t, but it may well have been).

In what I think was another attempt to brighten things up, the last room was completely full of children’s art.  I don’t know why, unless it was, as I said, just to cheer visitors up before they left, because most of it was very cute (especially the elephants), but it did seem oddly out of place.  I feel like at many points in the museum some English would have been an enormous help; that said, I’m probably not their target audience, so maybe the demand for it just isn’t there.  But really, even just a guidebook with a basic description of all the rooms, like they gave us at the Police Museum in Denmark, would have been tremendously useful, and might attract more visitors.  As it stands, I think this was the most depressing police museum yet (based on subject matter, not the lack of English).

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After leaving the museum, we headed out the back way, which seemed to be set up like some kind of driving obstacle course.  There was also the grave of Brek, that police dog.  I’m not sure why he’s shown such reverence if he was actually used to harm dissidents…not that it’s the dog’s fault, but strange nonetheless.

Due to the complete lack of English inside the museum (except for those videos), I left with far more questions than answers, but to be fair, I knew what to expect language-wise coming in, so that was my own fault.  Still, for 80p, I think it was alright, as there was plenty to look at, and I did enjoy the anti-drug displays (though perhaps not in the way they intended).  So I’ll give it 3/5, but reiterate my warning that much of it is pretty gruesome, and you won’t understand most of what is in the museum unless you read Czech, so it certainly isn’t for everyone.  And on a slightly cheerier note (I suppose…), I’m turning thirty tomorrow, so in addition to a few more Prague posts, if all goes to plan, I’ll have a few more awesome-looking museums to tell you about when I return from my birthday trip!

London: “Forensics” at the Wellcome Collection

In keeping with my new-found habit of visiting things right after they open to the public (so I can blog about them in a timely enough fashion that other people might still have the chance to visit them), I made my way up to Euston to see the new Forensics exhibit at the Wellcome less than a week after it opened (…but still waited a couple weeks to post about it.  Oh well, one step at a time, right?).  Not only is the exhibit new, but it marks the relaunch of the Wellcome’s ground floor exhibit space, which had been closed for years whilst they were revamping the museum.  I’ve missed the days when they had room to have more than one exhibition at once, so it’s good to see them fully up and running again!  Now, they have temporary exhibition space on both the ground and first floors, and the permanent collection up on the second floor (plus the same old cafe and excellent bookshop.  I could seriously spend hours in there browsing medical history books (or could do if they got some comfy seats, which is maybe why there are none)).

Anyway, back to “Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime.”  I have long had a complete fascination with the macabre, including historical serial killers (perhaps oddly, because of my complete inability to sit through a horror film without having nightmares for weeks – I blame my overactive imagination), so this exhibit was pretty perfect for me.  What was less perfect were the crowds that always seem to amass at the Wellcome; despite visiting at 11:30 on a Tuesday morning, the galleries were still uncomfortably full at points (though they hadn’t yet resorted to timed tickets).

This being the Wellcome, the same standard policies as always apply, so no photographs are allowed, and the exhibit is free, but they might have timed tickets in effect at busy times (as I’ve said, it’s busy all the time, but they probably save them for when it’s really horrendous, like weekends.  Seriously, don’t visit on a weekend unless there’s no way around it, and if you do, get there early).  I remember the old galleries as consisting of a few large spaces, while these newer ones seem to be divided into smaller rooms, but there’s more of them (of course, it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen the old galleries, so I could be wrong).  I’m not sure how this will affect traffic flow when things are really crowded, because it wasn’t a great system on a moderately busy day, but I guess time will tell.

This particular exhibit is divided up into various “rooms” dealing with the various aspects of solving a murder, so the sections included: the Crime Scene, the Morgue, the Laboratory, the Search, and the Courtroom (there is a very nicely put together accompanying free booklet available, which is really helping refresh my memory for this post).  Although many of the rooms had little grisly bits and pieces, the Crime Scene may have had the most graphic ones; crime scene photographs of people who’d had their brains battered out and smeared across the floor.  My favourite displays in this room were the (incongruously) rather cute “Nutshell Studies,” which are basically dollhouses for goths, in that they re-create crime scenes in miniature with the use of dolls.  I want one!

The Morgue was probably the most crowded room, as it was fairly small and had cases arrayed in rows up the room, without much space to manoeuvre, which led to having to step back awkwardly to let people pass when they’d finished looking at a case.  This section had some nice cross-sections of organs, as well as copies of old textbooks that described various injuries (including the famous “wound man” that I’ve seen in numerous old medical books, without knowing the official terminology for him.  Now I know it’s simply “wound man”).

The Laboratory got into the techniques that have been adopted to identify criminals and determine the cause of death, including Galton’s fingerprinting, Bertillon’s extensive work with classification, and Mathieu Orfila’s techniques for the detection of poisons (which are discussed at some length in Deborah Blum’s excellent Poisoner’s Handbook.  Just one of many disturbingly-titled books on my shelves, see below).  Speaking of my bookshelves, I was familiar with many of the crimes discussed here thanks to my copy of Murders of the Black Museum, a must-have for anyone with an interest in British crime (you’d probably be surprised/disturbed by how often I use it for reference), which goes into far more detail about them than the displays here did (although they were trying to cover so many different murders that it would have been difficult to provide more than an overview with the museum space available).

The Search was a very dark room (literally; there wasn’t much light.  Just thought I’d clarify given the subject matter) housing a number of videos, and a special exhibit within the exhibit; an art installation by Sejla Kameric that covered the Bosnian War (1992-1995), and seemed to involve a filmstrip playing inside a working mortuary fridge.  It was already full of people, so I didn’t have a chance to experience it, but I don’t think this would be your cup of tea if you’re at all claustrophobic, as that door really seemed to shut tightly.

The final room, the Courtroom, seemed to dwell mainly on Dr. Crippen (he of the extremely creepy eyes; so much so that I had to Sharpie in sunglasses over his picture in that Black Museum book, because it freaked me out to look at him, even though his crime wasn’t even that extreme, as far as murders go).

I wasn't joking.  I also gave him an improved moustache/beard combo.

I wasn’t joking. I also gave him an improved moustache/beard combo.

They had samples of what was alleged to be Belle’s hair (Belle Elmore was the stage name of Cora Crippen, his overbearing and perpetually nagging wife), crime scene photographs, and best of all, courtroom sketches from the trial.  Since I have another opportunity to talk about my personal library (see what I mean about this being the perfect exhibit for me?), I also have a book about the pathologist Bernard Spilsbury (and the bath-tub murderer, George Smith, who was also discussed in this exhibit…the book is called The Magnificent Spilsbury), which made some mention of how handsome he was, and the courtroom sketches seem to confirm this.  (Another historical crush for Jessica?)

The exhibit closed with a profile of three men who were wrongfully accused and eventually released from prison, which provided a sobering reminder that despite all the advances in technology, and the hard work of pathologists, sometimes they do still get things wrong.

However, the overwhelming impression I was left with was simply awe at how fascinating forensics is (maybe I made a mistake by not studying that at school, as I’m sure there are far more employment opportunities in that field than in, um, Early Modern History.  Realistically speaking though, science was never my strongest subject).  Prior to this exhibit, the last few things I’d seen at the Wellcome hadn’t been quite up to their usual high standards (the Institute of Sexology, for example), so I’m pleased to see that with the revamped museum space, they seem to have hit their stride again.  I really loved this exhibit, and whilst I thought more detail could have been provided on some of the murders, overall they did an excellent job.  4/5.

London: City of London Police Museum


First let me make things perfectly clear: the City of London Police Museum is NOT the infamous Black Museum.  If it were, I would probably be peeing my pants with delight right now at having been allowed in (sorry if that image grossed you out).  Instead, it is a rather nice little museum inside the City Police Headquarters on Wood Street, just around the corner from the Guildhall.  The museum is open on Tuesdays and Wednesdays only, from 11-4, and is free of charge.


Police Call Box. It was just as small as it looked on the inside, although apparently the butchers at Smithfield Market used to leave meat inside for the officers to collect after their shifts.

I was kind of apprehensive about stepping into a police station after my experiences with police museums in America, where the officers rudely barked orders at me as soon as I stepped in the door; fortunately, their British counterparts were lovely (no airport style screening system in sight!), and showed me into a hallway where a tour was just starting.  I hadn’t realised that the museum would feature a tour; I’m normally averse to them, but in this case, I think it was a good thing, as it turned out there wasn’t too much information in the museum cases.  In addition, the volunteer giving the tour was a retired officer who had been on the scene during the Moorgate Tube Disaster in 1975, so he had some very interesting stories to tell.  We began in the hallway, which held a display of photographs, and he explained each one a little bit.  I liked the promotional ones from the ’20s and ’30s showing self-defence training, which included actual fencing, and boxing, amongst other techniques (it would admittedly be kind of hilarious if a criminal just whipped out an epee and mask and started thrusting and parrying).  Bob, the tour guide, told us a story about the bodies that get washed up on the shore of the Thames; apparently, one day they were looking for parts of a murder victim who’d been hacked into pieces, but all the restaurants along the river would throw their meat detritus and things onto the beach, so they had to pick through all kinds of animal bones to try to find human remains.  Bob was quite full of grisly but entertaining anecdotes like this, which were the highlight of the tour.


Helmet of an officer caught in the blast of an IRA bomb in front of the Old Bailey. He was seriously injured, but the helmet saved his life.

Once we finally made it into the actual museum (at which point our little group had swelled to five people – the museum was proving surprisingly popular), we were allowed to try on a helmet and pose for pictures (I was making a really stupid face, as usual, so I won’t post it here). The City Police and the Metropolitan Police are two separate entities, and one of the ways you can tell which is which (other than identifying badges and the like) is by their helmet shape.  City Police have a raised hump down the centre of their helmets; the Met’s have a rounded top and a rose on them.  We also learned about the evolution of the uniforms; officers were initially issued with a top hat, which had a bamboo lining, so that they could stand on it to see over walls and the like.  It was changed to the modern style of helmet at some point in the 1870s.

Noisemaker used by night watchmen (known as Charlies) and early policemen to alert other officers of a crime scene.

Noisemaker used by night watchmen (known as Charlies) and early policemen to alert other officers of a crime scene.

The cases were crammed pretty full of stuff, including an array of uniforms, medals, and photographs, but as I said before, there wasn’t tonnes of signage, so it was lucky we had Bob to explain things to us.  Another one of his stories was about incendiary devices dropped by Germans on London early on in the Blitz – an officer climbed on the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and was catching the bombs and throwing them off so that they didn’t set the dome on fire, for which he later received a medal (the bombs were skinny tubes, only about two feet long (there’s one in the museum), and they came down on parachutes and didn’t detonate until they hit the ground, which is how he was able to accomplish this feat without having his arms incinerated).

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I was very keen to hear what he had to say about Moorgate, since he mentioned being there that day.  In 1975, a Northern Line train crashed through the barriers at Moorgate Station, and went through a wall, which swallowed up the first two cars entirely (see diagram above).  43 people died as a result, and 74 more were injured, including a policewoman who was trapped in the second carriage, and had to have her foot amputated so they could pull her out.  The driver failed to stop, which is what caused the crash (rather than a mechanical failure), but they didn’t find drugs or alcohol in his system, so they’ve no idea why he didn’t brake.  They had quite a few photographs from the day on display here, and some diagrams depicting the aftermath.


Wall of Ripper memorabilia

Of course, most people come to the museum to hear about Jack the Ripper, so Bob spent a fair amount of time in this corner explaining the case.  As I just attended a lecture by Donald Rumbelow a few months ago, I didn’t really learn anything new, but that’s largely because I think he used to work at the City Police Museum, and may have had a hand in curating the display.  At any rate, it would have been informative for people who didn’t know much about Jack, and they did have some gruesome photos of the victims up, for those who are into that sort of thing (not judging, I’m fascinated by that kind of stuff myself!


Pictures of known criminals. Because the station did not have a photographic department at that time, suspects were sent to a local photography studio to be photographed for the records, hence the formal poses of the subjects.

The other main crime story of note was one about an attempted jewelery heist in the Jewish section of East London, known as the Houndsditch Murders.  Three officers were shot trying to prevent it, which is the largest number of City officers killed at one time.  The robbers were Russian/Latvian anarchists, who were trying to steal jewels to finance the Russian Revolution (which hadn’t happened yet, obviously), and they holed themselves up in a building until Winston Churchill (Home Secretary at the time) agreed to bring in the Army to assist. This led to a shoot out until the building caught on fire; the robbers died in the inferno rather than give themselves up.  The only one who escaped was the mastermind, known as Peter the Painter.  His exact identity remains a mystery, but it is rumoured that he was a man called Yakov Peters who subsequently returned to Russia, and was given a position as head of security for Lenin (post-Revolution).  He was later executed by the Soviets.


There were many other objects on display (though it was a small space), such as the Olympic Medals won by the City Police Tug of War team (back when Tug of War was an Olympic sport, those must have been the days!), counterfeit bills, and materials relating to Police Horses.  I think there could have been a lot more done with murders and the like, as there was certainly nothing approaching the goriness of the Danish Police Museum, but I appreciate that not being everyone’s cup of tea (plus I suspect the really good stuff is hidden away at the Black Museum).  Still, even just more tales of crime in the City would have spiced things up.  Nevertheless, I was very grateful for Bob’s anecdotes, as he really helped to flesh out the museum’s contents, and definitely made them more interesting than just staring into the cases would have been.


I will say that you should set aside quite a bit of time to tour this museum; it certainly took much longer than I expected, as I wasn’t aware I would be given a tour, but it is worth staying to listen.  The only caveat is that you might have to wait awhile if a tour is in session when you arrive, as Bob was the only volunteer on duty when I visited, and several latecomers were told to wait whilst I was there, so arriving near the 11 am opening time might be a good bet.  It doesn’t have the shock value of other police museums I’ve visited, but it does have a certain quiet dignity, and you will learn lots about the history of the City Police force, and notable crimes in the City (I hope I haven’t spoiled it for you by sharing Bob’s stories, but they were too good to not tell those of you who might not be able to visit the museum, and there were quite a few other facts that I haven’t mentioned!).  It’s well worth checking out (and thanks to Bob for an ace tour!).

Cleveland, Ohio: Cleveland Police Museum

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The Cleveland Police Museum is one of those places I never knew existed, partly because it’s located inside the Justice Center, and as I’ve never been arrested, and am frankly kind of intimidated by the building, I’ve never had reason to venture in.  Its unique location means you get to take a trip through the metal detector/bag scanner before entering.  Then, you’ll need to sign in under the watchful eye of an officer once you make your way over to the corner of the ground floor that houses the museum.  However, all the inconvenience of the security measures is probably worth it, because the museum is surprisingly entertaining, in spite of its small size.

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We were greeted by the wax police horse and policeman shown above.  The policeman actually kind of freaked me out, because I kept looking over my shoulder, thinking someone was standing beside me, when really it was just the mannequin. The room has a line of cases down the centre to act as a dividing line, and the walls are cluttered with photos and other cool stuff.  I have to give props to whoever made the signs, as they were written using charming Kevin McCallister style diction.

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“Olden Days Bad Guys.”  I love it!  Although probably the olden days bad guys wouldn’t have been quite so enamoured with the museum, as I think all of the ones featured here were executed for their crimes. They actually had various generations of “bad guys” up until modern times.  McGruff the Crime Dog was also included in these cases, although I always want to refer to him as McGriff thanks to that episode of the Simpsons.  But I digress. On the opposite wall, I learned about the history of the mounted police in Cleveland, and enjoyed looking at a collection of old photos, including those of old police headquarters.  I believe the earliest one was where the Terminal Tower (my favourite skyscraper ever) stands now, which, based off the photos I saw last year at the Maltz Museum (see how everything comes together!), was made up of shanty towns which were also demolished to build the tower.

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Really, I had visited because I heard they had a section devoted to the Kingsbury Run Murders (aka the Torso Murders), and as I’ve established, I do have a morbid fascination with that sort of thing.  Judging by the impressive display, I’m not the only one.  I’m going to go ahead and conclude that American sensibilities are less delicate than Danish ones (or British ones for that matter, they won’t even let you in to the London Police Museum unless you’re an officer!) because the gory crime scene photos of the murder victims were just hanging there on the wall, along with the fake heads made of the victims to help the public identify them.  I was a little perplexed by this, as my understanding of the Torso Murders was that only the torsos of the individuals were found (hence the name), but apparently a couple of the heads turned up later, which is how they were able to make the masks.  Twelve people were killed (at least, twelve whose bodies they recovered), and most of them were never identified, as they tended to be quite poor and perhaps didn’t have families.  The killer was never found, but as these happened in the ’30s, there’s probably not much point worrying about the “Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run” now.  Fascinating stuff, though undeniably grisly.

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On a lighter (?) note, there’s a jail cell in the back, so you can climb in and have the fun of pretending to be in prison!  Across from it is a collection of unusual weapons confiscated by the police, so I marvelled for a bit at the vast array of guns that can apparently be constructed from pipes and things.  There were also sections dedicated to the first female and African American officers to serve on the Cleveland Police Force, and I especially enjoyed the recruiting pamphlets for women handed out (I think they were from the ’40s, but can’t remember), when female officers weren’t yet allowed to carry guns, since they were mostly engaged in undercover work.  It also answered helpful questions on the uniform, and whether or not you would carry a purse.

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The other side of the museum was not quite so interesting as the first, although I did enjoy the section on Eliot Ness (of Untouchables fame), who served as Public Safety Director of Cleveland after dealing with the mob in Chicago, and managed to make Cleveland one of the safest cities of America, traffic-wise.  I don’t know whether that’s still true, but the man clearly did impressive things in his time (I’ve been to see his grave, he’s buried in Lake View Cemetery with most of the other famous Clevelanders if anyone’s interested).  Most of the rest was about police vehicles, which doesn’t really do much for me. Car museums bore me to tears, so I didn’t really linger here, though I imagine some people would be keen.

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There was a small shop located at the back of the museum (I had to wait quite a while for the woman working there to emerge, but I guess they’re not too worried about theft in the Justice Center!), that had a few old-school Cleveland postcards, and a range of books and things.  There are a few more cases scattered around the museum holding old uniforms, and telling the story of an attempted hijacking at nearby Burke Lakefront Airport (back in the ’70s or ’80s) which I was absolutely intrigued by, since I’d never heard about it before (and haven’t been able to turn anything up about it on subsequent internet searches.  Bizarre), that are well worth a look on your way out.  I really only took the time to study them in detail as it had started pouring rain outside, and I was waiting for it to die down, but I’m glad I did.

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I was pleasantly surprised by the Cleveland Police Museum.  Although it is a modest size, and getting in can be kind of a hassle if you go when staff are returning from lunch, there was some neat artefacts on show.  And I’m always grateful when police museums actually welcome the public (yeah, I’m looking at you London).  3.5/5

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