police history

Rome, Italy: Criminology Museum (Museo Criminologico)


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If you’re here because of the True Crime article on the soap-maker of Correggio, welcome (and thanks for clicking over)!  I like true crime too, and I’ve visited quite a few police and medical museums over the years, because I’m never happier than when looking at jars of organs, or famous crime-scene memorabilia!  I’ve linked to a couple of those places in the next paragraph, but you may also enjoy my posts on the Cleveland Police Museum (they’ve got reconstructions of the heads of some of the victims of the notorious “Torso Murderer”), the Gordon Museum of Pathology, the Mansfield Reformatory (where The Shawshank Redemption was filmed), and the Siriraj Medical Museum in Thailand, which has actual pickled serial killers on display (sadly not pictured in the post). And now I’ll shut up and let you get on with the Criminology Museum post that you’ve presumably clicked over to see!

Regular readers likely won’t be surprised to hear that I hightailed it over to the Criminology Museum in Rome shortly after arriving there for a long weekend (yes, I know I’m weird, but it was my third trip to Rome, so I’d already seen most of the ruins and junk).  Though I really did enjoy the City of London Police Museum, I’m still completely puzzled as to why British police museums seem to think the British public have such delicate sensibilities.  Much like the wonderfully gory Danish Police Museum, the Italians were not afraid to put the nastier side of humanity on show.  I couldn’t tell you exactly where the museum is, as I walked about a million miles that weekend and have no sense of direction anyway, but I will helpfully note that it is closed on Sundays and Mondays, and open from 9-1 on the other days (and I think reopens after a siesta break on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons from 2:30-6:30).  Admission is 2 euro, which is a bargain by Roman standards, and because it is not in a touristy area, there are no beggars or street pedlars to contend with, which was probably the best part of all (and one of the few times we’d be free of them all weekend)!

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Although the museum was primarily in Italian, the curators had a clear understanding of human nature, and thus had the foresight to put English captions on the torture devices and stories of serial killers (which is obviously what everyone comes to see).  The section on torture and execution was right at the start of the museum, and contained a mix of the standard, well-documented punishments (pillory, stocks, etc), and the fanciful (an iron maiden, which has pretty much been proven to be a Georgian fabrication, though the museum display didn’t reflect this).  My favourite part was the miniatures of methods of execution, which had been made by prisoners in the early 20th century.  They managed to combine the adorableness of tiny things with the hideous gruesomeness of medieval punishments; at least, I was certainly impressed (I mean, I never expected to “awww” over a man being ripped apart by horses, but if you overlook the bloody man lying spread-eagle in the centre, it’s awfully cute).

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Moving on through the hall of torture devices, we came to the room of executions, which held a few early guillotines and a gibbet with a skeleton still hanging in it (according the the caption, it was the remains of a deserter in the British Army, but I think most of the signage in the museum has to be taken with a grain of salt, if the iron maiden is anything to go by).  As you might expect from a predominately Catholic country, there was a whole elaborate ritual surrounding executions in Italy, which involved a “comforter” who would provide religious solace to the condemned.  Unfortunately, their outfit included a Klan style hood (you may have seen people wearing them in the religious procession in The Godfather II), which is scarcely comforting, though I suppose if I knew I was going to be executed later that day, I’d be well past the point of consoling anyway.  The comforter would follow the prisoner’s cart to the place of execution whilst bearing a large crucifix, and then offer the prisoner a final drink from a special cup, whilst priests would try to solicit donations from the crowd (for the church, presumably, as the condemned man wasn’t going to get much benefit from them!).

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Lord Byron and Charles Dickens both witnessed Italian executions in the 19th century, and were horrified by the gruesome and barbaric nature of the events (Dickens more so than Byron, as the latter seemed to have a certain appreciation for the pomp of the ceremony surrounding it).  Although Italy abolished capital punishment in 1948, the artefacts here serve as a grim reminder of that period in Italian history (and incidentally, that picture at the start of the post is a death mask of a hanged man, which was obviously not a great way to go, though relative to some of the other methods available, not that horrific).

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The floor above this was mostly about the Italian police, and was primarily only in Italian, though there were some cracking pictures (although I’m not exactly sure what they were portraying.  Policemen doing their job despite dramatic events, I guess.).  They included some examples of the uniforms prisoners would have worn, which were stylishly stripey, and surprisingly jaunty.  I don’t know who the man shown below is, but his picture made me laugh.

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There also appeared to be a display on the ways criminals could be identified, with an analysis of types of nose and ear shapes.  There was also a random human ear inside glass, no idea who it belonged to or why it was there!

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There was a pretty fantastic gallery at the end of the hall showing counterfeit objects confiscated by the police.  A lot of them were mock Etruscan jugs, some of which may have been used for bootlegging (the signs were a little confusing), but the best part were the forged paintings.  I’m not into modern art, so I don’t know if these paintings actually looked like the ones they were meant to be imitating, but even if they did, they were so ugly I can’t imagine why anyone would want to buy them in the first place!  The most hilarious thing had to be a fake Michael Bolton CD; why would you even bother counterfeiting such a thing?

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The second floor had pictures of Italy’s most notorious serial killers.  The English signs resumed here, so I was a very happy camper.  Most of the featured killers were women, and the most interesting had to be the Correggio Soap Maker.  She’d evidently had quite a hard life; ten of her children had died in infancy, and she had four surviving children – the eldest was about to join the army at the outbreak of WWII.  So she thought she should make a sacrifice to try to keep him safe.  She invited three women she’d known in her hometown to come stay with her (at different times), and then systematically killed them all with an axe.  One of them she dissolved in acid, and saved the blood to bake into a cake, which she fed to neighbours and family.  The last one was boiled down, and she turned the fat into the “most acceptable creamy soap,” thus giving her the Soap Maker alias.  She was eventually caught, and put in an insane asylum where she later died.

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There were a few other stories of murder like that, though the Soap-Maker’s was the most graphic.  The museum concluded with a tour through the 20th century history of fascists and anarchists, and featured a few more little items that had been created by modern prisoners, including the devil head and sexy handkerchief shown below.

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The museum was on par with the Danish Police Museum in terms of grisliness – the Danish Museum may have had more shocking pictures, but the Roman Museum had at least some English, so you could actually read some of the fascinating accounts of crime and murder.  I was very pleased with the large size of the museum for the price, and would recommend it to those visiting Rome who need a break from all the crowds around the main tourist sites!  The only complaint I have is that I wish that everything could have had an English translation, but I was ultimately grateful that they had any at all.  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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Copenhagen, Denmark: The Police Museum (Politimuseet)

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I’ve long wanted to go to the infamous Black Museum in London, but as I’m unlikely to join the police force any time soon, it’s probably not a practical option.  However, Copenhagen has a police museum that is open to the public, so it seemed the obvious place to visit on my birthday.  In case you couldn’t tell from the opening picture, this post has some slightly gory themes/musings towards the end. If you’re unusually squeamish or delicate, consider yourself warned.  Now, onto the museum!

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The museum is located in what is evidently the Nørrebro quarter – all I know is that it was a fair walk from our hotel near Tivoli.  Some information that is possibly more helpful is that the museum is only open on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays from 11-4, so plan accordingly.  I missed out on seeing the Medical Museum due to their similarly limited opening hours.  Admission is DKK 40, which I think is about 5 quid, so positively cheap by Danish standards!  (Seriously, everything in Denmark was insanely expensive.)

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None of the captions or signs are in English, though the man working there kindly let us borrow a couple of the English guidebooks from the shop, and gave us a bit of background information on the museum.  It is housed in a former police station (circa 1884), and has been open to the public since 1993; it has been a museum since 1904, but was only used for training officers prior to 1993, rather like the Black Museum.

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The museum opened with a room holding a collection of old police and watchmen’s uniforms, and detailing the evolution of the police force in Denmark.  There was a most intriguing picture depicting all the forms of punishment under early modern law, which included various modes of execution and torture.  Unfortunately, we quickly realised that though the museum was absolutely packed with informational signs, the guidebook only bothered to translate about 10% of them, in addition to providing a brief overview of each room, rife with typos.  I did try to puzzle through the Danish, in hope of cognates, but it was just too bizarre to make anything of it.  Because of this, I couldn’t help but feel I was missing out, a feeling which would only intensify as I made my way through the museum.

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Other rooms on the ground floor included a replica police station, one with a chair set up for mug shots (which I really wanted to sit in, but I didn’t know if the sign said, “Please sit down” or “Don’t sit here under any circumstances!” as it was in Danish, so I stayed away), a motorcycle room, and one filled with riot gear.  I’m pretty sure you could sit on one of the motorcycles, as some Danish youths were doing it when we passed by.

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Another wing housed the old jail cells, most of which are now filled with displays, though there was a soiled mattress in one for that “authentic” prison experience.  There was a pretty neat collection in here of things the prisoners made, many of them composed of partially masticated bread, as I suppose they haven’t got many other building materials.  I enjoyed the jumping jack, and the bread flowers, as well as the story of a famous Danish escape artist who rather stupidly sent a postcard to the warden from a post office near the barn where he was hiding and was subsequently re-arrested.

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Having finished with the ground floor, we made our way upstairs, which was where they were hiding all the really good stuff.  There was a section on prostitution, sex crimes, and, a bit oddly, gambling.  Highlights here included a homemade wooden penis that some man forced his wife to use, and some kind of tube-like masturbatory device (which can be seen in the right picture at the top of this post, toward the lower right of the case).  I don’t know, perhaps I’m coming across as too flippant, but finding homemade sex toys in a case devoid of context since I couldn’t read most of the information makes it difficult for me to take them too seriously. There was also a collection of special coins given out to Danish prostitutes that they could redeem for medical care, and some illegal gambling machines from the years before casinos were legalised in Denmark.

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Another room was I think mostly on bank robbers, and possibly on assassination attempts, but it’s hard to say as the guidebook didn’t offer much help.  However, the best was yet to come, in the form of the murder room, which even had a special warning outside the door about the grisly nature of things.  The space was dominated by a case running the length of the wall full of various apparatuses used in sensational murder cases, and the drawers beneath held fairly gory pictures of the victims.  Everything was numbered, so you had to match up the numbers on the drawers with the ones on the objects to find out what was used for each murder, which I did whilst providing a running commentary for my boyfriend on the methods chosen.  I feel like my obvious delight in this is making me seem like a horrible person, but I think most of us must be interested in the seamier side of life, or places like this wouldn’t even exist.  That said, I can’t even watch horror movies unless they’re cheesy ones like the original Evil Dead because I get too freaked out, so I’m not sure why stuff like this doesn’t bother me, but somehow just looking at pictures after the fact makes it less horrible.

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Once again, due to the scanty info in the guidebook, I was left with more questions than answers.  The one that plagues me the most has to do with the sausage grinder in the case. The accompanying crime scene photo showed a woman lying bloodied on her kitchen floor near the grinder, and the grinder was circled in the picture, but as the guidebook didn’t discuss this crime at all, I have no idea if the grinder was actually a murder weapon, an attempt to dispose of the body, or just happened to be in the room at the time.  I don’t know why this bothers me so much, but it does.  I even googled “Danish sausage murder” but it just took me to a bunch of Danish cooking blogs (Danish food is gross, but it’s not THAT gross, though I suppose Pølsemix is borderline…).  There was a 19th century sausage maker in Chicago who dissolved his wife’s body in an empty sausage vat, and a Serbian serial killer who ground up one of his victims to try to dispose of the body, but even they didn’t actually turn their victims into proper sausages.  I need to know, especially since every Danish kitchen seems to have a meat grinder knocking around in it, due to their inexplicable love of hotdogs.

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The last room was dedicated to forensics, but again, the guidebook didn’t have much to say about it, and I was so fixated on the role of the sausage grinder at this point that I couldn’t pay proper attention to it anyway.  I suppose I should have asked the man at the admissions desk about the grinder, but I didn’t know if my weirdness would translate well, and I didn’t want him to think I was some kind of psychopath (though I apparently have no issue with coming across as a goon on my blog).

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So, because I wasn’t able to read about 90% of the museum’s contents, I’m only going to give it a 3/5.  I thought the things I was able to learn about were fascinating, and I obviously enjoyed (if enjoyed is the right word) the murder room, but I was honestly sad that I couldn’t learn about everything there.  I don’t want to sound like an obnoxious American tourist, but I wish they would have some English captions, or at least a more professionally put-together and comprehensive guidebook (I’m even willing to offer my editing/proofreading skills, which are obviously excellent), because I think then it would easily score a 4 or maybe even a 5. Despite this, I am very glad they are open to the general public, and it’s still worth seeing if you share my sick fascination with the darker side of humanity!