Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Museum of Crime and Punishment

Sandra Parshall

I fired my Glock the instant I saw the guy's gun. When the smoke cleared, he lay dead with a red stain over his heart.

The encounter was a simulation at the National Museu
m of Crime and Punishment in Washington, DC, and lacked the urgency of life and death, but I was pleased that my reflexes haven't totally deserted me as I've aged. I have no doubt that if I found myself in a similar situation in real life I would defend myself just as quickly. In a second simulation, three bad guys were involved, I was distracted by their movements, and the one partially hidden from my view turned out to be the man with the weapon. He fired before I did. That scenario made me realize just how sharply focused and observant police officers must be if they want to come out of such situations alive.

The shooting simulation is one of numerous interactive exhibits in a museum crammed with more displays than anyone could absorb in less than a full day. I was surprised by the number of "originals" the museum has accumulated, beginning with this beautiful car that was driven by John Dillinger in 1934. It's the first thing you see when you enter the lobby.

Inside, the museum has an extensive exhibit, ranging from mug shots and booking sheets to Dillinger's death mask (below), covering the bank robberies and murders committed during the Dillinger gang's Depression-era crimespree.

The displays take a while to get around to the 20th century, though. Visitors first step into medieval Europe, when punishment for any sort of crime usually involved torture. While a woman with a sharp tongue might end up wearing the Mask of Shame for a while--

--more serious offenses would result in the use of inventive devices whose sole purpose was to cause extreme pain.

Moving ahead, the Puritanism of Colonial America seems quaint and innocent by comparison.

I have no idea who this gentleman is, but he was a good sport about being photographed in a Colonial stock.

Among the many original exhibits in the museum is the car Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were killed in.

Friends and family insisted that the petite Bonnie, who was under five feet and less than 100 pounds, couldn't have wielded one of the heavy guns used in the Barrow gang's robberies, but Bonnie and Clyde's personal photo collection seems to contradict those claims.

You can make up your own mind about the merits of various execution methods used in modern human history. This Tennessee electric chair was dubbed "Old Smokey" because it tended to fry the condemned person thoroughly in the process of killing him.

This chair of death was more efficient and produced a less horrific show for witnesses.

The French perferred chopping off heads well into the modern era.

Hanging was a favored execution method in many states before lethal injection came into widespread use.

Among the extensive exhibits devoted to the rise of organized crime in the U.S. (and the creation of the FBI to combat it) is this recreation of Al Capone's comfy prison cell.

Today's standard prison cell looks like this. How would like to spend 20 or 30 years living here?

My husband, Jerry, tried out an early Harley Davidson motorcycle used by highway patrol officers.

To me, the most frightening thing in the entire museum is this photo of Ted Bundy's eyes, staring from the wall in the serial killers exhibit.

And the saddest exhibit consists of beautiful artwork produced by prisoners, some of them serving life sentences for brutal murders.

This charming owl was carved from Ivory soap.

The autopsy table is real, the victim isn't.

A series of exhibits show the materials and documents the police and crime scene investigators use on the job.

This is a mold of a shoe print, which can be compared with prints in a national database.

This is a crime scene kit.

Here's the studio, in the museum's basement, where John Walsh produces the TV show America's Most Wanted.

This is the reason John Walsh has dedicated his life to catching criminals, especially those who prey on children.

The museum presents the entire history of humanity's attempts to restrain and punish those who stray from accepted norms of behavior. Its many galleries, organized by eras and by types of crime, house a stunning collection of photos, physical evidence, documents, scientific equipment, and guns -- lots and lots of guns. If you're visiting Washington, don't miss it, but be sure to set aside a big chunk of time to take all of it in.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Gruesome, but very interesting. I'm glad I didn't live in the days when the Mask of Shame was being used! :)

Mystery Writing is Murder

Lonnie Cruse said...

Wow, Sandy, love the pictures. I hope to visit there someday. AND I love firing a Glock. Sigh. Great post.

Julia Buckley said...

Fascinating, Sandra! Thanks for all the pictures--it was like a mini museum.

That car SURE had a lot of bullet holes in it!

And yes, Bundy's eyes are downright disturbing.