For almost 150 years, London’s Metropolitan Police have maintained a private collection of criminal memorabilia. Its origins can be traced to the mid-1870s, after a law required that prisoners’ property be kept for them until their release. Most of this property was never claimed, and objects from the Prisoner’s Property Store became a teaching collection, open only to officers and their invited guests. Inspector Percy Neame later named it the Murderer’s Museum of Scotland Yard, and a few years later the press dubbed it the Black Museum.
Despite the name changes, one thing has remained consistent: It’s been closed to the public. This year, for the first time, original evidence and artifacts are on display in a special exhibit at the Museum of London, The Crime Museum Uncovered, which runs until April 10, 2016.
1. YOU CAN SEE WHAT THE MUSEUM LOOKED LIKE 100 YEARS AGO.
Inside the Metropolitan Police’s hidden Crime Museum at Scotland Yard, c.1900, © Museum of London
Two of the rooms within the exhibit are recreations of what the Crime Museum looked like in the early 1880s and 1900s. The rooms, which are ringed by shelves of death masks, were modeled on illustrations made of the museum at that time.
2. PRISONERS FOUND WAYS TO AMUSE THEMSELVES.
Pin-cushion embroidered with human hair by repeat offender Annie Parker, 1879 © Museum of London
Annie Parker was arrested more than 400 times for drunkenness. While in prison, she worked on stitching a sampler cushion as a gift for the chaplain of the Clerkenwell House of Detention, embroidered with her own hair. She gave it to him in 1879. The corners of the cushion read, stitched in hair, “Prudence,” “Justice,” “Fortitude,” and, ironically, “Temperance.”
3. IDENTIFYING PRISONERS USED TO BE A LOT OF WORK.
Handwritten criminal record card for Arthur James Woodbine, aged 12, 1896 © Museum of London
Before fingerprinting became widely used by the Metropolitan Police after 1901, “anthropometric” observations were taken of each prisoner for identification purposes. These included complexion, head length and breadth, finger length, and foot length. Large metal calipers were used to record some of these measurements.
4. A VICTIM'S GALLSTONES HELPED CATCH THE ACID-BATH MURDERER.
Objects relating to the murder of Mrs Olive Durand-Deacon by John Haigh, 1949 © Museum of London
In 1949, John Haigh met with well-to-do widow Olive Durand-Deacon to discuss her business plan for manufacturing artificial fingernails. Haigh had already murdered five people by then, and disposed of their bodies in a way he thought fool-proof—dissolving them in sulphuric acid. After giving her the same treatment, Haigh smugly thought he’d gotten away with murder, as there was no body. He confessed to turning her into sludge, and also claimed he was insane and drank his victims’ blood. Already known as the “Acid Bath Murderer,” Haigh came to be called the “Vampire Killer” in the press. After being convicted by a thorough forensic investigation based on the few items that were discovered remaining in the sludge—such as Durand-Deacon’s gallstones—Haigh was hanged at Wandsworth Prison.
5. A SERIAL KILLER HELPED ABOLISH THE DEATH PENALTY IN THE UK.
In March 1953, the bodies of three women were discovered at 10 Rillington Place. By the time the manhunt for and investigation into previous tenant John Christie was done, the body count had climbed to eight. Weirdly, three years earlier, two bodies had been found in the same flat, and another man was hanged for those crimes—and Christie had been the main witness for his prosecution. At Christie’s trial, he claimed responsibility for one of those earlier murders. The uncertainty this raised about the earlier conviction and the possibility for error in a death-penalty sentence played a significant part in the abolishment of capital punishment in Great Britain.
6. BEWARE OF EXES BEARING GIFTS.
In 1945, a man gave a pair of binoculars with hidden, spring-loaded spikes meant to penetrate the eyes to his ex-fiancée, who had left him. This gruesome weapon later inspired a scene in the 1959 movie Horrors of the Black Museum, one of the goriest films of the 1950s.
7. … AND UMBRELLAS, JUST IN GENERAL.
Writer and journalist Georgi Markov, a defector from Bulgaria, was standing on London’s Waterloo Bridge in 1978 when he felt a sharp pain in his leg. A man near him apologized, while picking up his umbrella, and left in a taxi. After Markov died four days later, a tiny pellet filled with a substance that might have been ricin was found embedded in his leg. The case remains open to this day.
8. CRIMINALS AREN'T ALWAYS AS SMART AS THEY THINK THEY ARE.
A mid-20th-century burglar thought he was being awfully clever when he constructed fake-footprint makers out of shoes smaller than his own on the ends of wooden blocks. He stamped the ground with them, leaving tracks that would not match his own. However, he left his own footprints alongside them, and so was caught.
9. THE MUSEUM HAS HAD SOME CELEBRITY VISITORS.
Visitor book containing names and dates of individuals who visited the Crime Museum, 1877-1904 © Museum of London
The crime museum’s visitor’s book, while mostly full of the names of police officers, lists other notable signatures. Some that stand out: Gilbert and Sullivan, 1882; Sir A. Conan Doyle, 1892; Harry Houdini, 1900; King George V, 1926; and Laurel and Hardy, 1947.
Murder bag: a forensics kit used by detectives attending crime scenes, c.1946 © Museum of London