The Crime Museum Uncovered

The Museum of London’s exhibition has plenty of gory moments, but it has lots to say about changes in crime and detection too, John Westbrooke writes.

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This is an intriguing selection of items held in the “Black Museum” – the Metropolitan Police’s Crime Museum, much written about but mostly shown to police in training rather than to the public.

Its silent heart is a row of half a dozen ropes, with notes on the hangmen who used them and the people they were used on. John Platts was both: an executioner who went to the gallows himself in 1847 for murder. Amelia Dyer was a baby-farmer, put to death for killing a two-month-old girl and who knows how many other unwanted children besides. William Seaman killed a man during a burglary and tried to escape across the rooftops.

Also from the 19th century is an array of death masks of hanged men, taken for (pseudo)scientific purposes: phrenologists would study them and “feel their bumps”, the idea being that the criminal parts of their brains would show through on their skulls, a giveaway sign of criminality.

More persuasive are the courtroom portraits drawn by William Hartley between 1893 and 1918. He was a Fleet St photographer, but photography was banned in court, so he took to producing fast, accurate likenesses of witnesses, prosecutors and defendants in the Old Bailey and other courts, for the benefit of newspaper readers.

As you might expect, his perceptive work shows you can’t tell the guilty from the innocent, the witness from the detective. The most evil-looking is Martha Stephenson, aka Madame Keiro; but she was only a fortune-teller sentenced for obtaining money by fraud.

Some of the names remain notorious: Dr Crippen is here, along with a poster seeking information about Jack the Ripper. Others’ names linger on too: Jack Sheppard, the hugely popular thief and jailbreaker, was hanged in 1724 watched by hundreds of thousands, and is represented here by handcuffs he’s reputed to have worn.

Another exhibit covers the Tichborne Claimant: Arthur Orton, who arrived from Australia claiming to be the missing heir to the Tichborne baronetcy. Tichborne’s mother believed him but thousands didn’t, and he was jailed for perjury. He was a large man. A 4ft 6in music hall comedian and clog-dancer, Harry Relph, renamed himself Little Tich by way of tribute, and “titchy” still means little.

Despite the pistol that shot at Queen Victoria, the acid-bath murderer John Haigh’s gloves, and the Krays’ briefcase – complete with poison and syringe and intended to be used on a court witness – this isn’t all gore and revenge; it’s also a history of detection, starting with the formation of Scotland Yard’s detection branch in 1842. It had eight men, including the suspicious Jack Whicher.

We see technology and pathology keeping pace with criminal wiles. A surprising number of men claimed to have killed their victims by accident and dismembered them only to avoid being wrongly blamed. Catching Dr Crippen (whose late wife was identified only by some abdominal tissue found buried under the basement, rcently disputed by DNA investigators) involved, for the first time, wireless telegraphy: the captain of the ship on which he and his lover were fleeing to Canada recognised them and radioed to shore, and a detective overtook them on a faster ship.

Covert surveillance photography was called in aid to obtain images of women suspected of being violent suffragettes. The press were brought onside. The science of soil analysis was developed. Ways of identifying people by their fingerprints were discovered (the Great Train Robbers left theirs on Monopoly money); the same with earprints.

Criminals countered with ever more ingenious subterfuge. Cuttlefish bones were a popular accessory: you could press a key into one to take an impression. A bright burglar put a pair of little shoes on the end of sticks, to leave footprints that belonged to someone smaller than himself. Alas, he had to walk alongside, leaving his own footprints, while he used them.

More effective are the stun gun disguised as a mobile phone, and binoculars that stab the users’ eyes; the latter appeared in the 1959 film Horrors of the Black Museum. And at the other end of the disguise scale is a gorgeously decorated pipe that couldn’t really be used for anything other than smoking drugs.

A series of large display cases takes the visitor through some of the better-known murders of the 20th century, including the postwar miscarriages of justice that turned the public against the death penalty: Derek Bentley and Chris Craig (Craig killed a policeman but was spared because he was 16; Bentley didn’t but was older and was hanged); Ruth Evans, who handed herself in after shooting her violent lover; and the illiterate Timothy Evans, executed for the killing of his wife, which later turned out to be the work of John Christie, the serial killer who lived downstairs.

The murders stop with the Krays and Richardsons, but crime in modern London is dealt with under other headings, notably terrorism.

This has a long history, going back to anarchist bombers in the 19th century. Those involved in the Siege of Sidney Street in 1911 embarrassed the police by being much better armed; Churchill, then Home Secretary, had to call in field artillery. Eighty years later, the IRA landed a mortar shell in the back garden of 10 Downing St (the mortar is on display). In the next decade, suicide bombers blew up London’s buses and trains.

Crime continues to change and the police try to keep up. Funding cuts, and the expense of chasing people with mortars, have left them experimenting with investigating burglaries only at even–numbered houses, their contract with the public stretched thin.

So for all the gruesome displays, part of the appeal of The Crime Museum Uncovered is nostalgia. It takes us back to the days George Orwell wrote about in The Decline of the English Murder, when people poisoned faithless spouses and police caught them, posters urged people to phone WHItehall 1212, bodies were hidden in barrels, and women prisoners made cushions embroidered with their own hair. Yes, this was common for a while in the 19th century, and there’s one on show.

The Crime Museum Uncovered runs at the Museum of London until April 10 2016. Tickets from £10 online; concessions £8.