Yesterday, after six months this long awaited exhibition at the Museum of London came to an end. With plans for New Scotland Yard to close the future of the Metropolitan Police’s infamously known “Black Museum” is uncertain. This carefully curated exhibition allowed the public to experience a selection of the items found inside. Many still sit within the walls of the Police HQ and will never go on public display. Death & the Maiden’s Lucy Talbot has chosen six women who featured at The Crime Museum: Uncovered, allowing any readers who missed out an insight into this incredible collection.
Inside the Metropolitan Police’s Crime Museum at New Scotland Yard, death is an unavoidable presence; the museum holds a large collection of exhibits from some of London’s most notorious and high profile murder investigations.
In 1869 the Prisoner’s Property Act was passed, allowing police to retain items of evidence from criminal investigations for the purpose of training. A collection of exhibits began to build when the Prisoner’s Property Act store was opened in 1874; this same year an Inspector by the name of Neame was given permission to use this as the basis for a crime museum. With the help of PC Randall, Neame later opened the museum with the first documented visitor in 1877. Also at this time, the Observer Newspaper coined the infamous name The Black Museum in an article after a request to visit was refused. In 1890, the museum moved with the Metropolitan Police to premises on the other side of Whitehall, London. It remained there until 1967 (closing throughout both world wars) before moving to New Scotland Yard. In 1981 the museum was re-designed, (pictured below), and remains today a treasured part of the Metropolitan Police’s history.
The future of this closely guarded piece of police history has been uncertain for sometime; with increasing pressure for the collection to become public and income generated. In July 2013, The Telegraph detailed a Crime Committee report that suggested “even a temporary three month exhibition with an entry fee of £15, could generate as much as £4.5 million. [Equating to] almost 55,000 front line [police officer] hours and if rolled out over 12 months it could be enough to pay for more than 100 full time officers a year” (Evans, 2013). With potential revenue like this and the Metropolitan Police needing to find savings of £500 million, it is no wonder two years on that The Crime Museum Uncovered opened on the 9th of October 2015 at the Museum of London.
Three years ago an article I wrote: The Unclean Truth: Death at the London Metropolitan Police’s Crime Museum (Fieldwork in Religion, 2013) was published. As you can imagine, this meant I was keen to go see the public exhibition and find out which exhibits from this notorious collection had been selected for display. From an estimated 2,000 items held at New Scotland Yard, just under 600 were selected. No human remains, (as specified by the Human Tissue Act), were among the chosen objects. Curators Jackie Keily and Julia Hoffbrand detail some of the selection process for The Crime Museum Uncovered in their accompanying exhibition guide which I used to write this post.
The relationship between death and a gun may be more obvious to the visitor at first glance than a handbag or handwritten letter, only with context can the importance of these latter objects be understood. Each exhibit has its own biography that interlinks with other items to produce a separate narrative. Indeed, they gain what is known as an object biography, where “the central idea is that, as people and objects gather time, movement and change, they are constantly transformed, and these transformations of person and object are tied up with each other” (Gosden and Marshall, 1999: 169).
How the visitor reacts/ interacts with each exhibit will depend on multiple factors, determined by individual values, experiences, perception and understanding of what is presented. Careful planning has gone into curating an appropriate public exhibition that does not cause further distress to victims of crime. “Behind them are real people, each with their own story. All affected the lives of victims & their friends and families.” (Museum of London, 2016) Partners of the Museum of London were consulted, as were the Metropolitan Police and Major’s Office for Policing & Crime (MOPAC). Independent advice was also taken from the London Policing Ethical Panel to further ensure the right objects were selected for display and exhibited in the right way. Unlike visiting the Crime Museum at New Scotland Yard no individual cases were included post 1975. On the wall as you entered the exhibition the following was written in large black lettering:
“What does it mean to put these objects on display?
What do they tell us about the people involved?
Where do you draw the line?
There was an opportunity to watch a documentary about the process undertaken to bring the exhibition to the Museum of London and Jackie Keily said what I think best sums up the cultural significance and importance of this entire project. “This is a social museum, telling the story of London’s history… Museums should not shy away from the uncomfortable. Because something makes us uncomfortable does not mean it should be forgotten.” (Keily, 2015)
As you walk out on the wall is a support information board. Not something you find within New Scotland Yard but clearly an important final message to visitors that should something they have seen affected them support is available from Victim Support, Rape Crisis and Women’s Aid. The majority of murders found within the exhibition are of women, mutilated and disposed of in hideous circumstances. I have decided to select six of these women and share some of the objects that tell the story (often caused). It is also an opportunity if you missed out on the exhibition, to share some fascinating investigation & forensic techniques that led to solving their murders.
May all these maidens be resting in peace…
What looks just like the spade down in my garden shed was used to bury music hall singer Cora’s body by her husband Dr Crippen. According to the exhibition guide, for the first time pathologist Bernard Spilsbury used a scar found on the body as identification, by matching it to an operation Cora had undergone. Also in the display cabinet we see fragments of the pyjamas used to wrap her body and most disturbingly of all samples of hair and curlers found with Cora’s remains. Two of her friends testified at the trial that the hair matched Cora’s which she regularly dyed an auburn colour. Dr Crippen managed to avert suspicion regarding his wife’s absence with the help of his mistress Ethel Le Neve but when the pair left unexpectedly a search was conducted and Cora’s remains were discovered. Crippen was hanged at Pentonville Prison on the 23rd of November, 1910, professing Ethel’s innocence ’til his final hour.
On the 3rd of September, 1924 Patrick Mahon was hanged at Wandsworth Prison for the murder of Emily Kaye. He had been living a double life, already having a wife and child, he also had a relationship with Emily working as a secretary in London. It is believed that he met another woman and murdered Emily on finding out that she was pregnant. He denied the crime claiming she accidentally fell and hit her head on a coal cauldron. Spilsbury also worked on this case, and on discovering detectives touching Emily’s remains with their bare hands at the crime scene, introduced the “Murder Bag” (one of which was on display) to ensure investigations were appropriately handled. The below is all that remains of a reconstruction made by PC Edward Shelah. This was presented at trial and used by both prosecution & defence teams to argue their case.
Faced with the trunk that once held the remains of 36 year old Minnie Bonati, it’s hard to fully comprehend what you are looking at. It was the smell emulating from this very trunk that raised suspicion at Charing Cross Station in the May of 1927. When opened, Minnie’s remains were found inside. It was from tracing the laundry tag inside the trunk that led to her identification. With the help of a taxi driver who recalled a man with a similar trunk, John Robinson’s home address was tracked down and he was found to be missing. On display was also a handkerchief that Chief Inspector George Cornish decided to wash. It was heavily stained and had been inside the trunk. Once clean, a label was revealed linking Robinson to Minnie’s murder. His office was re-examined in light of this new evidence and traces of her blood found. Robinson also pulled the coal cauldron card like Mahon but did confess to purchasing a knife (also displayed) and using it to dismember Minnie’s body. He hung at Pentonville Prison on the 12th of August, 1927.
Margery Gardner & Neville Heath met for a night of drinking in London and later went to the Pembridge Hotel. It was here that Heath tied up Margery and beat her with a horse riding whip (on display at the exhibition) before killing her and mutilating her body. The handkerchief used to gag Margery was also on display. Having used his own name to book the hotel room Heath was a suspect from the outset He wrote to police soon after the murder to confess going to the hotel with Margery but claiming to have left her there to use it with a male called Jack. Pathologist Keith Simpson identified small diamond shapes on Margery’s body reportedly saying “if you find that whip, you’ve found your man.” Although his description had been released in the newspapers a photograph had not and Heath would go on to offend a second time. In Bournemouth he booked a hotel once again and befriended 21 year old Doreen Marshall. The below photograph was taken where Doreen’s mutilated body was found.
When questioned as to his involvement in the disappearance of widowed Olive Durrand-Deacon John Haigh said the sludge that remained of her could be found at his workshop in Crawley, Sussex. “Every trace has gone. How can you prove murder if there’s no body?” What Haigh, the fraudster already responsible for the murder of five other people, had not bargained on was the recovery of Olive’s false teeth, foot bone and gall stones from his workshop. Pathologist Keith Simpson made a cast of the foot to see if it fitted into Olive’s shoe, which it did. He also made casts of the gall stones [pictured below] one of which was found on the ground outside the workshop, the other in the sludge dumped in the yard. Also on display were the gloves, gas mask and apron he wore whilst dissolving the bodies of his victims. The remains of Olive’s red handbag [also pictured below], to some could be even more haunting. This gives us insight into Olive’s style and was maybe something like my handbag which she carried with her everyday.
The naked body of Ruby Keen was found on the 12th of April 1937. Prior to her engagement to a police officer she had been in a relationship with Leslie Stone. This is described as a pioneering case for the use of soil analysis. Matching samples of soil from the crime scene to that found on suspect’s clothing. The silk scarf Ruby was wearing the night she died is on display and matches the dress she has on in the above picture. Perhaps it was special to Ruby, or bought for her by her husband to be. Maybe she had lots of scarves and had little feeling towards it. Either way, this scarf was used to strangle her. An everyday item of clothing becomes a murder weapon. Tiny fragments of the silk from this scarf were found on Stone’s clothing too. Casts of Stone’s knee & foot prints were taken at the crime scene as pictured below.
Hoffbrand, J., and J Keily. 2015. “The Crime museum Uncovered,” Museum of London.
Gosden, C., and Y. Marshall. 1999. “The Culture Biography of Objects,” World Archaeology,
10.2, 169–78. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00438243.1999.9980439