Invitations to visit the rooms that house some of the most grisly relics in the annals of British crime are rare. The police would prefer that these clandestine chambers be called “the crime museum” but they have long been known as the Black Museum.
Inaugurated in 1874, the museum was originally intended as a school for detectives, where they might “enter the minds of the basic criminal type”. Over the years it has accrued a remarkable selection of photographs — and most blood-chillingly, the various murderous objects with which men and women have shortened the lives of others.
As the museum is so difficult to visit — today it is used as a lecture theatre — it has been enlisted for a host of outlandish conspiracy theories. One such was that the museum contained a secret file revealing the true identity of Jack the Ripper — despite curators over the years having quashed the suggestion.
Fifty years ago a garish but diverting cinema extravaganza called Horrors of the Black Museum emblazoned the collection in the public imagination. The American producer Herman Cohen had gained access to the museum and seen its macabre relics, and his film paraded for eager audiences a catalogue of bloody murders and instruments of atrocity.
The horrific collection of weapons has been gazed upon by an impressive roll call of visitors, including Edward VII in his days as Prince of Wales; W. S. Gilbert and his composer colleague Arthur Sullivan; Arthur Conan Doyle — and even Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
The museum’s founder, Inspector Neame, a dedicated collector of crime-related items, was the perfect curator.
The museum, originally at Great Scotland Yard, in Whitehall Place, is today at the Metropolitan Police’s new headquarters in Victoria Street. Unless you can convince the stern faces of the Metropolitan Police Authority that you have good cause to visit this most ghoulish of museums, you will have to use your imagination to conjure up the horrors under the glass cases. But that may yet change.
Barry Forshaw is editor of the British Crime Writing Encyclopedia
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