Britain’s History Told Through Its Most Horrific Criminals - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Britain’s History Told Through Its Most Horrific Criminals

By Tracy Moran


Because crime is a fascinating window into human nature. 

Once-bloodied implements abound, from body-chopping cleavers and bone-fragment casts to eye-piercing binoculars. Evidence left behind at the crime scenes of horrific murders and assaults against women line the aisles. This isn’t for the faint of heart (under-16s are advised to steer clear), but for those who can stomach it, the displays are a lesson in British history through the country’s most notorious criminals and the ones who brought them down.

The art of solving crime is one civilians often take for granted, but the Museum of London’s new “Crime Museum Uncovered” exhibit brings to light all that goes into keeping the streets safe. Police tape and a cop car adorn the entrance, while decades’ worth of real-life criminal files and the evidence that goes with them are curated for display. The exhibit runs through April, but the cases, which have served as training materials for Scotland Yard investigators, date back to 1875. Entry is $15.

Caricatures of Jack the Ripper suspects and victims set an early tone.

Policing in London was once the realm of private citizens, some salaried officials and “thief takers.” But all that changed with the 1829 Metropolitan Police Act and its establishment of a 3,000-strong force behind Home Secretary Robert Peel. The men, known as bobbies or peelers, helped professionalize law enforcement in the British capital. The original Crime Museum was set up at Scotland Yard four decades later as an organized home for the growing piles of prisoners’ property left uncollected as they headed to jail … or the gallows.

Caricatures of Jack the Ripper suspects and victims set an early tone, followed by a gallery of six execution ropes — the eerily well-preserved twine harks back to capital punishment’s heyday. Visitors can glimpse the weapons wielded by the East End’s Kray twins, as well as the Monopoly money and ketchup bottle that were left, along with fingerprints, at Leatherslade Farm by the Great Train Robbers. Another notable display is the gun used in an assassination attempt on Queen Victoria in June 1840. The crime gallery, meanwhile, features 24 cases, all dating before 1975, a cutoff date chosen to ensure families aren’t hurt by seeing loved ones’ victimization. 

An entire video section is dedicated to a debate on whether it’s appropriate to put such items on display. Erin Mitchell of St. Petersburg, Florida, who visited in November, says she didn’t find it “overly graphic.” Rather, “descriptions of the crimes were factual.” The museum aims to boost appreciation for the forgotten victims of such infamous crimes, along with the increasing professionalization of police work over the last century and a half. From comparing ear prints — one case was tried based on a burglar’s ear print on a windowpane — to dredging canals and sifting through mounds of rubbish, the displays reflect what British coppers face in their ongoing fight to uncover the truth.

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