The Museum of London is giving amateur sleuths and clued-in fans of television mystery dramas an unprecedented opportunity to see how real British detectives have solved some of the UK’s most infamous crimes.
“The Crime Museum Uncovered” exhibition, which opened on October 9, features around 600 artifacts from notorious cases involving the likes of Jack the Ripper and London gangsters Ronald and Reggie Kray, portrayed by Tom Hardy in the new film Legend.
The objects are culled from the London Metropolitan Police’s Crime Museum, founded in 1875 as an educational resource for the police. For more than a century, its contents have been shrouded in mystery, earning it the nickname “the Black Museum.” Access to this facility in New Scotland Yard is strictly controlled and typically reserved for members of law enforcement. Mere curiosity seekers need not apply.
Now, for the first time, the Museum of London is shedding light on this collection, enabling the public to see how actual cases were investigated and examine damning evidence used to secure convictions.
“These are objects that victims used, that criminals used, and tools that police have used to solve crimes,” explains Julia Hoffbrand, who co-curated “The Crime Museum Uncovered” with Jackie Keily.
“They’re powerful objects,” Keily adds, “and they’ve got interesting stories to tell.”
The exhibit spans more than a century, from a pistol employed in an 1840 assassination attempt on Queen Victoria to police reconstructions of the explosive-laden backpacks that killed 52 people in the “7/7” London bombings of 2005. Hangmen’s ropes, post-mortem masks of executed prisoners, a trunk where a woman’s remains were discovered, and rubber gloves, a gas mask, and a revolver employed by “Acid Bath Murderer” John Haigh are among the more macabre objects on display.
Others include a 1946 forensics kit, a briefcase containing a syringe and poison intended to silence a witness in the Kray brothers’ trial, and a stash of champagne bottles and Old Spice aftershave (you know, just life’s basic essentials) found in a hideout used by the gang who made off with £2.6 million–about £50 in today’s money–in the Great Train Robbery of 1963.
There are even disguised weapons that seem straight out of a James Bond film, including a knife hidden in a lipstick case and a shotgun fashioned to resemble an ordinary umbrella.
The “Swanson Marginalia,” however, are likely to provoke the keenest interest. These are handwritten notes by Inspector Donald Swanson, one of the original investigators charged with hunting down Jack the Ripper, in which he names his chief suspect, a man called Kosminski. It’s believed that Swanson was referring to Aaron Kosminski, an immigrant from Russian Poland who suffered from insanity and died in 1919.
No one was ever charged with the murders.
“If you’re someone who follows this case, these are iconic notes,” Hoffbrand says. “It’s a direct link to somebody who was there and involved in the actual investigation.”
With criminals like Jack the Ripper and the Kray brothers having become film and television fodder, “it’s easy to put a gloss of glamour on them,” Keily says. “But they weren’t glamourous. They were gangsters and criminals and sometimes, they were murderers. People lived in fear of them. What we shouldn’t lose sight of is the victims and the detectives who were involved in trying to solve these cases, as well.”
“The Crime Museum Uncovered” runs through April 10, 2016 at the Museum of London. Tickets from £10 available online. www.museumoflondon.org.uk.
Tourism information: www.visitlondon.com.