It sounds like something from out of a pulp detective story, and indeed it has inspired its fair share of dark and gritty tales. Yet the Black Museum of Scotland Yard is a real place. The archive of true crime memorabilia is filled with murder weapons, execution tools, and the death masks of criminals hanged at Newgate Prison.
Officially known simply as the Crime Museum, the Black Museum got its start thanks to the Prisoners Property Act of 1869, which allowed Scotland Yard to seize and keep certain belongings from prisoners in order to aid officers in their study of crime and criminology. Originally called the Central Prisoners Property Store, it was started by an Inspector Neame on April 25th of 1874, though no official museum opened until sometime in 1875.
Its unofficial sobriquet was coined in 1877, when a reporter from The Observer called it the Black Museum after being refused admittance by Inspector Neame, who, along with P.C. Randall, had been given a permanent appointment as caretaker of the museum. In spite of the name, the museum has never been open to the public, instead being used exclusively as a training tool for police officers.
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From its humble beginnings in the rear of the Commissioner’s Office at No. 4, Whitehall Place, the Crime Museum moved around over the years. In 1890, it followed the Metropolitan Police Office to new quarters on the Thames Embankment, where it was housed in two rooms in the basement. In 1967, when the police headquarters moved to Victoria Street, the museum took up residence on the second floor. The museum was closed during both World Wars, and in 1981 a newly redesigned Crime Museum opened on the first floor of the Metropolitan Police Headquarters, where it still resides today.
While the Black Museum isn’t open to the public, there are various ways to get glimpses of what it’s like inside. From October of 2015 to April of 2016, a major exhibit featuring items from the museum was put on display at the Museum of London, many of them available to the public for the first time. For those who missed the exhibition, known as “The Crime Museum Uncovered”, there’s a dedicated website where you can purchase video tours of the actual Black Museum for just £4.99.
The Black Museum contains a wealth of crime memorabilia. Artifacts stretch back to the killings of Jack the Ripper and include some of the letters alleging to have been written by the Ripper himself. Other items include shotguns disguised as umbrellas, and a collection of execution nooses, including the rope used in the last execution ever carried out in the U.K.
One of the museum’s most striking displays is a series of death masks made from criminals executed at Newcastle Prison. The immortalized faces look down on visitors from a high shelf. In all, the museum houses more than 500 artifacts, and is kept at a constant temperature of 62 degrees Fahrenheit in order to preserve the integrity of the exhibits. Among the exhibits housed in the Black Museum are artifacts from some of the most famous cases in British history, including a replica of the briefcase bomb used in the Hyde Park bombing, the phony De Beers diamond from the Millennium Dome heist, and the actual stove used by cannibal serial killer Dennis Nilsen. The museum even contains the severed arms of a killer who is thought to have taken his own life in Germany in the 1950s.
Since its inception, the Black Museum has captured the imaginations of storytellers, filmmakers, armchair detectives, and true crime obsessives. Orson Welles hosted a 1951 radio series called The Black Museum, which built each episode around fictionalized accounts of the crimes surrounding actual objects from the real-life Black Museum, including an episode concerning the 1934 Brighton Trunk Murders and the slaying of Violette Kaye.
The name of the Black Museum may be best known to fans of classic horror cinema thanks to the 1959 film Horrors of the Black Museum, in which Michael Gough plays a crime writer who creates his own private black museum. Gough’s character commissions increasingly grisly crimes throughout the film, using the violent acts as inspiration for his written work.
While few members of the public have ever set foot inside, the Crime Museum continues to cast its dark spell over the public. Here’s to hoping another exhibition is launched soon. In the meantime, one can only stand before the doors of the Metropolitan Police Headquarters, and imagine what’s inside …