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Zaid Hamid

7 American Crime and Punishment Museums

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Zaid Hamid

If you’re still planning a road trip this summer, you’ll want to add some of the lesser-known stops to your tourist plans. There are crime scenes, prisons, and museums all over where you can learn something new about the sordid history of crime in America. Here are just a few of them.

1. The Villisca Axe Murder House

Photograph by Flickr user Jo Naylor.

The Villisca Axe Murder House in Villisca, Iowa, was the scene of a still-unsolved murder in 1912. J.B. and Sarah Moore, their four children, and two young friends were all murdered in their beds. The only clue was a bloody axe found near the scene. There were several suspects, but not enough evidence to convict any of them. The home went through several owners before Darwin Linn purchased it in 1994. Linn restored the home to resemble its condition in 1912, albeit without the bloody murder scenes. The Villisca Axe Murder House is open for tours from April first through Halloween, and you can stay the night -if you dare- for $428.

2. The Wyoming Frontier Prison

Photograph from Wyoming Frontier Prison at Facebook.

The Wyoming Frontier Prison in Rawlins, Wyoming, was the state’s first penitentiary. Construction began in 1888, but the doors did not open until 1901. It had no electricity or running water for many years after it opened. Over 13,000 inmates passed through before the prison closed in 1981. In 1987, the horror movie Prison, starring a young Viggo Mortensen, was filmed there. A year later, the prison was turned into a museum. The Wyoming Frontier Prison is open daily during the summer and offers guided tours. There will be a special Haunted Night Tour this Friday, which requires reservations.

3. The Bonnie & Clyde Ambush Museum

Photograph by Cameron Maynard.

On May 23, 1934, notorious outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were gunned down by police on a rural road in Louisiana. Just a few miles away in Gibsland, Louisiana, the son of one of those police officers, “Boots” Hinton, runs a museum called The Bonnie & Clyde Ambush Museum. There, you can see photographs and exhibits from Bonnie and Clyde’s career in crime and of that day in 1934 when they died. Even better than the exhibits is a chance to talk to Hinton, who is glad to tell the story of Bonnie & Clyde and the police officers who tracked them. The museum is open 10AM-6PM Monday through Saturday, and noon-6PM on Sunday. If you can’t get to Gibsland, you can take a visual tour of the museum at Atlas Obscura.

4. The Museum of Colorado Prisons

Photograph from The Museum of Colorado Prisons at Facebook.

The Museum of Colorado Prisons in Canon City, Colorado, was once the Women's Correctional Facility that was built in 1935. Thirty-two of the original cells are filled with exhibits relating to that facility and others in the Colorado prison system. See a real gas chamber, the last officially-used hangman’s noose, confiscated weapons, prison art, and photographs of the region’s crime and punishment history, reaching back to the territorial days. Included is an exhibit on the state’s notorious cannibal, Alferd Packer. The museum is open 10AM-6PM daily until October, then Wednesday through Sunday only.

5. Ohio State Reformatory

Photograph by AmyTheOvenMitt.

The Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio, opened in 1896 to house young offenders. Over its 94-year history, the institution held 154,000 incarcerated men, many who died there, sometimes by murder, sometimes by suicide. The prison was closed in 1990, and later became the setting for the movie The Shawshank Redemption. The empty prison is open to the public for tours daily from April to September, so you can see for yourself how spooky the facility is, only populated by the spirits that roam the halls -both actors and real spirits. The prison also hosts “ghost walks” and “ghost hunts” a couple of times a week during the summer. There will be a special celebration of the 20th anniversary of the movie The Shawshank Redemption August 29-31, with events scheduled at various filming locations, including the prison.

6. The Crime Museum

Photograph by Zaid Hamid.

The Crime Museum in Washington, DC, is a walk through the history of crime in the United States. The privately-owned museum was founded by John Morgan and John Walsh. Walsh’s TV program America’s Most Wanted was filmed in the museum’s studio from its opening in 2008 until the show ended in 2013. The historical exhibits include an electric chair that was used in more than 125 executions as well as other historical artifacts. But the museum specializes in interactive experiences, such as crime scene investigations with trained forensic scientists, an FBI training simulation, autopsies, and other rotating programs. The Crime Museum also offers summer camps for children.

7. Eastern State Penitentiary

Photograph by Mike Graham from Portland, USA.

Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was America’s first true penitentiary, housing inmates for 142 years from 1829 to 1971. The facility was revolutionary in both its architecture and philosophy when it first opened. However, over the years it became known for its torturous practices and experimental punishments. It is said to be the most haunted prison in America. Closed in 1971, the buildings fell into ruin, with trees growing inside and a colony of feral cats inhabiting it. It was opened to the public for tours in 1994. To preserve the facility’s historic state, some parts of the prison are allowed to stay in their ruined condition, while other parts have been refurbished enough to reflect its former use and to ensure tourists' safety. Eastern State’s most notorious resident was Al Capone, whose cell, shown above, is a popular tourist attraction.

Eastern State is open to the public every day from 10AM-5PM, and there are special events, such as the annual Halloween haunted tours and the upcoming Bastille Day celebration on July 12th. The prison can also be rented for weddings. 

There are so many other museums dedicated to crimes and criminals that you can expect a second list soon. If you have any favorites, please leave them in the comments!

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#TBT
Paw Enforcement: A History of McGruff the Crime Dog
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Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Jack Keil, executive creative director of the Dancer Fitzgerald Sample ad agency, was stuck in a Kansas City airport at three in the morning when he started thinking about Smokey Bear. Smokey was the furred face of forest fire prevention, an amiable creature who cautioned against the hazards of unattended campfires or errant cigarette butts. Everyone, it seemed, knew Smokey and heeded his words.

In 1979, Keil’s agency had been tasked with coming up with a campaign for the recently-instituted National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC), a nonprofit organization looking to educate the public about crime prevention. If Keil could create a Smokey for their mission, he figured he would have a hit. He considered an elephant who could stamp out crime, or a rabbit who was hopping mad about illegal activity.

A dog seemed to fit. Dogs bit things, and the NCPC was looking to take a bite out of crime. Keil sketched a dog reminiscent of Snoopy with a Keystone Cop-style hat.

Back at the agency, people loved the idea but hated the dog. In a week’s time, the cartoon animal would morph into McGruff, the world-weary detective who has raised awareness about everything from kidnapping to drug abuse. While he no longer looked like Snoopy, he was about to become just as famous.

In 1979, the public service advertising nonprofit the Ad Council held a meeting to discuss American paranoia. Crime was a hot button issue, with sensational reports about drugs, home invasions, and murders taking up the covers of major media outlets like Newsweek and TIME. Surveys reported that citizens were concerned about crime rates and neighborhood safety. Respondents felt helpless to do anything, since more law enforcement meant increased taxes.

To combat public perception, the Ad Council wanted to commit to an advertising campaign that would act as a preventive measure. Crime could not be stopped, but the feeling was that it could be dented with more informed communities. Maybe a clean park would be less inviting to criminals; people might need to be reminded to lock their doors.

What people did not need was a lecture. So the council enlisted Dancer Fitzgerald Sample to organize a campaign that promoted awareness in the most gentle way possible. Keil's colleagues weighed in on his dog idea; someone suggested that the canine be modeled after J. Edgar Hoover, another saw a Superman-esque dog that would fly in to interrupt crime. Sherry Nemmers and Ray Krivascy offered an alternative take: a dog wearing a trench coat and smoking a cigar, modeled in part after Peter Falk’s performance as the rumpled TV detective Columbo.

Keil had designs on getting Falk to voice the animated character, but the actor’s methodical delivery wasn’t suited to 30-second commercials, so Keil did it himself. His scratchy voice lent an authoritarian tone, but wasn't over-the-top.

The agency ran a contest on the back of cereal boxes to name the dog. “Sherlock Bones” was the most common submission, but "McGruff"—which was suggested by a New Orleans police officer—won out.

Armed with a look, a voice, and a name, Nemmers arranged for a series of ads to run in the fall of 1980. In the spots, McGruff was superimposed over scenes of a burglary and children wary of being kidnapped by men in weather-beaten cars. He advised people to call the police if they spotted something suspicious—like strangers taking off with the neighbor’s television or sofa—and to keep their doors locked. He sat at a piano and sang “users are losers” in reference to drug-abusing adolescents. (The cigar had been scrapped.)

Most importantly, the NCPC—which had taken over responsibility for McGruff's message—wanted the ads to have what the industry dubbed “fulfillment.” At the end, McGruff would advise viewers to write to a post office box for a booklet on how to prevent crime in their neck of the woods.

A lot of people did just that. More than 30,000 booklets went out during the first few months the ads aired. McGruff’s laconic presence was beginning to take off.

By 1988, an estimated 99 percent of children ages six to 12 recognized McGruff, putting him in Ronald McDonald territory. He appeared on the ABC series Webster, in parades, and in thousands of personal appearances around the country, typically with a local police officer under the suit. (The appearances were not without danger: Some dogs apparently didn't like McGruff and could get aggressive at the sight of him.)

As McGruff aged into the 1990s, his appearances grew more sporadic. The NCPC began targeting guns and drugs and wasn’t sure the cartoon dog was a good fit, so his appearances were limited to the end of some ad spots. By the 2000s, law enforcement cutbacks meant fewer cops in costume, and a reduced awareness of the crime-fighting canine. When Keil retired, an Iowa cop named Steve Parker took over McGruff's voice duties.

McGruff is still in action today, aiding in the NCPC’s efforts to raise awareness of elder abuse, internet crimes, and identity theft. The organization estimates that more than 4000 McGruffs are in circulation, though at least one of them failed to live up to the mantle. In 2014, a McGruff performer named John Morales pled guilty to possession of more than 1000 marijuana plants and a grenade launcher. He’s serving 16 years in prison.

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This Just In
Little Ross—a Tiny Island in Scotland With a Murderous History—Can Be Yours for $425,000
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Galbraith

Just off Scotland’s southwest coast sits the island of Little Ross. While picturesque, the remote speck of land comes with a tragic backstory: the 1960 murder of a lighthouse keeper, who died at the hands of a colleague. Now, decades after the tragedy made national headlines, the Independent reports that Little Ross is officially on the market and accepting offers over £325,000 (a little under $424,000).

The 29-acre island has a natural harbor, a rocky beach, and a craggy green coastline. There's also a six-bedroom cottage and several ramshackle barns, all of which are included in the purchase. A wind turbine and solar panels provide power (although everyone knows that good ghost stories are best enjoyed by candlelight).

What’s not for sale is the island’s 19th century lighthouse, the scene of lighthouse keeper Hugh Clarke’s 1960 murder. (His assistant, Robert Dickson, was found guilty, and received life imprisonment.)

“Since automation in the late 1960s the lighthouse no longer requires full-time staffing, and only the lighthouse and Sighting Tower are maintained by the Northern Lighthouse Board,” the island's listing states. “It is anticipated that the Northern Lighthouse Board and the purchasers will share the use, and future maintenance of the jetty wall.”

Since Ross Island is only accessible by boat or air, the listing advises that potential buyers be “proficient seamen” (or have access to a helicopter). Fit the bill, and in the market for an unconventional getaway? Check out the pictures below, or visit the island’s listing for more information.

The island of Little Ross, which sits off the Meikle Ross headland on Scotland’s south coast.
Galbraith

The island of Little Ross, which sits off the Meikle Ross headland on Scotland’s south coast.
Galbraith

[h/t Independent]

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