7 American Crime and Punishment Museums

Image credit: 
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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July 8, 2014 - 6:52pm
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