Washington DC: The National Museum of Crime and Punishment
If he has a conscience he will suffer for his mistake. That will be punishment - as well as the prison. - Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, Ch. 19
The MCP is three floors of 28,000 square feet and six hours of exploring wasn't near enough time.
My stroll through crime begins in the Middle Ages, when punishment for the slightest infraction brought harsh consequences. Reconstructed artifacts and drawings of torture are on display in a dungeon room forever watched over by an emaciated old man chained to a wall.
Moving into colonial times, I stuck my arms and head in a pillory and within minutes experienced the pain in my back. The severe, aberrant disciplines employed during that era took a lot of aberrant imagination. Spectators would gather and throw garbage at the prisoner and celebrate a hanging with a party.
Why were these people so barbaric and why did they have no empathy? First, the colonists assumed the prisoner was guilty and therefore deserved punishment. Second, the harsh punishment was irrelevant because the body was only a vessel for the soul, which was supposed to be saved through thrashing, quartering, hanging and whatever the sadists in charge could invent.
Next came the pirates, and I thought of Jack Sparrow from “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie. Actually, Black Beard was the most notorious and feared. He mentored two women pirates and rarely killed anyone. He preferred scare tactics by winding hemp in his thick black hair and lighting it on fire, giving him a devilish appearance. Until this day, divers hunt for Black Beard’s treasure (which he never got to enjoy).
Our Wild West has been immortalized by many TV shows and movies. In this display, homage is paid to the Earp brothers, Bat Masterson, Doc Holiday and what really happened at the OK Corral. I assisted the deputies by grabbing a rifle and shooting the felonious desperados.
The Depression-era brought many opportunities for crime. One of the most “beloved” and notorious was Bonnie and Clyde. Their Hollywood “ Death Car,” adorned with all of its bullet holes, is on display. Some of these bank robbers were uncommonly benevolent to their hostages, insuring their safety and giving them money (after they stole it from them) to return home. Another bank robber of this era was John Dillinger and his accomplice Baby Face Nelson.
For the first time, Dillinger’s crime car, the Essex Terraplane, is on display. I got a good look at Al Capone’s luxurious cell that looked like a well-appointed living room. I "met" Elliot Ness and his team of Untouchables who put Al Capone away.
The Mob This gallery displays the dons and their subordinates, such as Bugsy Siegel and his Las Vegas dream that was his demise. The gang wars behind the St. Valentine’s Massacre are explained in all its gory detail. A bio of the major players including John Gotti is fascinating because it seems that the ordinary person was only six degrees from someone in the Mob.
SWAT I joined a SWAT team going into a crack house. I knew they needed my expertise for this job. Gun ready, be cautious of whom you shoot: make sure they have a weapon. I did not score so well, due to shooting an unarmed suspect in the butt.
Next, with my medal to the pedal, I was in pursuit of a speeding car that politely pulled over after I hit a wall, a tree and flipped over. But, I got my man. These simulations are the how the FBI really train and certainly gave me a new respect for the dangers they face.
Serial Killers One of the more chilling displays is the Serial Killers. It profiles a serial killer and delves into the twisted minds of the infamous.
CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) I entered the forensic laboratory and learn the science involved in deducing a crime and saw a (fake) body in the morgue.
The basement is home to the TV studio for John Walsh’s, America’s Most Wanted. It is here, through callers who have sighted criminals, where many are brought to justice.
This museum gets five stars as one of the most provocative and insightful in the country.
If you go:
The National Museum of Crime & Punishment
National Museum of Crime & Punishment
575 7th St. NW
Washington, D.C. 20004
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Award winning journalist, Karen Hamlin is a native New Englander who moved south to Florida and now lives near Washington DC. Karen specializes in dropping into new situations and taking the reader along for the ride. First prize winner of the 2003 and 2004 North American Travel Journalists Association competition, Karen's peripatetic travels have taken her through most of Europe, the Caribbean, the South Pacific, China and the Middle East. Karen is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association, International Travel Writers Alliance, and Washington Independent Writers. Now a veteran world traveler, she writes for national and regional magazines.
Photos by Karen Hamlin and Michel Istaphanous © 2008