The Black Museum

Dennis Nielson's kitchen, including the pot he used to boil his victims

Dennis Nielson’s kitchen, including the pot he used to boil his victims

The Central Prisoners’ Property Store was introduced in 1869 as a method of teaching the Police about the criminal psyche. Using items belonging to criminals, and associated paraphernalia, death masks of executed murderers and so forth, photos of crime scenes, bits of evidence, the police felt it would help them study the thought processes of the criminal mind, and what drove them to kill.

By 1874, the collection had become somewhat of an unofficial museum and was housed at Old Scotland Yard, behind the Commissioner’s Office on Whitehall Place. Inspector Neame with the help of Constable Randall, was tasked with the collation and management of the collection and by 1875 the Crime Museum, now granted official status as a display was opened to selected persons. A visitors’ book, where interested visiting dignitaries were invited to sign includes such figures as King George V, Prince Edward (later Edward VII), Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Gilbert and Sullivan, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and executioner William Marwood. Pre-arranged dates were organised by Randall in his unofficial capacity as Curator, which involved his keeping the displays tidy, and organised.

Although the primary purpose remained to use the growing exhibits as an instructional aid to the study of the criminal mind, the role as a display was an important one. Such articles on display later included Mata Hari’s visiting card, a fake Cullinan diamond, Heinrich Himmler’s death mask and plaster casts of executed prisoners’ heads, still bearing rope marks. The study of “lumps and bumps” on the head or phrenology – was a growing science, and the casts were a useful tool in identification in a day when aliases were common, and fingerprinting was unheard of.

By 1890 the Police force were on the move to new premises at New Scotland Yard on Victoria Embankment and the museum went too, where it was received into its new home on the second floor. Its growth continued, and visitors were shown around by the curator – always a former policeman – on an organised tour. In the 1960’s the police were relocated once again to their present facility on The Broadway, where by 1981 the collection was amalgamated with other related museums, the Mounted Museum, the Thames and the Training Museum, which had slowly taken over the instructional duties. To coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Metropolitan Police Force, the new collection was given the first floor, and its original name restored. The Crime Museum was official. Its alias, The Black Museum, was created by a journalist who was refused entry, in 1877 and coined the term as a result.

Alleged letter from Jack the Ripper

Alleged letter from Jack the Ripper

The collection now contains a wide range of exhibits, artefacts, articles, weapons, records, photographs and evidence relating to a wide variety of criminal acts to have taken place over the period of the Forces’ history. Amongst the categories are Murder, espionage, bank robbers, hostages and hijacking, sieges and royalty – most notably the attempted kidnapping of Princess Anne. Many of the papers and documents are yet to be related to definitive crimes, and reside in drawers beneath associated exhibits. Some material is deemed too graphic or obscene to be on display, for example the crime scene photos of Gordon Cummins.

Infamous criminals are highlighted within the museum such as Dr Crippen, Ruth Ellis, Dennis Nilson, John Christie and Craig Bentley. Sadly the doors are not generally open to the public, however for a limited time, until April 2016 the public are being allowed a chance to visit a specially complied exhibit of selected materials in the Museum of London although tickets are limited. The museum continues to provide ongoing instruction to the current force, via a lecture format within its walls and private tours to selected public figures. Over the coming weeks, we will be offering further posts on some of the notorious criminal figures that star in this exhibition.

Phoebe