RCMP Museum exhibit draws attention
“Black Museum” and macabre memories of the past
This October, keeping with the spooky time of year, the RCMP Heritage Centre had an entirely bilingual exhibit they labelled the “Black Museum.” This two week feature was comprised of everything from crime scene evidence to police sketches and was meant to serve the purpose of educating the public historically as well as being an attraction for both locals and tourists who happen to be fans of true crime-themed attractions.
The exhibit was modelled after the original “Black Museum” (more commonly known as the “Crime Museum”) at New Scotland Yard in London, England. The Metropolitan Police in London had started collecting evidence from crime scenes in the late 19th century mainly for studying and educating those studying the relevant topics, and the collection is still growing today. It’s not currently open to the public, but has inspired many like-displays since including the one put on by the RCMP Heritage Centre.
The host for the “Black Museum” was none other than Oliver, a ventriloquist dummy from 1910 who was used in shows for children for decades. In an Oct. 17 interview with CBC News Jodi Ann Eskritt, the current curator, said “Now I can’t verify that it’s true or not, but some of our visitors in the past have said that it feels like his eyes follow you as you move around the exhibit, so that adds to the whole sort of atmosphere.” As someone who visited the exhibit, I can verify without a doubt that Oliver’s presence added to the overall atmosphere and his weathered eyes did seem to follow you around the room, keeping careful watch over visitor’s reactions to each attraction.
Arguably the most intriguing aspect of this exhibit were the various death masks as well as an excerpt from an article by J. R. Abbott on facial identification and how the plaster masks were made. It was at one time believed that criminals had specific facial structures, and that through analyzing the faces of previous criminals we could more accurately find those most likely to commit crimes. There were seven specific visages displayed alongside criminal sketches showing features such as dominant foreheads or thin, pointed noses that were believed to be tell-tale signs of suspicious faces.
The three most alluring masks were those of Posnikoff, Woken, and Kalmanoff, nationally known as the “Bandito Bandits” of 1935, shown alongside a bayonet the bandits used as a weapon in their week-long run from authorities a near-century ago.
Another main attraction to the exhibit was a seemingly ordinary piece of rope with a label beside it stating, “This is to certify that this is the noose of the rope used in the execution of John Krafchenko, at Winnipeg on the 9th, July 1914.” Krafchenko, or “Bloody Jack,” was a known bank robber and murderer. Having a labeled artifact from an execution helped bring a heavier, more somber sense to the exhibit. While it’s fascinating to see these objects displayed safely behind glass the events they represent are not to be taken lightly.
For fans of the macabre, the most intriguing object in the room was a bullet set next to a mold of Albert “Mad Trapper” Johnson’s skull. Johnson was accused of stealing from traps in the early 20th century and shot at the officers questioning him about the traps before running for his life. The proceeding chase lasted forty days, and according to Eskritt was the first time the RCMP used an airplane for a manhunt.
The creepy part of this case isn’t what happened before Johnson died in a shootout with the RCMP, it’s what was found out after. “Albert Johnson” was an alias, and a DNA test on the corpse in 2007 showed no known matches. No one knows why Johnson shot at the inquiring officer or why he ran, and without his true identity we may never know. The bullet displayed beside the skull is a bullet that fell from Johnson’s corpse during an exhumation, and is thought to be from the shootout that led to his death.
Alongside the specific, more famous artifacts were examples of weapons over the past century, such as switchblades and sawed-off shotguns. Mixed in with the classic weapons were a variety of brass knuckles ranging from the classic versions you see in movies to versions with knives incorporated in the ends or screws stuck through the knuckles to maximize damage. There were also professional lockpicking tools even weapons and restraint devices used by authorities and vigilantes alike to apprehend suspects.
A crowd favourite and perhaps the most intricate and educational aspect of the exhibit was a full drug display unit. There was a wide variety of amphetamine tablets, a peyote cactus button, heroin, a poppy, and a variety of marijuana cigarettes and roaches as part of the dozens of drugs on display. There was apprehended paraphernalia as well surrounding the display showing both current and historic methods of drug use.
Between the artifacts, the atmosphere, and Oliver’s eyes tracing your every move, the folks at the RCMP Heritage Centre truly outdid themselves both in variety and accuracy, and I can’t wait to see what they pull out of the vaults next year.