WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Chalk it up to the eternal conflict between good and evil, but Americans have always been fascinated with crime.
From the stocks and pillories used to mock and humiliate offenders during Colonial times, to the bloody shoot-out at the O.K. Corral, to the notoriety of serial killer Ted Bundy, who confessed to 30 murders before being executed in 1989 -- it all fuels our imaginations in ways we can't quite comprehend.
The new National Museum of Crime & Punishment in Washington, D.C., which opened May 23, aims to satisfy all of our curiosities about the nation's most notorious crimes and to explain how the justice system works in a presentation that will enlighten even the most devoted fans of "Law & Order."
Privately owned and operated by Florida businessman John Morgan in partnership with John Walsh, host of "America's Most Wanted," the museum strives to replace Hollywood fantasy with a more realistic -- but equally fascinating -- picture of crime and punishment in the United States. And it uses a pretty big brush, starting with the pirates who terrorized our earliest settlers with cannons and cutlasses and working its way up to today's crime scene investigators, who solve crimes using forensic science technology such as DNA testing and facial reconstruction.
In a town where nearly every museum is free, it can be tough to get people to hand over serious cash for even the most educational attraction -- and the crime museum, which bustles with both people and activity, teeters on the edge of Disney. But overall, the museum gives visitors a fairly fun time for its steep $17.95 admission price.
Located somewhat off the beaten path in the revitalized Penn Quarter section of the capital (it's cater-corner to the National Portrait Gallery), the $16 million museum stretches 28,000-square-feet over three levels, most of which is jam-packed with things to see or do. My visit on a Wednesday morning took a good two hours; had I played all of the more than two dozen interactive games sprinkled throughout its five galleries or more carefully read the text accompanying its 700 artifacts, I could have easily doubled that time.
Each gallery focuses on an aspect of crime and/or punishment. The introductory "Notorious History of American Crime" section, for instance, explores the evolution of crime and criminals, starting with medieval times, when finger screws and gibbet chains were used to torture prisoners. The "Punishment" gallery looks at the consequences of crime, from how suspects are booked (you can test yourself on a lie detector), to what it's like to be in a jail cell (cramped), to methods of execution (did you know prisoners sent to the gas chamber were blindfolded?).
To shed light on those who ensure our safety and security, the museum also explores crime fighting and crime solving. You can take a simulated ride in a police cruiser or try on a pair of night-vision goggles as well as investigate a crime scene or learn how coroners do autopsies.
The museum's greatest appeal lies in its exhibits. Call me crazy, but I was fascinated by a display of Ted Bundy's fingerprints, taken after he was sentenced to death for the Chi Omega murders at Florida State University. You also get to see such oddities as a blood-stained floor board from Jesse James' uncle's house in Texas; a birthday card signed by David Berkowitz (aka Son of Sam); and contraband items discovered in prisons, including a toilet paper pistol and a variety of toothbrush and safety-pin shanks.
On a lighter note, visitors can view mug shots of famous celebrities who had run-ins with the law, including Jim Morrison of the Doors, who was written up for obscenity after urinating in public; and actor Mel Gibson, arrested for drunken driving. There's also a small display of the world's dumbest criminals.
A word to the wise regarding the artifacts: While most are interesting and even occasionally chilling -- the "Murderabilia" exhibit includes mass murderer John Wayne Gacy's artist's paintbox and Forecast 12 portable typewriter and the Boston Strangler's Bakelite switchblade -- they aren't all the real thing.
Outlaw John Dillinger's bright-red getaway car in the front entrance, displayed behind stanchions made of handcuffs and yellow crime-scene tape? It's real. But the bullet-ridden '34 Ford V8 that Bonnie and Clyde died in during a roadblock ambush on May 23, 1934, is actually from the 1967 movie starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty.
Similarly, while "Old Smokey," the electric chair used to put 125 criminals to death in Tennessee, is authentic, gangster Al Capone's "Park Avenue" jail cell from Eastern State Penitentiary, complete with arm chair and Victorian secretary, is a re-creation.
But for many visitors, that may not matter.
The story continues in the museum's basement, where on Saturdays host John Walsh tapes the TV series "America's Most Wanted" in a live studio and hot line operators field calls and e-mails from viewers who think they have leads on profiled fugitives. It's here that you can have your children fingerprinted for free or be "interviewed" by Mr. Walsh. Or, take a chance and have your face scanned to see if it matches that of a known criminal. (Mine didn't. Whew!)
It might not be the Smithsonian, but that's OK. Even in Washington, it's fun sometimes to be entertained while you're also being educated.
Gretchen McKay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1419.