Some People Would Die To Wind Up at This Museum

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 23, 2008

You know the names: Jesse James, Al Capone, Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger . . .

And the men who chased them. Wild Bill Hickok. Wyatt Earp. Eliot Ness. J. Edgar Hoover.

The prisons where their kind were locked up: Rikers. Attica. Leavenworth. Alcatraz.

And the ways they died: Bullets. Ropes. Firing squad. Electric chair. Gas chamber. Lethal injection.

These are the stories at the heart of the District's newest tourist attraction, the National Museum of Crime & Punishment, which opens today on Seventh Street NW in Gallery Place. The for-profit museum -- admission is $17.95 -- gives an eerie gloss to these true-life tales of cops and robbers, almost as if you're walking through a high-toned coffee-table book.

John Dillinger's Ford getaway car, for instance, is displayed like a crown jewel in the front window, a place of honor for one of the rewards of a life of crime. There's a re-creation of Capone's jail cell, complete with a plush bedspread, a polished wood desk, fringed lamps and a cabinet radio. And there's the gray Royal Stetson worn by "Crazy Joe" Gallo on April 7, 1972, as he was gunned down at Umberto's Clam House in New York.

Willie Sutton, the bank robber, once gave an interview to Reader's Digest. The television schedule is packed with series about crime. So it is understandable that the museum's founders think this is an idea that will grab the public.

Still, they have walked -- can we say a thin blue line? -- to give those who solved crimes equal treatment with those who committed them. And the museum seems to relish the criminals' often brutal deaths. "50 Slugs Kill Barrow and Moll in Ambush," reads the newspaper headline in one exhibit. And in a section on Depression-era gangsters, for instance, bold type emphasizes that "bad guys got what was coming to them." Punishment tools going back to Colonial-era stocks are also on exhibit. And the retail store is called "The Cop Shop," not the Mob Shop.

John Morgan, the founder and owner, says the idea for the museum came to him a few years ago when he visited Alcatraz, the famed California penitentiary. The organizers hope 700,000 people will buy tickets the first year, comparable to the 786,000 people who visited the free Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery across the street in 2007. That's almost the same as the average annual attendance (roughly 670,000) at the International Spy Museum over the past six years.

Morgan, an attorney from Orlando and creator of amusement centers, has joined with John Walsh, host of "America's Most Wanted," to show off criminals and crime fighters. The museum has five galleries, plus a studio for tapings of "America's Most Wanted." And some of the information included in the exhibits is drawn from research done by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, which Walsh and his wife co-founded.

But there is fanciful stuff, too. Morgan couldn't resist showing the 1934 beige Ford sedan, complete with 167 bullet holes, used in the 1967 movie "Bonnie and Clyde."

The split between entertainment and education over the 28,000-square-foot facility is most vivid in the area that re-creates a murder investigation from crime scene to autopsy.

In the gallery leading up to the "corpse," the visitor surveys the scene of the slaying, pushes buttons to illuminate the evidence and looks at all the crime-solving kits that the professionals use. Then the visitor uses interactive screens to examine a footprint left at the scene, dental records, body fluids and wounds, just like a medical examiner from "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."

Throughout the three-story building, the museum presents a number of interactive displays. You can learn how to crack a safe, watch clips of famous movies such as "The French Connection" and take an electronic quiz to see if the movie squared with reality. In a simulator, you can learn how to drive police vehicles. Then you can stand in a police station lineup or step into an Old West jail cell.

That's where the simulated experience stops. There are no pretend executions.

The National Museum of Crime & Punishment, 575 Seventh St. NW. Admission is $17.95 for adults. Hours are 9 a.m. -7 p.m. for the summer. For information:

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