I have already written a review of the Crime Museum Uncovered at the Museum of London, which opened in October 2015, but it is one of those exhibitions that stays with you, it is unsettling and thought provoking. So I am returning to the exhibition with a shorter blog on five objects from the near 600 on display that caught my attention.
1 – Execution ropes – Albert Milsom, 33, and Henry Fowler, 31, hanged together at Newgate prison on 9 June 1896 for the murder of Henry Smith in Muswell Hill.
Talk about objects that evoke strong feelings and you need look no further than a simple rope which just happens to also be the hangman’s noose.
The last thing you want to come across at an exhibition on crime and notorious criminals is a relative. I had to do a double-take at the name Henry Fowler. Fowler is my maiden name, of course there are a lot of Fowlers out there but the thought I could be distantly related to a murderer executed by the very rope in front of my eyes was certainly a short sharp shock.
The fact that William Seaman had to be hanged between them to stop Henry and Albert attacking each other as they went to their death sounded so bizarre it drove me to discover even more about their case.
Apparently they blamed each other for the murder of wealthy Henry Smith and Fowler had allegedly jumped the dock and tried to strangle Milson after he turned traitor and confessed to their evil deed. They were tracked down by a lantern left at the murder scene, the wick had been made of fabric later matched to Henry Miller’s sister who used it to make children’s dresses.
You can read a transcript of the proceedings of the case on the Old Bailey Online, it is a fascinating read that brings the period to life. I just hope we are not too closely related.
“My pal, the dirty dog, has turned Queen’s evidence…but I could tell a tale as well as he. There was £112 in the bag in the safe. I gave him £53 and some shillings, which was equal share of the money… Is it likely that I should give that to a man who stood outside?… But thieves will cut one another’s throats for half a loaf”. Henry Fowler 1
2 – Badly charred chair – on which the body of Samuel Furnace was found.
42 year old builder Samuel Furnace supposedly committed suicide by setting himself on fire in a shed in Camden Town on the 3 January 1933. Although a suicide note was found at the scene, the coroner Bentley Purchase was suspicious. A post-mortem revealed the body to have a gunshot wound and further detective work revealed the body to be Walter Spatchett, a 25 year old local debt collector. Furnace had gone on the run, the case featured the first radio appeal to assist a murder investigation.
I chose the chair because it is the one object in the exhibition to have undergone any form of conservation work. The chair was in such a fragile state that some consolidation work was needed to prevent further deterioration in its condition.
I can’t help thinking conservation is in fact very similar to the forensic science that so many cases rely on. It is requires a careful balance and is an ethical minefield, the attempt to preserve an object but not change or alter it in any way. I can’t imagine having to work up close and personal with this object, I take my hat off to the conservators professionalism and skill to work on such an emotive artefact.
3 – Blue light
I love this object, the first thing you see in the exhibition, if you ignore the flashy police car, and the only item to have come from the Museum of London’s collection. Choosing this object highlights all the work that was done off site, getting to grips with a collection that belongs to the Metropolitan Police. Every item had to be added to the database and measurements and history noted down.
The Blue Light came into the Museum of London’s collection in 1977, sadly no one is sure exactly which police station it may have originally come from. But I doubt it has been on display before, it has sat in storage for nearly 40 years literally waiting for it’s moment to shine.
It is an iconic object that we are all so familiar with but as police stations are sold off and the local police station disappears, will they become a thing of the past?
4 – Letter from executioner William Marwood to the Police Museum, 20 August 1876.
I was quite captivated by this letter, up on the side wall it’s quite easy to miss, yet it tells us so much and also prompts so many questions. In the letter Marwood queries the request of his executioner’s rope to join the collection at the museum. He is surprised at the request and admits he never lets it out of his sight, it gives you an insight into his connection with the tools of his trade.
“my rope I never let go out of my hands to anywon(sic) and i never let any won(sic) of my ropes to be cut. Sir if you would like to see you can by coming to the prison” William Marwood
It also makes me wonder how the objects ended up in the museum. Were they donated or was a significant amount of groundwork done to get hold of important objects. When does evidence stop being evidence? When there is the opportunity for a retrial, how long does the museum have to wait?
All museums should be evolving and living collections if they want to continue being relevant. If the museum is to become permanently open to the public in the future how will new objects with powerful connections to living people be included?
5 – False footprint makers – mid twentieth century.
Finally object number 5 and a chance to end on a lighter note. Not all criminals are evil masterminds and we forever have a soft spot for a hapless bungler even with criminal intentions. It is true there is not much comedy to be had in an exhibition that is unsettling and fairly brutal. So my final choice has to go to an object that breaks the mould.
The False footprint makers are from a mid twentieth century burglar, sadly his name is not know to us but he made these to stamp on the ground to throw police off the scent by leaving a smaller set of footprints at the scene.
This criminal genius also rather brilliantly left his own prints alongside and was caught. The item was used to inform officers about burglars’ techniques and no doubt it give them a bit of a laugh too.
So there we go, one exhibition, 5 objects. There are 600 in the exhibition, which five would you choose?
1 – Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 22 December 2015), May 1896, trial of ALBERT MILSOM (33) HENRY FOWLER (31) (t18960518-414).http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?div=t18960518-414
I highly recommend the catalogue that goes along with the exhibition The Crime Museum Uncovered – Inside Scotland Yard’s Special Collection, by Jackie Keily and Julia Hoffbrand, published by I.B.Tauris, 2015, from which I have taken some of the detail of this blog.