At the Scene of the Crime

Museum Taps a U.S. Fascination

Posted June 3, 2008 at 3:48pm

During a trip to San Francisco a few years back, John Morgan was surprised by the mobs of people boarding boats to visit the island prison of Alcatraz.

“I got to the gate and said I’d like to buy tickets and they said there’s an eight-day wait,” Morgan said. He eventually palmed a guard some money to let him on the boat. “I got out there and I thought America has this unbelievable fascination with crime and punishment,” he recalled.

That afternoon at the big house gave birth to the idea for the National Museum of Crime & Punishment, which Morgan co-owns with Seth Ellis. The museum, which recently opened in Chinatown, is broken into five galleries: the history of crime, notorious criminals, crime and punishment, crime solving and America’s Most Wanted. The galleries are meant to give visitors a broad view of crime throughout the world as well as specifically in America. The exhibits begin with medieval and colonial crime, displaying stocks and Venetian finger screws, before moving on to tales of the Salem witch trials and Al Capone.

“I hired a curator and just had him tracking things down and making phone calls. One call would lead to another call,” said Morgan, an attorney and entrepreneur who owns the Wonder Works brand of amusement centers. “One of the things we hope to do as the museum goes on is keep the curator there and continue to look for even more artifacts to keep it fresh and interesting.”

Among the items on display are Ted Bundy’s fingerprints, various criminals’ guns and an electric chair. Janine Vaccarello, chief operating officer of the museum, said a car that once belonged to famed bank robber John Dillinger is her favorite piece in the museum. “I have a love for older cars and I just think that they’re cute and they’re just different — like how the doors open, how the windows open,” she said. “And just knowing that that’s a bulletproof car is pretty amazing.”

Vaccarello has been working on the museum with Morgan for the past six months. She has had a hand in every aspect, from designing the employee uniforms — orange jumpsuits, like prisoners’ — to helping the curator pick out pieces. Vaccarello said she was reluctant to come on board with the museum at first because she didn’t want to relocate from Florida to Washington, D.C., but Morgan eventually was able to persuade her.

“He finally got me to do it when he showed me the architectural renderings of the building and I saw how amazing this project was going to be,” she said.

One of the museum’s most popular features is the crime-solving segment, which shows how crime scene investigations unfold. Visitors enter a room that looks like a medical lab, where they are taught how to follow clues to solve the crime.

“I enjoy the CSI part because I think it’s educational, but it’s done in the way that’s compelling,” Morgan said of the crime scene investigation segment. “The key to education is when it doesn’t feel like you’re being taught.”

The museum also aims to prevent crime through its America’s Most Wanted gallery. Here, parents can have their children photographed and fingerprinted to speed up recovery efforts if they are ever kidnapped. The process is free for children under 18, and parents get a copy of the photo and scan.

“What that does for the police is say if little Johnny goes missing, you give them the fingerprint, they scan it into the system,” Vaccarello said. “And if they suspect your child is somewhere else in disguise they can get a fingerprint and try to do the match.”

Several episodes of America’s Most Wanted will be taped in the gallery for visitors to the museum to see. At 6 p.m. on Saturdays, visitors will be able to watch operators field calls on the America’s Most Wanted Hotline.

The museum, open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, is located at 575 Seventh St. NW. Tickets are $17.95 for adults and $14.95 for children, and are available at crimemuseum.org.