Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Where crime is considered history

This story is my first real piece of freelance work. It's about the Crime and Punishment Museum in Washington, written for a Middle East daily newspaper called The National. I wrote the piece for the Washington Bureau. Click here to view the original:

Where crime is considered history
Jonathan Hemmerdinger, Correspondent
Last Updated: June 05. 2008 12:06AM UAE / June 4. 2008 8:06PM GMT

A patron fires off a few rounds in the "Old West" shooting gallery at the National Museum of Crime and Punishment. Jacquelyn Martin / AP
WASHINGTON // The original court docket of Ted Bundy, the infamous serial killer, shouts its verdict at visitors: “To be sentenced to DEATH BY EXECUTION”.Nearby is the gibbet-chain, a medieval torture device used to hang offenders. Also present is the “Old West” shooting range. A dollar will get you five shots – and sinister fun for the whole family.This is Washington’s newest tourist attraction, the National Museum of Crime & Punishment, a 2,600-square metre facility filled with historic artefacts and pop-culture memorabilia that illuminate America’s national preoccupation with its criminal past.
“People are fascinated with crime and punishment,”said Janine Vaccarello, the museum’s chief operating officer. “It’s about the chase. We want to be detectives too.”The museum – whose motto is “So Much Fun It’s a Crime” – boasts the 1851 revolver of James “Wild Bill” Hickok, the gun-toting icon of America’s Wild West, and the bullet-ridden Ford from the classic Hollywood movie Bonnie and Clyde, about the bankrobbing couple that terrorised the central United States in the 1930s.
Visitors can try outsmarting the lie detector, practice robbery in a game of “Crack-a-Safe” and feel the thrill of high-speed pursuit in the police chase simulator.In a country that is more violent than anywhere in the West, where prisons are overflowing with offenders, the museum leaves itself open to criticism that it glamourises crime.Museum officials dispute that. And the museum is in partnership with John Walsh, the host of the television show America’s Most Wanted, which has aided in the return of missing children and the capture of nearly 1,000 dangerous criminals.
Mr Walsh’s six-year-old son Adam was kidnapped and murdered in 1981.Since then, Mr Walsh has dedicated his life to protecting children. The museum houses the new set of America’s Most Wanted, where the programme will be taped monthly.Despite Hollywood’s influence, crime does not pay, according to the museum. “If you’re ever tempted by crime,” goes a recording of Frank Abaganale Jr, the legendary con man, “trust me, you’ll never win”.
Mr Abaganale, the subject of the 2002 film Catch Me If You Can, passed US$2.5 million (Dh9.2m) in bad cheques before serving time in French, Swedish and US prisons. His taped “lecture” is enforced by the stark, full-sized prison cell mock-up, a collection of crude prison shanks and “Old Smokey” the electric chair.Dennis Sobin, 64, a collector of prison art whose business card reads “Fine Art by Imprisoned Artists”, has a unique perspective on why Americans are so beguiled by crime. From 1992 until 2003 Mr Sobin was locked in a federal penitentiary for racketeering.
“We live in a society that was built on freedom,” said Mr Sobin, who learnt to play guitar in prison and now performs annually at the Kennedy Center’s From Prison to the Stage show. Mr Sobin answered questions on the museum’s opening day last month about its prison art display, which includes paintings by John Wayne Gacy, renowned serial killer.“People who violate laws epitomise the quintessential meaning of freedom,” Mr Sobin said. “We thumb our noses at power. That’s one reason the museum will do so well.”
Mr Sobin’s theory seems to make sense. Many criminals from America’s past have evolved into pop-culture symbols of romantic living, no matter how heinous their crimes.“At the time, people were afraid of them,” Ms Vaccarello said of Bonnie and Clyde. “But they were playful and in love and they carried a camera to photograph themselves.“There’s an attraction there,” Ms Vaccarello said.Which is why visitors are willing to pay the US$17.95 to get in the front door.
“I like the serial killer stuff,” said Lisa Doughty, 24, of Fort Belvoir, Virginia, on a recent visit. She was referring to the museum’s exhibit on America’s most heinous criminals – mass-murderers with such nicknames as “Zodiac”, “Son of Sam” and “The Killer Clown”.She and her mother, Faith Hudson, 41, also fancied the prison cell.“Get in there,” shouted Ms Hudson, pointing her camera as her daughter scrambled on to one of the cell bunks. “Look like you’re trying to escape,” she said.
* The National