Museum Month: Madness And Badness At Psychiatric And Crime Museums

michael myersIt’s no secret amongst my friends (and I suspect, most of my readers) that I’m obsessed with the more sordid aspects of humanity. Why? Hell if I know. As with most things, I blame my dad, the veterinarian. I’m pretty sure a childhood spent playing necropsy assistant has something to do with it.

My love of forensics is only the tip of the iceberg: psychiatry, taxidermy, eating weird shit and serial killers also make my list of fun things to read about or watch documentaries on when it’s time to relax. I know – I’m a total freak.

Obviously, I’m not alone (do a quick Google search of “forensic television shows” and you’ll see what I mean). There are also scads of museums and the like devoted to the seamier side of life, all across the U.S. My picks, after the jump.

P.S. If you find this reprehensible yet you’ve read this far, well, that makes you a bit of a voyeur, as well. Embrace it, and click away.nurse ratchedGlore Psychiatric Museum
A part of the St. Joseph Museum located in St. Joseph, Missouri, the Glore was once housed in “State Lunatic Asylum No. 2.” Founded by George Glore in 1903, the museum is essentially a history of the treatment of mental illness (including keepsakes from patients that include “items ingested” and contemporary artwork). There are also interactive exhibits, replicas and documents. Expect to see everything from lobotomy instruments to treatments for patients “possessed” by witchcraft or demons.

Glore worked for the Missouri Department of Mental Health for nearly 41 years, and despite the thematic content, his museum contains what’s considered the largest and most well curated exhibition of mental health care in the U.S. According to its website, Glore’s goal was to “reduce the stigma associated with psychiatric treatment for patients, their families and their communities.”

The Glore Psychiatric Museum is located at 3408 Frederick Avenue, and is open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sundays 1 to 5 p.m. – closed on major holidays.
CSI
The National Museum of Crime and Punishment
Washington, D.C.‘s “Crime Museum” opened in the Penn Quarter neighborhood in 2008, and boasts 28,000 square feet packed with artifacts, interactive exhibits, including an FBI shooting range and high-speed police chase simulator, and forensic techniques ranging from ballistics analysis to facial reconstruction. There are also historical exhibits focused on colonial crime, pirates, the Wild West, the Mafia and serial killers, and law enforcement uniforms, firearms and other equipment.

Other educational offerings include public forensic workshops, CSI summer camps for teens (it’s never too early to become the next Marg Helgenberger, kids) and rotating exhibits. Don’t forget your night vision goggles.

The Crime Museum is located at 575 7th Street NW, Washington D.C, and is open seven days a week. Hours vary by season. Click here for details. If you’re traveling by Metro, take the Green, Yellow or Red lines, and get off at the Gallery Place/Chinatown station.

[Photo credits: Michael Myers, Flickr user Chepe Leña; Crime Museum, Wikipedia Commons]

Brimham Rocks: weird natural formations in Yorkshire


What do you see in this picture? In Victorian times, the local people called this The Dancing Bear. In a more PC age where we don’t humiliate animals for our entertainment (much) the name has been changed to The Dog. Looks like he’s begging at his master’s dinner table.

This is one of many rock formations at Brimham Rocks, Yorkshire, England. An ancient river laid down grit and sand in this region more than 300 million years ago, forming a sandstone called Millstone Grit. Wind and rain have been scouring it away ever since. Softer portions go first, while those layers with tougher ingredients take longer to weather. Thus over millions of years the once-featureless stone has been twisted into odd formations like this one.

Needless to say the rocks have been a Yorkshire landmark since before recorded history. In Victorian times it became a tourist destination, with lots of colorful names and stories attached to the stones. One spot is called Lover’s Leap where, according to an 1863 guidebook, a couple named Edwin and Julia decided to end their lives.

“They were madly in love with each other but Julia’s father wasn’t having any of it. Especially when Edwin asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage. He forbade them to see each other any more. But of course, they couldn’t stand to live without each other. They decided to leap off Brimham Rocks and spend eternity together that way. Julia’s father got wind of the plan and dashed up there to dissuade them – but they jumped before he could reach them. However, by some miracle, instead of plummeting to their dooms, they floated gently to the ground. “Some said that a fairy who lived among the rocks had witnessed their misery and knew they could be happy if only they were allowed to marry.” Perhaps it was the influence of the Druids – or maybe even the magic in the rocks themselves. More boring people put it down to Julia’s skirts being so voluminous. But whatever, her Father at last consented to their marriage and naturally they lived happily ever after.”

The mention of the Druids is significant. The Victorians were fascinated by all things Celtic and many scholars thought archaeological sites like Stonehenge had been built by these Celtic priests. Natural formations were attributed to the Druids too. One table-like formation is called “The Druid’s Writing Desk” although many people say it looks more like E.T. There are dozens more, like the Idol, the Bulls of Babylon, and the turtle. There are also spots where Mother Shipton, the famous Yorkshire soothsayer, made her prophecies and practiced her magic.

While Brimham Rocks didn’t make it onto our list of the 17 strangest natural wonders, it’s well worth a visit not just for its natural beauty but also for all the strange and funny folklore that’s glommed onto it over the years. How much of it is “real” folklore and how much has been made up by the guides? Who knows? Our guide did admit that in Victorian times visitors paid only what they felt like, so the guides were under some real pressure to entertain.

Don’t miss the rest of my series on Exploring Yorkshire: ghosts, castles, and literature in England’s north.

Coming up next: York: capital of England’s north!

This trip was sponsored by
VisitEngland and Welcome to Yorkshire.

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The good old days were horrible


Ah, Merry Olde England! A time and place with happy people, clean streets, and scenes that looked just like they do on BBC historical dramas.

Not!

Premodern England was a grim place of death, filth, and general misery. Actually that can describe pretty much everywhere in the nineteenth century, but the town where the Brontë sisters lived was especially nasty. Some authors write novels to escape reality, and the Brontë sisters had a lot to escape from. Two of their sisters died in childhood thanks to the neglectful conditions at their boarding school. Then the Grim Reaper took the remaining sisters and their brother one by one.

This may have been due to the horrible health conditions in their town of Haworth, Yorkshire. At a time when all towns were unsanitary, Haworth took the prize. Haworth stands on the side of a steep hill with much of its water supply coming from natural springs near the top. Also near the top of the hill is the town graveyard. So crowded was this graveyard that the coffins were often buried ten deep. Water flowing through the graveyard contaminated the public pumps and ensured a steady supply of more dead bodies, which would rot, seep their juices into the water supply, and start the cycle anew. The Black Bull pub contributed to this by using this spring water to brew its own beer. One wonders what it tasted like.

%Gallery-104759%This wasn’t the only spring in Haworth, but the locals managed to ruin the others by placing open cesspools next to the pumps. Although the connection between cleanliness and health was only imperfectly understood, Patrick Brontë, local clergyman and father of the Brontë sisters, realized a place where 41 percent of the population died before age six had some serious issues. In 1850 he brought in Dr. Benjamin Babbage (son of Charles Babbage, who built the first computer) to make an inspection. Babbage was horrified at what he saw and his damning report of the local squalor made reformers take notice. If it wasn’t for Babbage, Haworth probably wouldn’t get so many tourists. People tend not to like smelling open cesspits and drinking decayed bodies while on vacation.

If natural causes didn’t bump you off, the Haworth poisoner might do it for you. John Sagar ran the local workhouse, the place where the poor were forced by law to live. There they were underfed, overworked, and slept in rat-infested little rooms as a punishment for the cardinal sin of poverty. Sagar was a “short, dark, vulgar-looking man” who only had one arm, which he used to beat his wife Barbara mercilessly. Everyone was too afraid of him to come to her aid. When she finally died it wasn’t by beating, but by arsenic poisoning. Sagar was the obvious suspect. Questions were also raised about the deaths of their nine children. Yet Sagar got off due to lack of evidence, and he lived to the ripe old age of 78, a small miracle considering the conditions of the town. Strangely, his is one of the only graves in the cemetery that shows signs of weathering. Some locals say nature is serving justice where the courts did not.

Links to the eerie past still linger. On some old buildings, strange stone faces stare out onto the street. They look like ancient Celtic stone heads, but researcher John Billingsley says they were a continuing folk magic custom that experienced a rebirth of popularity in the area in the 17th and 19th centuries. They were used to ward off evil, and as late as 1971 a head was placed over the front door of the Old Sun Inn to stop a haunting. It’s said to have worked! If you had witch trouble you could also carve a “W” into your door frame, or put pins into a bullock’s heart and bury it beneath the floorboards. Special witch bottles could be used to trap witches. I’ve seen pinned hearts and witch bottles at the West Highland Museum in Ft. William, Scotland, and the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, so the practice was widespread

With all the death and tourists, it’s not surprising that Haworth is full of ghost stories. Not only did I stay in a haunted hotel room, but every single bar I drank at or restaurant I ate in had a resident ghost. Phantom drinkers, gray ladies, even haunted carriages all prowl Haworth at night. There are deeper mysteries than ghosts, however. Witchcraft and folk magic abounded. Fear of witches was so great that local “cunning man” Old Jack Kay, a contemporary of the Brontës, would lift curses for a price. He also told fortunes and could show you your future spouse in a mirror or bowl of water. He and other “cunning men” brewed cures for the sick. Some were herbal medicine that might have been effective, while others had dubious ingredients. The urine of a red cow supposedly cured cancer. I suppose it would be unscientific to dismiss red cow’s urine as a cure for cancer with testing it, but good luck getting volunteers for the clinical trial.

So the next time you’re in some charming historic locale, think back on how things used to be, and be thankful that they’re not like that anymore!

Don’t miss the rest of my series on Exploring Yorkshire: ghosts, castles, and literature in England’s north.

Coming up next: Hiking the Yorkshire moors!

A special thanks to local historians Steven Wood and Philip Lister for all the great stories that contributed to this article, and all the great ones I couldn’t fit in.


This trip was sponsored by
VisitEngland and Welcome to Yorkshire, who would have a lot less to brag about if Dr. Babbage hadn’t fixed a few things.

Colchester Castle celebrates 150 years as a museum

It’s not often that a museum becomes a museum piece.

The Colchester Castle Museum recently celebrated its 150th birthday. Located in Essex, England, and housed in one of the best preserved Norman castles in the world, the museum boasts a massive collection of Roman artifacts.

Colchester used to be the capital of Roman Britain until it was leveled by the warrior queen Boudica in 60 AD. As the leader of the Celtic Iceni tribe, she had defied the recent Roman conquest of England. As punishment she was whipped and her underaged daughters raped before her eyes. Boudica raised an army and wreaked a terrible revenge across Roman Britain, slaughtering an estimated 30,000 people at Colchester alone before she was defeated at the Battle of Watling Street.

The Normans built a castle here around the year 1076 on the foundations of the temple to the Emperor Claudius. The foundations were so large that the castle ended up being the biggest ever built in England. After a stint as an interrogation center for suspected witches, it eventually became a museum in 1860. Today it houses an excellent collection of Roman artifacts as well as collections from other periods. An interesting article in the Chelmsford Weekly News reports the collection is the product of generations of collectors and includes not only priceless archaeological treasures but oddities such as a crab with oysters growing on its shell.

[Photo courtesy Filip Walter via Wikimedia Commons]

Five stunning stone circles (besides Stonehenge)


Every year thousands of tourists flock to Stonehenge, the iconic stone circle on Salisbury Plain, England. While so much attention is focused on this site, especially with the recent discovery of another monument near Stonehenge, people often forget there’s more than a thousand stone circles in the British Isles and Continental Europe. Built during the Neolithic starting about 5,000 years ago, these sites are beautiful and have gathered a lot of strange folklore over the centuries, like the mistaken belief that they were built by Druids or giants. Here are five of the best.

The Ring of Brodgar, Orkney Isles, Scotland
The windswept Orkney Isles north of Scotland are covered in prehistoric remains. The Ring of Brodgar, seen above in this photo courtesy of Beth Loft, is built of thin, tall stones on a narrow isthmus between two lochs. Its architects obviously had an eye for dramatic setting. It dates to between 2500 and 2000 BC, a boom time for monumental building in the Orkneys. It’s the northernmost stone circle in the British Isles and also the third largest at 104 meters (341 ft) in diameter. Like many major circles it’s part of a network of sites, with tombs and single standing stones scattered in the area around it. Legend has it that the Vikings were so impressed with the Ring of Brodgar when they arrived in the ninth century AD that they worshiped their gods here. Some Viking Runes carved into the stones may support this theory.

Avebury, England
Bigger than Stonehenge, the site of Avebury just 17 miles north of Stonehenge consists of a massive stone circle 331.6 meters (1,088 ft) in diameter with two avenues of stones leading to a pair of smaller stone circles. Construction began around 2900 BC, roughly the same time as its neighbor. Other monuments, such as the mysterious artificial mound of Silbury Hill and the West Kennet Long barrow, an ancient tomb, are an easy walk away. During the Middle Ages the locals got religion and decided this pagan monument needed to go. They knocked over several stones until one fell over and crushed one of the vandals. Everyone thought this was just a legend until modern archaeologists dug up a fallen stone and found the skeleton of a man underneath with some 14th century coins in his pocket!

%Gallery-98480%Rollright Stones, England
This stone circle makes a fun day hike from Oxford. Most stone circles are pretty small. This one is only 33 meters (108 feet) in diameter but has some interesting details. One stone has a hole through which you can see a tall monolith called the King Stone in a nearby field. A nearby dolmen (a small roofed tomb of stone) is called the Whispering Knights. Legend says the circle and these two outlying monuments are a king and his knights who were turned to stone by a witch. Actually the circle and monolith were built by prehistoric people between 2500 to 2000 BC. The Whispering Knights date to about 3500 BC. In prehistoric times, the presence of one monument encouraged people to build more.

Drombeg Stone Circle, Ireland
Drombeg Stone Circle in County Cork is a tight little collection of stones 9 meters (30 feet) in diameter. It’s of a type known as a recumbent stone circle because the largest stone lies on its side flanked by two smaller ones. This was deliberate; the stone didn’t fall down. What this means is anyone’s guess, although the local claim that it’s a “Druid’s Altar” is fanciful because the circle dates to the Bronze Age, about 2000 BC, and the druids were priests of the Celts, who didn’t appear on the scene until around 300 BC. Radiocarbon dating on a burial found in the center of the circle yielded a date between 150 BC and 130 AD. Just like at the Ring of Brodgar, later people were attracted to the site. While Drombeg didn’t start out as a Druid’s altar, maybe it ended up as one!

The Stone Circles of Senegambia, Senegal and The Gambia
Stone circles in Africa? Yep, these monuments aren’t as grandiose as the ones in Europe but they’re equally mysterious. There are about a thousand of them in a region of central Senegal and Gambia, meaning there’s about as many stone circles here as in all of Europe. The stones are as tall as 2.5 meters (8 ft.), although some are only a foot or so high. They mark burials dating from the 3rd century BC to the 16th century AD. There’s a large concentration of them at Wassu, Gambia. Locals put small stones on top of them as a sign of respect. Not much is known about these stone circles but they are beginning to attract attention from the archaeological community. A certain Gadling blogger may be visiting them next year, so stay tuned.