Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Category: site review

A journey round HMP Shepton Mallet

A bit of publicity on the local news always helps, and it was an item on the television about a ghost being spotted by staff at a former Somerset prison that got me in the car to go and visit it. Now, I have to say upfront that I don’t believe in ghosts in any way, shape or form (I annoy anyone I watch Most Haunted with by hooting with laughter for much of it), but it was the mention that the prison was open to visitors for a limited time before being redeveloped that made me drop my work and travel down to the south-west.

HMP Shepton Mallet, located near the centre of the Somerset town, closed in 2013 after a four-century history, and is due to be developed into flats (the BBC has covered consultations into its future). However, until works begin next year, the prison is being opened on a regular basis for public tours. These are run by Jailhouse Tours, which bills itself as providing the ‘most immersive tours’ of recently closed jails (it also runs similar tours of Shrewsbury and Gloucester prisons).

Don’t be concerned about the word ‘immersive’, however. Although the company offers a fully-guided two hour trip round the prison, accompanied by a former prison officer, you can also wander round on your own, if you prefer – and in this case, ‘immersive’ simply means wandering round wherever you want, in a prison where few concessions have been made for the dark tourist, which is, in my opinion, a good thing.

Those former prisons that have been permanently opened up to visitors inevitably shape, curate and present a certain narrative, with various levels of success. For every Kilmainham Gaol – where, although there are exhibitions and guides, you still get a clear sense of the bleakness and tedium of life inside – there is a Littledean Jail (porn and titillation in a former House of Correction). But here, you see a prison in varying levels of decay, abandoned and left as it was, with different stages of its history exposed.

There is damp and mould; peeling walls and smells emanating from the urinals and showers. You can crawl into a 17th century cell – rediscovered years after being boarded up – or visit the 20th century gymnasium. You see the changing nature of criminal justice, the inhumanity of aspects of prison life, and sense how horrific it must have been to be in the exercise yard, in the fresh air, yet surrounded by the high walls and barred windows of the prison on all sides.

It’s not cheap to visit; and if you want everything explained to you via flashy interpretation boards, don’t go (here, things to look at are pointed out on laminated sheets of A4 stuck on doors, due to the temporary nature of the tour). But the staff are both welcoming and genuinely interested in the site, and there’s free tea and coffee in the old visiting rooms… and, more importantly, it’s a rare opportunity to see so many centuries of criminal history before the developers take over.

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Crime and policing museums in the UK and Ireland

Lincoln Castle

Lincoln Castle

I’ve started putting together a map of crime and policing museums from England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. This is a work in progress, and so will be added to, although do feel free to make your suggestions as to other places I should be listing!

I’ve already been to quite a few of these, and when I’ve got time, hope to put together short reviews or links to my published reviews of these sites.

My first visit to one of these sites was to Inverarary Jail back in 1995, when I was on a family holiday here. My aunt persuaded me to go with her for something to do, and so I have her to thank for getting me interested in criminal history at that point! The photos you can see on the map have all been taken by me; when I can find the ones I’ve taken of other sites, I’ll add those too.

Dark glamour and transgressive behaviour: Crime Stories in New York

Photo 28-05-2016, 05 50 19It’s not every day that you ask an information assistant at a museum where one of their exhibitions is, and they don’t know the answer – and even ask you questions about the exhibition, because they’re not aware of it.

This is what happened when I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It suggests that the particular exhibition I wanted to see wasn’t high up on their list of priorities, which is a shame – because it was a fascinating one, and one that I hope many visitors would have heard of and sought out.

The exhibition, Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play, started in March, and runs until the end of July. It is positioned up on the second floor of the Fifth Avenue museum, round the back of the gift shop, and isn’t signposted virtually until you get to it. It’s not one of the main exhibitions the museum is promoting at the moment – evident from its volunteer’s blank face when I asked about it – but it is certainly the most unusual, being only feet away from works by Van Gogh and the likes.

The exhibition charts the history of crime photography, from the 19th century onwards. So we have a good look at French innovations of the Victorian era, in terms of criminal profiling and mugshots, offering a European perspective on crime and its recording. There are some fascinating artefacts – including Samuel G Szabo‘s ‘Rogues: A Study of Characters’ from around 1860, where the Hungarian photographer worked in collaboration with the police to make a study of offenders to try and identify the physical characteristics of the ‘criminal psyche’. His portraits include those of a shoplifter, wife poisoner, highwayman and murderer.

One of Bertillon's mesmerising images

One of Bertillon’s mesmerising images

There is, inevitably, Alphonse Bertillon‘s chart of physical traits of criminals, which enabled police to describe prisoners’ physical features in great detail, from their brows to their ears. Bertillon’s mug shots of suspected anarchists in late 19th century France are also here; and they are so detailed that you can spend a substantial amount of time just looking at them and noticing the detail of clothing, the colour of eyes, and so on.

Moving onto 20th century America, there are several photos by the infamous Weegee – press photographer Arthur Fellig, who produced sensationalist crime photographs, including ‘Outline of a Murder Victim’. There are also several 1940s crime scene photographs, and the curator has made the link between these photos and the film noir of the era very well, showing why these photos look so familiar to us in style and content. Famous assassinations – from Lincoln to JFK, and including Lee Harvey Oswald – are also, understandably, included; the latter two defining modern America.

The exhibition shows how we are both repelled and drawn to crime photography – its ‘dark glamour’ and portrayal of transgression appealing to our subconscious. It’s a well thought out, dark, but compelling display – and if you’re in New York over the next two months, it is well worth seeking out.

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A very dark tourism: Torture, incarceration and execution in Wicklow

Photo 28-03-2016, 12 14 08As part of a recent research trip to Ireland, I visited the 18th century gaol in Wicklow town, to look at how prisoners were treated here. This week, I’ll be publishing a series of posts on aspects of prison life here, but I thought I’d start with a general review of the site as a tourist attraction.

The ‘Historic Gaol’ as it has been termed is packaged as a bit of a themed day out with costumed interpreters – always a bit of a concern for me, as these ‘interpretations’ can be a bit hit or miss (and I’ve even heard interpreters give completely erroneous information out to visitors). It also means it has a completely different approach to Kilmainham Gaol in nearby Dublin, which only lets you round as part of a guided tour, but takes these (uncostumed!) tours very seriously, concentrating on the prison’s political history and leaving the cells and so on as they would have been – giving you the shudders as you go round.

But in reality, the costumed ‘warder’ only gives you, in effect, an introduction to the site before letting you loose on the rest of the gaol (although you have to follow a set path round). The first stop is the exercise yard, where there is a treadwheel in situ. The ‘prisoners’ depicted on this really showed how mind-numbing the treadwheel was, and how dangerous – it was stressed to visitors that the ‘windows’ at the top of the treadwheel were not for prisoners to look through, but for the spotting of bodies, as particularly younger, smaller prisoners may have slipped between the steps and fallen to their deaths.

After the exercise yard, you are taken back into the main building, where, on the ground floor, each cell has been fitted with something to look at – either a recreation of a cell scene, or a video screen telling the story of an individual or a type of offence, or an audio track again telling a story. The history of transportation is covered here in detail. Downstairs, the dungeons can be viewed; upstairs are more cells looking at different aspects of the criminal justice system and incarceration, including the treatment of lunatic prisoners and the jobs that prisoners undertook.

The multimedia elements are both good and creative; although I dislike the use of waxworks to show prisoners in their cells, they are at least used here for a distinct purpose (the torture cell, which I will cover in a separate post, is particularly fascinating). There is a recreation of a transportation ship, which offers something different to the usual prison experience, and the obligatory cafe and (small) gift shop.

Although the gaol’s website and Facebook page suggest that a visit will be more theme park than serious learning experience, they actually give the wrong impression. There is plenty of serious history here, informative and well presented; it’s well worth a visit.

Wicklow Historic Gaol is on Kilmantin Hill in Wicklow Town, and is open every day. See the website for more details.

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The next in my short series of blog posts on Wicklow Gaol, looking at torture and one particular torturer at the site, will be published on Wednesday.

The horrors of Kilmainham Gaol

image1 4Last month, I visited Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, and it had quite an effect on me.

Unlike many sanitised dark tourism sites, Kilmainham remains a forbidding site.

The first thing to mention about it is the cold. Little effort has been made to bring it into the 21st century with heating, or decent lighting, or any mod cons.

Apart from the museum – which is a fascinating place, well designed and with so much information that you can spend hours there – the place is firmly set in the past.

You can imagine the lives of the prisoners who once spent their days and nights there; the men crammed in their small cells, the women and children bedding down on straw in the corridors, under open, unglazed windows – at the mercy of the Irish weather.

image2 3This was once, in the late eighteenth century, home primarily to debtors, who made up over 50 per cent of prisoners. But it was also home to petty thieves, drunks, and prostitutes. Men and women were held together, in spaces designed for far fewer.

Window glass was not brought to the site until the late 1840s – until then, how many people must have died after failing to get adequate warmth within the confines of the gaol?

The Vagrancy (Ireland) Act, passed in 1847, served to punish those who, made destitute by the Famine, tried to beg in the streets, or steal food.

The prison became home to these poor people, with up to five sharing a cell designed for one. At least, now, they had a roof over their heads and regular food and drink.

Kilmainham is, of course, mainly associated with political prisoners. The instigators of the Easter Rising of 1916 were brought here, and executed in the yard.

image3 3Today, a cross marks the spot where all but one of these men faced the firing squad (the other, James Connolly, was so ill, he had to be constrained in a chair and killed near the gate where he had been brought in, unable to walk to the traditional execution spot).

You can only visit Kilmainham as part of a guided tour, and even as part of a group, it feels dark, claustrophobic and intimidating walking its corridors and looking at the cell doors behind which so many prisoners languished.

But for that reason, it is well worth a visit. It brings to life how awful prison life was, up there on Gallows Hill, rather than attempting to be a tourism “experience” with costumed guides and garish souvenirs.

 

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