You wouldn’t expect to see a healthy house plant growing in the corner of a jail cell.
Then again, most jail cells aren’t illuminated by lamplight and don’t display a plush armchair, paintings and a Victrola record player.
But when you’re worth $62 million like Alphonse “Big Al” Capone back in the day, you could afford to buy yourself a relaxing time in prison.
A replica of the mob boss’ pre-Alcatraz cell, paired with a detailed history of his felonies, is just one of the riveting exhibits inside the National Museum of Crime and Punishment.
The 28,000-square-foot museum in the heart of Penn Quarter looks like no other in D.C.: Passers-by on Seventh Street NW will hear James Bond music playing and find its windows covered with yellow caution tape; yet the museum’s exterior only hints at the more than 700 artifacts it houses.
Many would never guess that Fox TV’s hit show “America’s Most Wanted” was filmed in the museum’s basement for years before it was canceled in 2011.
The first gallery chronicles the history of crime by featuring stories of notorious criminals.
Wooden floorboards and a mannequin resembling Captain Jack Sparrow make the gallery’s opening exhibit feel like the set of “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Lining the walls are curved swords, pistols and telescope replicas, as well as the histories of pirates such as Edward Teach, aka “Blackbeard,” who plundered ships bound for American ports.
A Wild West exhibit showcases a jail cell where guests can take pictures behind iron bars and read Black Jack Ketchum’s sassy last words he scrawled on his cell’s walls before being hanged on April 26, 1901: “Can’t you hurry this up a bit? I hear they eat dinner in Hades at twelve sharp and I don’t aim to be late.”
Typed across parchment and wanted posters are detailed stories of outlaws, such as Jesse James and his gang. One gang member’s rusty Army revolvers are on display.
Bonnie and Clyde’s Death Car, a cream colored Ford V-8 sedan decorated with bullet holes, opens the museum’s Era of Public Enemies exhibit.
Along with the Death Car, the exhibit includes a transcript of Clyde’s sister’s book about the couple, a brick from their hideout, the only copy of their signatures side-by-side, and the story of how a slight, poetry-loving girl fell in love with a criminal who had a chip on his shoulder and swore revenge on Texas’ correctional system.
The History of Crime Gallery features a mafia exhibit that holds the Lawman MK III snubnose revolver made famous in “The Godfather,” and an exhibit on today’s criminals, where one can find serial killer John Wayne Gacy’s creepy clown suits and a bizarre, two-line letter Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff wrote to his son.
Interactive attractions are scattered throughout, including a lie detector and a safe that instructs how to break it open.
Janice Vaccarello, the museum’s chief operations officer, says the most popular interactive attractions lie inside the Crime Fighting Gallery, where one can try on night-vision goggles, embark on a simulated high-speed police chase, and conduct a police raid with a firearms training simulator.