We delved deep into the weird and wonderful stores at the National Justice Museum to find ten of the most interesting, bizarre and macabre items from the history of crime and punishment…
Reggie Kray’s Prison Shirt
Along with his brother Ronnie, Reggie Kray ran a criminal empire from the East End of London during the fifties and sixties. Now immortalized in cultural history, their gang was involved in armed robbery, arson, protection rackets, assault and murder. This, as well as mixing with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland, established them as household names.
Their exploits caught up with them, however, as both Ronnie and Reggie were sentenced to life imprisonment in 1969. Not one to let prison life ruin the lifestyle to which he had become accustomed, Reggie’s blue and white striped shirt, which he wore while being incarcerated in Nottingham Prison, still has its Harrods label attached. Most bizarrely of all, the shirt was a gift from astronaut Buzz Aldrin. How the most famous gangster in London’s history and the second man to ever walk on the moon became friends is anyone’s guess.
Antique Amputation Kit
The medical implements found in this antique kit would have been used for a number of brutal procedures, including amputation and the removal of bone and other debris from wounds. The wooden case contains a bone-saw, flesh cleaver, five varying types of knife, a razor wire, scissors, three types of pliers and four hooks – all the tools used for amputation.
Kits like this were used as far back as 1860 – a time in which the attitudes towards surgery, and medicine in general, were rapidly changing. With no anaesthetic, speed was key to ensuring that the patient suffered as little as possible. It was said that pioneering Scottish surgeon, Robert Liston, was so consumed by speed that, during one operation in which he removed a patient’s leg in under two and a half minutes, he also accidentally cut off the fingers of his young assistant. On a separate occasion, during which Liston was removing another leg in similarly speedy time, he accidentally cut off the patient’s testicles. During yet another blunderous operation, he inadvertently cut through the coattails of a spectator who, so terrified at the thought that he had been mortally injured, dropped dead from fright.
Oscar Wilde’s Prison Door
On 25 May 1895, Irish writer, poet, raconteur and wit Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labour in Reading Gaol having been tried and found guilty of ‘gross indecency’ – a byword for homosexuality, which was illegal in the UK until 1967. Initially denied any writing implements, and no other reading material other than the Bible, the combination of the living conditions, harsh environment and brutal forced labour had an enormous toll on the legendary writer, and just over two years after his release, Oscar Wilde died at the age of 46, a destitute shell of his former self, exiled in Paris, France.
Having spent parts of his sentence in Newgate, Pentonville and Wandsworth prisons, this is the door to his cell at Reading Gaol, which he attested constituted the lowest point of his incarceration. Upon his arrival, crowds jeered and spat at him, and throughout his time there, Wilde was only referred to as “C33” – the occupant of the third cell on the third floor of C ward. It was during this time that Wilde witnessed the execution of Charles Thomas Woolridge, which inspired his later poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol.
The National Justice Museum stores are full of items created and crafted by prisoners during their time behind bars – from hand-carved soap figurines to injection moulds for making lead animals and wooden cars made for children. It’s thought that this item could have been carved from the bones of an animal that was eaten in the prison canteen, providing an opportunity for the inmates to keep themselves occupied for an afternoon. The resulting carving provides an interesting insight into the brain of the inmate on that particular day – the clenched fist almost suggests a triumphant feeling. Perhaps this was to symbolise a feeling of autonomy or satisfaction from being able to freely create while being stripped of most other basic daily comforts.
Victorian Time Capsule
It’s intriguing to think that this collection of historical artefacts was buried with the deliberate intention of communicating with future generations. Perhaps the owner wanted to help archaeologists decipher life in the years before them, or to simply inform future generations of their existence. This collection of items is presumed to have been buried in Kent, and contains a water-damaged book, eleven Victorian coins, a clear jar containing a small amount of soil and a selection of water-damaged newspaper clippings.
An Executioner’s Noose
In Britain, hanging was the principal method of execution from Anglo-Saxon times until the suspension of capital punishment in 1964. It’s estimated that between 1735-1965 over ten thousand people were executed using this method. Up until May 1868, all hangings were carried out in public, attracting large crowds of people who revelled in the macabre spectacle. It was used for people as young as eight, including John Dean who was hanged for arson in 1629, and for any manner of crimes, including at one stage, “being in the company of Gypsies for one month”. So free was the use of the gallows in Britain that in 1810 Sir Samuel Romilly commented, “there is no country on the face of the earth in which there have been so many different offences according to law to be punished with death as in England.” It isn’t known whether this ten inch noose was ever used in a hanging, but it carries a label stating that it has been tested and approved for execution.
A Man Trap
This grim device does exactly what its name suggests, and is essentially a human equivalent of a smaller trap used to catch animals. Their use was most common during the 18th century, when rural labourers resorted to poaching in order to keep from starving. With enormous sharp metal teeth, the spring-loaded trap would ensnare its victim’s leg, sinking its spikes down to the bone and holding them until they were either found and arrested or bled to death from their injuries.
Improvised Bedspring Key
Hollywood has provided us with many examples of how one might go about breaking free from a prison cell – whether it be a nineteen-year plot like Shawshank Redemption or a more far-fetched scheme like Chicken Run – but none are quite as cunning or subtle as this one. We can only assume that this key, fashioned from a bedspring, was created as part of one prisoner’s master plot to taste freedom. As the item still sits in the museum’s stores today, it’s safe to assume their plot failed – however, it is interesting to note that bed springs were used in one successful prison break: in 1995, 29 inmates escaped a Turkish prison using the wire to fashion a ladder
This collection of seemingly random items all have one, grisly detail in common – they have all passed through the digestive system of prison inmates. Yes, even the fork. The ingestion of sharp objects, such as the rosary beads, pen nibs and razor blades shown is still a common occurrence in prisons today. Items would be swallowed for several reasons – to cause illness and therefore gain respite in the hospital infirmary, to smuggle materials to make weapons or escape tools, or with the intention to cause death. In many cases, this was and still remains the outcome. In fact, a 2015 report revealed that the intentional ingestion of foreign objects could be attributed to the deaths of up to 1,500 prisoners per year in the US alone. Whatever the intentions, collectively these objects capture that feeling of sheer desperation that prisoners must feel during their time behind bars.
An 18th Century Death Row Letter
This hand-written letter from the late 18th century comes from the pen of Henry Parish, writing to his mother as he awaited execution. Parish was a member of the Oxford Militia (which also included Henry Austen – brother of writer Jane Austen), who had been posted in Sussex to safeguard against an anticipated French invasion in 1795. Conditions were dismal, and food was scarce for the militiamen, leading to a small group breaking into a local butcher’s shop to steal meat. The following day, five hundred fellow militiamen followed suit, mutinying against their officers and taking control of a ship full of flour and supplies.
Prince Frederick, the Duke of York (son of King George III, and the inspiration for the famous nursery rhyme) soon arrived to quash the rebellion, and the mutineers quickly surrendered. With the British aristocracy extremely cautious of a repeat of the revolutionary activity that had swept through France and America, it was decided that repercussions would be swift and brutal. Parish, along with another man named Edward Cooke, were chosen to be executed for their part. Their selection, as well as the choice of six other men to receive 300 lashes, was seemingly random, with none of the chosen men having played a significant role in the mutiny.
At 5am on 13 June 1795, thirteen full regiments were assembled in Goldstone Bottom in Hove to witness the punishments. On the advice of a doctor, the floggings were stopped prematurely, as the intended 300 lashes would have constituted a death sentence. Parish and Cooke were then led out and, having been disturbingly forced to kneel in their own coffins, faced a firing squad made up of their fellow mutineers. After the grim spectacle was complete, the remaining members of the Oxford Militia were made to slow-march past the bodies of their slain friends. The entire ordeal lasted over three and a half hours.
Concluding the heart-breaking letter to his Mother, Parish writes, “I fear not what man can do unto me if they persecute my body, for they cannot hurt my soul. From the hand of your ever loving and dutiful and dying son…”