The Black Museum At Scotland Yard

On Tuesday, 24th April 1877, The Sussex Advertiser treated its readers to an idea of the sort of delights they could expect to view if they were to pay a visit to the Metropolitan Police’s Black Museum at Scotland yard:-


Scotland Yard, we all know, is not like any of the Continental handsome, well-built, commodious bureaux de police. It is a curious medley of stables, outhouses, temporary offices, sheds, and private houses, each more inconvenient than the other, and all connected together by a labyrinthine web of passages as tortuous and intricate as the secret and burrowing nature of its occupants can suggest.

It is not, however, with the general feature of this establishment that we have to do now, though there are associations connected with some of the rooms in this sprawling nucleus that are significant enough.


Chief among these premises is a tall, dull, gloomy house in the very corner of the yard on the left as you enter from Whitehall Place. Everything looks dirty and forlorn about this building, which has the natural sombreness of its exterior heightened by iron bars to the windows, and by all the dingy blinds being drawn down as if some one lay dead there.

There is no one dead there, however, though it contains innumerable relics and mementos of those who are civilly dead to the eye of the law, of those who have suffered the last penalty of the law, and of those whose lives have been murderously wrested from them, while their murderers remain still undiscovered.


In addition to these, its large storehouse of rooms contain the property of all kinds found on convicted thieves, and the property of which they have been found in unlawful possession, but which, though in some easel of great value, and often advertised, have never been claimed.

Formerly all property of any kind belonging to convicted felons went the Crown, but by an Act passsd, we believe, in 1869, this was altered, and whatever is found on them now is retained till their sentences have been completed, when they can come to this house and claim their own. This law does not, of course, apply to cases of unlawful possession, such as tools for burglary, which are never given up, or see the light again.

Here, too, are collected all the weapons connected with undiscovered crimes, the clothes of the victims, forged notes, forged bills, false sovereigns, beards, wigs, moustaches, rope ladders, skeleton keys, empty cash-boxes, knives, razors, hatchets – most of the three latter all more or less blood-stained.

People inside the Black Museum.
Visitors To The Black Museum. From The Illustrated London News, Saturday, 13th October, 1883. Copyright, Illustrated London News Group.


The building, is indeed, as it is called, a Black Museum, for it is associated with whatever is darkest in human nature and human destiny. One might well try in the space of an article to give a description of the contents of the British Museum as of this black one.

There is only one thing that simplifies the matter, which is that everything you see is the product of crime, or connected with its worst forms. The rooms are just like the storerooms of a large pawnbroker’s, and just as there, every conceivable thing that can fetch money has been pledged, here every conceivable thing that is worth money has been stolen.


It has been calculated that a regular thief must steal to the value of two pounds a day to keep himself on the fourteen shillings he gets from the receiver. Knowing this, we were quite prepared to see a very heterogeneous collection in the first room, but the wonderful variety of its contents we must own surprised us.

For instance, in one corner are three large sacks of cochineal, a smaller sack of opium, and one large case of jalap, in all worth between £700 and £800, the proceeds of robbery, of course, yet here they have stayed for thirteen years unclaimed.

Opposite these, a large tin bath, which we must own is puzzling. Its size precludes the possibility of its having been stolen from a shop unobserved, and if stolen from a house why was not something of more value and more portable taken?

Portmanteaus, travelling bags, and railway rugs are of course, here to any extent, might be expected, so also are paper bundles of gold and silver chains of all sorts of lengths, patterns, and value. These will ultimately go into the bullion department, but the Black Museum has not yet been completely arranged.

Church property seems in peculiar favour with thieves, for there are Bibles, prayer-books, pew cushions, hassocks, and money-boxes torn from the walls, with general vestry goods enough to set up a parish. Indeed, these church fixtures are so abundant, and all unclaimed, that if your conductor told you they had part of a steeple or a peal of bells in the back yard you would not feel very much surprised.

For the rest, boots, shoes, tools (engineering and mechanical), tin cases, large earthenware pans, garden implements, garden engines, brass fittings, door handles, bells, coppers, bales of cloth, umbrellas, whips, clothing, feathers, tea chests, bags cf coffee, perambulators, a bicycle – everything, in fact, from theodolite thimble – are here.

Provisions, such as hams, tongues, cheeses, &c., are never kept, nor are such things as easily decay detained long.

A few days ago a bundle of raw unclaimed silk was sold for £150.


Still, in each room there are an immense mass of things that should never be kept there at all, for they answered no good purpose, and merely cumber the space.

Among these are tiers of bundles of prisoners’clothing, which, in spite of every effort in the way of cleanliness and disinfectants, give the rooms a close, ill-smelling atmosphere.

Spiritualists should visit this place, for they will see there some curious relics of noted professors of the art who have all been convicted as rogues and vagabonds.


One of these is worth special mention, not for its extent, for it only consist of a long black robe with a red belt, a wand, a flowing white wig and beard. These properties belong to Herman Zendavesta, ne Moses Simon, and they are rendered noteworthy from the extent and lucrative nature of the business he did on such a small stock-in-trade.

When this scamp was seized his regular business books and letters were seized with him also, and these show that this imposter was doing a business all over the country of the actual value of from £130 to £150 per week.

Most of the letters from the country – all enclosing a stamped envelope and two and six pence worth or five shillings’ worth of stamps, are of the usual grossly ignorant kind – from females anxious to have descriptions of their future husbands, when they are to meet them, what money he is to have, and so forth.

But there are others, to our mind, of a much darker significance, such as sons enclosing the age and date of birth of their fathers for “nativity” to be cast, to know when they would die, and the same from wives about their husbands, and husbands about their wives.

All this reads very ominously, as also do some applications for medicine, for Herman dealt in that as well.


Of instruments for what the Americans call “burgling,” there is such large and varied collection as makes it evident, even to the most casual observer, that no building, not even Newgate, is safe from a professional criminal of this class, if he has but a little time and opportunity.

As for ordinary doors and shutters even though lined with iron, they are but as mere cobwebs in the way of these tools, which are most beautifully and expensively made, and of such fine temper, that they cut through any moderate thickness of iron with almost the same rapidity as through wood.

When we see these weapons – for they are also constructed as to be useful for formidable attack or defence – and when we see that in a day the merest tyro could learn their use, it is a wonder that burglaries are not ten times more numerous than they are.

It is the same with the implements for forcing safes, of which there is goodly show, and one safe which was actually carried off bodily in a truck.

Some of these things, especially when there are many of the same common type, are quite useless to keep; but, as the police say, there they are, and what else can they do with them?


It is, however, in the top front room – like all the others, with its blinds drawn close – that the real and repulsive horrors of this Black Museum are garnered.

Here is also every kind of firearm, and every kind of cutting and thrusting weapon, with which murder can be committed or attempted, and every single one of which has been used for a criminal purpose.

What with blood-stained clothes, razors, penknives, hatchets, choppers, daggers, sword-canes, hammers, pikes, spades, and pickaxes, the very room, which is close and stuffy, seems to smell of blood, and leaves a horrid flavour in the mouth.


Here, as elsewhere, there are very many things which should be destroyed unless the authorities mean to open at a small fee as the most unrivalled chamber of horrors in Europe, in which case Bloomsbury square would be too small to accommodate the morbid lovers of the horrible who would be pretty sure to flock to it.

But many of the things not only have no right to be kept on view; indeed, it is absolutely disgusting that they should be so retained.

When a murderer is taken red-handed in the act, and his reeking weapon wrenched from him, and he has long since undergone the last penalty of the law, what is the use of preserving the gory razor or chopper with which he did the crime?


There is the plaster’s hammer with which the poor girl Maria Cluson was murdered on Blackheath,with all the clothes she then wore; and there is also similar hammer with which the poor woman and her daughter were murdered in their shop at Hoxton at mid-day.

Of both these crimes the police failed to discover the perpetrators, and so there is some reason why these horrid mementoes should be kept. They are not very likely to be useful as evidence, but still, as Inspector Bucket says, “they might, you know,” and being there, there is certainly no reason why they should be destroyed.

But this excuse, if we may so call it, does not apply to a host of other things which are said to be kept to further the ends of justice.


What, for instance, is the good of keeping the stump of the cigar which Wainwright was smoking when he was arrested, together with the penny box of fusees? Do these further the ends of justice, or throw an additional ray of light on the dark paths of detectives?

There is quite a little table full of the Wainwright horrors, such as Harriet Lane’s hair, real and false, the bullets which were taken from her brain, the piece of brown skin by which the scar on the leg was identified.

The box, too, in which the remains were packed, the very rope by which it was tied, are here under the table.

It is a kind of insult to one’s common sense to be asked to believe that the preservation of these ill-looking, ill-smelling things are meant to further justice.

It would be far more to the purpose if the rope with which Wainwright was hanged was put over the collection to show the penalty which overtook his crime, and certainly it would be as likely to assist justice as the fag end of his bad cigar.


Here also is the monstrous coat which Arthur Orton used to wear during his trial, which is scarcely likely to be of much good, even if it fitted his now slimmer figure.

We see the foot of the veritable showman peep out in this room in the two hollow iron globes which are shown as Orsini bombs. These are pure deceits, and are wholly unlike the bombs Orsini used. He only threw two, the third and last made was found in his room, and is now in the possession of  the French police.


One thing, however, has been discovered by keeping the blood-stained clothing whose assassins have not been discovered, which is, that after 15 or 18 months keeping the blood stains come out almost as brightly as if the blood was newly shed, though the mark remains still quite dry.

This curious fact is the case, not only with woollen and linen, but even with such things as leather boots.


In a large iron safe in the lower story are kept gold watches, chains, jewelled rings, pencil cases and plate, antique and modern – not one of which have ever been claimed, though some of the plate is so peculiar, and some of the rings so valuable that it is not possible but that they must have been missed. Yet here they remain.

We have passed over crape masks for burglars, list shoes to make no noise, spring knives, life preservers, knuckle dusters, and all the toilette articles requisite for a first rate “cracksman.” Of these there is enough and to spare; and, indeed, the same may be said of the whole collection, which is such as only the villainous records of a teeming city like London could produce.

There are many things also there which do not even bear alluding to; but we have said enough to show that the whole is in truth a Black Museum.”