What must visitors in Washington, D.C., think of Texas after visiting the National Museum of Crime & Punishment?Troubles from the Lone Star State are scattered around the three-level museum like Clyde Barrow buckshot: ice mallets over here, a spent Jack Ruby shell casing over there and a model of the Texas electric chair sitting in the window to lure in visitors.Many, if not most, of the modern Texas artifacts are from the collection of a Texan who is largely unknown these days but, from the looks of it, had quite a fiery career in law enforcement. We’ll get to him later.The 28,000-square-foot museum, which opened in 2008 and is in D.C.’s hopping downtown Penn Quarter, lives up to its name, spending equal time on crimes and punishment, with a bit of whimsy now and again to keep it fun for all age groups. And it’s not easy to be whimsical when the first thing you see in the lobby is serial killer Ted Bundy’s VW Beetle behind chains made of interlocked handcuffs. The museum’s exhibits, some of which are tangentially connected to headline crimes, are forthright; this is a place for skimming if you are only mildly interested in the topics (or are with small kids), or diving in deeply, particularly if you are given to reading true-crime books or keep the TruTV network as a “favorite” on your remote.The topmost floor of the building is devoted to the history of crime, and right away we’re in the Wild West, where you enter a mock frontier jail cell to see a “chicken thief” document dated June 27, 1877, remarking on a case where one Jeff Britton most likely ended up in a cell like this for stealing chickens. Behind the door is Pancho Villa’s Mauser carbine, which is said to have been dropped into the Rio Grande by the Mexican Revolution general during a skirmish with President Carranza’s army. (Conclusion: Firearms have come a long way.)Take a minute to shoot at bottles and birds using toy rifles at the O.K. Corral. Moving into the next era, Bonnie and Clyde’s bullet-riddled Ford V-8 getaway car is here, but it’s the one from the 1967 movie, not the real one. The real one was sold by a Texas collector for exhibit at Whiskey Pete’s Hotel & Casino in Primm, Nev., 40 miles south of Las Vegas. There’s also on display the only known set of Bonnie Parker’s and Clyde Barrow’s signatures together, on a document signed in Dallas.You would think the white-collar crime section of the museum would be replete with Texas atrocities — the word “Enron” springs to mind — but remarkably, the area is Texas-free. However, in the serial killers department, Dallas-raised mass murderer Richard Speck, who spent time in the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville, is represented with the original hand-written letter he submitted to be analyzed as evidence. Behind a glass case around the corner is a bullet fired from the gun that Jack Ruby used to kill Lee Harvey Oswald; it was fired to commemorate the 30th anniversary of that incident (there’s also a photo of that dreadfully familiar killing and a check signed by Ruby).Be the bad guyWe come to a new floor of the museum and enter the “you are the criminal” portal; take a ticket from the machine to find out which crime you’ve committed (we drew, ahem, prostitution) and follow your fate from booking to incarceration. Famous mug shots adorn a wall — look for Oswald’s — and you get to stand behind two-way glass in a “usual suspects” lineup. There are polygraph and galvanic-response machines here as well.It’s here where the donations of James Willett really come into prominence. Willett was the longtime warden of the Huntsville prison’s “Walls Unit,” the oldest prison in the state and where the execution chamber is located (Willett oversaw 89 executions). Willett kept a personal archive of memorabilia. One imagines he collected as he went along the corridors and put the stuff in a closet, thinking to himself, “Oh, here’s a nice tractor-trailer made from a toothpaste box.” (Prisoner Michael Jewell’s truck is on display in the prison art section.) There’s an impressive collection of handmade weapons and other contraband the warden came across as well.There is sometimes a dearth of documentation to accompany the artifacts, and the ones that stay with you send you to the Internet for research. For instance, Willett donated a ponderous, medieval-looking rust bucket, like a welder’s helmet with a slit for eyes and identified as a “bulletproof helmet.” The helmet was one of the demands, along with tailored suits, of the hostage-takers during the 1974, 11-day Carrasco Siege at Huntsville that ended up in three prisoner deaths and the suicide of the instigator, Fred Carrasco. Chase that one down on the ’Net if you’re not familiar.And if you ever wondered what a rope made from strips of bedsheets looks like, Willett donated one of those, too, but it is so thin — 120 feet coiled to just a few inches around — that you can’t believe someone would risk dangling from a window on it. Huntsville did not have 1,000-count linens.Be the good guyThe lower level of the museum houses “The CSI Experience,” which puts you in the role of the forensic detective who has to study an elaborate apartment-size crime scene and, using the tools available, figure out whodunnit. Happily, the apartment is not identified as being in Texas.As you wander through the phases of the investigation, you see what’s inside that kit the investigators break out as the photographers snap images. You also get to … whoa, molly, what’s this? Laid out in front of you on a stainless-steel morgue table is a life-size sad sot (called Poor Dead Fred by the staff) who has clearly seen better days. You get to step up and examine him for clues as to what, and perhaps who, killed him. He has, in fact, been strangled, stabbed and shot with two different weapons. He’s a mess.
If you go
National Museum of Crime & Punishment, 575 Seventh St. N.W., Washington, D.C.; 202-393-1099.
Pricing and hours vary by season and are about $15-$22 (more with audio tour and CSI workshop); check the website before setting out: www.crimemuseum.org.
Good to know
Paid garage parking is plentiful; the museum is serviced by several nearby Metro stations (Chinatown and Gallery Place among them).
Where to eat
The museum is in the middle of Washington’s restaurant district, with family venues, steakhouses, Chinatown and even a branch of Austin’s Hill Country BBQ.
Where to stay
Hotels surround the area.