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15th century punishment tools

Tools used for punishment in the 15th century

From our fascination with the fictional crime fighter of the late 1800s, Sherlock Holmes, to the dozens of true crime detective magazines that first emerged in the 1930s, we find crime fascinating.

It’s so interesting that we even have a National Museum of Crime and Punishment in Washington, DC. Here are 10 of the most intriguing facts I learned when I visited.

1. Stories of savage crimes abound in the dark ages–but the punishment may have been more horrific than the crime in many cases.

Some of the 15th century tools of punishment include:

  • Handcuffs and manacles–the ones displayed had a brace that hung from a beam in the ceiling, so the accused were hung and tortured with hot irons and lashings until they confessed
  • Dungeon (padlock on display)
  • Hand irons (pictured are from the Tower of London) to restrict prisoner movement, sometimes for years
  • Shrew’s violin or fiddle that restricted the prisoner’s movements by holding the head and arms-it was popular with those accused of witchcraft

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2. England’s Tower of London has a thousand year history of crime and punishment, from which there were no exclusions. Even heirs to the thrown, like Elizabeth I, weren’t immune from being confined in its towers. Queen Anne Boleyn, second wife of King Henry VIII, was beheaded by a swordsman near Tower Green, as well as his fifth wife, Queen Catherine Howard, just six years later. Josef Jakobs, a German spy, was the last execution at the tower on August 15, 1941.

3. The ultimate punishment for crime is, of course, death. But did you know that in early 18th century England that you could be sentenced to death for more than 220 different crimes? Almost every accused could end up publicly hanged, drawn-and-quartered, beheaded or burned at the stake.

Temperance Fountain

“Temperance Fountain, Washington DC” by Ryanhgwu at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Howcheng using CommonsHelper. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

These public events were cause for celebration, since crowds believed that only the guilty would actually be accused.

4. Prohibition in North America began back in the 1800s–and the illegal trade of alcohol made rich men (Al Capone alone made $60 million annually on the sale of illegal alcohol) out of many gangsters. In fact, the repeal of the 18th amendment that went into effect in 1920 in the United States, prohibiting alcohol, by the 21st amendment in 1933, was the first time in history that a constitutional amendment had ever been repealed.

5. The Prohibition Fountain in Washington is just one of the strange but true stories of the era. It was built by dentist, Henry Cogswell, who put his fortune behind his belief that if people had cold water to drink when they were out that they wouldn’t be lured to consume alcoholic beverages. He planned to build one fountain for every 100 saloons!

6. Five presidents served through prohibition, and one, Warren Harding, brought his secret stash with him and served alcohol after his dinner parties.

7. A posse of police officers from Texas and Louisiana fired 130 automatic rifle rounds, into the stolen V8 Ford car driven by Bonnie and Clyde, near Bienville and Sailes, Louisiana, on May 23, 1934. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow had been on a two-year crime spree, killing 13 people including 9 law enforcement officers.

Bonnie & Clyde's car

The car Bonnie & Clyde died in was riddled with bullet holes.

8. Where you find crime, you’ll find crime fighters, and while Sherlock Holmes may be the most famous in fiction,
Eliot Ness and his team, the “Untouchables” were the real deal.

Eliot Ness

Eliot Ness works to bring down criminals during prohibition.

Ness worked for the Department of the Treasury Prohibition Bureau, with Al Capone as his main nemesis. While Capone was eventually brought down for 22 counts of tax evasion, Ness had used wire tapping to close nearly twenty breweries and distilleries operated by Al Capone to cut off the liquor supply during prohibition.

9. Old Smokey wasn’t the name of a forest fire or a bear–but the electric chair used by the state of Tennessee for 125 executions. While official records don’t reveal how many of the electrocutions were problematic, charring on the chair tells its own story. Built out of the oak of the state gallows in 1913, the last person, Daryl Keith Holton, died in Old Smokey in 2007.

10. The Internet launched an Information Age and a new way for criminals to gain the upper hand. In 1999 computer hackers and viruses cost U.S. businesses $266 billion. Now, thieves can fill an offshore bank account without ever holding up a bank or cracking a safe.

As the world changes, so do the crimes, but they never disappear.

Visit the National Museum of Crime and Punishment

The National Museum of Crime and Punishment has displays, artifacts, and interactive activities where you can try to solve crimes yourself. I found my afternoon there fascinating–these are only a few of the facts and artifacts that intrigued me.

If you’ve already visited, what was your favorite part?

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575 7th St NW, Washington, DC 20004, United States