Curious Collections

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

America's weird museums

by Laura Hayes

American History Gruesome

Sing Sing Prison Museum
Ossining, N.Y.

Tucked away in the small community of Ossining, N.Y., you'll find the infamous Sing Sing prison. A safe distance from the prison, you can visit its museum. This small facility presents a sober picture of life in the "big house." Displays include confiscated weapons, historical photos, and two replica cells—one of which you can have your picture taken in, the other closed and furnished with a pin-up calender. The museum also has an electric chair, a replica of Sing Sing's original built (perhaps for edification) by the prison's woodshop class. If you're lucky, the curator will tell you stories about Sing Sing and demonstrate the use of "shanks" and "eye-gougers." You may also find yourself rubbing elbows with Sing Sing alumni.

Colorado Territorial Prison Museum
Canon City, Colo.

In contrast to the staid Sing Sing Museum, the Colorado Territorial Museum flaunts its lurid appeal. Priding itself as one of the "Hell Holes of the Old West," the institution boasts of its history: 77 executions (45 by hanging, 32 by gas), sensational escapes by cold-blooded killers, and inmates such as Alfred Packer, the only man convicted of cannibalism in the U.S.

The collection includes cells filled with exhibits and life-sized models. Other artifacts include the actual hangman's noose of the last man executed by hanging in the state of Colorado, confiscated inmate weapons and contraband, the gas chamber, and rare, historic photographs depicting life behind bars. Displays of disciplinary paraphernalia are an added bonus for the whip-cracking set.

Emigrant Trail Museum and Statue
Donner Memorial State Park
Truckee, Calif.

Yes, Donner as in the Donner party, that ill-fated group of pioneers whose poor planning and leadership led them to starvation, death, and cannibalism! Alas, the Emigrant Trail Museum prefers to focus on the more successful groups that passed through the Sierras. The collection includes exhibits on the history of the Truckee basin, the trails the pioneers traveled, the railroad, logging, Native Americans, and ice harvesting.

All is not lost for the morbid tourist, however. The museum plays a short video about the Donner party frequently, and a day-by-day record of the Donner party is kept behind the ranger's desk. The Donner-party displays house the actual rifle of party member William Foster, a wagon wheel, clothing, a child's doll, and, perhaps most evocative of all, eating utensils and Tamsen Donner's salt-and-pepper dishes. Books and videos on the tragedy are available in the gift shop.

Just south of the museum a monument stands on the site of the group's camp. It is 22 feet high, the same height as the snow in the winter of 1846–47. Camping is permitted in the park, but, lest history repeat, only from May to September.

Lizzie Borden
Fall River Historical Society
Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast
Fall River, Mass.

"Lizzie Borden grabbed an axe, and gave her father 40 whacks"

More than 100 years later, Lizzie Borden has become a source of pride, and tourist dollars, for Fall River. The Fall River Historical Society offers an excellent Lizzie Borden presentation and exhibit. In addition to learning the facts of the case you'll see such goodies as a bed spread and pillow shams spotted with drops of blood, locks of the victims' hair, two paper tags neatly labeled "Mr. Borden's stomach" and "Mrs. Borden's stomach," a bloodstained camisole, and crime scene photos of Mrs. Borden sprawled dead behind the bed and Mr. Borden sprawled dead on the couch. Even more gruesome photos are on display, as well as "hairs taken from the hatchet," and a handleless hatchet, purported to be the weapon itself.

If you still haven't had enough of Lizzie, you can visit the scene of the crime, in fact you can even stay there—the home is now the Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast (restored to the "original look at the time of the murders"). You can stay in the Andrew and Abbey Borden Suite, or in the room where Abbey was actually killed.

More Museums

Sources +