The Horrors of the RCMP Heritage Centre’s Black Museum
· 8 min. read
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They say dead men tell no tales, but these ones do.
The RCMP Heritage Centre's Black Museum only opens for a couple of weeks every few years, with the last time being in 2015. I loved the museum and am disappointed every year that followed when it didn't open. I heard a rumour that it was opening this year after a four-year hiatus, so I reached out to the Heritage Centre and they confirmed the rumours to be true. A few days later, I was there, camera and notepad in hand.
The Black Museum opens with Oliver, a terrifying mannequin that once toured across northern Canada for Christmas shows. Although Oliver says he'll be your guide through the displays of horror that await you, you never have to see him again. However, some people say his eyes follow you as you walk around the room, so don't be surprised if you turn around and he's staring right at you.
The first exhibit of the museum focuses on "Identification Masks" - masks that show how criminals looked so that sketches can be created and distributed. These masks were used until the 1950s. Each mask has "elements" of a criminal visage that victims can select for sketchers to get a better idea of what the perpetrator looked like. Today, technology can help select and isolate facial features, so identification masks like these are no longer used.
The big question people often have about "Identification Masks" is how police or investigators can determine what facial features are more "common" among criminals. The next exhibit expands on this further with the "Death Masks" of the Benito Bandits - a trio of criminals that caused a manhunt across Western Canada in October 1935. These masks are moulds taken from the faces of the murderers, which are studied by criminologists. It was often believed that people had certain unique features - a term called physiognomy - that can identify if somebody is more likely to turn to criminal activity. Some of these features include high cheekbones, handle-shaped ears, a bald head, and a low, sloping forehead. Today, much of the study of physiognomy is considered a pseudoscience, with the basis of claims having sexist and racist origins. Nevertheless, some still study physiognomy and try to correlate it with identifying somebody's sexuality or potential athleticism.
The next two exhibits were my favourites. The first was a noose that was used to hang John "Bloody Jack" Krafchenko in 1914. Capital punishment was legal in Canada until 1967, with hundreds of criminals being hung or executed during the century beforehand. In fact, there were 27 executions in Regina, from 1884 until 1946.
The second of the two exhibits were that of the Mad Trapper of Rat River, a mysterious man from the 1930s. The Mad Trapper of Rat River's more common ailis is Albert Johnson, but nobody knows his real name. Some say Johnson was American, while others suspect he was Scandinavian or Russian. Some say he was ex-military or possibly CIA. The RCMP first believed Johnson was tampering with trap lines in the Northwest Territories but when pressed about it, Johnson refused to answer them. Officers would return a few days later with a search warrant but the moment they tried to force open the door, Johnson began shooting at them. The RCMP retreated, only to return a few days later with nine officers, forty-two dogs and twenty pounds of dynamite. They opted to throw dynamite at the cabin to destroy it, but Johnson responded with a barrage of bullets from a dugout he had built under the cabin. The firefight lasted fifteen hours before the RCMP retreated. Johnson would then leave the destroyed cabin and disappear into the night. Eventually, the RCMP would catch up to Johnson after a 33-day manhunt and shoot him. Johnson would take down three RCMP officers during the ordeal.
When Johnson's body was exhumed in 2007, a bullet fell out of his clothing. Due to its pristine condition, it's doubtful that this bullet is the one that killed Johnson. Nevertheless, it is on display next to a skull recreated in Johnson's likeness.
I've always been fascinated with the story of The Mad Trapper of Rat River, and the RCMP Heritage Centre has a year-round exhibit about him on display too. If you can't make it to the Black Museum, you can take in that exhibit anytime.
The museum closes with a few smaller exhibits that showcase makeshift skeleton keys, modified and fake guns, tear gas pens, brass knuckles, knives and drug paraphernalia. They have everything from opium pipes to rolled marijuana to opioids.
The exhibit closes on items used during riots across Canada, from weights on chains to whips. One item is a club, labelled as being from the July 1st, 1935 Regina Riot. Might it be possible that this club was used to kill Detective Charles Millar? It's impossible to know, but just seeing a club that was involved in the riot is incredible enough.
I loved the Black Museum, and I wished it not only happened every year but that it stayed open year-round. Many of the artefacts are from the early 20th Century, but as the years go by, more and more artefacts from later in the century will go on display. It will be interesting to see how the museum evolves and I'm excited to see what artefacts will be on display next year. Will they show something of Sergeant John Wilson, the only RCMP officer executed on Canadian soil, or his unfortunate wife Polly Hutchinson? Will they have anything about The Lost Patrol of 1910, where the officers were forced to eat their own sled dogs? What about the bombing and assassination of Peter Verigin in 1924? I'm sure there are plenty more stories waiting to come into the Black Museum, and I can't wait to see them.
The Black Museum runs until October 31st, until it closes once again for the season. Entrance is included with the general admission cost.
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Categories: Canada, Dark Tourism, Regina, Saskatchewan