The family-friendly vacation destination of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee is freckled with dozens of whimsically themed mini-golf courses and a Biblical Times Dinner Theater. But it’s also home to Ted Bundy’s Volkswagen and John Wayne Gacy’s clown suits.
From the outside, the Alcatraz East Crime Museum seems like a hoot. The building is convincingly dressed as a Shawshank-y prison, with a convict in an archetypal black-and-white-striped uniform making a daring escape from one of the windows. Inside, the stanchions for the ticket line are made of linked handcuffs, and the first few rooms recreate a medieval dungeon, a pirate ship, and an old west bank with details about crime and punishment in each era.
With some cutesy photo ops and a G-rated shooting gallery, one could be fooled into thinking that this museum was softening the blow of actual crime and actual punishment.
But then: blood.
The first artifact on display that stopped me in my tracks was a set of bloodstained floorboards from the house where Jesse James was killed. It’s positioned just across from a place where kids can pose for a picture as part of a “wanted” poster.
Turn-of-the-century bandits and gangsters are the focus of the adjoining room, where one can see a bullet pulled from the body of Pretty Boy Floyd, John Dillinger’s death mask, and a bullet-dented brick taken from the site of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. There’s also some impressive movie memorabilia: an Uzi used by Al Pacino in Scarface and a revolver used by James Caan in The Godfather.
When the focus of the museum shifts to serial killers, though, things get dark. Fast.
Handcuffs used to transport Jeffrey Dahmer. A baseball and a drawing signed by Charles Manson. A self-extracted tooth from the mouth of Ed Gein. And tucked out of sight of children who might otherwise get the wrong idea: John Wayne Gacy’s clown suits.
It’s easy to maintain a certain amount of emotional distance from some of the artifacts. You don’t really think about Dahmer’s victims when you’re looking at his handcuffs, for instance. But as I focused on the small metal clasp on the collar of Gacy’s “Patches the Clown” outfit, I imagined his fingers tightening it…the same fingers that strangled dozens of young victims…the same fingers that buried them in his crawlspace…
A chill went down my spine. I moved onto the next exhibit: The actual rifle used by Charles Whitman, the gunman who killed 17 people from the University of Texas Tower in 1966. The rifle itself was startling enough to see, but on the back of the stock was a small piece of paper with handwritten numbers—settings for the rifle’s scope. Another chill.
Other rooms were less ghoulish. There was a faux crime lab that delved into the details of forensic science, a room dedicated to counterfeiting (with pirated Game of Thrones DVDs behind glass), and the gun Kevin Costner used in The Untouchables. And despite the sad reality of his crimes, I couldn’t help but smirk at the Bernie Madoff-branded Louisville Slugger given out as a souvenir at some corporate event, or the awkward and emotionless birthday letter Madoff sent to his son from prison.
But around another corner was “Old Smokey,” the electric chair from Tennessee’s state prison that took the lives of 125 inmates, a purse and sweatshirt worn by a victim of the Aurora movie theater shooting, and a Winnie the Pooh backpack belonging to Casey Anthony’s daughter, Caylee. (More than any other artifact, that last one was the hardest to truly absorb.)
The emotional crescendos and diminuendos continued with historically significant items (like the lie detector used on James Earl Ray or the camera used at the real Alcatraz to photograph incoming inmates) and more absurd items (like a Major League Baseball logo painted by John Wayne Gacy and signed by Mickey Mantle, Sandy Koufax, Ted Williams, Ernie Banks, Yogi Berra, Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio and even RICHARD NIXON before they realized who the artist was).
It all finally led to a grand finale of four famous cars. Most notably, O.J. Simpson’s white Ford Bronco.
It’s Al Cowlings’s Bronco, more accurately. O.J.’s Bronco was the car where police found bloodstains, and it has since been destroyed. But Al’s Bronco is the one that carried O.J. across the freeways of Los Angeles on the world’s most famous slow-speed chase.
Next to it is the bullet-riddled car used in the climactic scene of Bonnie and Clyde, and John Dillinger’s Essex Terraplane 8, both of which add a dash of 1930s romance to the room before one’s eyes land on a dented, rusty 1968 Volkswagen Beetle.
Ted Bundy’s Volkswagen Beetle.
The passenger seat is noticeably missing. Bundy would lure his victims to the car, knock them out or tie them up, and lay them on the floor, out of sight, as he drove them to their impending death. It’s possible that dozens of victims were kidnapped in this car, some of them were likely even murdered inside it. Bundy allegedly chose the Beetle because it gave off an air of friendliness and innocence. When staring at it in the museum, though, the air it gives off could not be more grisly or upsetting.
After exiting through the museum’s kitschy gift shop, the goofy convict making an escape from the building’s façade now somehow looked more sinister. Having come face to face with the darkest elements of humanity and having pressed my nose up to the encased ephemera from some of the bloodiest moments in modern history, I yearned for some way to take the emotional edge off.
Perhaps that’s why there’s such a wide assortment of mini-golf courses in the museum’s vicinity.