Tuesday, August 9, 2016
The Black Museum
The Black Museum was a 1951 radio crime-drama program independently produced by Harry Alan Towers and based on real-life cases from the files of Scotland Yard's Black Museum. Ira Marion was the scriptwriter, and music for the series was composed and conducted by Sidney Torch. Although often mistakenly cited as being produced for the BBC, the series was produced and syndicated
commercially by Towers throughout the English-speaking world.
Orson Welles was both host and narrator for stories of horror and mystery, based on Scotland Yard's collection of murder weapons and various ordinary objects once associated with historical true crime cases. The show's opening began:
"This is Orson Welles, speaking from London."
(Sound of Big Ben chimes)
"The Black Museum... a repository of death. Here in the grim stone structure on the Thames which houses Scotland Yard is a warehouse of homicide, where everyday objects... a woman’s shoe, a tiny white box, a quilted robe... all are touched by murder."
Walking through the museum, Welles would pause at one of the exhibits, and his description of an artifact served as a device to lead into a wryly-narrated dramatised tale of a brutal murder or a vicious crime. In the closing:
"Now until we meet again in the same place and I tell you another tale of the Black Museum", Welles would conclude with his signature radio phrase, "I remain, as always, obediently yours".
With the story themes deriving from objects in the collection (usually with the names of the people involved changed but the facts remaining true to history), the 52 episodes had such titles as "The Tartan Scarf" and "A Piece of Iron Chain" or "Frosted Glass Shards" and "A Khaki Handkerchief". An anomaly to the series was an episode called "The Letter" as this was the only story not about murder, but about forgery.
In the United States, the series aired on the Mutual Network between January 1 and December 30, 1952.
Beginning May 7, 1953, it was also broadcast over Radio Luxembourg sponsored by the cleaning
products Dreft and Mirro. Since the BBC carried no commercials, Radio Luxembourg aired sponsored programs at night to England.
In the United States, there was a contemporary programme called Whitehall 1212 written and directed by Wyllis Cooper and broadcast by NBC, that was similar in scope to The Black Museum. It was hosted by Chief Superintendent John Davidson, curator of the Black Museum. It used many of the same picked cases as The Black Museum, and it nearly mirrored its broadcast run. The two shows
were different in the respect that while Whitehall 1212 told the story of a case entirely from the point of view of the police starting from the crime scene, The Black Museum was more heavily dramatized and played out scenes of the actual murders and included scenes from the criminal's point of view.
Two episodes, "The Car Tire" and "The Gas Receipt," were the same story with minor differences between the two. Another pair of episodes, "The Baby's Jacket" and "The Spectacles," were based on the same case, as were "The Tan Shoe" and "The Leather Bag."
Four famous murder cases were dramatized on The Black Museum: John George Haigh, the "Acid Bath Murderer"; George Joseph Smith, the "Brides in the Bath Murderer"; Adelaide Bartlett, whose husband died from chloroform poisoning; and Florence Maybrick, who allegedly used arsenic from fly-paper to murder her husband James Maybrick (who was recently suspected of being Jack the Ripper courtesy of the 1993 publication of The Diary of Jack the Ripper).
In "Open End Wrench" it's mistakenly stated that the culprit was executed in Dartmoor. No 20th century executions were carried out in Dartmoor. Built during the Napoleonic Wars to contain French and American POWs, it was, after lying idle from 1815 to 1850, later commissioned as a convict gaol and used for dangerous long-term prisoners only.