Museum of Death
We'd never seen an embalming training video before.
One plays continuously on a TV monitor at the Museum of Death. We walked into the funerary customs room just as a "Trocar Applicator" -- a long metal rod -- was poked into the abdomen of a dead man on a slab -- over and over. The technician is very professional, and the corpse doesn't feel a thing. The video narrator calmly reminds us to "aspirate the anterior chambers of the right and left pleural cavities."
"We collect everything and anything about death," said perky Cathee Shultz, "everything from body bags, coffins, mortician instruments, to execution devices, to letters from murderers."
Cathee and her husband James "J.D." Healy are the enthusiastic owners of the Museum of Death, ideally located along Hollywood Boulevard, "Where the Stars End and the Darkness Begins," as the slogan quips on the museum's glowing Death Clock. The storefront exterior may deceptively appear closed even during regular hours, but try the door there's probably someone alive inside.
The building once served as a sound studio (where we're told Pink Floyd recorded "The Wall"). Deadening acoustics add to the current ambience. "Some rooms have sand in the walls," said J.D.
After a caution from Cathee -- "It's extremely graphic, and we always recommend it to mature audiences" -- visitors pay their admission, moving through an old jail door into a series of rooms. Right away there are large photographs of the dead: a cross-section slice of a human head, a hideous pair of rotted hands. Perhaps this provides a last chance to back out.
The museum starts with items we've come to expect at funeral museums: old mortuary equipment, embalming fluid bottles, funeral industry trade magazines, brochures for fancy burial vaults, etc. But that crazy training video is playing as we look at memorial funeral cards and fans, wooded coffins and wicker caskets, and a coffin and accessories for Jewish burial.
There's a solitary display of a baby's casket -- and if you can't imagine what might lie within, a photo right behind it shows how a real dead baby would fit into one. Nearby is a backlit x-ray of Siamese twin infants conjoined at the chest.
Photos groupings show brutal beheadings, Salvadoran Death Squad victims, multi-car accident fatalities. Wall exhibits note serial killers, such as the "Rostov Ripper," and the "Gentleman Cannibal." The video theater screens documentaries of death and misery continuously.
The Bluebeard of France
One of the museum's most unique possessions is the actual head of Henri Desire Landru, "The Bluebeard of France," executed in 1922. He was responsible, according to the accompanying sign, for the deaths and disappearances of over 200 women.
And somehow his guillotined head ended up on a pedestal at the Museum of Death.
For Your Consideration
One particularly disturbing display is down a side hallway, a wall of candid snapshots, apparently all taken with the same camera by a woman and her new boyfriend after killing the old boyfriend. The murderers are naked, happily smiling, and posing with body parts they've just sawed off. Maybe they'd have gotten away with their ghastly crime if they hadn't tried developing the photos at the local discount department store.
After seeing the atrocities of these whack-jobs, the crimes chronicled in the "Helter Skelter" room seem almost ordinary. But not for long -- Cathee and J.D. have arranged excruciatingly explicit photos from the Tate-LaBianca murders scenes, including shocking coroner and morgue photos.
Another wall of mostly black and white images provides peeks at other famous Hollywood murders: Black Dahlia, etc. Some items are carefully framed or backlit, others are just old news clippings fastened to the walls with tacks.
Heaven's Gate Cult Suicide
In 1997, 39 Heaven's Gate cult members, anticipating a free ride on the approaching Hale-Bopp Comet, committed mass suicide. Over a 4-day period, the group quietly poisoned itself in an expensive house in Rancho Santa Fe. Police found most of them neatly laid out in their bunk beds, covered with purple shrouds and wearing Nike sneakers.
The Museum of Death has recreated this iconic scene, using an actual bunk bed from the house, and authentic purple shroud and pair of Nike tennis shoes. The accompanying sign notes these priceless artifacts arrived with an unmistakable "decomposing body smell!"
John F. Kennedy is given a corner, where a small JFK bronze bust sits with a (probably) painted plaster bust of Abraham Lincoln behind it. Any other museum would respectfully stop there -- but not the Museum of Death. Because right next to the busts is a painted JFK head sculpture circa Nov. 22, 1963, the right side of the scalp and skull blasted away. On the surrounding walls are explicit autopsy photos of the dead American President.
At this point, anything would be a relief, and the Museum of Death rewards our fortitude with an exhibit of stuffed pets and freak animal taxidermy. Albino woodland animals are arranged among plastic branches and leaves. A two-headed chicken, mascot of the museum back when it was in San Diego, has been stuffed for posterity.
Liberace's taxidermied feline "Candy" -- short for candelabra, is from the collection of the late Dr. Anton LaVey. According to the display, LaVey was also the beneficiary of Jayne Mansfield's four Chihuahuas, who were killed in the car crash along with her on June 29, 1967. He had the pups stuffed.
The art gallery is a creepy collection of paintings and drawings by murderers, often created as they passed the time on death row. There's the obligatory Pogo the Clown by John Wayne Gacy (he painted this same self-portrait hundreds of times), but also the rudimentary pen scribbles of the Son of Sam. Correspondence from killers gives more context to their art, and in some ways it's even creepier to see their handwriting.
The collecting never ends. Cathee said: "The reason we don't have everything up -- necrophilia, 9/11, teen shooters, is because we haven't had time to do it. Not that we don't collect it, because there's so much out there."
Just last night, she tells us, there was a murder -- a knifing nearby up Hollywood Boulevard ("very unusual for that neighborhood" Cathee assures us). Ever the opportunists, Cathee and JD snapped on-the-scene pix of the bloody skids on either side of a Hollywood Walk of Fame star. And then they surreptitiously collected "brain tissue." The cops "rinsed it down the gutter, but some didn't go down," Cathee said.
We had to ask: "Where is it now?"
Cathee smiled brightly. "In the refrigerator."