Capital Punishment Museum (Gone)
Trenton, New Jersey
The Capital Punishment Museum is in a one-story brick building on the grounds of the NJ State Corrections Academy in Trenton, NJ. Charming law enforcement officer Joe Baranyi, 62, is the warden of this scary collection of prison esoterica. After spending decades as a correctional officer in some of NJ's toughest prisons, Joe was badly hurt in a motorcycle accident in 1980. Soon after, he was transferred to the Academy and founded the museum to preserve important details of penal culture, and to inspire new generations of guards. Today, Joe leads a mean tour -- albeit slowly and with a noticeable limp. His old prison guard mentality comes through if you start to look at an exhibit different from the one he's describing. "HEY!" he affably barks from across the room.
Jersey's Electric Chair
One of the collection's main draws is the State prison electric chair, "Old Smokey." While other electric chairs are exhibited around the US, this chair touts a seating of Bruno Hauptmann, Lindbergh baby kidnapper, in 1936. Souvenir collectors were stripping the chair of its leather leg straps, so Joe got ahold of it. According to Joe, the chair was in use from 1907 until 1963, claiming almost 159 men -- "One tried to escape but they cut him in half with a machine gun." Executions were usually on Mondays at 10am, so the death house clock here is set to 9:55am.
Joe offers the unsolicited tidbit that no women were executed because, "they didn't want to shave their heads or their gushies."
A box of salt sits near the chair. "This salt isn't for their last meal," Joe explains. "It's to salt a person down before you juice them. If they're sweating with B.O., they don't make as good a connection." There's also a natural sponge for extra-conductive padding under the skull cap. Ask Joe what happens if you use an artificial sponge instead -- he's got an article about the mess it makes.
The caps that conduct electricity through the victims' heads are proudly displayed. They were produced in different sizes and gradually evolved to a design more formfitting and comfortable for the condemned.
The museum has that neglected feel that many underfunded (and underappreciated) collections get. The chair got caught in a bad ceiling leak in 1992, and most of the straps are rotting. But Joe is resourceful. A six-man chain gang hookup with handcuffs ropes off the Hauptmann chair. An immense solid metal cabinet sports the voltage meters. A mismatched array of glass cases, tabletops and cardboard boxes house many other wonders.
[August 1998: New Jersey's Electric Chair is at the NJ State Police Museum.]
The Contraband Room features hundreds of deadly weapons made by prisoners, including metal shivs and the more contemporary plastic shivs, which pass through metal detectors unseen. Joe enjoys showing off a selection of horrible shoes with secret compartments in them for drugs. The guards hate to check shoes, fearing that they'll catch AIDS. Sometimes the inmates put razor blades in them to cut curious hands. It's happened to Joe.
"Some inmates are as smart as General Swartzkoff," Joe warns.
That Lucky Finger
The museum's most controversial artifact is Joe's "Lucky N----r Finger." It was found in a pile of contraband confiscated from prisoners in 1977. The story Joe got was that it was bitten off during a fight between two inmates. The guy who bit it off put it on a chain and wore it around his neck. Joe carried it around in his pocket for awhile, then finally had it pickled in alcohol and sealed in a jar with wax. Joe's clowning with the finger wins no approval from his superiors, but he is beyond caring.
Joe's leg is starting to bother him -- he complains of being "whacked out" on painkillers -- and he steers us to his office.
Photos on the wall include him with Lake Geneva playboy bunnies, and a beautiful female guard with the caption, "Now The Wife Of Sgt. Zollar." Joe had her picture taken by a professional. There's also a photo of Joe in wax; he's the model for the guard in the Hauptman execution scene at Madame Tussaud's in London. Moments from better times.
If he's in a good mood, Joe may invite you over to lunch at the cafeteria, where real convicts serve time while they serve up a tasty fare at state-subsidized bargain prices.
While other penal and punishment museums have cropped up around the country with crisp new facilities and staff, Joe has trouble getting much support for his stacks of old files and rusting weapons. His Hauptmann chair is an artifact of a more innocent period in the rectifying of capital crimes. Execution is not the cottage industry it once was, and places like Trenton State Prison, which closed down its death chamber in 1972 and converted it to a visitor's center, show no sign of starting up operations soon.
And it seems as if the old ways were just . . . better. "Lethal injection is no deterrent for today's criminal," Joe laments. "A junkie doesn't mind another needle. It's just a longer trip."
August 1997: According to a NJ Dept. of Corrections Official: "Joe's collection was sent to the NJ State Museum. The electric chair went too, and then the wretched State Police Museum in West Trenton got it from the State Museum. The State-ies wanted The Chair for years, as the Lindbergh Kidnapping Case was one of the biggest in the history of the NJ State Police, and their museum has a theme exhibit on the case. Old Joe, bless him, would not part with The Chair, and he had enough juice in the Department to get his way."
January, 1996: Joe Baranyi, museum founder and curator, died in late 1995. The museum, along with its priceless exhibits, is "just sitting there, going to waste," according to the corrections official who has the keys and would prefer not to be identified. The commissioner of the NJ Dept. of Corrections has been looking for someone to volunteer their time to run the place, but so far no luck. If no one comes forward, the NJ State Museum wants to take the exhibits.