New Jersey State Police Museum
West Trenton, New Jersey
Time and again, drivers on New Jersey's Turnpike or Parkway have witnessed the shimmering vision of a State Police cruiser in their rear view mirrors. Few things in life match the rush of watching that cruiser whoosh by and pull over some other vehicle doing 80 mph.
Though they may slow our trajectory from the Monument to the Mexican Lindbergh (Exit 4, NJ Turnpike) to the World's Tallest Watersphere (Exit 141, Garden State Parkway), they are more than just skilled speed-trappers. New Jersey State Troopers keep the peace throughout the state. Their full story is told at the New Jersey State Police Museum, nestled within State Police Headquarters in West Trenton.
The museum is free, but a high security perimeter must first be breached. As we ease past the entrance guard station, a sentry barks "WHOAH!! This is a state police facility -- you don't just drive! You sign in." Our blood thaws, and we are given detailed verbal instructions on where to park and where to walk. "Stay on this side of the log cabin, clearly visible. Don't try to walk anywhere else."
The museum is an oddly mismatched set of buildings: a modern brick edifice, and a large log cabin -- kind of a fraternal lodge -- connected by a large windowed corridor with a portrait tribute to troopers killed in the line of duty. The log cabin contains a few vintage vehicles, a motorcycle, and a modern prowler.
The main museum space is airy, exhibits artfully designed and lit -- slicker than most crime and punishment efforts (such as the late Joe Baranyi's sordid collection at the NJ Dept. of Corrections, or even Ft. Leonard Wood, MO's taxpayer-funded National Military Police Museum). Everything is behind glass...
There's a display of confiscated weapons: several dozen handguns and rifles, lovingly arranged, including a tripod-mounted 20mm antitank gun. Items are given historical context: old breathalyzers, radar detectors and radios have been the reliable tools of enforcement since the State Police was formed in 1921. A fascinating tidbit of State Police history: their administration of a tattooing program for thousands of chickens. To curb theft of the birds in the desperate 1930's, the Poultry Tattoo Registry program was created. Today chickens are only tattooed to rebel against their parents.
At the scene of the crime
The typical Jersey kitchen is displayed -- blood is pooled on the floor next to the tape outline of a murder victim. Mob hit? Not so fast... Look at the various clues around the room. A video walks you through the mystery, with hints of motive and the murderer's identity. Part of the Crime Scene Identification unit, surveillance equipment is displayed, and fingerprints can be examined under microscopes.
The biggest case in the history of the NJ State Police was the apprehension of the Lindbergh baby kidnapper, Bruno Hauptmann. Giant Baby Blocks spell out "LINDBERGH" over an artifact assemblage that includes: the ransom note, the rickety wooden kidnap ladder, an attic floorboard, a trial footage video and other bits of capital crime ephemera. The baby's sleeping suit of death, mailed by the kidnapper to establish his credibility, is a prime exhibit. Most grisly: A row of evidence vials containing hair and bone fragments from the woods where the baby was found.
New Jersey's electric chair, "Old Smokey," is on display. The chair that ended Bruno Hauptmann's life (along with 159 other convicted murderers) found a new home here in 1998 after many years in the NJ Dept. of Corrections' defunct Capital Punishment Museum.