Historic Museum of Torture Devices
"The first thing to go are the teeth," said Janet Kolar, describing how the Head Crusher killed people. "The teeth shatter first, and then the facial bones, and eventually the contents of the head starts oozing through cracks."
The Crusher is one of 50 brutal gadgets featured in the Historic Museum of Torture Devices. Janet, who owns the place, is a retired physician's assistant (surgical) and views its collection with professional detachment. "I'm interested from the point of view of medicine," she said. "I'm interested in the way people died on these things."
Janet told us that she and her kids traveled to Europe to find long-lost relatives and instead found torture museums, lots of them, and decided to import the idea to the U.S. The family opened a showcase of torture in Wisconsin Dells, which we visited under its subsequent ownership. Janet didn't like the new management's approach, so she opened the Historic Museum of Torture Devices in her hometown of Alton, where she could keep it true to her vision. Alton also claims to be the Most Haunted Town in America, and Janet's museum is in Alton's most haunted building, the old Mineral Springs Hotel.
"Things get moved or knocked over," said Janet of the ghosts and the museum. "Other tenants in the building have the same problem."
In any other museum, visitors might be spooked by the presence of ghosts. Here, they're comic relief.
Exhibits in the museum cover the torture spectrum, from public humiliation to certain death. Torturers, particularly in their medieval heyday, had a wide range of options. "A lot of it is very painful but not necessarily lethal, so it could last for a long time," Janet said.
Thumbscrews and the Spanish Boot destroyed your extremities. The Drunkard's Cloak made you squat in your own waste. The Pillory was usually not fatal -- unless people attacked you with rocks. The Canque was a human Cone of Shame, forcing you to beg someone to feed you. The Brank was a head cage for women, who would be led around town with a spiked plate shoved under their tongues. "Breathing was hard, swallowing was hard," said Janet. "And of course you would be drooling for public embarrassment."
So how did people die on these things? "Suffocation, many of them," said Janet. "Being buried alive, for example; upright or horizontal, it has the same effect."
Some visitors to the museum are moved to tears, Janet said, but others tell her they're glad they're living now and not hundreds of years ago, and quite a few ask to have their pictures taken in one of the devices. "One person said, 'I thought "Rat Torture" was gonna be someone torturing rats,'" Janet recalled. "And people ask me, 'What's your favorite?' I get that a lot," she said. "I don't really have a favorite."
The Historic Museum of Torture Devices probably won't host many elementary school groups, but Janet makes a case for its museum-merit with her soft-spoken approach and matter-of-fact fascination. She talked at length, for example, about Vlad the Impaler, how he perfected an impaling stake that wasn't perfectly sharp and positioned it so that it would miss his victims' vital organs. "They lived for days!" Janet said, awed by Vlad's cruel ingenuity. We suggested that he probably had a lot of practice. "Oh, he did!"