Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
Alcatraz East is America's most comprehensive crime museum -- a real Greatest Hits of murder and mayhem -- and with a constantly renewing supply of homegrown lawbreakers and maniacs, it will never run out of exhibits.
The attraction opened in Washington, DC, as the National Museum of Crime and Punishment in 2008. But the nation's capital proved too constrictive for a topic with so much potential pizzazz. It moved to the tourist town of Pigeon Forge in late 2016 and recast itself as Alcatraz East, in a building shaped like a 19th century penitentiary, with galleries that range in style from a battered cellblock to an impossibly Hollywood hi-tech morgue. Custom soundscapes set the mood for each exhibit, from a saucy banjo in the Moonshine shooting gallery to an ominous hiss at the replica gas chamber. Visitors who thought they were visiting a simple prison museum are in for a shock worthy of Death Row.
"We're in a world of dinner shows and amusement rides, so you have to have that Wow Factor," said Summer Wilson, the attraction's media rep, who showed us around. "I would say 80 percent of what we have in here is artifacts, but we have fun stuff, too." This means that visitors can see relics such as the floorboards stained with Jesse James' blood, or one of the bullets that killed Pretty Boy Floyd, or the death collar of the Pizza Bomber -- but they can also try to crack a safe, pose in a police line-up, thread their way through a Mission Impossible-style laser room, or stick their heads in photo-op "wanted" posters for Sitting Bull and Billy the Kid.
The result is a family attraction fashioned out of subjects such as gangland executions and the death penalty. "We make it as kid-friendly as possible," said Summer. "At the same time we're letting them know, 'Listen, you can't get away with these things.'"
Criminals are losers in the Alcatraz East CSI lab, where technology and easy-to-use displays allow tourists to analyze autopsy x-rays, scan mail with a geiger counter, perform "footwear forensics," and play detective with a fake dead body: was he killed by a gunshot, stabbing, or strangulation? A few galleries away, lawbreakers meet their doom in the capital punishment exhibit, featuring "Old Smokey," Tennessee's electric chair, named because it often belched smoke during executions. Summer told us that a barrier had to be installed in front of the gas chamber to keep people from sitting in it.
Alcatraz East's most fan-favorite artifact is O.J. Simon's Ford Bronco, featured in the "Sinister Vehicles" gallery. An edited loop of its infamous two-hour-long low-speed chase plays on a video monitor as a cop tries to talk O.J. out of shooting himself on live TV ("Your mother loves you. Everybody loves you. Don't do this!"). Next to the Bronco is the Bonnie and Clyde Death Car from the 1967 movie, painted yellow -- unlike the real Death Car -- so its bullet holes would be more visible on film. The most sinister vehicle in the gallery is the inconspicuous VW Beetle of Ted Bundy, in which he picked up and then murdered at least 11 women, some of them in the car.
Summer said that visitors to Alcatraz East are fascinated by mass murderers, and the attraction has an entire rogue's gallery of them, displaying items such as a baseball signed by Charles Manson, a birthday card from David Berkowitz ("Miss ya!"), one of the rifles used by Charles Whitman, and the switchblade that killed The Boston Strangler.
Here, too, is the only exhibit in the building shielded from public view: the two clown suits of John Wayne Gacy, tucked into an alcove behind a wall.
"We don't want to force people to look at them," said Summer. "Some people are really freaked out by clowns." Even people you wouldn't expect -- such as those fascinated by crime, forensics, and serial killers. "He never killed anyone as a clown," said Summer, "but I don't think a lot of people know that."