Burrard Inlet was a prospering, boisterous settlement in the 19th century when Jack Deighton, nickname Gassy, started its first business–a saloon. Burrard Inlet became Granville, which became Vancouver, Canada’s excellent West Coast city with a surprisingly seedy past. After visiting the Vancouver Police Museum, I understood why its first building was a saloon, not a church.
The Vancouver Police Museum (VPM), North America’s oldest, is not too far from Gassy’s saloon in a heritage building that was once the city’s morgue and crime lab. Built in 1932 to “investigate unusual deaths” and provide space for coroner services, it was used until 1980.
I was far from alone as I went through it. In each room Chinese students were sitting around bored with many trying to take naps. They were on a field trip from China with the overall purpose of learning English, and I couldn’t help wondering why their teachers thought Chinese teens would benefit from learning about Canadian crime. Kristin Hardie, VPM’s Curator, told me that such groups have become fairly routine in her museum. Hmmmmm.
I found the museum far more interesting than they did and closely studied displays of prohibited and confiscated weapons, one a wicked-looking Triple-action Pepper Tear Gas dispenser the size of a small cell phone. There was fascinating stuff about counterfeit currency and marked cards. A key to unlocking this particular system used words like “Spades-nipple missing, left breast”. I learned how and why the death penalty was totally abolished in Canada in 1998. I read every word that described several unsolved crimes. The Pauls, for example, a normal Russian Mennonite family was beaten and its members shot several times in 1958. All died. Cause and perp still unknown. The Vancouver Police Museum claims to have one of the largest collections of sub-machine guns among museums that specialize in weapons, and just inside its door was a case showing new additions to its 20,000 artifacts. One was a fingerprint comparator.
When I entered the morgue area, I was a bit shocked to find many Chinese students totally involved. A sign said “Please do not open morgue drawers…they are authentic and irreplaceable”, but these kids had opened several and were jotting notes on them as if they were school desks. One boy was closely examining a bite mark station near a Frankenstein table on which bodies used to be examined. I saw the cause of the boy’s interest after he walked away. A paper explained how bite marks on pencils and the like are often useful to investigators. If you’re interested in CSI and longing to become a morgue technician, this is the place for you.
I was in the Vancouver Police Museum because the staff at the 5 Compass Canada Place Visitor Centre told me it was an often overlooked gem. They were right.