by Johnnie Keddis
It was April 9, a bright spring day, the streets of Vancouver Downtown East Side serene, its denizens warming themselves in the sunshine at Oppenheimer Park. Ten of us curious Petrels turned up nearby on Cordova Street for a guided tour of the Vancouver Police Museum, the oldest Police Museum in North America.
The museum is housed in the former Coroner’s Court and Morgue building. Yuka, our guide, mustered us into the hall where she explained the roles of the coroner, the pathologists and the coroner’s court. The tour proper began with the breathtaking entrance of President Fran Martin and it ended with her gracious, but hurried departure for her next meeting. Thanks to Yuka’s generosity the 60 minute tour extended to a full 90 minutes and we found ourselves steeped in a past of fascinating sights and stories, ranging from the horrendous to the humorous.
The humorous included the Harger drunkometer display. In 1953 it was a state of the art non-portable contrivance that seemed to have been put together from spare lumber and other odds and ends found in a basement. In 1954 it was superseded by a less bulky design, a breathalyser.
In the former coroner’s courtroom we examined uniforms, the Emergency Response Team, photos of fallen officers and the history of women in the Vancouver Police Department. Vancouver was the first city in Canada to hire female officers starting in 1912 (which was before women were even considered to be “persons” at law, pointed out Krista Lee Munroe). The RCMP did not take on women until 1972.
The ERT, which is the equivalent of SWAT has 36 members, is called out 300 times a year on average, whenever there is a situation potentially involving weapons or bombs. We don’t read much about that because the press is not allowed on the scene since their presence could alter the situation.
The “Sins of the City Room” has 4 walls displaying artifacts relating to gambling, illegal weapons and drugs. There were photos of old gambling dens and marked cards. The drugs wall displayed opiates, derivatives, and drug paraphernalia. The most gripping wall contained numerous street weapons confiscated over a two month period in 1989 including garottes, medieval studded maces and blades of every sort – brutal, gruesome, lethal. In Andy Hunter’s opinion, “definitely Triad weapons”. There was lots of discussion. JeanMarie Zubia said it’s no wonder officers are trained to take down suspects at breakneck speed. Our visiting Alaskan guest Tiiu Keddis commented that wasp spray is a good alternative to the banned pepper spray for self defence. For all the horror in this room comic relief came in the form of a mace type weapon confiscated in a school yard. It was barbarous and potentially lethal and had been crafted from a piece of sports equipment by an ingenuous 12 year old boy to impress his school mates and show them he could be tough.
We moved on to the morgue, cold steel doors covering sliding trays lined a whole wall, 6 units wide and 3 high. Yuka demonstrated how the upper ones got loaded. This was a chilling sight and sobered us as we entered the autopsy room.
It is a sparse room. One wall is lined with preserved organs, each telling a sad story. There is an incinerator for the disposal of contagious organs. In one window pane there is a bullet hole through which a perpetrator tried to kill a pathologist to stop him from finding the incriminating evidence. We saw the table on which Errol Flynn was autopsied and heard the story of this event, warts and all.
By far the greatest amount of time was spent in the Crimes of the City Room. We got to apply our observational skills to the exhibits of some of Vancouver’s most baffling cold cases and notorious solved murders: the Kosberg Axe Murders, the Pauls Murders, the Grocer Murder, the Babes in the Woods Case and the Milkshake Murder. We had detailed discussions and Andy revealed an in-depth knowledge of Vancouver’s crime history. Yuka told how the notorious milkshake murderer escaped the death penalty and managed early parole only to be brought to final justice by what some might call “the universe”.
Of course we couldn’t take in all 20,000 plus artifacts but all in all we were in turn awed, surprised, horrified, tickled and fascinated. Five year old Margaux Munroe, seemingly unphased by all she had seen, liked the gun room best. Why? Because it was the guns room. Of course. Krista Lee appreciated the attention paid to the history of women in the Vancouver Police Department. Ryan Munroe liked the street weapons, said the autopsy room was his favourite part, but was seen hanging out in the gun room a lot. Tiiu took pictures, found the whole museum fascinating and far too much to try to take in in an hour and a half. Andy was certainly not disappointed but would have liked more historical context and detail for exhibits like the guns display and how the fallen officers died. Johnnie Keddis was most impressed by the street weapons, the murders and the capital punishment exhibit – the simple noose. Until 1976 Canadian executions were done by hanging, never in chambers, chairs or by lethal injections. JeanMarie was busy the whole time taking pictures. Ana Spence was in research mode, totally absorbed and making notes.
Gary Spence summed it up this way: “ The camaraderie of our wonderful group, the obvious love and care manifested on the displays, and Ana’s usual bubbly enthusiasm made my day at the museum a happy and memorable event. Thank you Johnnie for making it happen, and thank you Fran for support.”