Crime

True-crime tourist: A tour of famous death spots

Slide show: From the Manson murders site to the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast, here's your exsanguination vacation

  • title=''
    Archives of the State of New Jersey

    Site of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping

    Fascination with the kidnapping of Lucky Lindy’s toddler son, Charles Augustus Jr. — a story H.L. Mencken called the biggest “since Resurrection” — continues to this day, and with good reason. The abduction and subsequent death of the child is tragic; the investigation into that abduction and death gets downright crazy. Secret meetings in cemeteries! A retired phys ed teacher from the Bronx inserting himself into the heart of the investigation! Ransom-currency tracking! Suspect suicides! Proclamations of innocence from the man executed for the crime — and other men claiming to be the Lindbergh baby, all grown up! Perhaps the most mesmerizing aspect of the case all these years later is the fact that so much of it sounds made up by a 9-year-old with a weak grasp of plotting.

    But as a Woody Allen character once noted, it’s New Jersey: Anything can happen. You’ll never know now what “really” happened — everyone involved has long since died — but you can keep obsessing about it in your free time. Start with a jaunt to the estate in Hopewell, N.J., where the kidnapping took place. The Lindberghs no longer wanted to live there after everything went down, and deeded the property to the state; it’s now a residence for a juvenile-offender intervention program, and New Jersey’s youth-corrections division has cleverly (and kind of hilariously) capitalized on continuing interest in the site by training student residents on the history of the estate and employing them as tour guides. I guess that’s one way to pay the old debt to society.

    Much of the physical evidence from the case is a short drive away at the New Jersey State Police Museum in West Trenton, where you can view ransom notes allegedly written by Bruno Richard Hauptmann, the infamous ladder used to gain access to the nursery, and even the electric chair in which Hauptmann died still claiming he’d had nothing to do with the murder.

    The crime happened in Jersey, but much of the aftermath unfolded in the Bronx. Hauptmann’s house is still a private residence at East 222nd Street and Tremont, which seems a little weird — who could live there, knowing what went on back in the day? Ohhh, right: Most of the ransom money was found in various rafters and crannies of the Hauptmann residence … and much of it was never turned up all. So, maybe skip the visit, try to rent an apartment in the building, and start pulling up floorboards.

    (I’m kidding. Please respect property laws.)

    The Bronx also features various cemetery-adjacent meeting points (start with the list at Forgotten NY, a rad resource for all sorts of off-the-beaten-path NYC history). Or you can let Richard Sloan do the work for you, if you plan ahead; Sloan’s annual Lindbergh-sites tour covers the subject every May.

  • title=''
    Wikipedia

    Chelsea Hotel

    The storied artists’ residence has seen its share of bad behavior over the years, no doubt, but murder-wise, it’s really only got the one: the 1978 stabbing of Nancy Spungen by boyfriend Sid Vicious in Room 100.

    Well, somebody stabbed her. Even Sid didn’t seem to know whether he’d done it or not. Regardless, you won’t get to see Room 100 — it’s been converted to a private apartment — and while non-guests can take one of the monthly tours offered by the hotel, the staff is pretty fed up with questions about Sid and Nancy. Probably more satisfying: grabbing a copy of Chuck Klosterman’s “Killing Yourself to Live,” a book about visiting rock star death sites, and heading uptown to the Strawberry Fields section of Central Park to read it. You won’t get access to the Dakota courtyard where John Lennon’s murder occurred, either, but 1) I’ve seen it, and it’s just a courtyard, so you aren’t missing much, and 2) the park is much nicer anyway.

  • title=''
    Wikipedia

    Miami’s crimes against fashion

    Dr. Paul George, who conducts Miami’s “Mystery, Mayhem & Vice Crime Coach” tour, might consider renaming his jaunt “Crimes Against Fashion.” Yes, the tour includes other stuff — coverage of Florida’s notorious bank-robbin’-'n’-bootleggin’ Ashley Gang; former residences of Al Capone and black widow Joyce Cohen — but the main draw seems to be the site where spree murderer Andrew Cunanan gunned down fashion titan Gianni Versace in 1997.

    But the tour also includes filming locations for ’80s TV pioneer/punch line “Miami Vice,” whose pastel Armani ensembles and sockless manspadrilles left thousands of wedding parties and bar-mitzvah boys (not to mention Philip Michael Thomas’ acting coach) bobbing regrettably in their wake. Putting the two types of crime into one tour might stretch the boundaries of taste, but it’s nothing compared to the next item on the list.

  • title=''
    Wikipedia

    Jonestown

    I can’t believe Jonestown is on the list either. I saw the “American Experience” episode on PBS devoted to Jim Jones — and, more to the point, heard the horrifying audio, after which I didn’t sleep well for a week. We all throw around the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid,” but 900 people died in the Guyanese jungle, victims of a madman’s paranoia. This isn’t the place for a gift shop.

    It’s no longer really a place at all. The former compound has nearly disappeared, taken back by the jungle in the years since the gruesome events of November 1978; the spot served briefly as a refugee camp, but it’s abandoned now, daisies growing where victims’ bodies lay after the massacre, and you’d assume the Guyanese government would prefer the rest of the world just forget that Jim Jones ever set foot on their soil.

    Unfortunately, Jim Jones is the only reason most Americans have even heard of Guyana in the first place, and the country’s weak economy may mean the board of tourism has no choice but to exploit the event. A few locals have erected a memorial plaque in the hopes that “dark tourism” interest in Jonestown leads to something more ambitious: a proper memorial, or even a more Graceland-esque affair with a museum and guided tours.

    A memorial, a museum, OK. The casino one man put on his Jonestownland wish list? Too far.

  • title=''
    Wikipedia

    Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast

    In case you’ve forgotten the nursery rhyme: “Lizzie Borden took an ax / and gave her mother 40 whacks / and when she saw what she had done / she gave her father 41.”

    Sort of. It was in fact her stepmother; it was more like a dozen whacks each; the weapon responsible could have been an ax, but was never found; and, although it was functionally impossible for anyone else to have committed the crimes under the circumstances, Borden was acquitted, and the murders technically remain unsolved. But, hey, close enough — and you can learn all about the case (and make up your own mind about what happened) at the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast in Fall River, Mass. Or rent the entire B&B for your wedding weekend! (Yes, “really”!)

    Whether you’ll have a peaceful night’s sleep in the room where Lizzie — excuse me, “the assailant” — nearly obliterated Abby Borden’s face in a flurry of overkill blows is another matter, but if you time your visit to the anniversary of the murders, Aug. 4, you can enjoy a live reenactment of the hours just after the discovery of the bodies (semi-wittily called “CSI: Lizzie Borden”). And you’ll be relieved to hear that all the rooms have Wi-Fi.

    Can’t make it to Fall River any time soon? Comfort yourself with some trinkets from the online gift shop, including Lizzie Borden hatchet earrings; all manner of amateurish-looking Lizzie Borden tomes; and my personal favorite, the Lizzie Borden “boblehead” [sic].

  • title=''
    Wikipedia

    John Dillinger Museum

    I feel like John Dillinger used to mean more than he does now — to symbolize more danger and dash — but, like many other figures and events of the time (Babe Ruth, bathtub gin), the man once shot outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater has faded into a beige quaintness. (Last year’s Michael Mann feature about the life and loves of Dillinger, “Public Enemies,” restored a sense of cool surrounding the man somewhat, but casting the physically unimposing Johnny Depp in the role did little to revive the sense of danger usually associated with the infamous criminal.)

    Contributing to the sense of sepia-toned twee-ness surrounding Dillinger is the John Dillinger Museum in Hammond, Ind., and its prime attraction: the Dillinger “death trousers.” The very word “trousers” evokes a more innocent time, an era before iPods, when road-tripping Americans craved diversion and would visit such a moth-eaten attraction unironically. We no longer live in such a time, of course, but the intervening years have not made a drive across Indiana any less tedious (no offense, Hoosiers; I’m just saying, that is some flat out there), so when you have that moment on I-80 when it’s either pay admission to see some shot-up pants or claw your own face off, give the death trousers a whirl. (The price of a ticket also gets you a peek at a Dillinger “death mask,” and a life-size, bloody wax rendering of Dillinger on the morgue slab. Cheery!)

  • title=''

    New York City Mob Tour

    The NYC Mob Tour, where “cement shoes never go out of style,” also bills itself as “the Tour You Can’t Refuse,” and it covers a lot of ground — the scene of Joe Columbo’s demise, the steakhouse where John Gotti arranged Paul Castellano’s murder, shooting locations for “The Sopranos,” landmarks associated with Crazy Joe Gallo, and more. Take the standard-issue bus tour, or splurge on a custom limo tour; you tell them what you’d like to see, they throw a bottle of Prosecco in the back, and away you go.

    But the New York Mafia is, as a topic, almost unmanageably large; you may want to customize your experience a bit by picking just a few notorious gangland killings, and visiting those sites that cluster together. In fact, you can do it in just about any city that has a mob — Philly, Chicago — or you can do what I’d do: bundle your mob-learning vacay with a trip to the craps tables after the Mob Museum opens in downtown Las Vegas in 2011.

  • title=''
    San Francisco Police Department

    Westin St. Francis Hotel

    San Francisco offers a range of gory sites for crime lovers who don’t mind traveling around a bit; conceivably, you could rent a car for the day and drive around to all the places the Zodiac killer struck 40 years ago, then repair to a winery for a less gruesome sort of red liquid.

    If you’ve only got time for a single stop in the city, though, you could try the Westin St. Francis, which you can’t beat in the “wackily paired crimes” department. The Westin hosted both the infamous Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle party that led to Virginia Rappe’s death, and the assassination attempt on Gerald Ford by radicalized five-time divorcee Sara Jane Moore. The fullness of time has made it clear that, of all the possible causes of Rappe’s painful demise, a violation by Arbuckle is among the least likely, but Room 1220 is where it happened … whatever “it” was. If 1220 isn’t available, it’s still a lovely hotel — with a spa!

  • title=''
    National Museum of Crime and Punishment

    National Museum of Crime and Punishment

    The NMCP contains, among other permanent exhibits, the set of long-running crime-stopper show “America’s Most Wanted,” and CSI workshops that teach visitors everything from analyzing footprints to DNA typing to ID-ing forgeries. The Museum also offers classes and crime-genre movie screenings, and publishes a rather “Goofus & Gallant”-y blog.

    Here’s where it gets awesome: The NMCP’s team-building programs. You and your work mates can bond via a shared forensics project, or take part in a get-to-know-you exercise called “the Inquisition,” which “places individuals in groups of three and requires them to complete ten different quizzes and challenges throughout the museum, and also to participate in a simulated high-speed police chase and virtual shoot-out.” As a veteran of both the high-saccharine bonding rituals of girls’ school and the soul-trampling corporate-speak “get clarity around”-ing of commercial editorial, let me tell all y’all managers something right now: Taking accounts receivable out for a gun battle on company time will make you the hero of the office for years.

  • title=''
    Wikipedia

    Manson Family

    The Investigation Discovery channel is one of my favorite basic-cable stops; it’s basically nothing but true-crime shows, 24 hours a day. Need to catch up on “Dateline” specials about faithless wives with terrible perms hiring inept hit men to kill their husbands? I.D. has you covered.

    Its website is a similarly rich trove for the true-crime nerd, and the Crimes of the Century section has a handy pop-up map of the Los Angeles-area sites frequented by the Manson Family. The Death Valley ranches Manson hid out in, the Polanski residence on Cielo Drive — it’s all there.

    If you feel weird about taking a Manson-themed day trip, but want to do it anyway, here’s your excuse: This summer is the 40th anniversary of Manson et al.’s trial for murder. Pack a copy of “Helter Skelter” and look properly academic.

  • title=''
    Wikipedia

    Death Cars

    We’ve all rubbernecked at car crashes on the highway, usually because traffic has slowed to a crawl and we have no choice. Paying to see the misshapen wreck years after the fact is another story, one I must admit that I don’t get — but there’s no shortage of shot-up, involuntarily compacted autos on display around the U.S. (Please note that some museums wait until you’ve already paid to admit that it isn’t the actual car such-and-so died in, but one just like it. Caveat emptor.)

    Auto memorials include the JFK death car (the Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Mich. — also proud home of, among other artifacts, Abe Lincoln’s death chair, and an Oscar Meyer Wienermobile); the Buford Pusser death car (he’s the “Walking Tall” guy — Pigeon Forge, Tenn.); and the Bonnie-and-Clyde death car in Verdi, Nev. (Don’t be fooled by impostors; fakes of that death car abound, evidently, but the real one (and all its letters of authenticity) is in Nevada.