The relationships involving crime, deviance, and popular culture continue to be major focal points for criminologists and media scholars. After decades of empirical investigation, an impressive body of research and theory has accumulated which speaks to the sources, character, and consequences of the crime content of a diverse range of media forms including news, movies, television, video games, urban legends, and music lyrics. Still, one aspect of popular culture has escaped careful scrutiny in this regard. Over the past several years, it would appear that crime and social control narratives have increasingly become identifiable aspects of the mass tourism experience. The number of tours, attractions, museums, and other potential tourist experiences associated with crime and offending are far too numerous to list; however, descriptions of and advertisements for these tourist attractions can be easily found in a variety of Internet sources in particular. While a substantial amount of anecdotal evidence has begun to emerge with respect to the potential relevance of the tourist-crime connection to the study of popular culture, the relevant social science issues have not yet been systematically addressed.
Crime themed tours, famous crime scene locations and entertainment attractions characterize a growing enterprise that can usefully be referred to as “crime and crime scene tourism." This article provides an overview of some of the key issues central to the study of this kind of tourist activity and of crime-tourism narratives. Specifically, we attempt to account for the popularity of various forms of crime tourism, and we argue that crime tourism reflects the influence of other tourist attractions such as crime movie locations and so-called “ghost tours." We also explore crime-tourist locations as contested sites wherein claims about criminal legacies compete. Finally, we offer a preliminary investigation of the content of crime tourism narratives and the factors which shape that content. Of particular theoretical interest is the degree to which there are similarities and differences with respect to tourism narratives and the narratives which dominate other forms of popular culture.
Crime Tourist Attractions
It would be misleading to suggest that crime content has only recently become part of the tourist experience. The historical record provides numerous examples to suggest that public fascination with criminal environments of various types predates the current period. In the 1890s, for instance, visitors could take guided tours of New York’s Chinatown, the Five Points neighborhood, and other high crime areas. It was also possible in many cases for tourists to sightsee at fully operational prisons such as Sing Sing Prison in New York State or Kingston Penitentiary in Ontario, Canada.
In the current period, we can recognize a continuum of crime tourist experience. At one end is the kind of attraction or location which is lent historical legitimacy because of its designation by the state as a kind of heritage site. Claims regarding the public value of these sites focus on their educational character and their ability to illuminate the historical nature of a region or the nation. Ownership tends to be public rather than private. Included at the other end of this continuum are attractions which operate primarily as entertainments that emphasize the sensational and the ghoulish. Such attractions tend to be privately owned and to be acknowledged both internally and externally as businesses rather than public goods.
As will become obvious, a distinction between these ideal types is made with difficulty. At both ends of the continuum, gift shops sell T-shirts, coffee mugs, key chains, and other kinds of tourist memorabilia, and both ends of the continuum emphasize, to varying degrees, the educational component of what visitors will experience. Attractions of both types (like almost all tourist attractions more generally) highlight links to popular culture. This fact is perhaps most evident when tour operators seamlessly combine the sites of real crimes and movie locations (as for example with the Sopranos tour of New York and New Jersey) in a single narrative. However, even at national historic sites such as Alcatraz, considerable attention is paid to the prison as a movie location. In a similar way, tours of the FBI building in Washington, DC emphasize the elements of bureau history that figured prominently in crime films and other aspects of popular culture.
The policing agencies of many major cities including New York, Vancouver, and Seattle have maintained, or are otherwise affiliated with public museum collections that contain an array of crime related artifacts and information. For instance, the Vancouver Police Museum features rare and unusual confiscated weapons, prohibited drugs, counterfeit currency, a mock crime scene, and a coroner’s forensic exhibit. Promising “an arresting experience," this museum also offers educational programs, hosts crime themed birthday parties for children, and of course the “integral part” of any guest’s experience: the opportunity to purchase “special souvenirs” at the museum’s gift shop and online store. In many cases, the content of these museums has more recently been made available for public consumptions via online virtual tours and photographic collections that are accompanied by narratives describing the images presented. National and state-wide police agencies have also maintained displays and hosted tours with perhaps the best known examples being the FBI, The RCMP, and the Texas Rangers.
It has also become possible and popular for tourists to visit defunct correctional facilities. The first state prison in Wyoming, in use from 1901 to 1981, has functioned as a tourist attraction since 1987. A highlight of what is now known as the Wyoming Frontier Prison is an opportunity for each guest to be seated (and photographed) in the prison’s inoperative electric chair. In a further bit of ghoulish humour, advertising for the facility invites potential patrons to “come hang with us." Similarly, Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay has been among the most popular tourist destinations in that city for decades. The island is most famous for the prison that functioned there from 1934 to 1963. During its time of operation, Alcatraz prison housed several famous inmates including Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud the “Birdman” of Alcatraz, Alvin Karpis, and George “Machine Gun” Kelly. The prison offers an “award winning” audio tour featuring the “actual voices of correctional officers and inmates” which detail the prison’s “famous events” including food riots and escape attempts. Visitors are also encouraged to commemorate their experience with a purchase from the prison’s gift shop which offers an array of Alcatraz themed items such as guard whistles, “rules and regulations” shoulder bags, and bars of Alcatraz “Shower Reg. #29” soap.
While it is not practical to allow tours of prisons that are still working institutions, except for specialized or professional audiences, many defunct correctional facilities offer tours and maintain museums in close proximity. Examples in this respect include the Sing Sing Museum in Ossining, New York, and the Friends of the Penitentiary Museum in Kingston, Ontario, another “award-winning” attraction. These facilities tend to both be funded mainly with public money and emphasize the educational rather than the entertainment value of the experience. In ideological terms, they can be understood as forms of what D.L. Altheide and J.M. Johnson termed “organizational impression management.” In other words, they are likely to support narratives which express the point of view of the criminal justice functionaries whose exploits and travails they record. In all of these cases, visitors have access to gift shops in which it is possible to buy a range of souvenirs with which they can mark their visit.
It can be argued that these “official” crime locations comprise only a small part of the typical tourist itinerary and that crime attractions at the other end of the imaginary continuum tend to predominate. The kinds of attractions included in this category tend to differ from those discussed above in three important respects. First, as stated, they tend to operate as private rather than public facilities. Second, they place the social type of the criminal or gangster rather than the law enforcer at the center of attention. In this sense, they differ from police museums as gangster films differ from police procedurals. Third, they place a greater degree of emphasis on entertainment and are perhaps less concerned with education or even historical accuracy, and even if they are, history is folded into an entertainment experience narrative. Examples in this respect include The Gangster Museum of America in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and the Criminals Hall of Fame Wax Museum in Niagara Falls, Ontario (which, very much like “official” tourist attractions such as the Wyoming Frontier Prison, offers an opportunity to be “shocked” in an electric chair).
Similarly, interactive crime themed shows and murder mystery dinners such as those hosted by companies such as Murder Mystery Dinner Parties offer a crime “experience” to patrons. Recent innovations along the theme of simulated crime include CSI: The Experience based on the popular television series of the same name. The CSI “experience” challenges tourists to test their investigative “skills” by analyzing “forensic evidence” at a mock crime scene. Participants are invited to investigate “crimes” using the “latest in scientific advances." Presumably, these “scientific” advances are deemed so by the creators of the fictional crime drama on which the attraction is based. Likewise, in Savannah, Georgia, one can take a Murder Afloat Mystery Cruise and compete with other passengers to solve a mock crime by mingling with guests and collecting “clues” from “suspects."
Also in this category is what might be referred to as crime hospitality. Some studies suggest that the release of “true crime” books and films have a positive impact on tourism demand in cities in which the films are based. For instance, M. Toma and colleagues found that the release of the popular book and film Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil had a statistically significant (and positive) relationship to hotel tax receipts in Savannah, Georgia. Similar to crime attractions such as “who-done-it” dinner parties, crime hotels. and bed and breakfasts suggest the opportunity to live like a criminal, detective or even victim by spending the night in a crime themed hotel room or by staying in the actual rooms where famous crimes took place. There appears to be three clearly distinguishable types of crime hospitality: defunct correctional facilities that have been converted into hotels; structures that mark the location of famous criminal events that have been converted into hotels; and hotels that offer crime themed rooms, or are rumored to have been frequented by criminals, but that otherwise have no relationship actual crimes.
The Carleton County Goal, now known as the HI Ottawa Jail Hostel, in Ottawa, Canada, was Ottawa’s first goal in operation from 1842 to 1972. Shortly after, in 1973 the goal was refurbished and opened as a hostel for travelers which it remains today. The hostel, dubbed “a great place to hang," features both hostel-style “group confinement” and private apartment-style rooms referred to as “The Warden’s Quarters." Some of the walls separating the original three feet by nine feet cells, in which many prisoners succumbed to the inhumane prison conditions, have been removed to accommodate bunk beds for hostellers. Like other prison and crime entertainment attractions, the hostel’s website incorporates stereotypical prison discourse into its advertising efforts. “Inmates” are invited to take advantage of the numerous facilities including a kitchen “to [work] off your debt," laundry to “put yourself on hard labour,” and parking “for your getaway car or bus.” Hostel stays can be combined with “Crime and Punishment” entertainment packages which include a guided tour on which “inmates” see the jail’s solitary confinement, death row, and the last working gallows in Canada. The hostel’s website also features an online hangman game under the “Fun” category that if successfully played reveals answers such as “Dead Man Walking” and “Last Meal Request”; incorrect answers prompt the message “SORRY, YOU ARE HANGED!!!”
Similarly, the Cobourg Jail in Ontario, Canada, has been transformed into a hotel “where you get to keep the keys." Outside North America, a number of jails have been converted to hotels which offer a similar experience. Examples include the Mount Gambia Jail in Australia; the Jailhotel Lowengraben in Switzerland; Karosta Cietums Military Prison in Latvia which features tours, a museum and an opportunity to stay overnight on a prison bunk or iron bed; and the one-time prison hotel at the Oxford Castle in England. Like crime tours, hotels constructed from correctional facilities blur the distinction between entertainment and education.
A related phenomenon is the conversion of actual crime sites into hotels and bed and breakfasts, some of which claim to be haunted by the ghosts of murder victims. Most notable is the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast/Museum in Fall River, Massachusetts. The hotel is run out of a house erected in 1845 that was home to Lizzie Borden, who was famously tried and acquitted of the axe murders of her parents. The house has been maintained to make “it as close to the Borden home of August, 1892 [the date of the murders] as is possible” and the hotel advertises that guests can stay in “the actual house where the murders took place.” The Lizzie Borden B&B is connected to a museum that offers guided tours of the house, theatrical re-enactment shows of the murders, signings by authors of books on the topic, as well as “Ghost Hunting 102” and “Spirit Communication” classes wherein it is suggested that participants may be visited by one of the deceased members of the household. The breakfast component of the package features one “similar to the one the Bordens ate on the morning of the murders, which includes bananas, jonny-cakes, sugar cookies and coffee.” Of course, this hotel also features a gift shop that contains items such as Lizzie Borden themed kitchenware, jewelry, bobble-head dolls, and bottles filled with dust from the decaying bricks in the “haunted” basement of the Borden home.
A third variety of crime hospitality includes hotels that have neither been the location of a criminal event nor constructed from defunct correctional facilities, but offer a crime themed experience. The Hotel Burnham in Chicago once advertised an “809 package” which allows guests to stay in the same room as Al Capone’s dentist and to enjoy two “Al Capone” cocktails in the hotel’s café, while another hotel claims that Capone used to get his hair cut in the attached barbershop. The Clay Hotel in Miami notes that it was the location of Al Capone’s gambling ring. Ron Decar’s Las Vegas Hotel features a Gangster Room with 1930s Chicago street themed walls, a “vault” bathroom, and bedding depicting a chalk outline of a body. In Las Vegas, it is also possible to organize a wedding around the gangster theme complete with “the Godfather” as minister and an “Italian waiter.” On a related note, it would seem that crime themed restaurants have become a tourist destination; examples include Vancouver’s Crime Lab and the Devil’s Island Prison Restaurant in China where patrons are lead to their table in handcuffs and served coffin-shaped bread by waiters in stereotypical striped prison garb.
Crime Guidebooks and Tours
Of course, many of the actual locations associated with notorious crimes and offenders are not officially recognized by the presence of historical markers or marked on the tourist maps made available by Visitors Bureaus; tourists often need assistance in locating them.Over the last several years, a large number of books have been published that provide readers with a guide to selected crime sites. Return to the Scene of the Crime (Lindberg), Return Again to the Scene of the Crime (Lindberg), and Weird Chicago (Taylor, Selzer, and Melvoin-Berg) provide maps and detailed descriptions of the settings and characters associated with a century of Chicago crime. Infamous Manhattan (Roth), Rotten Apples (Wolf and Madder), A Guide to Gangsters, Murderers and Weirdos of New York’s Lower East Side (Ferrara), and The Goodfella’s Guide to New York (Hill and Schreckengost) provide similar information in the case of New York City. Hollywood: Scene of the Crime: A Self-Guided Tour of Tinseltown’s Most Infamous Celebrity Crime Scenes (McConnell) offers directions to celebrity crime spots in Los Angeles. John Dillinger Slept Here (Maccabee) describes the locations and criminal history of Saint Paul Minnesota and Gangster Holidays (Hollatz) details Wisconsin locations frequented by Al Capone and John Dillinger. Murder USA (Philbin), Crime Scene USA (Yonover), and Unauthorized America (Staten) adopt a national focus; the cover of Murder USA promises readers a “true crime travel guide to the most notorious killing fields in America." In a similar way, journalist Sarah Vowell takes her readers on an Assassination Vacation as she describes her visits and relates the historical circumstances of the sites of presidential shootings.
Various crime guidebooks allow visitors to locate famous crime scenes as well as unmarked sites that would otherwise be known only to those familiar with local history. In a recent technological update of the crime guidebook, the publisher of Jonathan Eig’s Get Capone made available an iPhone application which allows users to tour locations in Chicago associated with Capone’s biography. A “walking cinema” of Boston’s murder on Beacon Hill is also available as an iTunes application; and though constructed as a tool for personal safety, SpotCrime’s iPhone application allows users access to crime reports, real-time interactive and local maps, “augmented reality” views of crime scenes, and email alerts regarding criminal activity within a two mile radius of the user. Similarly, a number of websites have emerged that offer crime tourism information such as to the location of the gravesites of famous criminals. One such site allows the user to choose from a selection of virtual flowers to leave for the deceased; Al Capone’s virtual flower function has been disabled by the website because it has been “continually misused.”
In many cities, such as Vancouver, Chicago, New York, London, and Niagara Falls, it is now possible to take crime themed walking tours and/or organized bus tours of crime locations. Guided bus tours are in part a practical response to crime locations scattered across a city. Additionally, guided tours can create a feeling of safety for tourists who wish to visit areas of the city in which they might be concerned about personal security issues. Tours of this variety often feature the locations of gangster activity, celebrity murders, historical red light districts, hubs of criminal activity, and places alleged to have been frequented by infamous criminals.
A marketing dilemma in this respect is the relatively visually uninteresting nature of what a crime tour has to offer visitors. A dead mobster’s former house may now just be home to a middle class family and more importantly much of what is of interest to tour-takers may no longer exists as in the case of demolished buildings. The solution in several cases has been to compensate for the lack of sights to be seen by giving customers a richer entertainment experience. For instance, tour guides might become characters who interact in theatrical ways with their audiences. In Chicago’s Untouchable Tours, for example, the tour guides adopt gangster nicknames such as Southside or Lefty, dress in flashy prohibition-era clothing, and speak in what sightseers recognize as stereotypical gangster language. The Newport Gangster Tour in Kentucky offers a historic walking tour lead by guides with similar names and costumes. Typically, on such tours, guides and drivers act out crime scenarios in ways intended to amuse more than inform.
Not surprisingly, the theatrical style associated with tours of this type borrows more heavily from gangster era movies than from the realities of the period. This is one of many ways in which the line between the tourist narrative and the crime narratives in other areas of popular culture seem to overlap. Further complicating tourist/crime, education/entertainment narratives are tours that feature the location of famous murders as well as places where contemporary celebrities have been apprehended for criminal acts. For instance, Dearly Departed: The Tragical History Tour of Los Angeles promises participants an “insider’s view of the seedy side” of the city from a “luxury van” that tours the locations of assassinations and the murders of Elizabeth Short (a.k.a. Black Dahlia) and Rebecca Schaeffer as well as the location of arrests of popular celebrities such as Hugh Grant, Keifer Sutherland, and George Michael.
It has been argued that in the current cultural context fame and infamy are not clearly distinguishable and that both the famous and the infamous are constant sources of amusement to members of contemporary audiences. Clearly, the American fascination with crime and celebrity is reflected in the crime tour. There is a very real sense in which crime tours are truly about a brush with fame. The opportunity to walk where famous criminals walked or to see where they lived is as much an attraction as are the homes of movie stars. Correspondingly, it would seem that one of the factors associated with the rise of the crime tour is the increasing popularity of movie location tours. In many of the same cities in which one can take a tour of crime sites, one can also take a tour of locations which were the setting for well-known crime movies; and conversely, many crime locations and prison facilities advertise their tours by noting that they have been the filming location of movies (often a film about the facility itself).
Understandably, the distinctions become blurry. In New York, crime television enthusiasts can take a bus tour of a number of locations that have appeared in the popular television show Law & Order as well as those of the show’s affiliated dramas Law & Order: SVU, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and Law & Order: Trial by Jury. The sightseer on such tours will visit places that were the setting for fictional crime dramas in a manner not at all dissimilar from the ways in which they would visit the sites of actual organized crimes, and in many cases they are part of the same experience.
As with movie location tours, the overlap between crime tours and ghost tours can be substantial. The ghost of John Dillinger, for example, is said to haunt the Biograph Theater, which he exited prior to being shot by FBI agents in 1934. Similarly, the victims of serial killers are reported to roam the locations where they met their end. The Lizzie Borden house is claimed to be haunted both by Lizzie and her parents, whom (as mentioned above) she was alleged to have murdered. Even more so than in the case of crime stories, ghost narratives have no official sources and largely reflect the influence or legend and rumor. Tours of this type promise visitors that they will hear detailed narratives about supernatural phenomena usually in a setting intended to approximate a gothic film. Both types of tours purport to tell a kind of alternative history of the city ignored by more official sources. Thus, tourists see the tour as “an underground thing, not sanctioned by the city,” as J. Reaves has explained it. This characteristic has considerable appeal to some significant segment of the tourist market and can be an important part of the marketing strategy.
An example of the marketing strategies that maintain this type of tourist activity is the Vancouver Police Centennial Museum’s Sins of the City walking tour. Participants are invited to “[explore] the rich history of vice” and learn about Vancouver’s “shady” or “edgier side” on a two hour tour featuring the famous locations of the city’s brothels, opium dens, gambling rings, and “secret” entranceways in historic Chinatown. Clearly capitalizing on the popularity of ghost tours, Vancouver’s Sins of the City tour concludes with a visit to what is referred to as Blood Alley - a narrow walkway in the city’s historic town square and behind the location of its first prison. Tour participants learn that the alley is haunted by the ghosts of prisoners who were hanged in the square; a claim supported by paranormal activity researchers at the Michigan Institute of Technology who suggest that the site is the “most haunted alley in Canada.” So called “haunted” crime attractions that promise a potential ghost encounter capitalize on tourists’ desire to play with fear in a context of relative safety.
Crime Tourist Locations as Contested Areas
An additional characteristic of many crime attractions concerns the degree to which they become contested spaces. It is claimed by some that especially profit-oriented attractions of this type either intentionally or unintentionally celebrate crime and gangsterism. Decorated with swastikas and the colors of the Nazi party, Hitler’s Cross restaurant in Mumbai, India, was forced to close after an outburst of public dissent. Similarly, in other cities, there is strong desire on the part of some claims-makers to minimize rather than draw attention to the city’s criminal past. After a Chicago-based company began operating the Untouchable Gangster Tour, officials at O’Hare and other “legitimate” tourist centers refused to carry tour’s brochures. It is at least in part for this reason that one does not find key locations associated with the criminal histories of cities like New York or Chicago identified by civic markers.
The multi-faceted nature of this contestation process was clearly illustrated by the reaction to the opening in 1993 of a tourist attraction called Capone’s Chicago. This attraction was located in a 14,000 square foot space in a Chicago tourist neighborhood that also featured a Hard Rock Cafe and restaurants owned by Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey. The exterior of the building, which contained the exhibit and the gift shop, was designed to resemble a block of buildings from Chicago of the 1920s. Like many such attractions, Capone’s Chicago was heavily influenced by Hollywood conceptions of gangsterism and the “roaring twenties." The false façade included a Treasury Department building front, the SMC Cartage Building (the location of the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre), and the 51st Ward Democratic Headquarters. In order to make the building as “family-friendly” as possible, the faux exterior used a forced perspective that gave the buildings a more human scale. This is the same architectural technique that is employed on “Main Street USA” and elsewhere in Disney Theme parks. The exteriors were painted in comic book colors and featured a large grinning likeness of Capone which one journalist described as “chipmunk-cheeked and bushy-browed” and looking like actor Ed Asner.
The Disneyfication of the gangster narrative was even more evident in the centerpiece of the attraction - a theater which used a half-million dollar animatronic system to tell “the Capone story.” The thirty-minute presentation attempted to put the gangsterism of the period in a very broad context of Chicago history. The Montreal Gazette reported that the designers of the show tried to “put a positive spin on the era” by keeping violence to a minimum and by bringing out elements of Chicago history about which residents could feel pride rather than embarrassment. Before or after the show, visitors were free to wander through the “museum” which included a collection of Prohibition Era memorabilia including Capone’s favourite fedora.
However, opposition from a number of quarters was evident from the moment the project was announced. Some critics feared that the attraction would inevitably raise the profile of a criminal past that would undermine efforts on the part of those who sought to advance a quite different image of the city. The owners of the attraction anticipated this objection and attempted to neutralize opposition through a variety of strategies. The development of a “gentler gangster attraction” was most significant in this respect as was the effort to emphasize many aspect of Chicago’s past in addition to gangsterism. Thus, like all such attractions, Capone’s Chicago was marketed at least in part in terms of its educational value. Indeed, the original business plan proposed a much more traditional form of museum in contrast to what some described as a pocket-sized theme park that it eventually became. As a more immediate way to demonstrate the educational value of the attractions and the civic spirit of those behind it, the formal opening was organized as a benefit intended to raise funds for Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
For other opponents, the issue was one of urban aesthetics. In Chicago, perhaps to a greater degree than in some other American cities, architecture is very much a matter of civic pride and heated debate. The family friendly exterior of the Capone’s Chicago building struck many residents as cartoonish blight. One Chicago architect was quoted in the Washington Post as saying, “It’s not architecture. It’s a billboard that’s pure stenography." The building was not located off the beaten path but only a short walking distance from the “Magnificent Mile” of Michigan Avenue, which is a major thoroughfare for tourist, residents, and business travellers.
Perhaps the most significant opposition was mounted, however, by influential members of the local Italian-American community who felt that the attraction would reinforce unflattering stereotypes of Italians and the role they played in the history of the city. While the attraction did not explicitly focus on Capone’s ethnicity, there was no denying its relevance to anyone familiar with the Capone legend or with mafia/organized crime movies and television shows more generally. Advocates claimed that the presence of the attraction represented a regressive step. The position was summarized by Dominic DiFrisco, president of the joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans who told a Washington Post journalist, “we were reaching the point where Michael Jordan was supplanting Al Capone as the international symbol of Chicago. It’s so sad to resurrect that name.” Although the animatronic presentations included references to Capone’s parents as “hard working” and honest immigrants and although it was stressed that gangsters in Chicago elsewhere were not always Italians, for the critics this was too little too late.
For a variety of reasons, including the pressure placed on civic leaders, the attraction closed in 1996; however, perhaps more important that these symbolic struggles were the economic realities of operating the attraction. Reporting at the time suggested that ticket sales consistently fell below what would have been required to keep the project solvent. As well, some observers noted that the financial experience of those operating the attraction contributed to their economic woes. The Chicago Tribune reported that according to the owners of the attraction, the closing was related to an offer on the property that they ironically described as an offer they “could not refuse."
It is also worth noting that the historical context of the Capone’s Chicago enterprise may not have favored its success. During the administration of Richard J. Daley, rather strict prohibitions were in place regarding any exploitation of the city’s criminal past by movie or television companies or other cultural entrepreneurs. By the early 1990s, these proscriptions had been relaxed but the collective level of tolerance for the commodification of Chicago gangsterism may have quickly been exceeded. In the late 1980s, a private company began offering gangster-themed bus tours to interested visitors. In 1987, the Brian DePalma film, The Untouchables, was filmed in location in the city. In the early 1990s, a syndicated television series based on the movie also began filming at Chicago locations. Even the “official” tourist welcome center at Water Tower place, Here’s Chicago, included a display of gangster mannequins and memorabilia. Many of the same voices that opposed Capone’s Chicago had opposed these other manifestations of gangster tourism. Perhaps the garish, Disneyfied attraction with the “smiley faced Capone" provided the most convenient and obvious target.
The claims competition evident in the case of Capone’s Chicago have been evident in other more recent debates such those relating to for instance, the opening of two museums in Las Vegas, or the decision to raze the home of convicted sex offender and murderer, Colonel Russel Williams. While the contested meanings of tourist sites have been addressed by scholars interested in national histories, and war narrative, relatively little attention has been paid to the manner in which these competing constructions play themselves out with respect to crime scenes and crime attractions.
In his seminal analysis of the geography of violence and tragedy in America, Kenneth Foote discusses the various ways in which sites of tragedy are modified in the aftermath of shameful or violent episodes. He argues that in general four types of modification can be identified. Sanctification occurs when there is a desire to mark the site with a lasting meaning which the members of a community wish or need to share. The building of a monument is a paradigmatic form of sanctification. Designation marks a site for significance but omits rituals of sanctification. Rectification involves the circumstances in which locations are reconstructed or repaired and used again. In such cases, the notoriety associated with the site is temporary and there is an eventual return to regular patterns of usage. Finally, obliteration involves efforts to remove all evidence of tragedy, to cover the site up, or to remove it from view.
Only in the most rarified cases do the sites of infamous criminal events result in sanctification or designation. When criminal events are sanctified or designated they are often inextricably folded into a narrative of national tragedy. The memorials at Ground Zero, for instance, indicate the location of both a crime and an event of deep national significance. Yet memorialized/sanctified sites do not always directly reference death or the specific circumstances of a crime and often when perpetrators of violence perish along with their victims at the scene of a criminal event they are excluded from memorials and sanctification efforts. For example, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the students at Columbine High School who shot and killed twelve students and a teacher before killing themselves, were not included in the school’s memorial.
Much more typically, the sites of gangster crimes or murders by serial killers are left unmarked. Often, the site is rectified as in the case of Chicago’s Saint Valentine’s massacre in which it is supposed that gunmen sent by Al Capone murdered seven members of a rival gang in a North Side warehouse. A visitor to the site today will not find a marker or even the warehouse. The original building has been replaced by a seniors’ apartment complex. In other cases, horrendous murders might result in obliteration. The homes of John Wayne Gacy, Paul Bernardo, Karla Homolka, and Ed Gein were all destroyed and the land was left empty. In this sense, the processes by which a crime scene comes to be obliterated, rectified, memorialized, and/or sanctified can be read as a form of claimsmaking that asserts the morality of criminal events and actors and thus represent resolutions of processes of contested meaning.
The Tourist Crime Narrative
In this preliminary overview, we have attempted to identify and account for the emerging phenomenon of crime tourism. The essential theoretical question concerns the nature of the factors shaping the tourist narratives. We have suggested that the proliferation of crime tourism as characterized by crime guidebooks and technological applications, guided tours, and crime attractions/hospitality reflects the contemporary cultural obsession with both crime and celebrity in the North American context and elsewhere, as well as the influence of attractions related to the supernatural. Similarly, such tours contribute to the blurring of education and entertainment to the extent that some entertainment-based attractions incorporate crime themed classes and mock investigative exercises into tourist packages. Likewise, it appears that the “official” accounts of criminal activity and events presented in prison museums have also adopted entertainment as part of their tourist attraction. Indeed, the Vancouver Police Museum depicts wax body parts and figures in a very similar way to that of the Criminals Hall of Fame Wax Museum in Niagara Falls.
In this sense, given the significant degree of overlap between movie/television narratives and tourist narratives, it is not surprising that the latter resembles the former in many respects. In the context of crime tours, and crime attractions, as in the case of movies and television programming, the emphasis is upon the serious offender and serious offences. As has been demonstrated by so many analyses, murder is typically the central concern of media narratives and constructions of characters lack subtlety and nuance. The ideological function performed by such narratives is no less apparent in the case of tourism than in the case of other popular cultural forms. In particular, these historical displays by their very character tend to locate crime (and the reactions to it) in the context of some romanticized and glamorized past. To speak of a “gangster era” or the “golden age of the gangster” is to wax nostalgic about the past while vindicating contemporary social conditions. In a similar way, the display of items implicated in harsh policing or cruel prison regimes as historical artifacts is to vindicate them and distract attention from those of the contemporary context. As with other forms of crime media, the tendency in the case of tourist attractions is to deal in familiar stereotypes which do little to challenge dominant public perceptions of who offenders are and or why they offend. As has been evident from the foregoing, much of what passes for historical commentary is fashioned as humorous narrative. In The Untouchables tour, for instance, the use of gangster lingo, the comical versions of gang hits to which tourists are exposed, the handing out of cigars and cloves of garlic (to rub on bullets) transform serious matters into trivial ones. The offender as buffoon is a construction that permeates many tourist and prison narratives.
We have suggested that crime tourism is of sociological interest to the extent that such tourist attractions have become contested sites wherein competing historical claims and moral evaluations are advanced. Just as controversy surrounding decisions to obliterate, memorialize, rectify, and/or sanctify crime scenes can be read as social moral commentary - as in the case of Ground Zero - so too can the manner in which the locations of crimes are visited. Of particular interest in this respect are the processes by which crime locations are categorized, some of which have been constructed as warranting somber visits to what becomes a sanctified site or memorial, as in the Columbine killings, while others crime scenes (such as the location of the Lizzie Borden murders) are constructed as appropriate sites for the accumulation of capital via entertainment attractions. Of additional interest are the array of crime paraphernalia and the consumption practices of tourists at entertainment crime locations.
This article provides a preliminary overview of the emergent area of crime and tourism. To be sure there is much overlap between the questions raised here and those raised in connection with more traditional aspects of popular culture. In both cases, we need to understand the factors that shape both the substantive and ideological content of crime narratives and the implications they have for public understanding of crime and criminal justice. As well, there is much that is unique about the area of crime and tourism. As a form of cultural consumption, visiting a crime scene entails more activity on the part of the subject than does watching television or going to the movies. Moreover, its “real life” character involves a level of voyeuristic engagement that is not as closely associated with more vicarious forms of popular cultural consumption. This point raises important questions about cultural taste. For instance, how much time must pass before a site or a narrative is considered an appropriate subject for the tourist experience? In this respect, the line between educational edification and schadenfreude can be a thin one. It is reasonable to speculate as to whether, in a couple decades, we will find tourist reflecting nostalgically on the crime wave of the 1980s by having dinner in refurbished crack houses and being driven around the city by tour guides dressed like Crips or Bloods.
From guest contributors Vincent F. Sacco and Alicia D. Horton, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario