An arresting affair indeed. Housed in Vancouver’s original city morgue, the city’s Police Museum is as much about modern forensics as it is about the history of policing in B.C.
By Liam Lahey, re:place Magazine
Chris Mathieson takes on the glow of an excited child on Christmas Day when he starts talking about blood stains, prohibited weapons, and autopsies.
For instance, while explaining how autopsies are conducted, the executive director of the Vancouver Police Museum (240 East Cordova Street) gleefully holds up a typical kitchen knife — the tool of choice for coroners, not a scalpel — and mimics how cadavers are gutted. He’s seen actual autopsies take place; it’s one of the “weird privileges” of his job, he remarked.
“Most autopsies are done using a standard sharp knife, and you’re basically butchering someone,” he explained. “The first thing that happens is separating the flesh from the ribs . . . once the skin has been pulled back, rib cutters are used. You can imagine the snapping, crunching sound as you break through each rib. They used to use custom-made rib cutters, but nowadays they use garden shears (to cut through the ribcage). It’s more economical.”
Mathieson is a veritable encyclopaedia for how forensic science is used modern day to solve crimes as well as the history of Vancouver’s proud policing heritage.
Housed in the original Vancouver City Morgue (built in 1932), the Museum is packed with police artifacts, an array of firearms and weapons confiscated from this city’s streets as far back as early 1900s, and displays documenting some of B.C.’s most puzzling, unsolved murders.
“This morgue could hold a maximum of 18 corpses and that was enough for this city up until 1980,” he said. “People don’t tend to die in big clumps; the one exception being right after Christmas.”
Mathieson also hosts one-hour evening seminars weekly on how forensic science is used to solve various crimes but be forewarned: despite his affable nature, Mathieson’s presentations are not for the faint of heart.
“And things get messy, these are very hands-on seminars,” he chimed.
While explaining how blood stains and splatters are examined by homicide detectives, he said when blood is free-falling through the air, much like rainfall, the droplets tend to take on the smallest shape they can: a sphere.
“That blood droplet flying through the air is sort of like Play Doh. If you want to take that ball of Play Doh and break it in half, it’s going to take a little bit of force,” he said. “If you then take those two pieces and pull them apart to make them smaller and smaller, it takes a lot of force to pull them into all of those little pieces. Ergo, the smaller the blood drop, the more energy was used in its creation.”
At the Museum there’s also a memorial wall commemorating a number of Vancouver’s fallen officers. Since 1886, 16 Vancouver Police officers have been killed in the line of duty. A memorial website dedicated to each of those men is available HERE.
A few interesting Canadian policing factoids: the Vancouver Police Department was the first police department in the country to hire women officers (Lurancy Harris and Minnie Millar in 1912) and it was also the first to record fingerprints of arrested individuals beginning in 1908. But the first police force in Canada’s most westerly province was the British Columbia Provincial Police, established at Fort Langley in 1858 to provide law and order after a flood of gold miners and settlers moved to B.C.
The Museum also hosts a G-rated version of forensic science usage (Forensic Science for Kids), a ‘Sins of the City’ Walking Tour (a tour of the oldest parts of Vancouver looking at the long history of the various crimes of vice in this city), and a few summer youth group programs. Details of what’s happening at the Museum can be followed online via its blog.
If you’re a Vancouverite who’s never been, go! If you’re visiting this fair city, find the time to check it out. An added bonus: regular admission for adults is just $7. At that price, it’s almost a crime.
Liam Lahey‘s media career began in the late ’90s as a beat reporter for the North Shore News in Vancouver. Since then, he’s been published in Spacing, the Toronto Community News, 24 Hours, ComputerWorld Canada, Computing Canada, Today’s Bride, and several others. Follow him on Twitter: @Lahey13