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This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.

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By Thomas “Ratman” Swafford © 2010
(From Radio Recall, February 2010)

“This is Orson Welles speaking to you from London,” and with these words followed by the sounds of the chiming of Big Ben was presented one of my favorite old time radio programs, The Black Museum.

Long before the various and numerous true crime shows that are featured on television today, there was the radio program, The Black Museum which is the name of Scotland Yard’s gallery of mementoes from murders with which they have dealt. Some are obviously dangerous such as guns or knives, other objects seem quite innocuous such as a piece of string, or a small medicine bottle. Yet regardless of their appearance all were associated in one way or another with an actual murder case. After the introduction, you hear footsteps as Welles wanders thru this grim curio shop, commenting in a detached manner on the various items he comes across. At some point, he stops in front of one particular object and begins to tell you the grim story behind it. In general, the episodes were simply named for the articles involved such as A Can of Weed Killer, A Woolen Jacket etc.

Although many if not most sources say that this series was produced by the BBC in reality it was made in Australia with Australian actors by a production company called Towers of London. The producer was Creswick Jenkinson, who also co-wrote the scripts. Welles’ narrative was actually done in England and flown to Australia where they were spliced in with the recordings done there. The American audience was the target market for this program. Beginning in January 1, 1952 it began a run on The Mutual Broadcast System ending on December 30, 1952.

Although the investigative and forensic methods they employed were quite primitive by today’s standards, they were the best at the time and this show goes into detail. Much like Dragnet, the show was stark and realistic for its time dealing with actual case histories. As opposed to the various cases dealt with by radio detectives at the time which tended to be crimes dealing with love, money or revenge, The Black Museum also brought up cases that dealt with darker subject matter such as sex crimes and serial murders. Although the episodes were based on actual cases, the dramatizations did take some liberties with them. Tony West of London did research on the episodes. The following website www.old-time.com/otrlogs2/blkmus.html tells the name of the episode and the actual cases that inspired them.

The shows usually ended with Scotland Yard convicting their criminal, yet that’s not how all the shows ended. In at least two, the suspects were found innocent although there remand great doubt. One woman was found innocent by the court, but guilty in the eyes of the community. As a result, she died several years after her acquittal as an outcast shunned by her neighbors. For those that were convicted the end was almost always the same, early one morning they were taken to the Old Bailey, and executed by hanging.

Welles’ rich melodious voice was a nice contrast to the high pitched background music. He narrated the entire show, not just introduced it. All the way through, he offered comments and facts. He always ended the program with “till we meet next time, I remain as always obediently yours,” giving you a feeling of safety as if your favorite uncle just told you a scary bedtime story, but at the last, the dragons were all slain and he tucked you safely into bed.

If you enjoy true crime stories, especially those that are distinctly British in setting and tone and generally set in the 1920s to 1940s then The Black Museum certainly is for you. I own a collection of the series and can honestly say that is one of the most enjoyable and well done I have.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Tom Swafford has been a member of the Chattanooga Old Time Radio Club since 2002. Growing up, he became a fan of the CBS Radio Mystery Theatre and followed it faithfully thru the entirety of its run. Later he became interested in The Shadow and other series. For several years he has contributed articles for his club newsletter and recently became its editor and graphic artist.