Billy the Kid was a psycho. It took the balm of time and multiple retelling of Old West sagas to turn this killing machine into a folk figure. You may recall former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s causing a fuss when he considered granting the little monster a posthumous pardon. Among the Kid’s many victims were officers of the law. Richardson wisely decided to take a pass.
But you can understand the New Mexico governor’s wanting to drum up new interest in the desperado. Outlaws and their legends are great tourist draws in his region.
The West is not alone in trying to balance ugly history with public fascination. Using grisly true-crime stories as attractions probes the bounds of taste and decency.
Fall River, Mass., is a beat city with a long history as a textile center. But for many, Fall River is best known as the scene of the 1892 Borden ax murders. Lizzie Borden, the doggerel goes, “gave her mother forty whacks/ and when she saw what she had done/ she gave her father forty-one.”
The Lizzie Borden affair (Lizzie was acquitted of the crime, but most remain convinced of her guilt) used to be an embarrassment to the city. Old Florence Brigham at the Fall River Historical Society would try to steer visitors away from the Borden story, suggesting they look into whaling instead. After she retired 20 years ago at age 91, the society moved the Lizzie exhibit case into the front room and started selling Lizzie T-shirts, paperweights, stationery, mugs, tote bags and a special-edition gold-rimmed plate with Miss Borden’s portrait in the center.
(The most memorable building in Mesilla, N.M., was the courthouse and jail where the Kid was sentenced to hang, but it is now the Billy the Kid Gift Shop.)
Tragedies within living memory are harder to turn into attractions. Civil rights historians in Memphis, Tenn., agonized over what to do about the infamous Lorraine Motel, a drab mid-century building on whose balcony Martin Luther King Jr. was shot to death on April 4, 1968.
When the Lorraine was turned into the National Civil Rights Museum, some objected to tying King’s legacy so closely to his death — and thought that the museum’s placement took attention from the civil rights leader’s philosophy of nonviolence and life achievements. Today, the museum with the motel facade is one of the main “things to see” in Memphis, alongside historic Beale Street and Elvis’ Graceland Mansion.
Perhaps the most extraordinary marriage of tourist attraction and public outrage is the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas. It was from here, the sixth floor of the former Texas Book Depository, that Lee Harvey Oswald shot and killed John F. Kennedy.
The entire floor was transformed into a scholarly exhibit explaining the passions embroiling America and Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. It also presents every detail of the crime, the investigation and the aftermath.
The preserved dusty corner from which Oswald fired down on the presidential motorcade is a chilling sight. How a museum can offer a live webcam capturing the sniper’s-eye-view of Dealey Plaza without seeming offensive, I don’t know. But this one pulls it off.
Less educational is the Bonnie & Clyde Ambush Museum outside of Shreveport, La. The Al Capone Museum in Chicago has closed. So has the Forty Whacks Museum in Salem, Mass., which followed the Lizzie Borden story. Apparently, the Salem Witch Museum is still going strong.
Bad taste or good fun? There is something acceptingly American about creepy kitsch. After all, the Ripley’s Believe It or Not “museum” of oddities in San Antonio stands right across the street from the Alamo. ©2011 The Providence Journal Co.