The Death Penalty on Display

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At The Texas Observer, Robin Ross writes on the rise of dark tourism — the macabre fascination with Huntsville’s Texas Prison Museum — site of America’s first lethal injection.

The three syringes lie in a row, lined up neatly on a somber black background. Displayed with a saline drip bag and looping IV catheter, the vials are oversized, as though designed for the chubby hands of a child playing a macabre game of doctor. Below each is a typed card explaining its purpose in the December 1982 death of Charlie Brooks, Jr., the first person in the United States executed by lethal injection.

To their right is a pair of hair clippers used for shaving inmates’ heads before electrocution as well as a sponge that was soaked in salt water to conduct electricity. The last thing to touch dozens of men’s shaven skulls, the sponge sits on a plastic riser, its face pale and pockmarked like the surface of a distant moon. A second sponge is in a baggie on a shelf a few steps away in the Texas Prison Museum’s vault. The objects sit there matter of factly, their subtle presentation belying the roles they’ve played in execution, Texas history and making Huntsville — with its five prisons and the headquarters for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) — shorthand for the death penalty all over the world.

Last year’s visitors came from all over the world. They arrived alone, with their kids on vacation, on school field trips, on charter buses loaded with senior citizens, with their motorcycle clubs, and on the way to visit spouses on death row. Some showed their prison ID cards, mentioned where they’d been incarcerated and cracked jokes about former residents getting discounted admission.

People like to play outlaw, walking into the replica of a cell, and for a dollar per person, visitors can borrow striped shirts and snap selfies behind bars.

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