This weapon, along with more than 130 other items, is part of the Berman’s “Out of the Vault: Peculiar Possessions” exhibit, a display of some of the more unusual pieces of history from the Berman’s vault — items that aren’t in the museum’s permanent collection.
“It’s the sort of things people find intriguing and interesting,” said Berman’s marketing manager, Margie Conner, who also assisted in setting up the displays. “And a little morbid.”
A trio of iron “shame masks” or “branks” greet visitors as they enter the changing exhibit gallery on the second floor of the museum. The branks, all circa 1700, were used mainly on women.
One brank has a spiked mouthpiece to prevent the wearer from eating or speaking, while another is fitted with donkey ears to represent the foolish person inside.
“They were worn to humiliate or shame someone,” said David Ford, business development coordinator at the Berman.
Around the corner is a collection of maces and flails, many of which are made of chain metal and topped with the “morning star” — a metal ball with spikes — and several other articles of torture, punishment and restraint, like the thumb screws.
The intention of thumb screws is given away by its name. This was a favored method of torture during the Inquisition, Ford said, because they could be used to extract confessions without the shedding of blood by clergy, which was a violation of church law. Instead, the victim’s thumbs, fingers or even toes were placed in a vice and slowly crushed until a confession or retraction was aquired.
Col. Farley Berman, the benefactor of all the items in the new display and for whom the museum is named, called this torture instrument the “original lie detector,” Ford said.
A 15th-century cross made of inlaid wood looks harmless on the outside, but hides a deadly surprise on the inside — a 9.5-inch dagger with a scalloped blade. According to museum text, Col. Berman said the cross/dagger was used by a priest to free a wrongly convicted man.
Other items with “surprises” on display include a collection of spy guns — pistols hidden in razors, pens, lighters and shields — bejeweled rings that hold poison inside and a tiny compass disguised as a simple trouser button.
And while 21st-century devices may allow someone to check their Twitter and bank accounts at the push of a button, it’s not the recommended procedure for the items on display. That plan just might end up backfiring ... literally.
“Peculiar Possessions” is included in the Berman’s regular museum admission.
Contact Deirdre Long at 256-235-3555.
Peculiar Possessions: An Eclectic Collection
What: Unusual and difficult-to-categorize items from the Berman’s vault, not normally on display
Where: Changing exhibit gallery, Berman Museum of World History
Cost: $5 for adults, $4.50 for seniors, $4 for children 4-17, children 3 and under are free.
Contact: www.bermanmuseum.org or 256-237-6261