Willamette Heritage Center showcases Salem’s crime-fighting history

Visitors look at the CSI Salem exhibit during a member’s opening on June 6 (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

Two years ago, Sharon Borgford brought Willamette Heritage Center curator Kylie Pine a box of her grandfather’s things.

It contained what would be the starting point for the CSI Salem exhibit, which opened Friday at the center.

“The materials were a treasure trove of what it was like to be in the crime-fighting era,” Pine said.

Stepping inside the exhibit on the second-floor of the Dye House, visitors can immediately see a profile about Borgford’s grandfather – J.S. Murray.

Murray was a former clerk and identification officer at the Oregon State Penitentiary who kept souvenirs from his time on the job, where he served as a ballistics, fingerprinting and handwriting analysis expert witness.

Murray was born in New Mexico and later worked as a guard at the Arizona Territorial prison in Yuma, Arizona.

In the early 1900s he got a job as an office clerk at the Oregon State Penitentiary, where he later became the chief clerk, a post he would hold for more than 40 years. During that time, he helped found Oregon’s first statewide bureau of identification, which provided a paper trail to track suspects.

Borgford said her mother held onto the box of relics after Murray died and didn’t really talk about them. She said she didn’t know her grandfather had written a memoir or that he had donated a copy to the Oregon Historical Society.

One of the items Borgford found was a card that had a photo of the prison on the front, and the signatures of three of the administrators on the inside, wishing a Merry Christmas.

“I knew that they were unique items,” Borgford said.

Murray was a fingerprint expert at the prison, and part of the exhibit centers around different types of fingerprints and the powders used to collect them.

Borgford laughed, recalling that her mother had been fingerprinted as a baby because Murray loved the process.

The exhibit has descriptions of even earlier methods of criminal identification, like Bertillon measurements, which measure various bony structures in the body. Calipers are on display alongside black-and-white mugshots.

Pine starts thinking about exhibits years in advance. Initially, she said there was an idea for a Mid-Valley vice exhibit.

But it was difficult to find historical items related to crimes, so she thought about showcasing crime fighting instead.

“We look for things that have connections and have a broad general appeal,” Pine said.

READ: As Willamette Heritage Center curator, Kylie Pine finds treasures in local history

One of those connections was the Lightning Powder Co., which sold forensic supplies out of Salem for almost 20 years before the company was sold in 2000.

Pine said Salem was known as the “penal colony of Oregon” because the city housed all of the state-level correctional facilities until the 1980s.

When asked about her favorite part of curating the exhibit, Pine said, “The systems and the stories that were in place and getting an insider view on something I hope not to be a part of.”

Pine said she was fascinated by the systems of classification, like the ways of narrowing down a catalog of fingerprints, that were put in place well before the digital age.

The curator said there are “Easter eggs” within the exhibit — little tidbits of history that tie into the larger narrative.

The exhibit will run through Aug. 31. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday.

Tickets cost $8 for adults, $7 for seniors, $5 for students, $4 for youth and free for children 5 and younger.

More info can be found on willametteheritage.org or by calling 503-585-7012. The museum is located at 1313 Mill St. S.E.

A collection of J.S. Murray’s items began what would become the CSI Salem exhibit at the Willamette Heritage Center (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

Have an idea or suggestion? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at [email protected] or 503-549-6250

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