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Exhibit features poison umbrellas, other cool spy stuff

Franklin Institute's spy exhibit opens today with more than 200 historical spy artifacts.

A Stasi Kit used by East Germans with breakdown of each piece in the kit. Spy: The Secret World of Espionage, opening at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
A Stasi Kit used by East Germans with breakdown of each piece in the kit. Spy: The Secret World of Espionage, opening at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)Read more

STARTING TODAY, you can visit the Franklin Institute to learn about Philadelphia's outsize role in the history of U.S. espionage - which begins with Ben Franklin's 1775 meeting with an undercover French envoy, who was posing as an Antwerp merchant, in Carpenters' Hall at 4rd and Chestnut streets.

But Dennis Wint, the museum's chief executive, has a good idea of what's going to draw people to its newest exhibition, Spy: The Secret World of Espionage.

"Really, really cool stuff," Wint said.

Charlie the remote-controlled catfish, a robotic dragonfly and a German Enigma cipher machine are among the 200 historical artifacts and spy gadgets on display.

Spy takes you inside the Central Intelligence Agency and other secretive organizations and features rare items from the CIA's recently declassified collection and the personal collection of intelligence historian H. Keith Melton. Here are a few that intrigued a Daily News reporter during a sneak peak hosted by Melton and Bob Wallace, the former deputy director of the CIA's gadget factory, the Office of Technical Service. (Think the character "Q" in the James Bond movies):

* In 1978, Bulgarian defector and BBC reporter Georgi Markov was murdered by umbrella - specifically, the tip of a KGB umbrella with a tiny pellet of ricin, the same poison derived from castor beans that was recently sent to President Obama and other U.S. officials. While waiting for a bus in London, Markov felt a sting in his leg. A Bulgarian agent named Piccadilly had poked him with the umbrella. Markov died four days later.

* Bloodstained ice ax that undercover Soviet agent Ramon Mercader used to assassinate Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1940.

* Welbike, the collapsible motorcycle designed by British operatives and the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA, for agents who parachuted in behind enemy lines.

* "Sleeping Beauty," the electric-powered submersible canoe that could be operated completely under water or with the pilot's head poking out above the surface.

* All sorts of concealment techniques, from a hollow-tooth mechanism to a Czech-intelligence film container disguised as a soap case that would set off a flashbulb and destroy the contents if opened incorrectly.

And did you know rat carcasses were once used for "dead drops" in Moscow? Information was hidden inside the rats, which were splashed with hot sauce so cats wouldn't eat them. "I like to think of Tabasco as the official sauce of clandestine work," Melton said.

Before you leave, try to make it through the exhibit's smoke-filled laser room, similar to "Ocean's Twelve." This reporter failed miserably, setting off loud, embarrassing alarms.

Wallace, who retired from the CIA in 2003, is a big fan of spy movies, but that doesn't mean they're always realistic. Most spies, sadly, aren't playboys.

"James Bond wouldn't last 5 minutes in the real world - without being caught and dispatched," Wallace said. "Plus, he would not be allowed to stay in the service because of all the damage he does to official equipment. You ever see James Bond write an expense report?"