“Well, it’s snowing now,” she said to me as she stared past our Cracker Barrel breakfast and out the window behind me. I had just finished sneering with smug superiority at the reports of a looming winter storm. Storm? Bah! The day is bright and sunny with a sky as deep and blue as ever I have seen. Weather men? What do they know about the weather? Such was my attitude, childish though it may be, when I sat down to dig into a jumbo plate of biscuits and gravy with a side of bacon -- truly the breakfast of, if not a king, then at least of a peasant who will likely die from some sort of heart-related ailment a few years down the line.
But snowing it was, and those brilliant azure skies that had made me so cocky a mere half hour earlier gave way with dizzying speed to a world the color of dirty cotton and bruises. It was salt in the wound made minutes earlier, right before our food came, when that pyramid peg game the Cracker Barrel keeps on every table pronounced me, thrice in a row, to be “jes plain dumb” or some other such folksy condemnation of my mental prowess. But travel is often about self-discovery and the learning of lessons, and if nothing else, I learned a valuable lesson about standing with arms akimbo, throwing my head back, and letting loose with a thunderous and bellowing laughter in the very face of the gods as they toy with the idea of sending a snow storm in my direction. Well, I think I learned a valuable lesson. I forget what it was.
We were in the greater Baltimore area to visit the American Dime Museum, an example of and homage to the old dime museums and sideshow displays that were a staple of traveling carnivals and circuses during the late 19th and early 20th century. For a mere dime, dupes and rubes could file through a museum of the strange and curious and marvel at everything from a two-headed calf to a mermaid from Fiji. Not surprisingly, the first such museum was founded by none other than P.T. Barnum in 1841. Called simply “The American Museum,” Barnum and partner Charles Willson Peale ushered in the concept of “edutainment,” that the idea of being educated and being entertained at the same time was not outside the realm of possibility. However, how much “education” occurred at the museum is highly suspect.
The dime museums that sprouted up in the wake of The American Museum thrived on sensationalism and showcased a vast array of curiosities and oddities -- some of them real, many of them little more than products of a taxidermist’s fanciful imagination and bucket of left-over parts. The American Museum burned down in 1865, possibly as a result of a curse placed on it by some fake mummy that was on display, but by then, dime museums were a fixture of circuses and traveling carnivals.
Manufacturing mummies and mounted Jersey Devils must be an interesting job, and it’s a job Richard Horne, the founder of the American Dime Museum, held in his early days. Many of the items at the American Dime Museum were Horne’s own creations, while many more were donated by collectors or acquired from other museums. The goal of the American Dime Museum was to recreate the experience of visiting a dime museum -- most of which had disappeared by the end of World War II, when forgeries and fakes and extraordinary claims became increasingly easy to debunk -- as well as educate people about the history of dime museums and the shady dime museum business. “We’re told by the American Association of Museums that we’re the only museum that’s recreated a museum,” Horne told the authors of Roadside America.
The museum, located in a storefront on a nondescript street in a somewhat run-down part of Baltimore, quickly amassed an impressive collection of curios. Local legend John Waters sat on the “advisory board.” But after eight years in operation, the museum was forced by lack of funding to shut down. In February of 2007, their entire collection was hauled out and put on display for public auction. Seeing as it was going to be our last chance to see the place, we decided to make the short drive down to Baltimore to take in the museum and, if luck held out, end up buying a boardwalk automaton chimp or fossilized fairy or some such other forgotten wonder.
The snow was falling heavily by the time we finished our breakfast and made our way to the museum. Stepping through the rickety wooden front door, we were immediately greeted by the smell of old stuff and cats, and the tattooed and pierced face of Peter Excho, one of the museum’s curators.
“Your friend is waiting for you downstairs,” he announced without introduction. I planned to meet up with a friend from West Virginia, the same person who first alerted me to the museum’s existence. Excho’s show of clairvoyance was the perfect introduction to the museum, and sure enough, our friend was downstairs, marveling at the whirring mechanical guts of an automaton chimpanzee that would either wave or punch you on the face, depending on its mood.
The museum is a museum in the most jumbled, chaotic, and glorious sense of the word. The closest I can come to describing it is to say it’s equal parts Victorian curio cabinet, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and the over-stuffed attic of someone’s insane grandparents. Two floors of a storefront are dedicated to the exhibits crammed floor to ceiling into every nook and cranny that is big enough to hold a pistol-packing squirrel or mummy skull. The basement, where we began our tour, was largely a collection of sideshow and midway accoutrements. The aforementioned animatronic chimp, a trick guillotine with Chinese writing on it, a “box of blades,” the world’s largest and possibly only tie ball, old carnival sideshow signs, an antique tattooing machine (my friend, being a tattoo artist, was keen on owning this, but it didn’t pan out -- would have loved to see the look on the face of some college kid in the shop wanting a Chinese symbol or butterfly tattoo, only to see my friend wheel this foot-cranked monstrosity out of the closet), and squirrels armed with shotguns and riding around on top of a cayman.
The front room of the museum is positively piled with mummies. There’s the Peruvian giantess, a forgotten pharaoh, and something tagged mysteriously as a “demon mummy.” Presiding over the phantasmagorical menagerie is a six-foot-tall apelike automaton in a tattered purple turban. “The mechanics are old,” Peter says, “but it looks like he’ll still work. As far as we can tell, he probably turns his head, waves, and maybe cranks a squeezebox that got lost somewhere.” Richard Horne is on a cell phone, standing next to one of the encased mummies and trying to iron out the last-minute details of the auction. There is a palpable air of melancholy hanging over the museum, but spirits are lifted somewhat by the number of people who are turning out for this last-weekend celebration. The crowd is a mix. Punks, rockers, regular Joes, even a mother and her children.
“It’s a beautiful piece,” I overhear Richard saying, “and I didn’t want to put it up for auction. I had no idea we even had one. But it got posted, and there’s already a bid on it, so we can’t take it down.” I have no idea what it could possibly be, but considering the jumbled nature of the museum, I have no problem convincing myself it’s some cursed ventriloquist dummy that houses the soul of a mad Aztec priest and comes to life at night to kill.
“I also didn’t want to Pepperoni up, because I wanted to give that to my daughter, so I just put my own bid for $5,000 on it. If anyone outbids me, well, I guess they deserve it.” Pepperoni is a tiny, unidentifiable weasel-looking thing eating a dried bird corpse.
The American Dime Museum represents a vanishing part of American history, and as entertaining as it maybe to pick through all the crazy bits and pieces (there are no velvet ropes or testy security guards here -- if you want to lick the homunculus skull, then by golly you can lick the homunculus skull), this is one museum that makes good on Barnum’s promise of edutainment. From a history of the dime museums to a history of the creation and manufacture of the items in the museums, The American dime Museums proves to be a hands-on, first-person style record of populist history. Even though most of the dime museum oddities were proven to be fakes and forgeries, Horne still regards them as worthwhile pieces of history, both as an example of the types of things Americans wanted to believe maybe existed, as well as examples of genuine folk art. And it’s easy to see his point. Peering back at you from lidless eyes behind cracked and smudged glass coffins, these mummies look weird, and much of the creative taxidermy that goes into making things like the flesh-eating toad or the Jersey Devil or the internationally renowned jackalope is, taken at face value, incredibly convincing.
By the time we finished our tour of the museum on its final day in existence the snow covered the ground and was getting heavier. Fog rolled in off the water in great billows, and the world outside was a misty hallucination populated by hunched-over ghosts trudging through the soup. The door to the museum creaked slowly closed behind us, and with a final click, the American Dime Museum was gone.
American Dime Museum
(NOTE: THE MUSEUM HAS CLOSED ITS DOORS)