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The American Dime Museum

Posted by Keith in Baltimore on 17/Mar/2007
"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.

American Dime Musum: Animals in the Wild
It's always nice to observe the natural, unfettered behavior of animals in the wild.
Many of the shocking, horrific, and "educational" abominations on display at the dime museums took on near mythical qualities. There must be hundreds of one-of-a-kind, only-one-in-existence Fiji mermaids. And every museum needed to have its own mummy, be it real or fabricated out of "wads of excelsior, shredded wood, linen, glue, and wire" as was the American Dime Museum's Amazonian giantess mummy, supplied to a museum some time ago by the Nelson Supply House of Boston, which specialized in, among other things, mail-order mummies for educational purposes. Other sideshow staples -- such as the two-headed calf, various fossilized demons and mummies, and historical artifacts like George Washington's eyelashes or Abraham Lincoln's last bowel movement, also found their way into the dime museums.

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.

Flesh-Eating Toads
The dreaded Flesh-Eating Toad of Madagascar.
The first floor is where the best stuff was, though, if by best stuff you mean (and you should) the demon mummies and flesh-eating toads. A life-size wax sculpture of Abe Lincoln stands proudly next to a plaque displaying what was proclaimed to be the final bowel movement of Honest Abe, snatched away from a Ford's Theater chamber pot mere minutes after Lincoln's assassination. Subsequent scientific analysis deduced that the presence of Neco Flakes candy in the feces meant it probably didn't come from the Great Emancipator, but whatever. From there, you could move on to a display featuring George Washington's eyelashes (which I can now add to my list of "weird Presidential things I've seen," right alongside Grover Cleveland's tumor from the Mutter Museum just up the road in Philadelphia -- I swear I've seen a President's lower jaw too, but I can't remember who it belonged to or what the hell it was doing on a shelf instead of attached to a skull. Maybe I'm just confusing that with John Wilkes Boothe's thorax). These are almost lost amid the jumble of cultural oddities, which includes "Homunculus Skin," the corpse of the Jersey Devil (artfully mounted in screaming pose on a piece of wood), a variety of heads both shrunken and normal size, assorted bizarre animals including the albino pepperoni and the dreaded flesh-eating toad of Madagascar, and for some reason, the wax statue of a terrified tribesman running for his life.

American Dime Musum: Figure
At midnight, it will come to life to do your bidding.
From within a brown clay pot, the mummified skull of a demon-elf thing with giant pointed ears stares out at you. It's easy to imagine 19th century yokels being lead through a similar collection of weirdness and gawking at the outlandish creatures and claims of the curator, who would no doubt be waving his hands about in true showmanship fashion. Many of the items are just weird enough to make you doubt they are real, but not so unreal that, in an era before television or the Internet or easy global travel, a crafty and skilled tour guide couldn't make you think that maybe, in those far-flung and exotic corners of the globe where men still ran naked through the jungle and ate one another, that maybe there was a saber-toothed duck. It's doubly easy to imagine this when a guy like Peter, sporting a magician's top hat and large hoops in his elongated earlobes, appears behind you seemingly out of nowhere to give you the low-down on the history of the fabulous beast at which you are staring. "He ate pygmy ants," he says of a nine-inch tall anteater beneath a filthy glass dome.

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

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