Baltimore's American Dime Museum

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:21

    Dime Museum In my version, the American Dime Museum began as poetry and fiction that grew into three dimensions. Alternatively, it was a hairball. At 9 p.m. Monday, Nov. 1, an audience of maybe 100 stood out behind a row of red-brick houses and storefronts in a lonesome slice of downtown Baltimore. With Amtrak trains and brawny freightyard equipment beetling by on tracks a few hundred yards behind us, we watched as a guy on a loading-dock stage blew mushrooming balls of fire out of his mouth up into the chilly night air. He also lay on a bed of nails while five stocky Baltimoreans stood on top of him, and broke a cinderblock with his face. Another guy swallowed swords; his performance style was less ept than the other guy's, a little shaky even, which made his act just that much harder to watch. In the audience, New York's Johnny Fox, who I'm told may be the world's greatest sword swallower, scrutinized the shaky guy's act, absent-mindedly stroking the shrunken-head pendant that hung from his neck. Next morning, an old guy cleaning up behind the event would find that little head on the ground and give himself a fright; Fox would come retrieve it that afternoon.

    The performances were celebrating the grand?hey, there were free corndogs and cotton candy?opening of the American Dime Museum, a storefront and basement crowded with circus, sideshow and medicine show oddities, like the 9-foot-2 mummy of a "Peruvian Amazon" and a taxidermied beagle; sideshow banners and a vicious-looking "Samoan Sea Wurm"; a Napoleon death mask, "The World's Largest?And Only?Ball O' Ties" and a dented can of beef ravioli.

    It's a loving, and winking, homage to the 19th-century tradition of oddball museum collections, not just the storefront "dime museums" where carny people used to park their shows in winter but also the grander collections like Baltimore's mighty Peale Museum and Barnum's grand American Museum in Manhattan. Science and natural history museums used to display a lot of this stuff, too, before they became more refined and politically correct.

    And there's Ripley's. Cofounder James Taylor says the aim of his museum is to be "a Ripley's where they actually let you in on the joke?and they tell you the history of the joke." His partner Dick Horne agrees: without the historical context, you're "just saying here's some freaky stuff."

    James is one of my oldest and best friends. He's been dreaming of something like the American Dime Museum for the last several years, but in a larger sense he's been working toward it as long as I've known him. When we first met in college he was a poet and publisher with a deep affinity for Victoriana, for 19th-century funeral art, for carnival and circus memorabilia?all stuff that became hipster fashion, partly through James' efforts, in the 90s, but it was flat-out weirdo back when he was first getting into it. Over the years, you'd go over his house and there'd be a new old carousel horse he'd just bought out of a guy's barn somewhere, or a Victorian wicker coffin out on the porch. I still have a jar of embalming fluid he gave me once as a gift.

    In the 90s he started publishing Shocked and Amazed!, his journal of sideshow and carny history; for the last few years, if you see a tv show dealing with carnies and freaks, it's likely that James'll be one of the talking heads. He's down in Gibsonton, FL, the carnies' winter home, as I write this, hanging out with the 87-year-old Percilla the Monkey Girl, from whom he's been decanting priceless sideshow history; she'll be on the cover of his next issue.

    Along the way, he's been filling up his house with sideshow objects. A two-headed goat here, a pickled pig fetus there, a giant's ring, a growing archive of photos and "pitch cards" and banners. Earlier this year, when he helped the Barnum Museum open an exhibit that was basically like walking into a three-dimensional version of Shocked and Amazed!, it was clearly just a matter of time before James would get all that crap out of his house and start a museum of his own.

    I suspect the same could've been said of Dick Horne. Another native Baltimorean, Horne graduated from the Maryland Institute of Art in 1965, having paid his way through school buying and selling antiques. He illustrated children's books for a while, gave that up, became a display sales manager at Sears, gave that up, got back into antiques. People remember his shop, Time Bandit, as extraordinarily cluttered not just with antiques, but with weird antiques.

    Like "The Tiger Hairball." Evidently an old museum display, it's a golfball-sized bolus of hair in an old glass case, a brown-edged card in there with a typewritten explanation that it was all that remained of an Indian Army officer and a few villagers devoured by a famous maneater in 1903.

    James walked into Time Bandit a couple of years ago and was like a custom-built customer. (A recent Washington Post feature wondered how two guys with such similar interests could coexist in Tinytown and not meet before; James is 48 and Horne's 56.) He bought the hairball, he bought what purported to be the mummified severed finger of a lynched slave, he bought other oddities.

    In fact, he was buying stuff as fast as Horne, in his backroom workshop, could crank it out.

    Turns out Horne doesn't just deal in antiques: he makes them.

    "I've always been fascinated with great museums," Horne tells me. "So I started making museum...I don't want to call them fakes," he grins. "And they weren't 'reproductions,' 'cause there never was another one." He settles for "museumish things."

    Dick Horne is, in fact, a grand master creator of... whatever we should call them. Unlike an art forger, he's not copying others' work. And he's never overtly claimed that the work was genuine antiques. It's just that if you wanted to convince yourself, he might not stop you. He's made and sold fake 19th-century folk art that he's later seen being used as illustrations in books about folk art. He's made a piece he had to talk museum curators out of buying, even as they were talking themselves into believing it was authentic. He sculpted an ear supposedly chewed off during a 19th-century bareknuckles fight that's hanging in a courthouse down South.

    He's got a number of pieces circulating on the increasingly active market for sideshow memorabilia. Joe Coleman's bought a few of Horne's pieces for his "Odditorium" in Brooklyn; a couple of the pieces James lent to the Barnum are Horne's work. Everybody buying and selling these things knew they're fakes?"gaffs" in sideshow speak?but until Horne outed himself in Baltimore's City Paper last spring, some people might have assumed they were old, "authentic" fakes?that is, not everyone knew that Horne was faking the fakes, gaffing the gaffs. His work's good enough that he's had expert collectors lecture him on how they can tell it's authentic. He just stood there and did an Oh really? and Is that so? and tried not, as carnies say, "to crack in front of the mark."

    James knew that "the Tiger Hairball" was probably a gaff, but he assumed it was an old one. The two men had become friends when one morning Horne saw James on a local tv news show, going on about the Tiger Hairball. It was clear James thought it was an authentic antique, and Horne began to feel bad about that.

    "I went into the shop," James recalls, "and Dick says, 'You kept me awake last night. I got a confession to make.'"

    "Luckily," Horne says, "he laughed when I told him."

    In fact, James says he was happy to meet a guy who was a master craftsman in one of sideshow's most honored trades. By summer, the two had decided that between what James collected and Dick built, they should go into the museum business together. After looking around the city, they just cleaned all the crap out of the front and basement of Time Bandit and put the American Dime Museum there. It's small and crowded, and any fire-eating or sword-swallowing has to happen out back, but Horne's hoping it's just the beginning, that a bigger space, like with an auditorium, will come along.

    Horne only knows two other guys building gaffs anymore; they both have pieces in the Dime Museum. The collection is a mix of "what's old and fake and really important in itself," he says, and things "new and fake, done as they would have done it."

    So the 9-foot-2 Peruvian Amazon mummy is an authentic fake from Nelson Supply Co., one of the most prodigious producers of gaffs, probably c. 1915, while a similar "Devil Man" mummy is a modern fake of a fake, gaffed by Mark Frierson, better known for his sideshow banners. There's a real shrunken head in a glass case, near a real "painting" made of butterfly wings; but the nearby three-eyed human skull is one of Horne's creations.

    I'm fascinated to hear that Horne usually writes the story behind a piece first, then sculpts the piece almost as a 3-D illustration. The results are Borgesian adventures like "The Right Hand of Spider Lillie." A clawlike, spider-monkeyish severed hand, the skin blackened as an old banana peel, is perched on some brown old lace in an antique-looking case of glass and wood. There's a cheap-looking ring on one finger, one of those rings with a hidden compartment for poison or pills. Inside the case is a browned sheet of paper with a story on it in faded old typewriter:

    Lillian Pitts of Kent England, a convicted, habitual prostitute, was banished to a penal colony near Sydney Australia in 1814. A student of the flora and fauna of this strange land, Lillian soon discovered the secretive funnel-web spider, the most poisonous spider in the world. Lillian then began her campaign of deadly revenge against her British wardens. Gathering the eggs of her beloved spiders, she would conceal one in her family ring, and when plying her former trade upon her captors she would open her ring, releasing the hatchlings into the hair, clothing, or bedding of her doomed paramours, knowing full well the eventual bite would prove fatal. Found out and betrayed by her trusted cell-mate, a Miss Kay Cross, she was quickly tried and condemned to be hung. In the autumn of 1820 she was executed and her infamous hand and its horror-bearing ring were placed upon a pole in the hot sun of the prison courtyard as a warning to others considering such treason. The hand was taken by officer Howard May and kept in the family until 1952, when it was donated to our noble Institute.

    "Our noble Institute," Horne grins, "has a lot of stuff." There's authentic historical detail built into that tale: There was in fact a penal colony in Sydney where they shipped British prisoners in the 1820s; there is a funnel-web spider, and its epicenter is near Sydney. An Australian who saw Lillie once told him, "You know, they're really not that deadly. It depends on where they bite you." Lots of the materials in the piece are old, too: Horne sculpted the hand, and the ring is costume jewelry (he tells people it's "a later copy" of the original if they ask), but the lace is old, so is the paper, and he has maybe a dozen old typewriters with old ribbons on them he uses. The accumulated effect is such that the same Australian who told him about the spiders also wanted to buy the piece for a Sydney historical museum.

    Every one of Horne's pieces is like that. "The Shy Dwarf of San Vicente" is a finely crafted little "mummy" standing in a glass, its head demurely tilted, hand placed delicately over crotch. According to the card, "Major Omar Dart was leading a small mapping party through Eagle Pass, Texas, in 1870 when the team wandered over the border near San Vicente, Mexico." In a small cave they found this mummified dwarf "perhaps cast out by a superstitious tribe. The little fellow had naturally dried in the desert heat still attempting to cover his nakedness in death. The men affectionately named him 'Shy.' Only six other mummified midgets or dwarfs are known to exist in the world, four in the Cairo Museum, and two at the Chinese National Museum of Death."

    Think about why there are six others.

    There's an antique-looking clay pot with a man-sized "mummified" head inside, with a pair of, I guess, deer's antlers stuck on it, and big floppy ears. It's supposed to be "a minotaur" found by some party of archaeologists, blah blah.

    The ears are dog-chews. They were the inspiration for the rest of the piece. "I was looking at them and I thought, 'Man, those are good ears.' So I built a whole story and whole animal around these chew-ears."

    When I ask where he gets the ideas for these stories, he just shrugs. "I don't know." Does he read 19th-century adventure stories? "Not a lot," he says. But he does read lots of history, and cheap novels.

    Whatever, he has a fine imagination. At one point he wanted to design a line of fake-antique machines "that should have been but never were. I wanted to make a machine that recorded smells. The sense of smell is really important to us. We remember what school smelled like, what our favorite aunt smelled it. And there are things we'll never know now what they smelled like. We'll never know what Ellis Island smelled like. Or Yankee Stadium before they banned smoking. Or the inner harbor in Baltimore before they built Harborplace." (That's one I remember?the lumber yards, the oily and garbagey water, the creosote-coated pylons on hot days. Probably all gone once they transformed it from a working port into a waterside shopping mall.)

    "There are lots of smells that are just gone. It seems like the technology ought to be there, with mass spectrometry and things like that, to, even if you can't replay it at this point, to at least record it. We ought to be recording smells. Anyway, I was going to make a machine that would have been made in the 1890s to record smells," piecing together old parts and authentic quack medicine devices, like the "Electro Aural Vibrator" on display in the museum, which for some reason shot puffs of air into your ear. "I would not try it," he grins. "I was going to have hoses with big long nozzles that would suck in smells and capture them in metal cartridges. I was going to call it an Olfactory Recognator."

    The Field Museum in Chicago has a diorama of the La Brea Tar Pits, with a little grill you put your nose up to to get a whiff of the fearsome odor tar pits exude. "And there's a line of people, each one goes up to it and goes, 'Oh my God! Phew!' And the person behind them can hardly wait to smell the stink," he laughs. "It's the strangest phenomenon."

    It inspired him to put a line at the end of the minotaur's explanatory card:

    "Warning: When opened the container emitted a most foul smell which sickened the men in the party, and to this day the stench can occasionally be detected. It is advised visitors keep a safe distance from the jar so as not to be offended by the smell."

    You'd be surprised, he says, how many people stick their noses right in there.

    There's "The Rangoon Sewer Serpent," a fiercely toothy ass-biter that plagued the water closets of East Asia c. 1908-1913. There's "Aunt Thelma's Heroic Duck." Design-wise, Horne's piece de resistance in the museum is his Samoan Sea Wurm. A variation on the traditional Fee-jee Mermaid, it has a serpentine body maybe 3 feet long trailing a monkey-like torso and head, with a mouthful of piranha-like teeth and a forked tongue. The story on the pitch card inside the case is this beauty:

    The shrieking of the ship's cat in terrible agony awakened the crew of the schooner "Elizabeth" in the dark of a summer night off the coast of Samoa in 1856. The light of a lantern revealed this horrid beast making off with the now-dead animal. First mate Gerald White fired a pistol-shot into the spine of the creature, which made an awful sound, as tho a woman screaming in a fearsome fury and, jaws snapping, the animal died. Frightened native crewmen called this thing a "sea worm," and told stories of the strange sound it made luring ships to their ruin on the rocky shores. Captain Thomas placed the body in rum, and upon his return to Baltimore had the "wurm" cured in Mr. Heills smokehouse and donated it to Peal's. Another specimen has never been found, so this is the only one you will ever see.

    Well, at least that part's true.

    An addendum at the bottom, under an indecipherable little swatch of black fur, notes:

    "An attempt was made to preserve 'Mittens,' the ship's cat. However, the potent poison of the wurm's bite completely dissolved bone and tissue, leaving only this small piece of tail intact."

    "It lends an air of authenticity," he laughs.

    The "wurm" itself is a beautiful job of work. "I've always been interested in anatomy and how things would be designed. This is the way this thing might work. There's a substructure, a skeleton under it. I always work from the skeleton out." Only the fins are actual animal matter. Horne sent his wife to a high-end food store?think of it as Baltimore's equivalent to a Dean & DeLuca?where she told the fish countermen she was looking for large fins. "They said, 'Well, we just did a big red snapper,'" Horne relates. "They dug in the garbage and found these fins." The funny thing is, "After they dug these out of the garbage, they charged her $6 for it!" He laughs. "Man, you think I'm fooling people. That made me feel much less guilty."

    Percilla the Monkey Girl has told James stories from the last hurrah of dime museums, which were still in many cities, often in sleazier entertainment areas ("The Block" in Baltimore, 42nd St. here) between the two world wars. Sideshow acts would perform in them when they weren't out on the road. Often they'd be open 24 hours, and Percilla remembers that peak times would be very late at night, after people left the bars, and very early in the morning, as people were heading to work. James and I talk a while about that one?you get up, you're heading to work, lunch pail in hand, swing by the dime museum to catch a freakshow on the way. Then again, lots of folks get up and switch the tv on first thing. Maybe it's not all that different.

    I'm thinking about that as I wander the handful of displays in the museum's small basement. I'm looking at a double-bodied pig fetus in a jar, a bear skull, a starfish with an extra arm, that taxidermied beagle with a deformed paw, a six-toed panther paw, a giant snake's head floating in an Imperial Maraschino Cherries jar, Jesus' head from a wax museum reproduction of The Last Supper that used to travel around in a carny trailer, Tibetan and African death art, an autopsy smear from the brain of presidential assassin Charles Guiteau and, maybe strangest of all, that "finger-dented Beef Ravioli can."

    Maybe the one piece that best sums it all up is "A Clear Case of Fraud": what appears to be a small, dried turd, framed, with the typed explanation that this "human coprolite" was "represented to us in 1906 as having been passed by President Abraham Lincoln in a private lavatory in Ford's Theatre on the eve of his assassination and saved by an alert attendant." The person behind the con had eaten a meal duplicating Lincoln's; "The scoundrel then passed this turd and claimed it to be the product of the Great Emancipator." On examination, however, it was found to contain damning traces of Necco wafers. Confronted, "the fecal forger fled."

    The American Dime Museum is open Weds.-Sun., noon-3 p.m. It's at 1808 Maryland Ave., a five-minute walk from Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station. Admission's $3. 410-230-0263;