Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
July 3, 2022

A little less unconvention in Baltimore

By Anna Yukhananov | March 2, 2007

Dick Horne, the owner and curator of the American Dime Museum, straightened the fluorescent lamp over a display of shrunken heads and mourning hair jewelry.

"I guess we can let them in now," he said.

And the visitors trickled inside, eager for a last glimpse of that Baltimore landmark, former home of such curiosities as Lincoln's last bowel movement and Amelia Earhart's finger.

It was Friday, the first day of the preview of the collection. All of the museum's contents, from the display cases to the mummies, were auctioned off this Monday.

"This isn't a closing, this is a funeral," Horne said.

And indeed, the preview for the auction felt like a wake. Despite the space heaters near the door, the small storefront room and basement were frigid. Potential bidders spoke in hushed tones as they wandered among the chipped glass cases, wax figures and taxidermied animals.

The museum was closing because although Horne had spent over 20 years gathering and creating his collection, and seven years running the museum, he could not afford the operating costs: the rent, the lights, the heating bill.

"I'm good at museums," he said, "not at raising money."

"You just eventually face reality."

It was the death of a museum, but what a museum it had been: offering the grotesque and the humorous, the bizarre and the spectacular.

Dime museums and sideshows

The American Dime Museum re-created the experience of the turn-of-the-century sideshows and dime museums (so called for the price of their admission).

In the past, dime museums lured customers with artifacts of ghostly murders and freaks of nature, some real, some fake, but all designed to amuse and amaze.

Once new forms of entertainment emerged at the beginning of the 20th century, the dime museums couldn't compete, explained Peter Excho, a volunteer in the museum.

He led me to the basement, which was dedicated to the dime museum's successor, the sideshow.

As we stood amid chipped unicycles and the seat from an old Ferris wheel, Excho told the story of the sideshows. They transformed the Dime Museum's collection into a traveling exhibit of sword pulling and fire breathing.

The millions of dollars of such circus moguls as P.T. Barnum had been built on the foundation of dimes, Excho said.

"And people got robbed every time they came in," Excho said. "Ten cents back then is about 27 dollars now."

But for the working class, it was one of the few affordable entertainments, an attraction of sensationalism, bright lights, chicanery and thrills.

A remnant of those times, a sign hung on the striped walls downstairs: "18 minutes in hell! The most spectacular attraction in history. Marvelo, the human bon-fire!"

Entertainment for today

The question is whether our entertainment trends can accommodate these bizarre relics of the past. Is there still space today for human bon-fires and Siamese calves?

Darya Kizub, a Hopkins junior, did not think so.

"People are more skeptical now than they used to be," Kizub said. "They expect greater miracles."

Other visitors at the preview also seemed to be more jaded and less impressed.

A woman on the first floor peered into a box containing the preserved head of Harold, an alleged murder victim.

"What I'm wondering is, if it's real," she said.

"I don't know," Horne replied. "But if you drop it on your foot, it hurts. So it must be real."

The woman just shrugged.

However, John Nagengast, a dealer who hoped to get a stripper's feathers and an automated monkey, thought that the items would sell well.

"It's the same thing as people watching a train wreck or Anna Nicole Smith," he said. "They like the bizarre and the unusual."

Grown-up Baltimore

Horne spoke about the changing tastes of the public and the city.

"Baltimore was always a very weird sort of town, it always appreciated the quirky things," he said. "People liked the sideshows. It's storytelling, it's performance, it's folk art, it's a little bit of fantasy and fakery.

"It's like everything you had fun doing when you were 12."

"Unfortunately, now Baltimore has kind of grown up and caught up to the 21st century."

Horne described a recent funeral he attended for one of his old friends from the 1960s, a wardrobe guy for John Waters' movies.

"We used to be kind of like terrorists, when the term was still complimentary," he said. "We challenged things, we challenged the establishment.

"But when I saw all of us at the funeral, somehow we all looked like a bunch of old guys. We were all wearing ties.

"And that's kind of what happened to the city -- we all got old, and we put on ties."

Rather than the dime museums of the past, the adult Baltimore sports the entertainments of today: Hard Rock Caf8e and the ESPN Zone, Anna Nicole Smith and YouTube.

Two-headed ducks and 9-foot-long Peruvian Amazon mummies simply cannot compete against the new sensationalism.

"We go looking for the fun stuff in life that sometimes requires a little bit of effort to obtain," Horne said.

Museum of Nothing

And so in our age of grown-up entertainment and more sophisticated cheap thrills, the American Dime Museum fades away, its already-sold items to be dispersed around the country.

Gone is the standing stuffed bear in Mardi Gras beads and a battered top hat that used to greet visitors at the door. Gone is the glass vial that contained the fart of Le Petomane, who could blow out a candle with his gas. Gone is the Jack-o-Lope, half jackrabbit, half antelope, formerly mounted on the wall.

But at least the American Dime Museum had a proper funeral, with some fanfare and ceremony.

Other closed-down Baltimore museums, such as the Museum of Urology and the Museum of Incandescent Lighting, faded without a trace or a headline, Horne said.

He proposed opening a big museum with nothing in it, a repository for peculiar Baltimore.

"It would be a museum for all the things that are lost," Horne said. "It would just be little plaques for things. James Dean's Porsche that he crashed. The stolen star from the original star-spangled banner.

"Do you think people would resent it if they paid five dollars to get in, and there was nothing there?

"But you know, it would make you curious, where all those things went. Maybe if it was descriptive enough, people would dig around and find it and bring it back."

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