Road trip news, rants, and ruminations by the Editors of

Dr. Mütter: Surgeon Behind the Specimens

Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum started as the ultimate cabinet of curiosities, and for all the right reasons.

Since our very first visit, we’ve loved it and its world-class collection of 19th century pathological specimens and anatomical models. Walls of skulls, organs in jars, cutaway brains, rows of eyeballs… a perfect blend of elegance and oddity. Unlike a full-body road trip rash, museums such as this don’t just spontaneously appear; they are the result of careful and dedicated collecting and preservation.

Thomas Dent Mutter
Thomas Dent Mutter
The Mütter Museum started with the bequeathed collection of the museum’s namesake, Thomas Dent Mütter, a pioneering Philadelphia surgeon and medical school teacher. The first biography about Mütter’s life, researched and penned by author/poet Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, vividly reconstructs the wild world of medical science circa 1820-1860, and how important Mütter was to some of its advances. It’s essential reading for  Mütter Museum fans and anyone interested in medical history (or who enjoy Steven Soderbergh’s cable drama The Knick).

book cover In Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine, Aptowicz transplants the reader ringside into the first American operating theaters. Fully awake patients were cut open without anesthetic by doctors with unwashed hands and filthy instruments.

Mütter himself was fastidious, washing his hands before surgery. He was also a clotheshorse, dressing in colorful, expensive outfits that stood out among the stodgy hues of other surgeons. Yet he was respected for his surgical precision, his attention to detail, and, eventually, his groundbreaking ideas.

Young Mütter studied in Paris (where he acquired one of his first pieces — a wax model of a French woman with a horn growing out of her forehead). In Philadelphia, as a teaching doctor at the new Jefferson Medical College, he ultimately imported the best techniques he’d learned from Europe.

Medical students were trained about maladies, disease and injury by viewing specimens and handling anatomical models. Mütter acquired and preserved these valuable aids throughout his career.

skull Aptowicz also chronicles fascinating medical politics and professional rivalries. It’s hard to imagine, but there was broad doctor resistance to the use of anesthesia when it was discovered. “Dr. Mütter’s Marvels” describes how that game-changer advanced among the old guard and the new thinkers. Mütter apparently got it right away, and worked to convince his colleagues that there were better ways to judge effective surgery than by the volume of the patient’s screams.

In contrast to the bedside manner practiced at the time (which was essentially no bedside manner) Dr. Mütter was compassionate and interested in his patients as individuals.

Dr. Mütter had a special interest in “monsters” — people disfigured by accident, disease or congenital defect. Pickled specimens helped him and his students strive for cures and surgical solutions to conditions long thought incurable. His goal was always to return these “monsters” to normal lives.

Book chapter open.One example detailed by Aptowicz: treatment for women with horrible burns on their jaws and necks, from mishaps such as kitchen cooking fires igniting their layers of restrictive clothing. The resulting face melting might leave the victim alive but permanently disfigured, neck and jaw contorted. Mütter devised a radically innovative procedure, today still called the “Mütter Flap,” where healthy and flexible back and shoulder skin of a burn victim would be pivoted up to replace the immobile scarred tissue on the neck and jaw. Mütter was a pioneer in plastic surgery.

Dr. Mütter, often ill himself, died young at age 47. Aware his days were numbered, he was determined to teach beyond the grave with his extensive hoard of specimens and models. He willed his collection and an endowment in 1858 to a professional society, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, who constructed a building to house it all. The museum opened to medical students and professionals in 1863.

Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine (Gotham, 384 pp)

(Photos: Woodcut from Lectures on the Operations of Surgery by Robert Liston, with numerous additions by Thomas Dent Mütter; From the Author’s personal collection.)

Sections: Attraction News
Comments Off

The Do Nothing Machine

Do Nothing Machine
The Do Nothing Machine

The most oddball exhibit at the Miniature Engineering Craftsmanship Museum, Carlsbad, California, is its Do Nothing Machine, a gear-punk marvel of inventor obsession. If you take the tour of the museum’s workshop, you’ll probably get to see it run… if it’s not broken.

Designed and built starting in the late 1940s over the course of seven years, Lawrence Wahlstrom of Los Angeles built an insanely complex contraption. It contains 764 gears and elements. Though it has been labeled at times as a “Flying Saucer Detector,” its complete lack of purpose has made the other name stick.

Do Nothing Machine
The Do Nothing Machine
Tour guide and master machinist Dave Belt extols the virtues of this one-of-kind gizmo. It’s driven by three motors, one extracted from an old slot machine.

The center of the Do Nothing Machine, hidden behind layers of belts and gears is part of a World War II Norden Bomb Site.

It’s not exactly miniature in the sense of the other machines at the museum, but it is a marvel of excruciatingly elaborate mechanics. A posted fact sheet informs: “The three electrically powered motive forces are gravitationally free, non-syncronal, trapezoidal seclusion wound and in the Delta configuration.”

In case you were wondering.

Dave shows us a round gear driving a square gear driving an oval gear. Then he uses his always handy yellow pencil acts as a pathway for our eyes to arrive at the wonders within the Do Nothing Machine. “There’s a sprocket, with no axle, that stays in the same place.”

Someone has to keep the Do Nothing Machine running, and that duty seems to fall on Dave. In the course of a year, “it’s broken down about a dozen times,” he told us. He’s managed to coax it back to 100% pointlessness each time, to the delight of museum visitors.

Do Nothing Machine
The Do Nothing Machine

Sections: Places

Florida Forbids: Anthropomorphic Alligators

Gay Dolphin Gift Store, Myrtle Beach, SC

We were shocked when we first read of one of the new April 2014 “rule tweaks” by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. As reported by the Naples Daily News:

Forbidding the sale of stuffed baby alligators that depict “an unnatural body or body part positioning.” That could mean human poses, including standing upright or waving.

So, a ban of a classic (albeit repulsive) Florida souvenir. No! Then we thought about it for a moment, and tried to recall — had we ever seen such a thing?

Gift shops from South Carolina to eastern Texas sell many types of gator souvenirs: we’ve seen baby gator heads, and baby gator feet riveted onto key chains, and anthropomorphic ceramic gators posed as golfers or open-mouthed ashtrays. We’ve bought seashells humanely glued together to form cartoon gator sculptures.

Carved alligator souvenir, Arkansas Alligator Farm, Hot Springs, AR.
Arkansas Alligator Farm, Hot Springs, AR.

Clearly there is no shortage of baby gator body parts and no restrictions (other than the limits of imagination) when it comes to turning an image of a gator into something quasi-human.

But who would go to the trouble of stuffing an actual baby gator so that it was waving or doing anything else unnatural to an alligator?

After a search of our trip archives, we uncovered one photo from 2003, in the “Mermaid Store” in Orlando. It’s of a large adult alligator, not a baby, standing upright with its head sawed off and reattached at the neck to look forward, like a human.

Standing gator display.
Stuffed gator, Orlando, Florida (2003)

Twisted? Yes.

And it’s not hard to imagine that it might be seasonally outfitted with a Santa’s cap or Easter Bunny ears. With no visible price tag, it seemed more intended to accent the tacky atmosphere rather than to be sold as a piece of merchandise. And it may be long gone.

Are Florida bureaucrats proactively heading off an imagined future market of baby gators slaughtered to make souvenir water-skiers and thong-frollicking reptiles? Or are gator-humanoids already doing a brisk business in countless souvenir stores?

Let us know if you’ve seen any examples!

Sections: Rants, Souvenirs

Derek Costello: Hard-Working Master of Wax

Elvis Presley in wax.
Elvis 1972, the King in his less-flattering latter days.
You may not know Derek Costello, but if you’ve been to Niagara Falls you probably know his work. His prehistoric beasts are at Dinosaur Park Mini Golf. His wax celebrities are at Movieland. His historical figures are at the Niagara Wax Museum of History. His ghouls are at Castle Dracula and the Haunted House of Wax.

He’s also the artist behind the giant stainless steel water molecule outside Niagara Falls City Hall, built in 1967 when he was a city employee.

He drives around town in an electric car of his own design.

Derek Costello.
Derek Costello
“It’s a strange, strange business,” said Derek of his work sculpting famous people (and monsters). “You can never think you’re good,” he said. “One person looks at what you’ve done and says, ‘That’s wonderful!’ The next person looks at it and says, ‘Who’s that?'”

Part of the fun of visiting a wax museum is the right to critique the dummies of the famous, people that everyone knows (or thinks they do). Call it crowdsourcing or Tyranny of the Masses — Derek, who’s been in the business for over 50 years, understands it. But it doesn’t make his job any easier.

He once built a display for the film The Longest Yard starring Burt Reynolds, whose character was clean-shaven. “Nobody liked him,” said Derek. The museum owner made Derek put a mustache on Burt. “Then everybody loved him.”

Stainless steel water molecule.
Stainless steel water molecule.
The amount of labor involved, and the anonymity of the job, has made it difficult for Derek to find apprentices. “They’ve all either failed, died, or quit,” he said. “I don’t blame them. It’s a massive amount of work. It’s not as grandiose as doing famous artwork, even though the work has to be done as accurately and properly.”

(In a testament to Derek’s skill, the owner of the Niagara Wax Museum of History told us that Derek’s dummy of Marilyn Monroe had to be removed because too many people were groping it.)

Head of Marilyn Monroe
Head of Marilyn Monroe.
Derek told us that one of his unexpected side jobs is to track down old, retired celebrity dummies for resale, often to private collectors.

“These are wealthy people with these huge homes, and they’ve got them decorated with these figures,” said Derek. “They send me photos! They talk about them like they’re members of the family. It’s absolutely insane.”

“I don’t know how many times I’ve done E.T., Darth Vader, C3PO,” Derek said. “God knows where they all are now; I don’t think there are any in Niagara Falls any more. Somebody’s got them in their back yard or at the foot of their bed. Unbelievable.”

Sections: Canada
Comments Off

Toby Fraley’s Secret Life of Robots: Silicon Homebodies

Everyday robots.If the word “robots” calls to mind a clanking metal horde bent on enslaving the human race, then Toby Fraley’s “The Secret Life of Robots” may cool your paranoia. Toby, whose art first came to our attention in 2011 with his storefront “Robot Repair Shop” in downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, now presents “Secret Life” at Pittsburgh’s Space gallery (812 Liberty Ave.) through at least April 2014.

Toby’s 13 vignettes show robots as average, everyday Joes and Janes — who look a lot like staged advertising photos from the American 1950s (Toby spent 18 months getting the settings just right). Happy mom and dad robots celebrate their toddler’s first clanking steps; a nosy parent eavesdrops on a teen robot’s telephone call; a tiny elderly lady robot hooks a can of cat food with her umbrella. Toby only diverges from the mid-century Shangri-La in his final scene, where a dead robot’s ghost can be seen floating up and out of its bed.

Everyday robots.“I tried to humanize them, to tug at some heartstrings,” Toby told us, although he conceded that the death scene probably won’t prompt any calls from private collectors. “No one wants a dying robot in their home.”

The robots’ 1950s world comes partly from Tony’s artistic preference, and partly from the materials used to build the robots, mostly vintage thermoses, picnic coolers, and vacuum cleaners. Stamped steel and cast aluminum naturally lend themselves to robots. “You couldn’t build robots out of today’s products,” said Toby. “Everything today is plastic; UV light is going to destroy it. A robot needs to last a long time.”

Toby makes robots on commission as well as for public display (You can hire him to create one through his web site). This means that Toby always has a supply of robot parts on hand. “Ten years ago I never thought I’d own over 20 vintage vacuum cleaners. That sounds like something an insane person would do,” he said. “But you don’t know when you’ll see another, and I feel I have to stock up.

“If I don’t end up making robots the rest of my life,” he said, “I’ll have the most amazing yard sale ever.”

The Secret Life of Robots: at Space gallery, 812 Liberty Ave., Pittsburgh, PA, through April 27, 2014. W-Th 11-6, F-Sa 11-8, Su 11-5. Free.

Sections: Events
Comments Off

2014: Giant Pegasus And Revolutionary Robots

Supersonic sculpture.
Supersonic sculpture, New York World's Fair

Aside from the 50th anniversary of the New York World’s Fair and the enshrinement of the Flying Paper Boy of the Guadalupes, what do we have to look forward to in 2014?

There’s quite a bit. For example: an 11-story-tall statue of winged Pegasus killing a dragon (to be built in Miami) and a perfect replica of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall — populated by robots (To open in South Dakota, which already has a great robot attraction).

Promises, promises. They’re cheap, and a quick review from last year at this time reveals that of twelve promised attractions for 2013, five did not arrive. Those five now insist that their debut will happen in 2014 — which sounds suspiciously like the billboard that promises “only two more miles” to a cave, but in fact only marks the distance to the next turn, where you find another billboard.

Still, opening a Roadside-worthy wonder is never easy, and we hope that attractions such as Slotzilla — a giant slot machine that spits out people on a zip line — have only been delayed to make them even more wonderful.

Saddam Hussein sink.
Saddam Hussein's sink.
As for 2014, we’re eagerly awaiting the debut of the Waste Pro Garbage Truck Museum (Florida); the Morbid Anatomy Museum (New York); a life-size statue of Jumbo the Elephant (Massachusetts); and the Space Shuttle “Independence,” a walk-thru attraction bolted to the top of a 747 (Texas).

Fans of war booty will appreciate the Sink of Saddam Hussein, which is already in the Old Court House Museum (Mississippi), although its directors haven’t yet decided if they want to display the sink or simply use it in the ladies’ washroom. We’ve let the curator know what we think about that.

Several attractions currently in stasis are scheduled to kick out of their cocoons in 2014, such as the Wichita Troll, the Rocky and Bullwinkle statue, the World’s Tallest Grandfather Clock, and the World’s Largest Lincoln — which, at 72 feet tall, is difficult to keep under wraps. The Liberace Museum has been promised a return engagement in a somewhat reduced space, and work is already underway to reopen Holy Land USA as an attraction, possibly as early as this summer.

Baby toy anticipating 2014.Will 2014 be the year that the Palace of Depression finally gets finished? Will the World’s Largest Thermometer get switched back on? Will the Recycled Roadrunner (currently in its builder’s back yard) find a new public home?

There are rumblings that all of these may happen — and of course many attractions-in-waiting simply fly under the radar.

Places like Tank Town USA didn’t even exist this time last year, and we expect that many similar unforeseen Roadside marvels lie ready to surprise us in 2014.

Gas up!

Sections: Rants, Trends
1 Comment »

« Previous Entries

Recent Posts


Sightings. Arrives without warning. Leaves no burn marks. A free newsletter from Subscribe now!

December 20, 2014

My Sights

Save Cool Vacation Destinations!

Try My Sights

Roadside America app
Roadside Presidents app

Sight of the Week

Sight of the Week

Bailey Art Museum - Robots of Clayton Bailey, Crockett, California (Dec 15-21, 2014)

SotW Archive

USA and Canada Tips and Stories

Latest Visitor Tips Hotel & Motel Finder

Special online rates for hotels & motels.

Book Online Now