American Dime Museum (Gone)
We'd normally drive hundreds of miles to see a two-headed pig or a mummified head in a box. The great thing about The American Dime Museum is that it has both of these, along with thousands of other, similarly-spirited exhibits: human hair jewelry, paintings by a chimp, the severed hand of a murderess, the tongue of a vagrant found stuck to a frozen fireplug. More freaks are on display here than we typically see in a month, and for the traveler on a budget this place is a destination with much to offer.
Not that everything that you'll see here is real. The "fossilized fairy," the "mummy of an unknown demon," and the "wooden bullet used by WWII soldiers to slay vampires in Europe" seemed suspect to us, but, really, veracity isn't the point of this attraction. The American Dime Museum aims to shock and entertain, and only incidentally to teach you something about why the American public needs to believe in petrified minotaurs and mounted jackalope heads.
Soft-spoken Richard Horne, who runs this one-man attraction out of a storefront, has designed it to be a re-creation of a for-profit 19th century American museum -- the kind that charged people a dime to peep at cultural flotsam such as Fiji Mermaids and mummified Peruvian giantesses (both of which Richard has on display). "We're told by the American Association of Museums that we're the only museum that's recreated a museum," he tells us.
Horne explains that these old collections, which eventually evolved into circus sideshows, were not unnaturally grotesque; they simply gave people what they would pay to see. It's nice to know that our 21st century tastes and those of the average 19th century Joe and Jane mesh so well.
Horne, in his younger days, manufactured some of the fake "gaffs" that found their way into these museums, and most of the displays here come from his own, extensive collection. He can tell you the history of every item, even those that were given to him by other collectors. "They're so happy to find someplace to put these things because other museums turn them down."
The museum is small, but packed, and many of its exhibits are dark, scary, and creepy -- crumbling, blackened things in display boxes, their paint peeling and glass cracked and grimy. Although much of what is here is out in the open, you'd have to think really, really hard before you'd want to touch it.
Horne is especially proud of his Peruvian Amazon giantess mummy. National Geographic sent a team to x-ray it last year. Every dime museum had a mummy -- real mummies are common, Horne explains -- so "you wanted to have a more exotic, more peculiar mummy than the guy down the street." This one was made by the Nelson Supply House of Boston, and consists, according to National Geographic's x-rays, of wads of excelsior, shredded wood, linen, glue, and wire. "This is sculpture," Horne tells us. "It's American folk art."
The most asked-for exhibit at the Dime Museum is Abraham Lincoln's last bowel movement -- supposedly taken from a chamber pot at Ford's Theater -- mounted in a dusty frame along with a faded, handwritten note attesting to its authenticity. Horne had taken the turd down -- he changes his exhibits frequently -- but people kept asking for it, so he put it back up. The crusty, blackened poop was exposed as a fraud, Horne says, when an analysis revealed that it contained Necco wafers, which weren't sold until 1912. Of course, even Horne's explanation may be a fraud -- who can say?
The basement of The Dime Museum displays sideshow paraphernalia -- hand-painted banners, a musical saw, a confetti gun and "The Blade Box."
There's also a showroom dummy that visitors are encouraged to cover with chewing gum. Horne used to sell gum in his small gift shop, but he stopped when he saw that people were chewing multiple packs, just to make bigger wads for the dummy. "I was afraid that someone would choke." Horne describes, with perhaps too much detail, how the big wads would fall off, and how he'd then have to clean them up.
Horne is always on the lookout for new exhibits, such as the pair of Northern Snakehead fish -- dubbed "Frankenfish" by the media -- that now swim in a tank next to the chimp paintings.
There are some things that he won't display, such as a two-headed baby in a jar ("There's something more sad than true about them. But they are available."). At the moment he's especially interested in microprocessor chips that have been engraved with Mickey Mouse and other artworks. Also, "I'd love to get a giant lobster."
February 2007: The end finally arrived for the Dime Museum. The contents were auctioned off on February 26.
May 2006:Horne has managed to keep his museum going, albeit on shorter hours and only by appointment.
November 2005: The Dime Museum is planning to close at the end of the year due to revenue and fundraising problems.