John Brown's stand at Harpers Ferry.

John Brown Wax Museum

Field review by the editors.

Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

As far as we know, only two American heroes have wax museums exclusively devoted to their lives: Jesus and John Brown.

John Brown is sometimes described as a murderous fanatic, sometimes as a misunderstood martyr. He's best known for leading an 1859 slave uprising in Harpers Ferry, which killed several people and freed no slaves. Inept as it was, it was more than anyone else was doing at the time, so Brown is remembered as a man with good intentions and bad execution. He had the fierce look of an Old Testament prophet, and he had a song written about his corpse that was later turned into The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Preserved historic building houses wax museum.

The John Brown Wax Museum tells Brown's larger-than-life story, and exists today because the block on which it stands became a protected National Historical Park shortly after the museum opened in 1961. The museum thus offers a rare glimpse of Kennedy-era tourism, preserved in all of its cheesy glory.

The museum's dioramas are scattered throughout a small, old house. You begin the self-guided tour on the first floor, walk your way up to the third floor, then all the way down to the basement, winding through narrow, dark, windowless hallways. Most of the displays have big, green buttons that you can push, with an audible clunk, to hear a taped voice repeat what's on the sign in front of you.

Death of Shepherd Hayward.
Death of Shepherd Hayward.

All viewing is accompanied by a constant clomp, clomp, clomp of tourists treading the worn wooden stairs above you, ahead of you, behind you, rising and descending through the house. We enjoyed the effect, and imagined that the inside of John Brown's head was filled with a similar ceaseless pounding.

The haunted-house ambience of the John Brown Wax Museum is heightened by its choice of dioramas, whose narrative is as bloody and one-dimensional as a slumber party slasher movie: violence leads to violent death which leads to mass violent death which leads to an end by violent death.

John Brown's happy moments -- he was a respected sheep rancher and he had 20 kids -- are irrelevant here. No dummies are wasted on them.

The museum opens with a scene from John Brown's childhood, as he watches one of his slave playmates being whipped. Two dioramas later, John Brown has become an adult and is killing pro-slavery farmers in Kansas. The old dummies gape in shock or grimace in agony, or as close to those expressions as wax science could get in 1961.

Climactic battle at Harpers Ferry.
Climactic battle at Harpers Ferry.

Across the hall from the Kansas massacre, another display shows the death of "free negro" Shepherd Hayward, the first person killed in the Harpers Ferry attack. An air bladder within Hayward's shirt rhythmically fills and empties with his dying breaths, to the sounds of a hydraulic pump. Kids watching the action squeal in horror.

Back downstairs, the climactic battle at Harpers Ferry is embellished with flashing red lights and prerecorded gun blasts. Brown, his face slashed and bloody, holds one of his dying sons in his arms. Wax bodies litter the ground. Down the hall, Brown is sentenced to death in a courtroom scene, followed by a touching tableau of goggle-eyed John saying goodbye to his wife, and then a final diorama of Brown's execution by hanging, which is staged in the house's sub-basement.

Hanging John Brown.
Hanging John Brown.

Brown "waited with majestic serenity for the drop into eternity," the narrator says, as the wax head of Brown pivots up to stare at the audience with its blue eyes. The kids in our group squeal again.

Had John Brown been martyred today, his pop culture memorial would probably be a Sundance film documentary, or maybe an HBO mini-series. It's good that he died when he did; he works much better as a house-of-horrors wax museum. Manager Frieda Kidwell told us that parents often bring their children to the museum so that the kids can experience what Mom and Dad remember -- or can't forget -- from their youth. "I was here when I was little," the adults tell her, "and I was scared to death!"

John Brown Wax Museum

Address:
168 High St., Harpers Ferry, WV
Directions:
Take US 340 to town. Turn north onto Shenandoah St. just west of the river. Drive into town, past High St., and turn left onto Potomac St. Park in the lot to the right, then walk up the hillside staircase to High St. Museum is on left.
Hours:
Daily 9 am - 5 pm; closed during winter (Call to verify)
Phone:
304-535-6342
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
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