Henry Mercer was a Victorian eccentric. He lived in sleepy Doylestown, Pennsylvania, hated fire, loved castles. He had a rich aunt. This combination allowed him to create two attractions that still puzzle people a hundred years later: his quirky castle-home of Fonthill, and his nearby fortress-like Mercer Museum.
Mercer fell in love with concrete at the turn of the 20th century. It was fireproof, inexpensive, and with a little imagination it could be shaped into passable castles.
He built his seven-story castle museum without heat or electricity. It still has no heat. Off-season visitors are warned to wear their coats and hats -- it's cold inside. A few light bulbs have been added here and there, but it's a dark place on a cloudy day.
"People think that it was a prison, or a castle moved here from Europe," said curator Cory Amsler. "Concrete castle museums kind of died on the vine."
Mercer filled his museum with what Cory wryly called "the trash of the 19th century," pre-Industrial tools such as millstones, candle molds, bloodletting razors. These things were being thrown away in 1910. Mercer was there to grab them. "They were the easiest things to collect," Cory said. "And Henry Mercer had an eye for bargains."
He was also ahead of his time. Mercer's treasures would look familiar to any modern small town museum with a butter churn and buggy in its collection, but they were museum novelties in his day.
Still novel is the way that Mercer displayed his collection. "How do you make common things seem uncommon?" asked Cory. Mercer hung them from the walls and ceiling. "He'd force people to look at a whale boat from the perspective of the whale, to look at wagons from the perspective of the road." Many of these items have dangled from the concrete roof of the museum -- seven stories high -- since 1916. Cory said that nothing has yet fallen and hit anyone.
Despite Mercer's passion for common items, he also saved some oddities. There's a shoe made for the foot of a giant slave. A collection of nightmarish cigar-store figures. A room filled with creepy stove plates and fireplace tiles. The gallows on which Bucks County last hanged a criminal in 1914. There's even a "vampire killing kit" on display that wasn't collected by Henry Mercer, but which Cory said still merits a place in his museum. "It was a tool, and it would have interested him," Cory said. "He had a copy of Dracula in his library."
Also on display is "The Lenape Stone," dug up on a local farm, carved with a scene of Indians attacking a Woolly Mammoth. Mercer obsessed over the rock for years, conducting archeological digs to try to find proof that Doylestown Indians really did attack Woolly Mammoths, but he never could (The stone today is considered a fraud).
No single item in the Mercer Museum, however, is as memorable as the building itself, with its Hogwarts ambiance and its collective mass of exhibits, much of it hanging forebodingly over its central court. "So many museums have moved away from stuff, toward stories or interactive exhibits," said Cory. "We're still very much rooted in, 'Here's all the stuff.'"
Still, dealing with 19th century Henry Mercer can be frustrating for a 21st century curator. "I have my one-sided conversations with Henry in the middle of the night," Cory said. "'This building has no square corners! It's impossible to change things! Why the hell did you do that, Henry? Why couldn't you just build a normal museum?'"