Tragedy in US History Museum (Gone)
St. Augustine, Florida
Tragedy sells newspapers and made-for-HBO movies, so why not admission tickets? Such intuitive genius led visionary "Buddy" Hough to open his Tragedy In US History Museum, and to plunk it down in otherwise sunny-faced St. Augustine, Florida. Big signs out front proclaim, "See Jayne Mansfield's death car -- learn the truth!" and "See human skeletons inside Old Spanish Jail!"
St. Augustine is a city dipped in history -- a Spanish fort, Oldest Schoolhouse in the US, Fountain of Youth -- but Buddy's history they'd rather do without. Buddy battled with the city "over twenty years" to get his museum open. They claimed the area was already overdeveloped. It began in '65, and went "all the way to the Florida Supreme Court."
The museum occupies a small residential house, and most of its exhibits are crammed into the first floor. A smirking wax dummy of Lee Harvey Oswald stands in what was once the living room bay window, cradling a rusty rifle, while behind him are stacked boxes on which are magic-markered "Books. Texas Book Depository. Dallas, Texas" in big letters.
The Museum has lots of Oswaldabilia, including his actual bedroom furniture and the ambulance that carted away his bullet-riddled body. Other highlights are a leather jacket once worn by James Dean (displayed with the box in which it was shipped to the Museum) and a smudged photocopy of the last will and testament of Elvis Presley. The gift shop sells pictures of Bonnie and Clyde's graves and an assortment of Space Shuttle knickknacks, though nothing specifically pertaining to the you-know-which Shuttle disaster.
The tragedy theme wanders in places. There's a mummy in a coffin with a sign:"Lonesome? Take me home with you. $4500". Then there's this train whistle. It's the famous whistle that broke into a scream that inspired the famous song that everyone sings, "The Wreck of Old 97." A small mirror has been strategically placed so you can read some lettering on its underside -- except you can't read it because the lettering is backwards.
Spilling into the back yard, as promised, are the human skeletons behind bars, as well as Bonnie and Clyde's bullet-riddled getaway car ("137 bullet holes! Crime does not pay! Support your local police!"). Technically, this is the Death Car from Bonnie and Clyde -- the movie (we saw the "real" Death Car at Whisky Pete's Casino, Stateline, Nevada). Next to B&C's hulk is Jayne Mansfield's Death Car, a Buick Electra 225. Eagle-eyed visitors will note that the car pictured in some accident scene photos displayed next to the wreck is not a Buick, but a Cadillac. Some other celeb fatality?
Picnickers are welcome at the Tragedy In US History Museum. In a final gesture of thoughtfulness, Buddy has provided a picnic table out back, which offers a fine view of the death car and the human skeletons.
April 1998: CLOSED! Buddy died in 1996. His widow, Debra, valiantly kept the Tragedy in US History Museum open, but the responsibility of selling gruesome horror to carefree Florida vacationers proved too much for her. She closed the museum in March 1998. A month later Buddy's unique collection of tragedabilia was sold on the auction block.
1996: Buddy and Deborah Hough still live in the place. Deborah does all the talking now. "Everything is pretty much the same," she reports. They are still snubbed by official travel guides and St. Augustine's snooty tourism elite. "The trams drive by and never stop here." Business has been bad for the past four years, "But we get by."