Gettysburg Museum of History
It's called the Gettysburg Museum of History, but that doesn't mean it offers only rusty guns and Civil War bullets.
"Some people ask, 'Why do you have all this Nazi stuff? What the hell's JFK's boxer shorts doing in here?' said museum owner and curator Erik Dorr. "They just don't get it."
Erik started collecting when he was nine. He eventually became a professional antiquities dealer and opened his museum in 2008. Its 4,000 artifacts -- just a fraction of Erik's collection -- span U.S. and world history, and fills the first floor of his Gettysburg townhouse. The museum is free to the public because Erik wants to share his collection with as many people as possible, even if some of them don't understand why it's in Gettysburg.
Take, for example, Erik's x-ray of Hitler's head. "The U.S. Army got it from his dentist," Erik said. "They made a file of his medical records, just trying to figure out what was wrong with Hitler." The x-ray is displayed next to Eva Braun's hand-embroidered lingerie and a fabric scrap from the couch where Der Fuehrer killed himself, stained with Hitler's blood. "We paid a fortune for that," Erik said. "But I told myself, 'You know what? I'm not gonna find another one.'"
Two questions naturally come to mind. Are these things fake? And if they aren't, why aren't they in some mega-official museum in Washington, DC?
Erik, a stickler for documentation, said that everything in his museum is real, although visitors sometimes insist that Hitler didn't commit suicide and escaped to Argentina. As for why it's all here, Erik had a practical explanation. "It can't all be in the National Archives or the Smithsonian," he said. "And unless it's really earth-shattering, it's just gonna get filed away. People who have amazing things come to us because they know those things will be displayed."
Erik took us on a whirlwind tour of the rooms in his museum: we saw trophy skulls from World Wars I and II; Jennie Wade's love letters; a piece of George Washington's coffin; slivers of the crucifixion cross of Jesus; President Grant's cigar; Saddam Hussein's dinnerware. For Gettysburg purists, Erik has an extensive collection of battlefield relics. "Here's a rifle that blew up in a guy's face; here's a bullet that shot off a solider's arm; here are some bones with bullets in them," Erik said. "We have wood with bullets, too, but those aren't as cool."
For us, Erik's collecting skills shine brightest in his John F. Kennedy room, where visitors can see JFK's unexpected boxer shorts near Marilyn Monroe's bra and a hand-written prescription for one of the drugs that killed her. Erik showed us one of Kennedy's well-used rocking chairs, a piece of bloody leather from his assassination limousine, and a packet of dirt saved by Kennedy's gravedigger. One of the boxes that Lee Harvey Oswald stacked at the School Book Depository is displayed with the fire sprinkler that was over his head when he shot the President.
Erik also has the spent shell from the bullet that killed Oswald. "That's the shot," Erik said, still awed by his proximity to history. "It should be in the Dallas Police archives, but they gave it away!"
The Gettysburg Museum of History is filled with surprising things you never knew existed and never imagined you'd see in public. Erik said that he hopes to move his collection into a more modern museum space some day, but we secretly hope that he doesn't; it's far more satisfying where it is, like an overstuffed attic or closet, rewarding visitors with weird treasures everywhere they look.
"We're trying to break out into the real world," Erik told us, "but I guess maybe we never will. We are the punk rock of history museums."
Nothing wrong with that.