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Lincoln's watch kept ticking even when Abe didn't.
Lincoln's watch kept ticking even when Abe didn't.

Center for Kentucky History: Boone's Skull

Field review by the editors.

Frankfort, Kentucky

With so many exhibits that it spreads across three buildings, the Center for Kentucky History does its best to show that Kentucky history is more than racehorses, bourbon, and fried chicken. It skews mainstream, but also doesn't shy away from the Commonwealth's eccentric and awkward past. A walk through its galleries, for example, reveals that a lot of killing has gone on in Kentucky, not just during the Civil War, but in local bloodbaths over politics, race, tobacco, coal, railroads, timber rights, personal insults, caves, and liquor, as well as America's most notorious family feud.

Skull of Daniel Boone, or whoever it was that Kentucky dug up in 1845.
Skull of Daniel Boone, or whoever it was that Kentucky dug up in 1845.

"History is not always pretty," said curator Bill Bright.

Executive director Scott Alvey added, "It wasn't boring here."

On the sidewalk in front of one of the Center's buildings -- the Old Kentucky Capitol -- marked by a plaque, is the spot where William Goebel was shot in 1900. Goebel wasn't just any victim; he was sworn in as Kentucky's governor the next day, dying three days after that. This political assassination focused attention on the Kentucky Arsenal up the street -- now another of the Center's buildings -- which was ringed by land mines to prevent the Republicans and Democrats from looting Kentucky's cannons and bombs. The Center's third, main building displays Goebel's bullet-punctured death coat, and occasionally his underwear of death. According to Scott, one of the Center's former curators kept the underwear in a box under her desk. "When people asked, she'd pull them out and show them."

Bloody amputation tent from the Battle of Perryville.
Bloody amputation tent from the Battle of Perryville.

Exit hole of the bullet that killed Governor Goebel.
Exit hole of the bullet that killed Governor Goebel.

An exact copy of Kentucky hero Daniel Boone's skull is another of the Center's revered relics. The cast was made after Boone's corpse had been dug up out of its Missouri grave and hauled back to Kentucky, then buried in Frankfort's cemetery -- maybe. A forensic examination of the cast in 1983 suggested that its shape did not match Boone's head, and that Kentucky may have dug up someone else by mistake, which is what Missouri had claimed all along. The Center's exhibit tactfully avoids this particular controversy (as well as Boone's reputation for fighting bears). "As a good Kentuckian, I say Boone is buried just up the street," said Bill.

More obscure, but occupying an entire gallery in the Center, is local hero Thomas Harris Barlow, who crafted huge mechanical planetariums in the mid-19th century. Barlow built farm equipment for a living, but his real love was astronomy, and his gear-driven "orreries" accurately duplicated the inclined orbits of the planets and moons. "You can pick a date on the outer rim, move the handle, and it would align everything," said Bill. Unfortunately for Barlow, his iron solar systems tended to collapse under their own weight, and his Lexington shop was burned during the Civil War. He died penniless.

Mechanical "orrery" reproduced heavenly motion with iron gears.

The 1960s: a nation of divided dummies.
The 1960s: a nation of divided dummies.

Kentucky has produced only two Presidents, and they fought each other during the Civil War. Although Jeff Davis is celebrated elsewhere in Kentucky, Lincoln remains the popular favorite, and his possible pocket watch of death -- vying for that honor with one in the Smithsonian -- remains one of the Center's best-known artifacts. The ticking of the watch, which still runs, was recorded and used in the Daniel Day-Lewis Lincoln biopic, and visitors can listen to it themselves on a sound stick. The watch grabs so much attention that visitors often overlook a far more thoroughly documented deadly timepiece elsewhere in the Center: the Little Bighorn Watch of Doom, which was definitely in the pocket of Kentucky cavalry officer John Crittenden when he was killed at Custer's Last Stand.

Custom dummies populate several of the Center's exhibits: mining coal, canning vegetables, selling candy, wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe next to a lynching tree, and having a leg sawed off during the Battle of Perryville. Steve told us that his fourth grade daughter had only one request when he took the job: "Can you do something about all those creepy mannequins?" He laughed. "Eleven years later, obviously the answer is no." Careful visitors to the museum may see a Bible carved out of coal, a mirror from one of Kentucky's premiere brothels, and two cursed items: a chest of drawers that brought doom to anyone who put their clothes in it, and a similarly hexed bracelet that was mailed to the Center with no return address. "It came with a note," said Mike. "Please take these and put them in your collection. I don't want this fate to befall me."

Customer is tempted by overpriced candy at the coal company store.
Customer is tempted by overpriced candy at the coal company store.

And, of course, there are exhibits about racehorses, bourbon, and fried chicken.

We were surprised to see that the Center possesses the Jesse James Pane of Glass, which had disappeared from a museum in Bardstown years ago. In a Commonwealth where even Colonel Sanders once fought a gun battle with a business rival, the Pane of Glass is a relic of innocence. Jesse was eating dinner in Kentucky when he read in a newspaper that he had robbed a bank the day before -- in Kansas. Indignant, Jesse took his diamond ring and etched his name and the date, Oct. 18, 1881, into a nearby window pane. "It was his way of saying, 'Look, I didn't do it,'" said Mike.

If outlaw Jesse James wasn't all bad, then Kentucky likely wasn't either, even in its most notorious non-boring heyday.

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Center for Kentucky History: Boone's Skull

Center for Kentucky History

100 W. Broadway St., Frankfort, KY
Downtown, on the north side of W. Broadway St., just east of its intersection with Ann St. Parking lot is on the south side of W. Broadway St.
Tu-Sa 10-5 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $8.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Capital City MuseumCapital City Museum, Frankfort, KY - < 1 mi.
Kentucky Military History Museum: Hitler's PlaqueKentucky Military History Museum: Hitler's Plaque, Frankfort, KY - < 1 mi.
Daniel Boone's GraveDaniel Boone's Grave, Frankfort, KY - < 1 mi.
In the region:
Ghostly Image in a Window, Richmond, KY - 38 mi.

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