The American Dime Museum
In 1999, the American Dime Museum opened in Baltimore, Maryland. Sadly, in late 2006, it closed. On February 26, 2007, the remaining contents of the museum were auctioned off. I feel like this is a personal loss. Where else could I indulge my fondness for the weird and tasteless than a museum devoted to sideshow chicanery? And where will I go now?
The American Dime Museum was dedicated to preserving dime museum and sideshow artifacts and history. You could wander through the entire exhibit in about an hour, longer if you wanted to linger at some of the more interesting displays. Unfortunately, the museum is no longer with us. It had been located at 1808 Maryland Avenue in Baltimore.
The first thing you had to do, when visiting the American Dime Museum, was to stop worrying about whether any of the exhibits are real. If you could suspend your disbelief long enough to get through this museum, you’d have had such a good time. Not only that, but you'd understand why 19th century audiences found the dime museum so entertaining.
For a mere $5.00 (due to inflation, the “dime” in the name of the museum no longer referred to the entry price), you would be shocked and amazed as you gazed on such oddly sensational objects as the severed hand of the murderous Spider Lillie, who used a secret compartment in her ring to release poisonous spiders on her unsuspecting victims. (Auction price: $1,600.00) There was a leathery looking specimen, rather like a dog’s chew toy that, upon closer examination, turns out to be the tongue of a vagrant found after the spring thaw, stuck to a metal fire post. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, I’m sure. (Auction prince: $375.00)
There was a tale of out-and-out fraud uncovered by the scientific community. One enterprising sideshow con artist tried to claim that he had in his possession the last defecation of Abraham Lincoln on the night he was assassinated. Even in the early 20th century, scientific analysis saved the day; while the perpetrator was clever enough to have eaten the same meal that Lincoln was reported to have consumed on the night he died, he also ingested Necco wafers, which were detected in the analysis. These candies were not invented until the 1880s. (Auction price: $1, 000.00)
To add another layer of chicanery, all three of the above-mentioned items were created by Richard Horne, one of the owners of the museum. How can one complain, though, when this is totally within the spirit of the sideshow?
There was also interesting paraphernalia of the trade, including the costume worn by one of the staples of the sideshow, the hermaphrodite, or “half man, half woman.” The outfit looked like half a man’s suit fused to half a woman’s dress. Can you imagine if the dressmaker ever got it wrong? “I can’t wear this! My male side is on the right side, not the left side, for crying out loud!”
Bringing the dime museum up to contemporary times, there were on display a pair of Northern Snakehead fish, which made news in Maryland in the early 21st century, when this exotic fish was found in a local lake. The American Dime Museum acquired and put on display live specimens. The tradition lived on.
In 2004, the Dime Museum featured a retrospective of the works of Betsy the Finger Painting chimp, who was a Baltimore phenomenon in the 1950s. Her career was the result of the ultimate tacky review of abstract art: when the Baltimore Museum of Art acquired a Willem de Kooning abstract, the Baltimore Zoo's director Arthur Watson shot back that he had a chimp who could paint just as well. A legend was thus born.
I bid on two of the items from the museum through the eBay live auction, but didn't get either. Some items went for way more than even the auctioneer had predicted. The prestige of owning an item that had been on display in the American Dime Museum probably accounted for the inflated prices.
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