Saturday, May 15, 2004

Once upon a time, there was a world with no TV and no movies. Music had to be played rather than downloaded or recorded. Toys and books were simple and hard to come by.

Nineteenth-century Americans who had a little time on their hands sought out anything weird, exotic, unusual or spooky. They were entertained by dime museums, places where for 10 cents one could see a mummy or a feather-covered fish, a shrunken head or a two-headed calf.

The spirit of those odd museums is captured in the American Dime Museum, a collection of turn-of-the-century weirdness tucked inside a Baltimore row house. Dick Horne, a longtime collector of dime-museum oddities, opened the museum four years ago.

“Dime museums, unlike museums today, were not full of anything valuable,” Mr. Horne says. “They came around at a time where Americans, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, had a little time on their hands and a little bit of disposable income. These museums became like the Disneyland of their day.”

Basically, museum-goers wanted to be shocked. They didn’t really care whether a mummy was real or they were gawking at the world’s fattest man, Mr. Horne says.

The Baltimore collection is full of freak-show flotsam from that era. Among the mummies is a “Giant Amazon Woman.” The mummy is almost certainly a fake, Mr. Horne says, but old-time museum patrons did not care.

“At the turn of the century, there were a lot of real mummies,” he says. “People loved big, strange mummies, though.”

Among the other mummified items is a hand from 1808 England. There also is a real shrunken head from Ecuador, and “small ancient remains from a demon in 1873 France.”

In other words, the American Dime Museum will be a hoot for adolescents who love gross-out culture. Parents might want to think twice before bringing small children, however.

Not everything in the museum is frightening. Some of it — such as the Victorian-era art made from human hair or the jewelry collection made from cats’ claws and elks’ teeth, among other animal parts — is just plain weird. Two live snakehead fish are in a tank, in case anyone wants to get a look at the species of “Frankenfish” that is back in the news.

There are stuffed and mounted animals — some engineered and some real — too. A two-headed goose and a snake and mongoose caught in midfight are on display. So are several examples of “graft animals” — animal bodies spliced together and presented to patrons as freaky examples of the animal world. Among them: monkey and fish parts sewn together and marketed to sailors in the 1700s.

“These were sold as real artifacts,” Mr. Horne says. “People weren’t sure what was out there in the world. You have to get the sense of what people knew and what they were willing to believe.”

Items this odd don’t come without a story, and Mr. Horne has a good anecdote about nearly everything in the place.

There is an exhibit of paintings done by Betsy the Chimp at the Baltimore Zoo in 1960. Mr. Horne will tell visitors all about the chimp and how she became a painter. He also will share stories about the traveling sideshows and the lives of people on the carnival circuit.

The museum tries to capture the spirit of the midway. A display of carnival miniatures complements a model of a 1906 Coney Island Ferris wheel. There is an early merry-go-round animal seat; the seats, Mr. Horne points out, were suspended from the roof before they were placed on poles. One can see “the largest ball of neckties in the world,” the state’s biggest ball of string and pictures of the bizarre humanity that used to work the sideshows.

In the center of it all is a 600-pound baseball bat. It once was the selling point for a sideshow that touted “the terrifying 600-pound bat! Terrifying and big enough to kill a horse!”

Once inside, patrons would see the baseball bat and realize the joke was on them, Mr. Horne says.

Still, they would be entertained for a dime.


LOCATION: The American Dime Museum is at 1808 Maryland Ave., Baltimore.

Directions: From the Beltway, take Interstate 95 north to Interstate 395 toward downtown Baltimore. Turn right on Pratt Street and left on Calvert Street. Go 1.5 miles to North Avenue and make a left. Make a left on Maryland Avenue. The museum is on the right.

Hours: The museum is open from noon to 3 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Admission: Adults, $5; children, $3. Children younger than 6 admitted for free.

Parking: On-street, metered parking is available.

Note: The American Dime Museum is a collection of the strange items that used to stock dime museums and traveling sideshows in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some of the displays are charming pieces of history, others are items that were contrived to scare people. Therefore, use judgment before taking young children to the museum.

More information: 410/230-0263 or

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