Museum deals in bizarre, grotesque; Old-fashioned: The American Dime Museum, opening next month in Baltimore, features off-the-wall exhibits like those that drew audiences 150 years ago.


Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls! Behind these rowhouse doors on Maryland Avenue are sights you will never see again, grotesqueries that will make you recoil in horror and tremble like a frightened kitten.

Inside this place you will be mesmerized by the skeleton of the Peruvian Amazon, a giant who stood 10 feet tall. You will be repelled by the Samoan Sea Worm, a fierce creature that in life could gut a cat in seconds. You will be astounded by a five-legged dog and awed by the petrified right hand of Spider Lillie, a 19th-century prostitute who killed her clients by hiding poisonous spiders in their clothing.

In this place you will see spectacles you will wish you never saw, phenomena that will haunt your dreams for as long as air fills your lungs. You will be mystified. You will be scared. You will be sickened.

Above all, you will have fun.

That was the promise of 19th century dime museums, and it is the promise of the American Dime Museum, which opens in Baltimore next month to celebrate that lowest of low-brow American entertainment.

Not familiar with dime museums? No wonder. The forerunner of the freak show, the midway and the sideshow, dime museums died out before the invention of Model T, swept away by a supposedly more enlightened sensibility that didn't approve of gawking at deformity and oddity, even if you paid a dime for the chance to do so.

But 150 years ago, dime museums were one of the biggest attractions around, none more so than P. T. Barnum's American Museum in New York. There the legendary showman claimed he housed more than 650,000 "curiosities" from around the globe, including fat men, bearded ladies, limbless unfortunates, Siamese twins and one shriveled, ferociously publicized specimen called "the Feejee Mermaid."

It was said that more spectators passed through the American Museum in five years than the entire population of the United States. Every American city of any size, including Baltimore, had similiar attractions. "They were the TV of the time," says Dick Horne, an antique dealer and one of two founders of the new American Dime Museum, which is seeking to re-create some of the atmosphere, titillation and hokum of those by-gone amusements.

Horne and partner James Taylor promise to be ready for the grand opening Nov. 2, though a recent visit found 1808 Maryland Ave. in disarray.

Scattered amid paint cans and wiring were the occasional disfigured head, the nasty remains of some mythological reptile and bottles containing human fetuses. Looming above all was a huge poster picturing Laloo, "India's Strangest Man," a bare-chested fellow in a turban with -- sorry to say -- part of another human body growing from his mid-section.

Taylor explains that the poster was created not many years ago to advertise a sideshow attraction. Once there was a real Laloo, he says, but by the time this poster was created, that Laloo was long gone. "This Laloo was just a dummy," Taylor says.

A fake?

Well, yes. Although many unfortunately deformed people ended up as attractions in dime museums, a high proportion of what was exhibited in those halls was fakery.

The dime museum was never only about what you actually saw, Taylor says. It was about your own expectation, about your desire -- to use his expression -- to be shocked and amazed. It was almost beside-the-point if what you saw delivered on the promise. Patrons were willing dupes.

"People want to believe things," says Taylor. "The ghostlier and spookier something purports to be, the more people want to believe in it. That was the lure of the dime museums."

Their reverence for the dime museum is what brought Taylor and Horne together a few years ago. Taylor, an impish, 48-year-old man with muttonchop sideburns and mustache, is the publisher of Shocked and Amazed, a periodical that lovingly examines the midway. Several years ago, he heard about an eccentric antiques dealer who was still making the sort of objects that would have been found in dime museums: strange creatures made out of papier mache, human heads, skeletons.

"People kept telling me you've got to get down to Maryland Avenue," says Taylor. "There's a guy there with the weirdest stuff."

On Maryland Avenue, he met Horne, a 56-year-old, pony-tailed Maryland Institute grad whose heart is roomy enough to love both freak shows and classical music. A true Renaissance Man.

And it turns out that he's not only able to create truly hideous novelties. He also writes bizarre fantasies to accompany them. So, for instance, after inventing his "Sea Worm," which looks like a miniature dragon with distemper, he wrote about its "discovery" in 1856 on a ship off the Samoan coast after it killed the ship's cat.

For the exhibit, he has typed these stories on stained, yellowed index cards to make them look suitably aged. He also ascribes these accounts to plausible-sounding authorities. "Ref: Dr. Taylor," says the one about the Sea Worm.

"I wanted to see how far I could push a fake," says Horne.

So, when you pay your $3 to enter The American Dime Museum -- sorry, it ain't a dime anymore -- remember this, it is perhaps the only educational institution that carries a warning: Don't believe everything you see.

"We have probably the only museum in the world where you can't believe what is told to you," says Horne.

"Or the only museum that will admit to it," corrects Taylor.

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