Side Show Suckers

We arrived early, but there were already nine or ten people waiting in the street; an older lady in frayed jeans, a stylish girl in sunglasses, a red-haired fellow from out of town. After a while I realized there were others there too, professional-looking men talking on their cellphones, sitting in their parked cars, out of the cold.

It was Monday, 26 February, and The American Dime Museum in Baltimore had officially gone into liquidation; at 5pm that day, its contents were going to be auctioned off to the public. Everybody hanging around outside was, like me, a fan of the strange, cramped museum, with its dusty shelves, bedraggled cat, and hundreds of oddities crammed into three damp rooms of a Baltimore row house. Founded by artists and long-time sideshow fans Dick Horne and James Taylor (publisher of the sideshow journal, Shocked and Amazed), the museum was supposed to resemble the kind of 19th-century sideshow that offered the gullible public a glimpse of freaks, gaffes, and accidents of nature. Sadly, however, unable to sustain itself on a $5 entrance fee (often overlooked), the short-lived museum had recently gone bust.

Julia was hoping to pick up a shrunken head. I was looking for anything I could afford. I’d marked some likely-looking bargains in the catalogue, including the stuffed Squouse (“half squirrel and half grouse; needs cleaning”), a silver bullet (“once used to kill vampires”), and the “small demon in early lined trunk with letter of authenticity” known as “Night’s Little One”. Secretly, though — like everyone else, no doubt — I had my eye on the Lincoln coprolite.

A coprolite, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a fossilized turd. The Lincoln coprolite is the stool alleged to have been passed by Abraham Lincoln in a private lavatory in Ford’s Theater on the eve of his execution, and preserved for posterity by an alert lavatory attendant. Upon careful examination by one Dr. Poe, it was confirmed that the coprolite did, indeed, contain traces of Lincoln’s dinner on the day before his fateful visit to Ford’s, as testified by the White House menu for that evening: terrapin soup, veal, and Oxford pudding.

Unfortunately, the suspect shit also contained traces of Necco Wafers, a candy treat not manufactured until 20 years after Lincoln’s death, ”thus making this stool a more recent deliverance,” according to the coprolite’s plaque. “When confronted with the clever Dr. Poe’s evidence of his fraud, the fecal forger fled, leaving his prize behind. He has not been heard from since.”

Out in the street, it was starting to get dark, with still no sign of the activity in the museum, even though, in the window, a poster advertised the auction in bold letters, so we knew we had the right date and time — and we could see some of the items from the catalogue right there in the window. The lady in cut-off jeans rattled at the door and knocked on the glass, making the bones rattle alarmingly on the Doctor’s Life-Size Jointed Skeleton. A man with a leather portfolio called the auctioneer on his cell, but there was no answer. By 5.30, people were starting to drift away, though a small group of fans waited a little longer than others.

The museum had always followed its own, eccentric laws. Maybe the auction was just late to get going. Maybe the place had been saved by a last-minute buyer, or maybe the whole thing was a hoax, and the museum wasn’t closing at all. After all, rumors of its death had been circulating ever since Horne and Taylor had fallen out about money, leading Taylor to remove all his own personal artifacts from the museum, including a stuffed unicorn and “Fivey”, a popular freeze-dried beagle with five legs. Then the building’s owner died and his estate opted to sell off the museum. Finally, worst of all, Taylor went to the local press and stated definitively, “The American Dime Museum is no more.” Horne, who was still trying to operate the exhibition, did his best to repair the damage, but it was too late, and in recent weeks, the museum had been open only on weekends, and then by appointment only.

It would have been nice to think that this, too, was a gaffe, but looking up at the broken window panes covered in cardboard, the gutter hanging loose on the roof, somehow, that didn’t seem likely.

Indeed, quite the contrary. While we were all standing there in the cold, the auction was in progress — not in the Dime Museum itself, but far away at a fancy auction house in Timonium, Maryland, and also live on eBay. Advertising for the event had been misleading, especially since most of the items, and all the advance viewings, had been held at the Dime museum itself. But while there may have been 10 or 15 of us waiting in the cold, over in Timonium, the real auction had apparently drawn a crowd of almost 300 bidders, mainly professional collectors, and the lots were being snapped up in seconds at prices way beyond the average Dime Museum fan’s budget.

The nine-foot “Peruvian Amazon” Mummy (featured on National Geographic’s Mummy Roadshow) went for $3,000; the Mythological Monstrosity (“strange head in early jar on stand”) for $2,100. A finger painting by a chimp went for $1,700 to a phone bidder; the Rangoon Sewer Serpent set somebody back a tidy $1,200. Even small items were out of our range;the mummy’s head in a box went for $850, the swordfish beak for $150. As for the Lincoln coprolite, the mind boggles.

And all along, I was standing in the rain, staring through a dirty rowhouse window at the world’s largest ball of string. No wonder I felt like a rube.