The Dime Museum
“ EVERYTHING has been said,” remarks Mr. Bernard G. Richards, “ but not everything has been contradicted.” Surely not everything has been contradicted concerning the Dime Museum; although so little has been said, and on the whole so ill said, that contradiction should scarce be difficult. A single adjective sums up the universal bromidiom: the institution is “ morbid.” The lowly, argue those who know not, repair thither to gloat over the affliction of their oversized, under-sized, and otherwise peculiar fellow mortals. Then how comes it that they scan the exhibits with awestruck reverence ? How comes it that they keep a straight face while the lecturer heaps grandiloquent adulation upon his freaks? How comes it that every curio esteems himself a special pet of Providence, as who should say, “ Behold the marvels that God hath wrought in my person! ”
Often, I daresay, you pass the museum’s entrance. Before its open lobby, you receive an impression due to a blaze of gilding, a riot of flags, a pandemonium of mechanical music, a fever of red paint. Perhaps you tarry a moment to admire the many enticing canvases that line the lobby’s walls. Masterpieces are they. They suggest the adored primitives — so naïve, so direct, so sincere is their neo-archaic craftsmanship. You suspect Cimabue. Only, whereas the primitives wrought in distemper, we have here the work of artists who wrought in extreme amiability. They have added a cubit to the giant’s stature, subtracted an ell from the dwarf’s, and idealized the fat lady by joyously augmenting her tonnage. Well may our arbiters of taste proclaim the superiority of art to photography; yonder, in immense gold frames, behold the camera’s portrayal of those same celebrities, and note how sorrowful the falling off!
Surveying these presentments of the marvels within, you exclaim with the selftaught Latinist, De tastibus non gusputandum! An indolent subterfuge. Rather let us discuss tastes with some vigor; they interpret mentality; they are in turn interpreted by it; comprehended, they make for tolerance. And in this case we have to do with a mentality that suffers more grievously than ours from a tendency by no means uncommon — the tendency, I mean, toward getting one’s philosophy upside down. Despite our education, we wonder at the whirlwind, the earthquake, the flaming mountain; and are not they the two-headed men and bearded women of physiography? The wonder is not in the whirlwind. It is in the almost uniform absence of whirlwinds. The wonder is not in the earthquake and the volcano. It is in the almost uniform absence of earthquakes and volcanoes. Who are we that we should scoff when the ignorant — those who now stand marveling before the pictures and presently slouch toward the ticket-window — worship the rare accidents and misdemeanors of variation, forgetting that by virtue of their consistent normality it is they themselves who will constitute the only really marvelous exhibits in Curio Hall ?
I counsel you to follow them in. They represent the substratum of society. Upon their foolishness rests the perpetuity of our institutions. It takes pluck, though, to apply for the greasy yellow ticket, now sold for the nine-thousandth time. What will the ticket man think ? What wall your friends think, if they happen by and see you ? What will other applicants think ? These last will think nothing, being preoccupied with curiosity as to midgets and giants, most of them, while a certain small residue are given over to grim memories awakened by the presence of a wax policeman, with redundant side-whiskers and a real uniform, who leans upon the railing before the box-office. Not sinful in itself, the Dime Museum becomes a haven and heaven of sinners; consequently a happy hunting-ground for detectives when in quest of fugitives from a neighboring reformatory.
You pass the door, and instantly obtain a realizing sense of the sordidness within. Says an ancient sage, “ With the nose we knows.” Some modern sage might devote study to the graded aromas of our entertainments : at the opera, the breath of roses; at Professor Griggs’s lecture, the scent of crushed violet-stems; at the amusement park, the fragrance of peanuts; at the “ grand sacred concert ” (Zitella, the Flying Cazenoves, trained monkeys, and allied sanctities), the reek of cheap perfumery; at the home of burlesque, an unwashed odor, mitigated with vile tobacco; at the Dime Museum, this morning, the same and more of it, though unfortunately without the tobacco.
Now, nose and conscience lie not far apart. That is why men speak of things evil as “ in bad odor.” As you march through the corridor, shoulder to shoulder with your disinherited brethren, you experience an impulse toward retreat. Then you bethink you that monstrosities have played perhaps as large a part in your own education as in theirs. In classic and mediaeval and Renaissance art and literature, lo, what “ Gorgons, Hydras and Chimæras dire,” what cupids, centaurs, furies, satyrs, and griffins! Give me Polyphemus, the doughty giant, Trimurti, the original three-headed wonder, and Anubis, the precursor of dog-faced boys; give me these and a handful more, among them Michael Angelo’s horned Moses, a Hermes with winged feet, and a bogy or so from the Inferno, and I will furnish forth a Curio Hall of such sort that it will be packed with gaping visitors, till the sole way to make room for more spectators would be to do as Barnum did: set up an alluring finger-board inscribed, “To the Egress! ”
Whereas you treasure monstrosities in marble, in bronze, and in deckle-edged editions, the humble do but treasure the only montrosities that fall within their ken. And after all, is it not less degrading to contemplate the abnormalities of the body than to witness those of the mind and heart? You applauded “ Candida,” while the soi-disant elect will tolerate those writers who from time to time suggest improvements upon holy wedlock.
Such reflections hearten you quite as Virgil’s reassurances heartened the venturesome but timorous Dante. You press forward, and come to a tall room, with square posts to prop its ceiling, walls freely kalsomined in red and yellow, and along the walls the cages, booths, thrones, and stages of greatness. This is Curio Hall. No seats; everybody is standing, gazing open-mouthed upon a freak, and listening with rapt deference while the “ professor” declaims his “ lecture.” You get an impression of weather-worn Derby hats, with here and there a tawdry bonnet; likewise an impression that justifies Niceforo’s conclusions concerning “ the poor as a race,” showing them to be inferior in stature, in development, in endurance, and in comeliness, to the well-to-do. You recall DeQuincey’s horror of castes, yet perceive that in young America, not less than in immemorial India, caste prevails. For in every nation there are two nations. Divided, age after age, flow twin streams of population. Side by side, they refuse to blend, save as an occasional Dickens or Gorky may pass from the dark stream to the bright, an occasional house of D’Urberville renounce its birthright, an occasional mad marriage defy eternal distinctions.
But look! On a lofty throne, beneath a pink-and-green canopy, sits a young lady of some presence. You have seen her photograph outside. You recognize the figure, designed by Montgolfier, the fullblown cheeks, the quintuple chin. You remember the label under the portrait: “ Dainty Cherrie Burnham, Weight only 610 Pounds.”Surely the lady exaggerates! Not so; those arms, sublimely fat and displayed bare, carry conviction.
And listen! From a towering platform, “ Professor ” Bumpus is lecturing. An extraordinary person! Fourscore at least, he seems a blend of moribund clergyman, aged actor, and superannuated statesman. He wears a frock coat and a white cravat. He leans upon a gold-headed cane, the gift of his admirers, who have dubbed him “ The Grand Old Man of Dulwich Square.” His past they embroider with legend. According to some, he anciently adorned the pulpit. According to others, he was once a renowned mathematician. One thing is clear, though : he is the last of the orators. As Jules Claretie said of Maître Barboux, he would “descend into the subway as into some grotto of the Eclogues.” His discourse bulges with erudition, reverberates with rhetoric, coruscates with Biblical and classical allusions, as befits the mission of him who has essayed to do for freaks what Winckelmann did for Greek sculpture and Ruskin for the paintings of Turner. Note his words. Received with laughterless respect by the folk around you, they become a very significant and illuminating reflection of proletarian ignorance — the ignorance which has been for centuries the cornerstone of the state.
“ Behold,” he cries, thumping mightily with his cane, “ behold, ladies and gentlemen, the lovely Cherrie Burnham, the fair, the beautiful! Marvelous! Marvelous! Stand up, Cherrie! There!” (thump, thump) “ look at her! A mighty girl, fat, magnificent. Five chins! Cheeks like the sun-kissed melon! Arms like vats of luscious Falernian wine! Watch her, now! Watch her! No wonder you’re proud, Cherrie! Few women of modern times have equaled you. Six hundred and ten pounds! Twice the weight of Queen Victoria, three times the weight of Boadicea ” (thump, thump), “ four times the weight of Delilah!
“ Next we have a very remarkable couple, very remarkable indeed: Signor and Signorina Pastorelli, known throughout the world as the tattooed Mars and Venus. Mars the god of war, Venus the goddess of love! ” (Two very Celticlooking young persons shed their bathrobes, come to the edge of the high platform, and bow, displaying as much of their cuticle as convention permits, all solidly covered with etchings in color — mainly in red and blue.) “ This couple are from sunny Italy — Italy the land of Savonarola and Marconi, the land of the olive and the peasant, Italy the home of the arts! Look at their forms! See the man’s splendid development! Mars the god of war! ” (Thump, thump.) “Does he not look it? Look at his eye! See that fire! And look at the pictures on his body! Pictures of beasts and of birds, of foreign lands, of scenes from the songs of Jesse, the son of David. Ah, but he is patriotic: even though an Italian boy by birth, he loves our country! See, in the middle of his back—Turn around, Signor Pastorelli; we’ll excuse your back, even if it is n’t as handsome as your face, for what’s on it. See there — the StarSpangled Banner! ” (Thump, thump.) “ Oh, long may it wave.” (The piano plays the tune. Great applause.) “Now look at the lady! Venus, the goddess of love, as those old pagans called her! ”
Why so much oratory, when the exhibits should kindle admiration unassisted? Because a low-browed, rat-eyed audience has to be told what to admire ? Precisely. In like manner there came to Italy in the old days a horde of Grecians to point out to scholars the beauties of the rediscovered classics. By a sort of analogy, not irrational if you consider the themes he descants upon, you may call Professor Bumpus a humanist. And reflect, I beg you, that we too need prompting, on occasion. When the acrobat has completed a feat of skill, he stands erect, holds both hands, palm up, at his breast, and executes a double gesture, horizontal-wise. But for this, we should forget to applaud. Reflect also that it is only very recently that the Odéon and the Gymnase dared think of suppressing the claque.
Besides, there are the freaks to manage. Deprived of adulation, even a dainty Cherrie Burnham might cease to give thanks that she is “ not like other girls.” She might acquire a degree of skepticism touching the rationality of her claims. At present, she rejoices that, whereas others may achieve greatness, or have it thrust upon them, she is to the manner born. They are monstrously vain, the freaks; consequently quarrelsome, in which they resemble missionaries; and jealous, in which they resemble university professors. Endowed with an heroic individuality, freak harmonizes no more sweetly with freak than missionary with missionary. Intensely self-centred, the curio resents the crowd’s interest in other curios, quite as a botanist frets when his students waste their time and stultify their intellects by sitting at the feet of a mere historian. Not for pleasure do bearded women embroider doilies, and giants chew gum, during intervals of neglect; it is to assuage bitterness.
So exalted — so sublime, almost — becomes the freak’s vocation that the ignominy of normality seems to many an aspiring soul no longer supportable. The Museum is besieged by those who have won distinction, or hired cunning artificers to confer it upon them. Some school their systems to consume lamp-chimneys. Some court the confidence of pythons. Some persuade a reluctant gullet to harbor sabres. Some flee to the tattooist (I know an excellent one, should the reader crave his ministrations), and thus gain entrance to the Hall of Fame.
Just here, alas! lies the shadow of a cloud upon the otherwise sunny demesne of freakdom. The plethora of human marvels has depressed salaries, and it is very humiliating to a proud and sensitive freak to see himself quoted at the pittance that now obtains. Nor does his chagrin find much relief when he observes how the overplus is still further augmented by the play of the tender passion, which tempts greatness to wed beneath it. As Sir Lionel Goldthwaite may espouse a scullery-maid and make her Lady Goldthwaite, so the Living Skeleton may select a bride from among the despised normal faction and lift her to the rank of a Circassian queen. But wedded bliss fades as swiftly in Curio Hall as in what Mr. Dooley has denominated “ thim halls iv luxury and alimony.” With fashionable promptitude, the pair separate. The Circassian queen marries a truckman, obtaining for him the billet of a wild man. The slim Cophetua stoops to honor a waitress, leading her to the altar and thence to a cage filled with snakes. In this romantic fashion the aristocracy is recruited wholesale from among the commoners.
For the bitter consequence, consult the tattooed man. A person of ordinary area can have his epidermis quite sumptuously decorated for a hundred and fifty dollars. Theoretically, the patient is then fitted to sit at receipt of custom the rest of his life. Ten times a day he will stand up and be admired; but most of the while he will enjoy a complete repose of mind and body, broken only by the writing of letters — or is it his autobiography ? Letters, more likely, since there exists no central bureau for freaks, and they get engagements by correspondence. Theoretically, an engagement should be readily obtained and should mean sixty dollars a week. Actually, it means thirty dollars a week for a tattooed couple, who count themselves lucky to be employed at all. Says the well-known ditty: —
You can beat a tattoo ;
But you can’t beat a tattooed man! ”
Nevertheless, the competition of other tattooed marvels can — till the dean of the guild has retired in disgust, devoting his sunset years to relieving the woes of the untattooed; also to untattooing the tattooed, as happens when naval recruits are found to possess embellishments not harmonious for Jackies. Moreover, the slump in pictorial humanity has been accentuated by the managers. Wantonly, or through sheer ineptitude, they have organized “congresses” of tattooed men, thus acquainting the public with their diminished rarity.
Blame the management, too, for the decay of faith among museum-goers. Heresies have sprung up as a result of humbug pressed too far. Though the sword-swallower permit the spectators to handle her swords, and the strong man distribute the fragments of ten-penny nails he has broken in his fingers, credulity comes hard; for now and then the people recognize in the Wild Man of Borneo some local mulatto, while every one may read the dealers’ advertisements of “ snakes fixed safe to handle,” and a key that” unlocks any handcuff, and can be carried in the hair.” Such disclosures should forfend the promotion of outand-out frauds — frauds, let us say. like “the living suicide: he kills himself every fifteen minutes.”
No little blame attaches likewise to retired freaks, who sow broadcast the seeds of unbelief. I regret this, especially as it affects the Circassian queen. It has been a joy to have numbered among my uncles one wdio stood before that potentate’s throne, removed his hat, revealing a glistening scalp, and said to her, “ Madam, you see how unevenly things are distributed in this world. That is what makes some folks socialists! ” To have had such an uncle, and then to learn that “ Circassians ” distend their tresses by drenching them in stale beer, is indeed harrowing — almost as painful as hearing that the Moss-haired Man, acclaimed by two hemispheres, wore a wig! These deceptions and their kind will occasionally make trouble for those who inquire not very prudently as to what’s what and who’s who. My friend Denslow became so interested in the needle-swallower that he took him out to lunch. A year later he saw the same feat performed in the same museum by a girl. Coming closer, he discovered it was the same performer as before. He looks back to that tête-à-tête luncheon with squirms of ethical incertitude.
Let us remember, though, that there are shades of belief, just as there are shades of doubt. The proletarians accept Major Popocatapetl and General Microbe as genuine exponents of bigness and littleness. They pin their faith to fat ladies and living skeletons. Toward the tattooed and toward bearded women, they admit a degree of skepticism. Are not the pictures perhaps put on with a brush? Is not the hirsute damsel perhaps a man decked out in feminine finery or a woman made up with false whiskers? In point of fact, only the dismal science of the needle can produce those lovely pictures, and among managers it is a point of honor never to proffer a humbug bearded woman. And, as concerns sword-walkers, fire-eaters, and analogous wonderworkers, the humble incline toward espousing what Professor Satterlee was wont to call “ the tenth theory.” After enumerating nine hypotheses to account for the Man of the Iron Mask, he would exclaim triumphantly, “ And the tenth theory, gentlemen, is that we — er — ah — don’t know! ”
This margin of dubiety has led managers to pad Curio Hall with extraneous allurements—attractions filched from the circus, from vaudeville, and from the amusement park. They introduce “ the beautiful La Bella Rosa, creative and sinuous invasionist of the art Terpsichore.” They advertise “ The man-eating lion, Nero; no living man can enter his cage and live! ” They summon Swiss yödlers, Cossack raiders, plantation troubadours, with galaxies of tumblers, equilibrists, trapezists, and contortionists, and, perchance, an astounding novelty like Miss Rosetta Davis, “ America’s fistic empress, who will box any lady of her weight in your city.” Such phenomena have at least the merit of exerting no undue strain upon “ the will to believe.” Meanwhile, Curio Hall affords lodgment to penny peep-shows (of which the less said the better), to a Punch-andJudy show, and to a peanut-stand, a palmist’s lair, and a photograph gallery. “ Maybe you think you ain’t handsome, gents,” cries the photographer, “but we’ll fix you up all right, all right! ” Few yield. Some even betray symptoms of a decidedly active reluctance, having sat for their portraits before — under compulsion.
But now, when Professor Bumpus has completed his elucidation of the remaining exhibits, come tidings of supplementary delights — as might have been expected. At the circus, the “ gentlemanly agents” crawl over and through the spectators, selling tickets for the “ grand concert after the performance.” In Bowery fake-shows, the manager bawls, “ In de rear room, gepmen, dere’s a exhibition of such a nature dat no ladies an’ no boys under sixteen is allowed! Ten cents admits each an’ every sport! ” The rear room contains several Indian relics and a tame bear. The museum, you see, follows distinguished precedent when it proclaims its “ magnificent stage-show lasting nearly an hour. Reserved seats one dime, ten cents, the tenth part, of a dollar.”
Through a grimy door and a grimier passage, you enter darkness. It is a more than Egyptian darkness; it can be smelt. Once inside, it’s not so dense. Gradually your eyes become accustomed to it, and trace the outlines of a long, narrow cavern with a ceiling so low that spectators in tiny galleries seem to serve as caryatids. Groping and stumbling, you select a greasy opera-chair before the miniature stage. Presently you can make out details — a drop-curtain daubed with a wonderful Spanish landscape, a single proscenium box containing friends of the performers, an orchestra with chairs for four poverty-stricken musicians, and a rabble of patrons pouring in in a neverending stream. When you saw them standing, close-packed, in Curio Hall, you underestimated their numbers. Now you begin to realize what hordes of your fellow citizens find leisure during workhours for pleasant relaxation. Who are they ? Plumbers gone “ back to the shop for tools ” ? Perhaps. Library loafers enjoying a release from their arduous studies? Again, perhaps. Housemaids who have discharged their mistresses? Tramps who have been “ rendered a little assistance ” ? Socialists who abhor competition too profoundly to engage in it? In each instance, once more, perhaps. In the main, though, these people represent the casual laborer, with an admixture of the casual prison-bird. Their presence here is no more extraordinary than the multiplicity with which they collect where the digging of cellars, or the erection of buildings, demands their patient oversight.
Before you, within the railing that defends the orchestra, sits a wan little gentleman reading a periodical by the gleam of a shaded electric bulb. As he turns the leaf, you get a glimpse of the title, “The International Musician”! Despised, both because he is a musician and because he is not, he nevertheless keeps himself au courant with whatsoever befalls in the domain of Music, Heavenly Maid, while upon his sensitive ear crashes the din from the machine-band out in the lobby. Neither can he relish the braying of the peddler who passes to and fro among the audience, shouting “ Chewin’-gum, song-book, last number of de ‘ Chorus-Goil ’ —five cents all t’ree! Chewin’-gum — preserves de teeth, softens de gums —song-book, ‘ Chorus-Goil.’ Who’ll be de next? ”
After a very dismal season of delay, the lights pop up, three additional musicians appear, and there ensues an overture consisting mainly of drum. Indeed, one might call it a drum obligato. Condemn it not. Music less barbaric would fail to penetrate the proletarian consciousness. And now the Spanish landscape soars aloft — or as far aloft as the squat proscenium arch permits—and reveals a stage seemingly contrived for marionettes. Here begins a vaudeville. Think of the stupidest vaudeville you remember, magnify its stupidity a thousand diameters, then repeat the process till you ache, and by comparison with what follows you have achieved hilarity. So be it. You may say of humor as Mr. Dooley said of profanity, “ ’T is precious; don’t spill it.” Fun, in this cave of dullness, were sheer waste. Once, a soubrette upon yonder stage proffered jokes, real jokes, and seeing their ineffectuality, took umbrage. “ Say,” she cried, “ ain’t it hard to sleep out there with all the light in your eyes ? ” Trying further witticisms with like want of result, she snapped, “ I thought I smelt chloroform! ”
Don’t imagine, though, that no laughter peals forth during the “ magnificent stage-show.” Its comedians excite much mirth by the grotesquerie of their makeup. Museum-goers define humor somewhat as Ruskin defined architecture. As architecture is not in the shapeliness of a structure, but in the ornaments that embellish it, so humor is not in the man and the matter and the manner, but in comic habiliments. A beneficent theory ! It thins the otherwise overcrowded ranks of hod-carriers,’longshoremen, and ditchdiggers by flinging wide the portals of art to any who will put off overalls for motley.
The show is fetched to a conclusion by the biograph, which displays a series of dim, flickering, bespeckled films known to the profession as “ junk.” Then up come the lights, down comes the curtain, and from afar you hear the accents of Professor Bumpus : “ Behold, ladies and gentlemen, the lovely Cherrie Burnham, the fair, the beautiful! Marvelous! Marvelous ! ” (Thump, thump.) “ Stand up, Cherrie! ”
You have completed the circuit of a maelstrom, which is now in its second lap. Emerging from the theatre, you find yourself once more in Curio Hall, with its “ royal climax of extremes,” its galaxy of “ exclusive living oddities.” Now, for the first time, you see merit in the stageshow. It avenges an ancient grudge. Whereas the circus houses its freaks in a subsidiary tabernacle, making them second fiddles to art, here art plays second fiddle to freaks. The curios are the performing elephants; the comedians, the sideshow.
So ends your visit. You come away well qualified to praise this temple of inanity. In the main, it is honest, giving just return for the dime. It promotes happiness, delighting the lowly while transforming the sorrows of curios into radiant felicities. Though perforce it refuses admission to many an ambitious monstrosity, it has called into existence its reduced replica, the Nickeliseum, which serves as a “Salon des Indépendants” for celebrities blackballed by Curio Hall. Moreover, it shelters arts that in other keeping might lapse into lamentable disuse. No matter how superb your virtuosity as a snake-charmer or as a consumer of fire or swords or glass, you will fall among doubters unless you come close to the spectators. The theatre won’t do. Accordingly, the Dime Museum not infrequently stands between genius and the almshouse — or worse, namely, work. Again, you will praise this sordid institu_ tion for its delicacy. Although ministering to a public not renowned for sensitiveness, it almost uniformly avoids scandal. If here and there in the land there exist Dime Museums not worthy their high calling, set them down as rare and unrepresentative exceptions.
But it is the social philosopher, methinks, who should be most grateful to Curio Hall. Its existence spells safety for the existing social order. Think you it is the progress of enlightenment that sanctions and perpetuates our scheme of human relationships ? Far otherwise. Rather is it the survival of benightedness. So long as endures the gallery of “ exclusive living oddities,” with pitiful blockheads to gape at them, so long will there abound those scullions, scavengers, stokers, flunkies, and wretched wageminions upon whose docility we depend for our maintenance. Given intelligence to perceive the joke implied in their adoration of abnormalities, they might detect the huge, historic, practical joke played upon them by destiny. At long, long intervals — for us happily long — they get fleeting glimpses of its point. When that occurs, there results the process known as revolution, which Charles Dudley Warner defined as “ turning society over, and putting the best underground as a fertilizer.”
Meanwhile the thing has its brighter side. Who is this at your elbow as you come forth from the Dime Museum ? An ash-man, let us say. Put yourself in his place. Ask yourself if all your fortitude could enable you to make out a tolerable existence on the terms allotted him. You know it could n’t. The ash-man, however, leads a life not unlit with happiness. By ancestry, nurture, discipline, and social suggestion, he has achieved a density of mind that excludes complaint. Chief of his blessings is his lordly inability to think. In his place you would think — and blow out your brains. Between the ash-man and desperation looms a vast and beneficent foolishness — a foolishness monumental, which some Gargantuan Bartholdi might symbolize in a statue of Dainty Cherrie Burnham Darkening the World.