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Weird and Wonderful: The Dime Museum in America.

Where freaks are concerned, Americans have two faces. We're hard-boiled enough to know that the shill is gone, but we're also a nation of starry-eyed rubbernecks craving that peep behind the curtain. Why else did we trust the bland conglomerate that brought us Mickey Mouse to restore Times Square to its former jive, jazzy self.? Or moon over Side Show, a new sentimental musical about Violet and Daisy Hilton, the It Girls of Siamese Twindom, who made as much as $5,000 a week in vaudeville but died penniless in 1969?

Weird & Wonderful tells the fascinating story of how the dime museum struggled to become respectable -- how it began around 1840 only to disappear abruptly after the turn of the century, bludgeoned into obsolescence by more modern diversions. Less successfully, the book tries to trace the idea of freaks from fat boys and Siamese twins to twentieth-century talk shows.

Today, science understands achondroplasia or dwarfism and giantism as medical conditions (and some activists see them as a badge of honor). But according to Andrea Stulman Dennett, more than a hundred years ago dime museums rescued so-called human curiosities from sleazy back rooms of Bowery saloons and gritty itinerant fairs and made them not only respectable but celebrated. President Lincoln and quips with the midget Commodore Nutt; General Tom Thumb entertained Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales. What Dennett omits is how freaks also captured the imagination of American writers who treated them with less affection. (Edgar Allan Poe's sinister dwarf, Hop-Frog, tricks the king and his courtiers into believing they're orangutans. Then he tars and feathers them, hoists them to the ceiling and sets them on fire.) Moreover, she shies away from describing how some dime museums were cheap, unwholesome haunts. The ubiquitous chronicler of nineteenth-century New York, George Odell, described the "gaudy pictures of `freaks'" that lured ragtag visitors into one seedy Bowery establishment.

Like a sideshow barker who comes out of the tent with a strong pitch, Dennett is best in her first chapters, when she traces the seeds of modern popular entertainment back to the dime museum. She rightly points out that vaudeville stole the idea of the "continuous show" from the dime museum and that many early vaudeville moguls got their training there, as did big-time vaudevillians like handcuff-king Harry Houdini, crooner Al Jolson and the "Dutch" knockabout comics Weber and Fields. Both the modern zoo and the circus emerged from, its sprawling, boisterous menageries of wild animals, and the dime museum also contained wax tableaux of gruesome murder scenes and solemn coronations, moralizing temperance melodramas, medical exhibits, baby beauty contests and the first Kinetoscopes. Here too, Dennett stresses the dime museum's respectable side at the expense of its motley, prurient appeal.

Yet what made the dime museum unique was that it institutionalized the exhibition of freaks. In the first decade after the American Revolution, museums, imposing Enlightenment dreams of order, organized exhibits of carefully arranged fossils, stuffed animals in natural habitats, elegant watercolors of flora and fauna as well as oil paintings of U.S. aristocrats, and directed them toward wealthy citizens. Dime museums undermined these Jeffersonian ideals by seeking to entertain the masses. For one price (if not a dime, a quarter), you could see impossible creatures -- albinos, giants, midgets, tattooed men and such weird Freudian hybrids as alligator-, elephant- or wolf-boys (or men); he/shes; monkey girls; bearded women; ostrich men; dog- or pig- or mule-faced people.

Yet for all their dubious egalitarianism, dime museums were often run like plantations, and freaks treated like slaves. After marvelmonger P.T. Barnum abandoned his career as hack journalist and took over the five-story American Museum on lower Broadway, he purchased General Tom Thumb -- then 4 years old and around two feet high -- for $7 a week plus board and travel for his family. Soon Thumb's performances -- in which he did things like fight Queen Victoria's dog -- made Barnum hundreds of dollars a day. Yet Dennett's brief chapter on Barnum, who in 1865 wrote to The Nation to defend himself against a letter accusing him of "pandering to degraded spectators," soft-pedals the effusive, shameless huckster. Describing how, on the heels of Darwin's Origin of Species, Barnum exhibited a retarded black man as a "missing link," Dennett claims that by calling this exhibit "What Is It?" Barnum "avoided making a racial statement about blacks."

Dennett is more credible when she maintains that if the dime museum "incarcerated the individual in an inescapable, lifelong role," it also brought freaks economic stability. She points out that Tom Thumb eventually made enough money to buy an estate in Connecticut, thoroughbreds, a yacht and an extensive wardrobe that included duplicates of Barnum's clothes. Unlike most freaks, Thumb apparently married someone he loved; even more unusual, he once bailed Barnum out of financial trouble. Dennett recounts stories that complicate the contemporary assumption that the lives of freaks were full of misery. A great demand for both real and "self-made" freaks -- those Horatio Algers of the underworld who cannily faked their uncanniness -- hoisted many up by their bootstraps. When Theodor Jeftichew, "Jo-Jo the Dog-faced Boy," was touring in Europe, an ambitious impostor stole his act. (Jeftichew's fans, tipped off by the fact that this doggy doppel-ganger laughed and fought -- Jeftichew limited himself to growling -- forced the fake to pull off his wig and reveal himself.) A more successful mountebank was "Miss Darling," whom P.T. Barnum advertised as a magicianess who had "agitated all the thrones of Europe," but whom the tabloids exposed as a prostitute, spirited con woman and onetime inmate at an insane asylum. ("I really believe she is honest," Barnum, clearly agitated, wrote.)

But what really attracted Jacksonian Americans to the ragtag majestic grand-daddy of Ripley's Believe It or Not? According to Dennett, the dime museum held a panicked, rapidly industrializing society together through fear. People went to define themselves against the "other," and especially to think about "us versus them, the normal versus the freaks"; dime museums momentarily "bridge[d] the ever growing gap between elite and popular audiences" through a unifying repulsion. Moreover, by eschewing controversial issues like suffrage and slavery, the dime museum fostered nationalism and patriotism and "commodified" history.

Weird & Wonderful shows both sides of the face, like the he/she exhibits of the oldtime carnival. But these profiles are mismatched. The problem with all of Dennett's densely argued cultural-studies platitudes is that they never explain this fad of dime museum-going as well as her evocative title does. Americans made pilgrimages to the dime museum to pull silk linings from tattered coats, to jettison the rational and quiet the urban ruckus with tremulous mystery. The dime museum is reminiscent of Walt Whitman's "shows of the day and of the night": chess-playing machines that hid children at the control panel and bearded women with diamond tiaras allegedly given to them by Napoleon re-created the self's irrational reveries. The dime museum announced the full-bloodedness of the universe. It was a Coney Island of the heart.

Dennett seems largely uninterested in the comic pathos or horrifying hullabaloo of this world, however. Her accounts are strangely arid, as if she were afraid of being accused of exploiting her subject or reducing it to tabloid headlines. But wanting to know that firemen needed a mechanical hoist to get the giantess Anna Swan out of the American Museum when it burned down is not scurrilous. Instead, it measures our own astounding frailty. Dennett is so nervous about the phenomenon of the other, she wants us all to share in the condition. It is in part this aridity that fails to convince in her last chapter, in which she tries to locate modern -- day dime museums in TV talk shows and body piercing. For if the dime museum reminded us of our fragility, contemporary pop culture spectacles seem to lean toward obscuring it.
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Author:Shteir, Rachel
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 29, 1997
Words:1311
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