I cannot reveal the details of our shocking expeditions, or catalogue even partly the worst of the trophies adorning the nameless museum we prepared in the great stone house where we jointly dwelt, alone and servantless. Our museum was a blasphemous, unthinkable place, where with the satanic taste of neurotic virtuosi we had assembled an universe of terror and decay to excite our jaded sensibilities. H. P. Lovecraft, The Hound.
In the history text, Waking Giant: America In The Age of Jackson (by David S. Reynolds, p. 224 ff) there is a summary of the career of Phineas T. Barnum, a failed newspaper editor and failed businessman. In 1841 he came upon the idea of a lifetime when he purchased a New York museum. Having watched the 1840 presidential election – one notoriously filled with flim-flam – he assumed correctly that the American public would buy any amount of “humbug”.
In those days the typical museum was filled by curiosities such as shells, rocks, skeletons, wax figures, and painted dioramas. He added faked creatures such as mermaids, and looked in numerous places for “characters”. Fiction and imagination were not limited, including a 75 year old woman pawned off as George Washington’s 161 year old nanny. As he could afford it, he began to pay midgets, obese people, and others with odd anatomies to perform for audiences. In later years, he created an enormous traveling circus, a model for generations to come.
A century later, one Homer Tate began to carry on the tradition of humbugging. He created innumerable mummies, mermaids, and freaks, specializing in “pygmy mummies”. Part of the horror of these objects was Tate’s crude work ending up with twisted shapes of appendages and faces. This was likely done because of his lack of training in perspective, but the effect was in great demand by side shows needing freaks to startle adults and scare little kids who shelled out nickels to see these horrors.
To show that all roads lead somewhere strange, Nick Redfern’s 2010 book, Contactees, makes a case that a North Carolina storyteller may have had a Tate item that he claimed was an alien from a flying saucer. It disappeared after his death, but for many years this gentleman maintained that the infamous Brown Mountain lights were connected with UFO’s, and that he had many personal experiences with them. His shop of curiosities featured the alien mummy.
Folklorists have long understood that differentiating between story telling and factual occurrences is often a significant problem. Myths can form rapidly and spontaneously among sociological groups that do not seem connected – at least not until one begins a thorough investigation. Some quickly fade with only tiny traces – such as Homer Tate’s oddities – but others become enduring for generations or even centuries.
Had the highway ever been so well traveled that the warped curio emporium had once been a popular stop? The jackaloupe statue – that perversity of taxidermy – an idea of rabbit hell that … some new yet alien creature. Had this attracted tourists? Doug Clegg, The Attraction.