Believe what you want to believe, but for a minute, believe in the Devil Man. James Taylor feels bad about poor Devil Man. We all do. "He's certainly seen better days," Taylor says, kneeling over Devil Man's coffin in the basement of a rowhouse shop on Maryland Avenue that is set to become a museum of the sensationally unbelievable. "Let's have a look at him." He prods around at the mummified corpse, which is wrapped in Hefty bags. He rips away the plastic and--peekaboo--it's Devil Man, flashing his horns, his teeth, his rot. "He has a slight infestation," Taylor apologizes, savoring the word. "Weevils."
Devil Man is just one of hundreds of curiosities visitors will find in the American Dime Museum here, which opens to the public Tuesday. We'd say almost none of what's in the two-story Dime Museum is actually real, but that is such a painfully direct and heartless thing to say, and anyway, it misses the point: Modeled after the many dozens of urban and small-town "dime museums" of the 19th century--which gave rise to circus and carnival sideshows--the Dime Museum salutes the very American art of bamboozling. Yes, stretching things a little. Hornswogglin'. Fibbing for profit.
Monkey Girl, for example.
She was real, she is real, but she's not. The Monkey Girl of circuses and midways 20 years ago was, in fact, a hairy woman. But now she's retired. Now she shaves. Her name is Percilla Bejano, and she's a friend of Taylor's. She's also the widow of Alligator-Skin Man, also known as Emmitt Bejano, who in technical terms suffered from a massive case of ichthyosis.
"Her line was 'I wasn't no bearded lady, I was Monkey Girl,' " Taylor fondly recalls. "I said, 'Percilla, why did you shave?' She said to me, 'Monkey Girl was only for when the meter was running. I'm retired. The show's over.' "
To Sell a Lie
The show is never over, not here. Taylor is in love with sideshow freaks. Dick Horne, co-curator of the Dime Museum, is in love with exotic antiquities that have the power to hoax. So why not start a museum? These are just two men hoarding treasures, trading stories, hatching plans. When two men who think alike become friends and spend enough time surrounded by their favorite old junk, you sometimes get . . . "Laloo, India's Strangest Man." You get the Ritter Midgets. You get the skeletal remains of a minotaur, verified by the irrefragable Dr. Pharght.
For 20 years, James Taylor, 48, has worked as an auditor of unemployment agencies for the state of Maryland, a day job that requires him to wear a plastic ID badge and push paper, a bureaucratic existence that runs counter to his appearance. He has the mutton chops of a circus impresario a hundred years ago, and a vividly wild glow in his eyes. Sometimes he teaches English at a community college. But his first passion is for the freakish underbelly of life, and he chronicles it in Shocked and Amazed, his fanzine devoted to the sideshowmanship of the odd and grotesque.
Dick Horne is another story. Dick Horne is a wide-ish, sly, 56-year-old artist and antique dealer with a trim beard and a graying ponytail, who has toiled quietly in this rowhouse studio for years. Once he met an antique dealer who showed him a genuine, authenticated "Lip of a Lion Shot by Teddy Roosevelt." And he believed it, for a while. Later, the dealer confessed to Horne: There was no lion lip. It was an old scrap of cooked liver the dealer found under his kitchen table. Rare is the man who will give a piece of dried liver a whole new story, and forge the documents to prove it.
"The great thing about it wasn't the object," Horne says, "it was the story. It was the way he displayed it. It looked real."
Thus inspired, Horne has himself "acquired" the mummy of a 9-foot-tall Peruvian Amazon, carefully displayed under glass. He "discovered" the Lincoln Coprolite, the last piece of excrement ever squeezed out by the 16th president of the union, in the privy at Ford's Theater. What's marvelous about displaying such a thing is that Horne also "discovered" old, yellowed documents from 1906 scientifically proving it to be a fraud. (For, as a so-called Dr. Poe concluded, it was composed partly of Necco wafers, which weren't manufactured until 20 years after Lincoln died.)
Now that takes genius--to make a fake of a fake.
People who love beautifully sick things clamor to buy an original Dick Horne sideshow "antique." A niche market has evolved. That some of his ersatz creations actually go on to fetch several thousand dollars on the antique resale market because the buyers (and perhaps their sellers) believe them to be real, well, that is not Horne's problem.
Here is a man who knows that it's one thing to put what looks like a deformed fetus into a jar of formaldehyde. It's another thing entirely to make sure the jar says "maraschino cherries" on the lid.
At the American Dime Museum, you have to find your own capacity to love a taxidermied, two-headed calf; or a place in your heart for poor "Fivey," the beagle with an extra paw, who is displayed on a shelf in the basement: "Fivey died pretty young, as a lot of these kinds of attractions tend to do, and the sideshow operator had him freeze-dried," says Taylor, who claims to have bought "Fivey" from the operator himself.
Bring your skepticism, Horne says. By all means. "Skeptics are always welcome at a sideshow, or at a dime museum." (Also, bring more than a dime. "Bring 30 dimes," he says. The admission is $3 in this cynical, modern era.)
The Uncommon in Common
Here is the one truly odd thing about this tale:
Dick Horne and James Taylor have lived in this proudly kooky town all their lives, but only met each other a few years ago. Baltimore is small enough that people with nutty fixations on anything--from John Waters on down--should bump into one another as a matter of simple algebra. For years, Taylor says, people were telling him he should meet a guy named Dick Horne.
"We have a lot of the same friends in common," he says, "but it's weird that we never met."
Horne's studio on Maryland Avenue, which is now the museum, is adjacent to Atomic Books, which co-publishes Taylor's magazine. Taylor wandered into the studio one afternoon about three years ago, and a rambling conversation about oddities began, and really, hasn't stopped. Taylor was transfixed by Horne's objects: The Rangoon Sewer Serpent. The Samoan Sea Worm. The Shy Dwarf of San Vincente. The Okee-Fen-Okee 2-Headed Turtlegator. There were skulls with three eye sockets. Shrunken heads. Vampire bats. This was a friendship sealed with a big bamboozle, wrapped in papier-mache. Horne felt bad.
"Dick said to me, I have to tell you something, because it's been keeping me up all night--the guilt--and I feel like we're friends," Taylor says. "You know all this stuff I have? It's not real. I make it up."
When or if Taylor did or did not believe is not what's at play in the American Dime Museum. The trick is that everyone goes on believing. Art students and other volunteers have believed, and helped transform the basement into a midway of sideshow banners and freak attractions. "Go on," Horne and Taylor urge almost any visitor they take a liking to, "Lie on the bed of nails."
Lying on a bed of nails, next to a carriage holding two-headed Baby Precious, isn't uncomfortable. It feels fine. More than that, it feels amazing. A man lying on a bed of nails is transcending his duller self.
If the Shoe Fits
Being grossed out, and grossing people out, should have its own amendment protection in this country. For if there had never been the dime museum in American history, there may never have been a P.T. Barnum, a traveling circus, or movie houses, or the big fat lie of advertising as we know it.
Taylor and Horne feel a duty, as the last of the sideshows and circuses decline in a politically correct age, to assemble and revere this lost art. When you walk in, you are verbally pelted with the rambling history of the great sideshow pioneers. Besides the ground floor museum and the basement "World of Wonder," Taylor is busily constructing a "research center" upstairs to house his vast library of the obscure. Horne's two cats, Tootsie and Booger, are lounging in the research library, and Tootsie begins to convulse. "Well," Taylor says, "it looks like Tootsie is going to hack up a hair ball. I don't know if we want to be here for that sideshow production or not. . . . "
Downstairs, Horne is talking to Harley Newman, a taut, peroxide-haired, 48-year-old sideshow performer who will be part of the entertainment at the Dime Museum's "gala" opening Monday night for 250 of Horne and Taylor's closest friends.
Newman will lay on nails, eat fire, put hooks in his eyes--the usual stuff. There will also be corn dogs. The conversation turns to vegetarian tofu corn dogs. Taylor makes a face. There is a feeling in the room that something as gross as that would have to be seen to be believed. The American Dime Museum will stick with the original corn dog, the kind made from who knows what.
You find yourself momentarily interested in a gnarled, mummified hand in a glass box. It's the Left Hand of Spider Lillie who, it is said, a century ago carried the eggs of exotic, poisonous spiders in her ring, and unleashed them on her sworn enemies. Horne is delightedly explaining how it (possibly, er, conceivably) could end up in a dusty rowhouse in Baltimore, but then we get distracted: Newman is taking the business end of a spike-heel shoe and shoving it up one of his nostrils.
Then he takes it out and licks it clean.
Such a thing you never saw, and should never see, except when you pay to see it, and that is precisely why these men do what they do. "All along, people love to get humbugged," Horne says, "as long as they know at some level that they're getting humbugged."
The American Dime Museum, 1808 Maryland Ave. in Baltimore, opens to the public Tuesday. It will be open regularly from noon to 3 p.m., Wednesdays through Sundays. Admission is $3. Call (410) 230-0263 for more information.