The first time you stand next to Niagara Falls, you can't help but be overwhelmed by its physical force. When my father and I visited the falls, more than a decade ago, we got as close to the lathery spray as we could without falling off the walkway. Niagara blasted our faces, burning off small pieces of skin like a police hose. We marveled at its sheer power, knowing we'd seen one of America's greatest treasures.
About 10 minutes after we'd arrived at the falls, we left. After all, we had to get back into town to visit the local Ripley's Believe it or Not! museum, where we spent the entire afternoon perusing its collection of shrunken heads.
It was hardly the first time my dad and I had made such a decision. Some parents drag their children through colossal art museums and march them through every national park in the country. I was raised to appreciate the most offbeat tourist traps.
For years, I suspected that many Americans shared my passion. The development of the Internet provided evidence: I found hundreds of news groups, Web sites and chat rooms full of people who spend their leisure time searching for attractions that cross the average limits of tastelessness, going far beyond the bounds of what would seem even remotely interesting or simply making no sense at all. I learned that some of the best-known tourist traps, such as Wall Drug in South Dakota (a pharmacy that has posted signs advertising its free ice water across the globe, including outside the Taj Mahal), actually are more famous than nearby national parks.
It makes sense to me. After all, it's our tourist traps that symbolize elements of American life: the dream of building something all one's own and skillfully selling it to the public; the potential to rise from humble origins and become famous.
The best way to uncover traps is still the old-fashioned way: cruising major highways and minor country roads, searching for signs that promise the unexpected, such as the world's largest ball of twine, a monument to the founder of gynecology, a museum of American plumbing. So, this past year, I drove up and down the East Coast until I found some of the finest and strangest traps this part of the country has to offer.
NEW HAMPSHIRE'S INTERSTATE 93 SNAKED THROUGH DENSE FOREST, cutting into mountain valleys formed by the austere granite peaks of the upper Appalachians. But I wasn't looking for a good view. I found what I wanted just outside Salem -- a sign advertising a place called America's Stonehenge. I turned off onto a gravel road, where more signs warned off trespassers trying to sneak a peak at whatever was on the grounds.
Inside the small visitors center, dioramas described America's Stonehenge as a spooky, maze-like series of man-made stone monoliths and chambers, possibly built by Irish druid monks who came to America around A.D. 1000. William B. Goodwin, who owned the property in the 1930s, and made the original claims that the site was founded by pre-Colombian travelers, had even named one of the caves the "Oracle Chamber" because it appeared to have a stone bed inside of it. Goodwin surmised -- and extensively publicized -- the idea that an ancient oracle had slept on the bed. Publicity from Goodwin and his successors made the site a tourist attraction, and it started drawing crowds in the 1950s.
Goodwin offered a medley of evidence to support his claims. Some of the monoliths, scattered across 30 acres of grounds, supposedly were arranged in a circle similar to Irish Celtic patterns, and one of Goodwin's successors claimed that stones found on the property were inscribed with notches and lines that resembled ancient Celtic alphabets. In the visitors center, a 10-minute film narrated by an appropriately deep-voiced orator reported that some of the earthen chambers might have been used for religious ceremonies. One 4 1/2-ton stone full of knife-like grooves, it suggested, might have been a site for sacrifices.
Just outside the center, Stonehenge staffers were raising a flock of alpacas, brushing the animals' fur and scooping up manure. "They'll bring more people in -- the children love them," one staff member said.
Beyond the alpacas, I strolled along a thin path flanked by malfunctioning tiki torches and broken-down, faux-Native American exhibits. One Native American "fire pit" consisted of a tiny, chipped plastic bowl dangling from twine over a small mound of dirt. The path emerged into a large clearing, where I looked up at America's Stonehenge in all its noontime glory.
Or, rather, looked down. Many of the monoliths came to my knees -- and I'm 5-foot-6. They were situated on an elevated, open plain and arranged in a rough circle. None, in fact, seemed more than 4 feet high.
Near the monoliths, there were several rock piles, molehills of stone. The site's literature intimated that these caves had been used as tombs, although I saw no evidence to substantiate that claim. Several hundred feet from the circle, a series of stones embedded in the ground allegedly corresponded to astronomical patterns; Goodwin had claimed that ancient travelers used these stones to predict solar and lunar equinoxes.
I reached the fabled oracle chamber and the sacrifice area. The chamber, alas, was just a tiny enclosure full of mosquitoes. The sacrificial table was a large, flat rock.
I thought back to the visitors center. It had seemed strange that the staff was raising alpacas -- England's Stonehenge didn't need to diversify to attract visitors. The brochures touting America's Stonehenge contained many qualifiers: The site was "most likely" the oldest man-made construction in the United States. "No one knew for sure" who had built it.
Later, reading archaeologists' opinions, my suspicions were confirmed. They said the site was likely built by Native Americans, not by ancient Irish travelers. No artifacts of European origin had been found there. The "Celtic alphabet" on the site was probably scrape marks made by plows on rocks. When I asked one docent whether the legends of America's Stonehenge were true, she looked down, as if ashamed. "Radiocarbon dating shows that the site is more than 4,000 years old," she said, parroting a line directly from the brochures.
But, authentic or not, America's Stonehenge draws 35,000 visitors annually. The site has become an important place of worship for druids, witches and wiccans, who gather at America's Stonehenge because they believe it is a "power point" of energy. Fliers posted in the visitors center advertised three-day druid festivals, at which "the veil of time is lifted, and we may commune with the otherworld," and worshipers dedicate themselves to the "lord of the underworld [and] his pack of terrible hounds."
I reveled in the site's preposterousness, snapping photos of all the mini-monoliths. But then I noticed several children scampering around, running through the chambers and stopping to examine each individual rock. "What are all these for?" one boy asked his mother. Nearby, another child kept asking: "Who built this? Who built it? Who built it?" The parents pleaded ignorance, but the children persisted until one mother, sounding oddly like the movie narrator, answered simply, "Some mysteries just can't be solved."
THE NEIGHBORHOOD JUST NORTH OF BALTIMORE'S PENN STATION didn't seem like an obvious spot for a museum. Boarded-up houses abut thrift shops and dingy liquor stores. Barbed wire rings nearly every dwelling. Amid this blight, I couldn't find a sign for the American Dime Museum. But it was at the top of the tourist trap fans' list, and I was determined to find it. Walking down Maryland Avenue a second time, I saw a man in his mid-fifties with a wide face and a booming voice, sitting in a doorway and talking to someone about a finger-painting chimp. I knew I was in the right place.
The man was Dick Horne, co-founder of the American Dime Museum, which opened its doors in 1999. Inside two narrow rowhouses, Horne, an antiques dealer, illustrator and collector, displays what he calls "the world's strangest collection of flotsam and jetsam." Over 30 years, Horne has amassed remnants of 19th- and early 20th-century dime museums, so-called because admission cost 10 cents. At the time, entrepreneurs took these traveling ten-penny oddity shows all over the country, taking advantage of Americans' newfound leisure time and lust for lowbrow entertainment. Dime museum owners drew crowds to view their medical oddities, mummified animals and famous hoaxes -- and Horne had scavenged through old collections to find the very weirdest.
Horne complemented the older items with a few modern pieces that channeled the same bizarre, voyeuristic spirit. He had even made a few hoax items, known in the industry as "gaffs," he told me from his perch at the museum's entrance, where he sits every weekend. "Some things [here] need a sense of imagination, or of fantasy," to appreciate, Horne said.
The front room of the museum was so cluttered with junk that I could barely turn around without knocking over some petrified body part. Between the exhibits, there was little room for more than one person to stand. Most space in the dimly lit room was taken up by the deceased -- fake mummies, real mummies, preserved dead cats. As in the rest of the museum, some items in the mummy room were authentic, such as the shrunken heads on the wall preserved in tea leaves; and some were not, such as the mummified man on the left side of the room, made by the Nelson Supply House, a 19th-century crafts company that specialized in gaff mummies. (The irony-free captions in the museum displays often don't help distinguish the real from the, well, surreal.) Nelson Supply House built the body out of wood, delicately wrapped it in rags and stuffed it with small chunks of fabric. Adding to the weird atmosphere, a loop of calliope music filtered out of the basement, endlessly repeating its sunny, tinny melody.
The fascination with death and body parts seeped into much of the museum. Hanging on the walls were random rodent bones, as well as paintings made from human hair and dried butterfly wings. In the back room, on the first floor, Horne displayed several dark crimson balls, which he said once, literally, belonged to Auguste Vaillant, a famous 19th-century French anarchist. In 1894, Valliant was guillotined for trying to bomb a Paris legislature; after his beheading, according to Horne, the skull was tossed into nearby shrubbery. Vaillant's devoted followers scrambled into the bushes, soaked up the blood with bran, rolled it into balls and kept them to remember their hero.
Continuing the theme of fiber and bran, down a narrow corridor from the blood orbs Horne had mounted what was at one time purported to be Abraham Lincoln's final turd -- the "Lincoln log," as one writer called it. Back in the late 1860s, a savvy entrepreneur had gotten his hands on the menu for Lincoln's last meal -- soup, veal, and Oxford pudding. He then cooked the food exactly the way the president was known to like it, consumed the dinner and went to the toilet, where he let the excrement harden. Finally, he offered the Lincoln "artifact" for sale. For several years, bidders trying to amass Lincoln memorabilia fought over the fraudulent turd, until one savvy Lincoln-o-phile commissioned a scientific analysis of the excrement, which showed traces of Necco Wafers -- a type of candy only manufactured after Lincoln's assassination in 1865. The forger vanished.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the surplus of strangeness, the place draws a crowd. On a recent Saturday afternoon, I counted at least 30 people strolling -- rather, squeezing -- through Horne's museum. Yet running the American Dime Museum has never been easy. Last fall Horne and his co-founder, James Taylor, had "philosophical differences" over how to run the place. Meanwhile, the rowhouses Horne had been leasing month-to-month were sold last fall, and the new owner didn't know whether he'd support the museum. Horne had taken to selling souvenirs -- including vintage whoopee cushions -- and holding carnival-type fundraisers. "We had fire breathers and sword swallowers right out on the street outside," Horne said.
Horne had also pulled in a special exhibit: 15 classic paintings by Betsy, a finger-painting chimpanzee. Unimpressed with the work of modern abstract artists such as Willem de Kooning, the Baltimore Zoo's keepers decided in 1953 to show that a monkey could paint as well, and they handed Betsy, a chimp originally from Liberia, canvases and watercolors.
Betsy would make a painting in 10 to 15 seconds, and then the zookeepers would sell them off to local collectors. Betsy appeared on "The Tonight Show," and turned into the darling of opponents of modern art and even of some modern artists themselves, such as Salvador Dali, who loved her impromptu style but complained that she lacked a "fluidity of line."
By the time I'd scrutinized Betsy's oeuvre, I began to discreetly squeeze toward the exit, but Horne blocked my way. "Is there anything else you want to know?" he asked gruffly, his bulky frame overwhelming the door. After several hours of unremitting body parts, blood, dried animals, phony death turds and other strangeness, I felt I already knew too much. I scrambled past him, into the real world.
WHILE ON MY TOUR, I MADE A QUICK STOP IN LYNCHBURG, a genteel town in southern Virginia. In the quaint downtown area, full of old-fashioned storefronts, strangers greeted people who passed them. But modern life has not always been kind to Lynchburg's charm. Outside the city center, roadsides are torn up, and shopping malls are sprouting everywhere. Lynchburg's suburbs increasingly are indistinguishable from anywhere else. That is, until you come to Concrete World, the nation's self-anointed largest collection of cement collectibles.
Concrete World was difficult to miss. The owners had lined a stretch of U.S. Route 29 with large concrete elephants, dragons, lions, goblins, Indian chiefs and other stone ornaments. Near the front, I came across raggedy, hard-eyed cement girls with their hands out begging for money, cement boys pulling up their pants to display cement genitalia, giant stone pineapples mounted on granite pedestals, and phallus-like sculptures that vaguely resembled lighthouses. (Items sold for $10 to $250.)
Concrete World's owner, Alice Roark, a middle-aged woman with thick, wavy gray hair, says she never knows more than a few days ahead of time what will be in stock. "We'll be getting two huge new shipments of ornaments in about a week -- and we have no idea what we're going to get," Roark said with a smile and a shrug. One time, the stone artists shipped Roark a large load of grotesque, concrete headless torsos. People snapped them up.
Roark seemed humble, but her store's unpredictability predictably drew customers. "What people want is to find things they'd never see at an average home store. They'll spend hours browsing here," she told me. "I say, 'You think no one will be interested in that, but they are.' " It wasn't hard to see what she meant. As Roark was talking, I saw, over her shoulder, a couple lugging away a cement drunk straddling a stone keg of beer.
"I'M IN HERE," THE VOICE CALLED OUT OF THE SMALL CABIN. I walked up the steps to the one-room cottage and pushed open the door. Inside, a smiling, white-haired woman in an orange muumuu and large circular eyeglasses was sitting on the floor, surrounded by piles of swords -- long, thin swords; small daggers; scimitars. "I'm polishing them for my grandson," Judy Tomaini Rock said with a broad smile. "He swallows swords . . . He swallowed his first one last September. Poor kid was choking and screaming, but now he does it real good."
Fifteen miles south of Tampa Bay, I had taken the exit off Interstate 75 for Gibsonton, a town of 8,500. In the early 1940s, Al Tomaini, an 8-foot-4 giant who performed in carnivals, and his bride, Jeanie "The Half Girl" Tomaini, a 2-foot-6 woman born without legs who used to turn cartwheels in freak shows, stopped in the Gibsonton area while touring the country with a show. "There was nothing out here when we came here -- no public services, no people," Rock, the couple's daughter, remembered. Al and Jeanie loved the place -- Gibsonton's swampy seaside land was cheap. They bought a plot and built Giant's Camp, a group of small cottages with a restaurant and a bait shop, designed to attract fishermen angling on the nearby Alafia River. After long summers on the road, Al and Jeanie returned to Gibsonton for winters.
Al and Jeanie weren't alone for long. Hearing the giant and the half girl boast about Gibsonton's open space and its warm weather, other sideshow performers started buying up land in the area, and by the early 1950s, the town had essentially become the carnival's winter home. Clarence Melvin "The Human Blockhead" Burkhart, who hammered spikes into his nostrils, settled in Gibsonton, where he married a sword swallower. So did Percilla "The Amazing Monkey Girl" Bejano, who sported a full beard; her husband, Emmitt "The Alligator-Skinned Boy" Bejano; and many others. The post office built a special table where midgets could sort their mail. A giant became head of the fire department, and a dwarf ran the local police. The town residents were able to obtain special zoning "for residential show business," which allowed them to keep elephants, carnival rides and other attractions on their front lawns.
In 1961, the kind of tragedy that could happen only in a community of sideshow characters struck. Alfred Henley, a sideshow snake handler who stayed in town, got drunk and was playing with his 18-foot-long monster python -- alone. The reptile quickly overwhelmed him, crushed him to death and then crawled up a nearby tree. The fire department, led by the giant, came to fetch it, but Henley's wife yelled at them not to harm the snake, because she already had plans for it. She went on tour with it, billing the creature as the snake that killed her husband, and drawing packed houses and national press coverage.
Still, Rock said, overall Gibsonton was a happy place, its inhabitants proud of their livelihood. "Everyone would get together, and someone would lay on a nail bed, or say 'Hey, Mark, swallow some fire!'" she said. "The fat lady would play cards with my dad. To me, they were just people."
In no time, Americans who loved carnivals started visiting Gibsonton as well. The giant and his wife were featured on popular 1950s television shows such as "You Asked for It" (which filmed Jeannie doing somersaults into a pool) and hundreds of people used to stay at Giant's Camp, for the chance to meet Al. Today, there's not a lot left to see in Gibsonton, and there are few signs of the town's past. Freak shows have mostly died out. When the Human Blockhead died three years ago, at age 93, his demise seemed to officially bring to a close a brand of entertainment not meant for modern times.
But Gibsonton doesn't really have to advertise. Among carnival devotees, Gibsonton already is something of a Holy Grail: It has inspired books, fanzines and even a film.
Driving into the center of town on Gibsonton Drive, I passed boarded-up convenience stores. Few buildings had more than one story, other than a large phosphate plant, which belched acrid white smoke into the air. The new post office had no accommodations for midgets, though county fair showmen clearly were living in some of the trailer parks -- I noticed dissembled carnival rides on the modest lawns.
On U.S. Route 41, Gibsonton's main drag, I stopped at the Showtown Bar & Grill, an old performer hangout. The restaurant still featured walls decorated with carnival posters and a painting of a heavenly "Ringmaster in the Sky" staring down on the graves of past performers. Yet most of the space was now taken up with NASCAR memorabilia, and there were no freaks around.
Up Route 41 from the Showtown Bar, I pulled into Giant's Camp, which now consists of a small restaurant and a few battered old cottages. In front, the old giant had mounted his boot on a block of stone; the size 22 shoe was fraying, its leather full of holes. Piles of trash were strewn across the grounds. I poked my head into the shack with the "Office" sign. I was peering around, and that's when I heard Rock calling for me from the adjacent cabin.
Inside, amid the swords, Rock had salvaged a couple of souvenirs. Her father's old red chair still sat in the corner, the seat so high that her feet didn't touch the ground. She'd saved a few photographs -- grainy, black-and-white images of hermaphrodites, of her father holding her mother in the crook of his arm, like a large football.
At the camp, Rock received a stream of visiting carnival junkies, all eager to touch anything left of the giant and his bride. Her dad's enormous rings, which her mom gave away years ago, were now hot items on eBay.
Rock's 15-year-old grandson, Alexzander Morrow, was training to swallow swords and lie on nail beds; he performs at Gibsonton and at sideshow conventions. He calls himself Alex Zander, "Junior Torture King." Alexzander "always wanted a nice nail bed, so I put that together when he was 9," Rock said, pointing to a large piece of wood with hundreds of four-inch-long nails sticking out of it, lying near the cabin doorway. Alexzander was still mastering the skills, but he'd proved a hit with Gibsonton visitors and was ready to take his act on the road. For now, Rock still helped him train. Sometimes, as he lay on the bed with a board resting on his chest, his grandmother would take a swing at him with a sledgehammer. It was a good way to test his threshold for pain.
Joshua Kurlantzick is foreign editor of the New Republic.