June 1885, Atlantic Monthly,
by J. G. Wood
From a Naturalist's Point of
On the morning after my arrival on American soil, in order
to deliver the opening course of the Lowell lectures in
Boston, I set out to investigate the city, which was unknown
to me except through the mediumship of a map. Starting from
the Brunswick, I naturally gravitated into Washington
Street, and worked my way slowly along, feeling every now
and then as if I were in Paris, and strolling along the
Boulevards. So strong was the resemblance that I scarcely
started when I met an apparition.
Surely, I must be in Paris!
Has Time's dial receded twenty-five years? Is the Second
Empire still in all its glory?
For here, stalking majestically along the street, and
scarcely condescending to look to the right or left, is one
of the Cent Gardes, resplendent in light blue tunic, plumed
helmet, and silver bullion. Not only one of the Cent Gardes,
but the tallest specimen of that gigantic corps that I ever
beheld, as without his helmet he must have been at least
seven feet high. Still, there was one detail of his uniform
which I did not recognize as belonging to that of the Cent
Gardes. Crossing his breast were two white belts, such as
the British soldier used to wear when King Pipeclay reigned.
As he drew nearer, words became visible upon his
cross-belts, gradually resolving themselves into the name
and address of a Dime Museum. The man was evidently a
professional giant, acting as an advertisement. Not in the
least knowing what a Dime Museum might me, and indeed having
very hazy ideas as to a "dime,"
took the liberty of asking the giant for an explanation. He
was very affable, as is usually the way with giants, and the
result was that I went to the exhibition of which he was a
It may, perhaps, smack of presumption for an Englishman to
write an account of Dime Museums in an American publication.
But in the first place, The Atlantic is largely read in
England; and in the next place, the average American knows
nothing of Dime Museums except by name. No one can traverse
the principal streets without passing a Dime Museum, hearing
unseen musicians in the glittering portico, and seeing the
resplendently pictorial decorations which surround the
entrance to the wonders within. After dark a Dime Museum
would lose its self-respect if its facade were not lighted
with as many electric lamps as would illumine an ordinary
street. Then, the daily newspapers contain advertisements of
Dime Museums, the type being of the most obtrusively
conspicuous character, and sometimes occupying an entire
In England your genuine Londoner never visits the Tower, or
ascends the Monument, or climbs into the ball of St. Paul's
Cathedral; the resident in Oxford never explores the
interiors of the colleges; and in America the Bostonian
never goes to Bunker's Hill. On the same principle, the
Americans, as a rule, know nothing of Dime Museums except
the outside. They have a dim idea that such places are not
quite respectable, and that they are impositions on the
credulity of the public.
Now Dime Museums are perfectly respectable. It is of course
impossible to exclude the rough or "rowdy" element from any
place of public entertainment. But if a man should annoy the
audience or any of the performers, he would receive a stern
warning to amend his behavior; and if he should repeat the
offense, he would find himself suddenly ejected into the
street. As to imposition, there certainly is a good deal of
exaggeration, both in the pictorial advertisements without
and the florid eloquence of the lecturer within.
Nevertheless, there is usually something worth seeing, if
one has an intelligent eye.
A Dime Museum is divided into two portions, quite
independent of each other. One is a semi-theatre, in which
are exhibited the usual variety entertainments, while the
other is devoted to natural curiosities. It is only of the
latter that I write.
Along the sides of the room is a platform about four feet
high, and upon it are ranged the curiosities on exhibition.
At stated intervals the lecturer of the establishment goes
round the room, and delivers an oration upon each in
succession. In some museums these lectures alone are well
worth the dime. The orator's flights of eulogistic fancy,
tempered with soul-rending pathos, are sometimes worthy of
Mr. Serjeant Buzfuz in his best days, while the wealth of
historical illustrations with which the orations are
embellished could not have been excelled, or even equaled,
by that distinguished barrister. It almost takes one's
breath away to hear the Seven Wonders of the World,
Archimedes, Helen of Troy, Milton, Shakespeare, Euclid,
Solon, Cleopatra, Pythagoras, Kosciusko, George Washington
(of course), Alfred the Great, Abraham Lincoln, Grace
Darling, and Joan of Arc all employed within a quarter of an
hour as illustrative of the contents of a Dime Museum. But
beneath all this froth there is always something substantial
and worthy of a naturalist's attention.
To begin with human curiosities: ethnology is almost always
well represented, and I have noted the various races of men
that have been exhibited in one Dime Museum within two
months. There have been Zulus. These are not, as some of the
journalists have wickedly insinuated, Irish immigrants,
cunningly painted and made up like savages. They are genuine
Zulus; and though we need not believe the lecturer's
statement that they fought under Cetewayo at Isan-dhwalo,
and displayed prodigies of valor in order to free their
country from British rule (here George Washington and
Lexington come in with great applause), there is no doubt
that they would prove terrible enemies in battle. Looking at
their leaps and bounds, and listening to their yells and
whistles and the rattling of their assagais against their
shields, no one can wonder that English cavalry horses were
at first afraid to face them. Their skill and strength in
throwing the assagai are astonishing. One of them drove five
assagais into a circle only six inches in diameter. There
seemed scarcely space for the last, but, with a triumphant
shout, "this gentleman," as the lecturer called him, sent
the weapon crashing among its predecessors.
There were Fijians, a man and a woman. Physically, this is
one of the finest races of mankind, and the two were very
good specimens of it. The man might have served as a model
for a Hercules, so massive were the muscles of his arms and
Slightly darker than Spaniards, the Fijians have, as a rule,
aquiline noses, high foreheads, and
well -- cut features generally. The hair is the most
remarkable characteristic of the race. Long, wavy, and
stiff, it radiates from the head in all directions, so that
the face seems quite small. In their own land the Fijians
dye and torture their hair into an infinite variety of
forms, even more eccentric than Parisian ladies'
head-dresses in the reign of Louis XV. No man can dress his
own hair, and there are only a few who are experienced in
the art. Therefore, these examples of the race are perforce
obliged to allow their hair to grow as Nature made it, which
is fortunate, from the naturalist's point of view.
It seems a pity that this fine race should perish, but it
has been gradually dwindling away ever since the white man
set his foot upon the island group of Viti, and before many
years have elapsed the Fijians will have passed from the
earth as completely as the Tasmanians. Before the white man
visited them they were all cannibals, broken up into
antagonistic tribes always at war with each other, so that
no man held his life safe from one hour to another. Even in
peace the details of their domestic life were such that no
one would dare to print them. It is a benevolent dream to
think that education can elevate any savage race to the
level of the white man, and the Fijians must yield to the
beneficently inexorable law which compels a lower race to
give way to a higher. So, having this fact in my mind, I was
very glad to see examples of this splendid but doomed race,
and felt that I owed an obligation to the Dime Museum.
India was represented by a company of Nautch girls, whose
long, straight hair, slight bodies, and delicate limbs
afforded a bold contrast to the massive proportions of the
As a sort of Indian offshoot, Ceylon sent representatives in
a group of men, women, and children, whose placidly composed
demeanor and power of sitting still and doing nothing
appeared quite strange when opposed to the occasional
laughter of the Fijians and the noisy restlessness of the
Zulus. The Cingalese never laughed, but only smiled
benignantly, exchanging a few low words at long intervals.
of them was quite a pretty little woman, with a childlike
sweetness of aspect. She had a baby about two years old, --
a most comical little boy, with his head closely shaven,
except a tuft of black hair on the top.
Then there was the singularly interesting group of the
Earthmen, a race of dwarfs inhabiting Central Africa, and so
small that a full-grown man scarcely exceeds in height an
ordinary English child six years of age. They are perfectly
well formed, are yellow in color, have rather pleasing
countenances, and their hair is close and woolly, like that
of the Bosjesmans, whom they resemble in many respects.
Their pantomimic gestures were really wonderful. The chief
among them, although of course he could not speak our
language, gave a most vivid description of his journey to
Europe. His first impressions of horses and carriages could
not be mistaken for a moment, nor his picturing of railway
traveling; the whistle and puffing of the engine, the
rushing of trees past the windows, the plunge into a tunnel,
and the stoppage at a station being told as clearly as if he
had spoken the language of the audience. His best
performance, however, was the description of the voyage. The
unsteadiness of the deck, the whistle and shouts of the
boatswain, and the singsong of the sailors were reproduced
with astonishing fidelity. Then he exhibited symptoms of
uneasiness; staggered about the imaginary deck, clutching at
imaginary ropes; and finally collapsed over a chest, in
These tiny specimens of mankind are sufficiently interesting
in themselves, but exhibitors can never be content without
injuring by exaggeration the real value of their natural
curiosities. I scarcely know whether indignation or
amusement predominated, when I went to the Dime Museum in
which the Earthmen were being exhibited. At the entrance was
a very fair model of the empty white-ant hill, which serves
as their usual habitation. Near it were two objects. One
bore a label stating that it was the mantle by which the
Earthmen disguise themselves when hunting the lion, while
the other was described as one of their weapons. Now the
"mantle" was a "tappa," or bark-cloth robe, made in the
South Sea Islands, and the "weapon" was part of a whale's
Another example of an abnormal race was Krao, the little
Burmese hairy girl, who was most absurdly advertised as the
"Missing Link" between man and monkey.
As to the sensational accounts, and still more sensational
lithographs and posters, which purport to describe her
capture, parentage, and the habits of her kinsfolk, the
reader is at liberty to believe as much as he likes. Still,
Krao is interesting as a member of one of the hairy races
that are found in several parts of the globe, especially in
Asia; but there is nothing about her or them which shows any
relationship to the monkey tribe. The only monkey-like
characteristic which can be seized upon is that the hair of
the fore-arm points upwards, and that of the upper-arm
Next may be taken examples of abnormal individuals, without
any question of race. Of fat boys and women, living
skeletons and bearded ladies, there is always a stock on
hand. As to the last, they are generally liable to
suspicion, as small-featured and heavily-bearded men have
deceived the public by allowing their hair to grow, and
making themselves up as women. But genuine specimens are not
uncommon, and there was no doubt as to the individual whom I
saw. I afterwards ascertained that she had been married for
several years. Such ladies, unlike Rosalind and Celia, might
very well swear by their beards, and be forsworn.
Next in order come those unfortunate individuals who have
either been born without limbs, or have been accidentally
bereft of them, and yet contrive to perform many tasks which
are considered as the special province of the hands.
There are armless men and women who can write and even draw
fairly with the pen or pencil held in the mouth, while
others can do the same with the toes. I do not look upon
these persons as merely sights to amuse the curious, but as
persons to be honored for their victory over untoward
circumstances, which would have crushed those of less
courage and perseverance.
At the Dime Museum to which our azure and silver giant
belonged I saw a very remarkable young woman of twenty-two,
or thereabouts. She had arms, but they were quite useless,
and her hands were shriveled and turned inwards. So she had
trained her feet and toes to do almost everything which can
be accomplished by hands and fingers, and I only wish that I
could write as well with my fingers as she did with her
toes. I happened to be in the place during an intermission
in the performances, and had an opportunity of watching her
without appearing to do so.
Seated on a chair, she picked up a closed desk, opened it,
and took out some writing-paper. Then she took a portable
inkstand out of its compartment, held it with the toes of
the left foot, and with those of the right unscrewed the top
as rapidly as I could do with my fingers. Then, with the
left foot, she took up a pen and placed it between the first
and second toes of the right foot. She then tried the nib,
dipped the pen in the ink, and began to write a letter. Not
only could she write, but she could play the piano, with her
feet! Toes cannot, of course, be made as long as fingers,
however carefully they may be trained, and therefore their
span of the keys is necessarily small. But Miss Sturgeon --
for such is her name -- played several airs, Silver Bells
among them, with much taste.
While looking at this performance, I felt quite humiliated.
Why have I allowed my toes to degenerate into mere vulgar
instruments of locomotion, when they are capable of so much
more? Their development as fingers does not preclude their
ordinary use, for I met Miss Sturgeon on her way to the Dime
Museum, and she walked like any other young woman.
I am told that she is thoroughly well educated, is a
graduate of one of the ladies' colleges, and receives
pupils. But she can earn so much more by exhibiting her
powers in public than by teaching that for the present she
has chosen the former mode of living. To such persons the
Dime Museum is a positive Providence.
Sometimes, instead of being mulcted of limbs, the abnormal
individual is gifted with one limb, or more, in excess of
the usual number. For example, a "Three-Legged Man"
was exhibited during my stay in Boston, and was pictorially
represented as possessing three symmetrical legs in a row,
all the three being fashionably attired. Suspecting what the
third leg might be, I went to see the man. As I had
anticipated, he had a third leg, but it was useless,
shriveled, and so small that it could be easily concealed.
Physiologically considered, it is an interesting fact, but
by no means an uncommon one, and I possess a work in which
several similar cases are figured.
A much more striking example of abnormal humanity was the
"Elastic-Skinned Man," a case which I believe to be unique.
To all appearances, there was nothing to distinguish this
rather good-looking man from any one whom you might
encounter in the street. But his skin appeared to have no
connection with the body, and to be as elastic as India
rubber. He would pull his nose until it was seven or eight
inches in length. He would seize the skin of his chest with
both hands, draw it upwards, and veil his face with it. He
would draw the skin of his knee forwards, twist it like a
rope, and then tie it in a knot. This exhibition was not a
very pleasing one, but, from a physiological point of view,
it was most curious.
Another remarkable freak of nature was seen in a girl of
about twelve years of age whose knees were reversed, so that
when she sat in a chair her toes could rest on her
shoulders. She was perfectly formed in other respects.
Ordinary walking was impossible, but she could scuttle over
the ground and run upstairs with wonderful speed, going on
all fours, after a fashion of her own.
and dwarfs afford examples of the extremes of human
dimensions. Chang, the Chinese giant, whom I knew well when
he was a neighbor of mine, was lately at this Dime Museum,
while "Major Nutt," the erst rival of General Tom Thumb, is
permanently attached to it as keeper of a ticket office.
Abnormal animals may also be seen. An "Eight-Hoofed Horse"
was advertised, and of course I went to see it, thinking
that it might be a mere imposition. The proprietor kindly
had it brought out of the stall for me, and I examined it
carefully. It really had two hoofs on each foot, the inner
hoof being rather smaller than the outer, and not quite
reaching the ground.
To the physiologist this animal is of very great value.
Perhaps the reader may not be aware that the horse of the
present day is the last of a regularly ascending series of
forms. The first horse which geologists have discovered was
scarcely larger than a terrier dog, and had five toes on
each foot. Then, throughout successive geological epochs,
the animal became larger in size and the hoofs fewer in
number, until the one-hoofed horse of the present day was
developed. In this particular animal we have a singularly
interesting instance of "throwing back" to an ancestry of
almost incredibly remote date. This phenomenon of throwing
back is familiar to the breeders of fancy rabbits. No matter
how pure the breed of the parents may be, and how long their
pedigrees, a young one will occasionally be born which is in
all respects like the common brown rabbit of the fields.
Some animals become abnormal, not by the multiplication of
existing organs, but by deprivation of normal
characteristics. For example, a "Hen with a Human Face" was
exhibited, and was pictorially represented as possessing a
symmetrical female face, with human nose, lips, eyes, and
forehead, and nicely parted hair. A single glance at the
bird showed that its head and feet were unable to secrete
horn, and that therefore it had neither beak nor claws. The
total absence of the beak gave a curious aspect to the bird,
and a very vivid imagination might trace a distant
resemblance to the face of a battered Dutch doll.
Such imperfect birds are not uncommon; but as they cannot
scratch up food for themselves, nor pick it up if found,
they are as a rule killed as soon as hatched.
Physiology was relieved by optical and other illusions.
There was, for example, Dr. Lynn's "Thauma," which made such
a sensation at the Crystal Palace, Sydenham. There was also
a very ingenious "Living Mermaid." The upper portion was
enacted by a young girl, while the artificial tail was
behind the scenes, worked by a hidden confederate, and
reflected towards the audience by an arrangement of mirrors.
Similar mirrors were employed in the "Talking Head," the
"Three-Headed Nightingale," and cognate exhibitions. I was
much amused to see the "Invisible Lady" of my early
childhood resuscitated; and indeed this department of the
Dime Museum very much reminded me of the extinct Adelaide
Gallery and Polytechnic.
Fashion rules in Dime Museums as elsewhere. Two years ago
there was a demand for white elephants.
It soon died away, and I could find only two "stuffed skins"
as relics; one was made of canvas, and the other was
evidently the skin of a huge pig. Here would have been a
splendid field for the late Charles Waterton, who told the
authorities of the British Museum that if they would give
him the skins of two cows and a calf he would make a better
elephant than any in their collection.
Just now there is a run upon tattooed men and women -- I beg
their pardon, "Princesses." The fashion was set a few years
ago by a man who exhibited himself under the name of Captain
Costentenus, and who was covered from head to foot with
drawings of elephants, monkeys, cats, birds, snakes, and
other living creatures, in blue, the intermediate spaces
being variegated in red. He represented himself as being a
Greek Albanian who was living in Chinese Tartary, and was
thus tattooed as a punishment for rebellion against the
Emperor! This ingenious story is illustrated by highly
colored woodcuts, in which Costentenus is shown lying on his
back, bound to a tree, while a South American maiden (in
Chinese Tartary!) is kneeling gracefully beside him, and
tattooing him with an arrow!
As I write, there are in Boston Dime Museums three tattooed
persons, one man and two women. Judging from his
decorations, the man seems to be patriotically pious. The
front of his body is emblazoned with the Genius of America
hovering over a spread eagle, while his arms and legs are
covered with groups of American flags and similar designs.
His entire back is occupied by a picture of the Crucifixion
and the inscription "Mount Calvary"!
One of the women is a remarkable example of the tattooer's
Patriotism is exemplified by spread eagles, the Genius of
Liberty, and any number of American flags; sentiment is
symbolized by sailors taking affectionate leave of the girls
they are going to leave behind them; while art is
perpetuated by Raphael's St. Michael, the Apollo Sauroctonus,
and other well-known paintings and statues. Scarcely a
square eighth of an inch of skin is unmarked, and the result
is that the tattooed portions look exactly as if they were
clad in figured blue and red silk. Indeed, this woman
appears much more fully clad than the conventional page of a
theatre. She told me that the operation, which was performed
with No. 12 needles fixed on handles, was exceedingly
painful, especially near a bone. But she had no wish to
magnify her sufferings for the sake of effect, and said that
after a while the monotonous pricking induced drowsiness,
and that she was half unconscious for a considerable portion
of the time. She remarked that in America tattooing has one
advantage, namely, that the mosquitoes will not touch the
marked portions of the skin.
There are also exhibitors of out-of-the-way accomplishments.
There is, for example, the "Champion Paper-Cutter of
America," who drapes his stall with ample lace-like curtains
and wreaths cut out of white paper. There is the "Champion
Whittler of America," who cuts long chains and a variety of
elaborate designs out of solid wood, using only a penknife.
There is a worker in filigree, who will take a coil of gilt
wire, and with a small pair of round-nosed pliers will make
you a bracelet, a brooch, a necklace, or other ornament to
order, in a wonderfully short space of time.
All this, and much more, can be seen for a dime. You may go
in when you like, and stay as long as you like. You are at
liberty to ask questions, and if they be reasonable you will
receive satisfactory answers. Those who want only amusement
can find it, and those who wish for information can always
Dime Museums J.G. Wood (author) June
1885, Atlantic Monthly, vol.55, pp.759-765,
Disability History Museum,
(March 5, 2005)
Circus Giants by Eisenmann Cabinet Card
James Morris, The
Elastic-Skinned Man, 1899
Krao The Missing Link 1894
Eisenmann unidentified woman
Living Skeleton Cabinet Card
Francesson Lentiini The Three
Legged Wonder Show Banner
Woo Gow The Gentle Giant
Fairbanks Scale Company ad Weighing Barnum's White Elephant
Tattooed Woman Artoria