Monkeys, Freaks, and Torture: The Strange and Brief Saga of the Milwaukee Dime Museum
Cannibals, smoking monkeys, bearded women, and wild men… it was all on display at the Milwaukee Dime Museum, which mystified and horrified Milwaukeeans back in the 1880s. Located on the north side of Wisconsin Avenue (then known as Grand Avenue), between Plankinton and Second, the Milwaukee Dime Museum opened in 1883, but was only a minor curiosity in the city until it was purchased by showman Jacob Litt in September 1884. Litt was only 25 when took over the museum, but he had been in the theater business since the age of 12 and had worked his way up through the local ranks.
Litt renovated the four-story museum, basing it on the design used by P.T. Barnum at his famous American Museum in New York City. Shows started every hour at the museum, with the eight-piece house orchestra playing “Only a Pansy Blossom” in the lobby to alert passersby to the beginning of a show. After passing over their dimes, the guests were led up a stairway to the fourth floor of the building, where the museum’s menagerie was kept. Monkeys (the non-smoking variety), snakes, and other exotic animals greeted the guests from cages and glass cases and the house lecturer began to explain the wonders that lay before them.
After the lecturer explained the various lethalities of snake venom and the ways in which man is not much different than ape, he led the group down to the third floor, known as the “Chamber of Horrors.” The Chamber was a series of wax figures, modeling awful and notorious chapters of American history. One notable display recreated the deaths of the five men convicted in the Haymarket Square bombing of 1886 – the four who were hanged and one who committed suicide in his jail cell. The freaks and curiosities were on the second floor. Deformed persons, dwarves, fat ladies, and trained animals stunned onlookers as the lecturer detailed their particular peculiarities. Irene Woodard, the famous tattooed lady, made a stop at the museum, as did Annie O’Brien, the tallest woman in the world. One of the oddest of the odd to appear was Otto Topfer, “the Man with Two Mouths,” who was able to smoke a cigar and play the harmonica at the same time. Spectators were encouraged to purchase picture postcards from the performers on the second floor, which were usually sold for a quarter apiece.
The first floor was home to the house orchestra and a regular series of belly dancers and peep show performers. Litt claimed that his museum sold as many as 3,000 admissions per day and brought in a staggering 83,000 visitors during his first month of operation.
Just as Barnum had long known, Litt found that people were willing to believe just about anything given the proper setting and context. One of his greatest “natural wonders” was also one of his greatest hoaxes. For years, Litt made a killing off of his “Wild Man of Borneo,” a huge beast-man supposedly trapped in the jungle after months of chase by expert trackers. The man was displayed shackled in a cage and horrified audiences. Long after Litt’s death, the true story of the Wild Man emerged. An old Milwaukee plumber recalled that one afternoon in the 1880s, he and his crew were doing some work in Litt’s museum. “It was a hot day and one of my men, a big burly Slav, was stripped to the waist as he dug away with pick and shovel. Each time he hit the ground with his pick he let out a guttural sound, a grunt,” the plumber told a newspaper reporter. “[Litt] immediately became interested in the appearance of the Slav and the noises he made. He was particularly interested in the thick, curly hair that grew all over the man’s body.” Once Litt found out that the man made only $9 a week at the hard labor, he offered a job requiring no work at all for $100 per month. The man agreed and Litt dressed him in tatters, chained a horseweight to his feet, and stationed him in a cage as the Wild Man. The Slav was not a natural performer, but his unease with the crowds made for a convincing recently-tamed beast. He later toured with Litt all over the country.
Local newspapermen also suspected Litt of trickery when he introduced “the man who never slept” to the Cream City. The man’s gimmick was simple, he claimed that he never needed to sleep, rest, or even sit down. Guests of the museum were encouraged to stare at the man as long they could – and were promised they would never see him show any signs of fatigue. Newspaper reporters figure the claims would be easy to reveal as humbug, but – despite watching the man in shifts – no one ever saw him sit down. He merely stood on his platform, looking bored. The mystery was never solved.
In a 1927 retrospective on the museum, the Milwaukee Journal noted that the freak acts were a close-knit bunch and were often heard to mutter snide things to each other about the gawking hoards who paid their dimes just to get a look. Whoever the true freaks were, the Milwaukee Dime Museum was never able to regain the burst of popularity it experienced during Litt’s first months of operation. Eager to get into the “legitimate” theater game, Litt sold the place in 1889. It went out of business the following year.
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