Sunday, May 20, 2018

busted by random sensation (bad poetry / rough draft)

Like a Carousel in June, spring is bustin’ out all over
daffodils and tulips bloomin’ red and yeller
volunteerin’ pansies offerin’ up orange
along the riverbank, bloodroot and trout lily
nodding white and yellow, spotted green leaves,
(shy violets in the fields)
and everywhere, and everywhere, green green green –
the pastels of new leaves, sunshine and chlorophyll,
fresh oxygen, zero to sixty, blizzard to bloom,
and actually and truly, factually and fancifully
it’s everything from 25 a’frostin’ to 65 a’bloomin’ and some days
zippety-doo-dah straight on past to 83 &/or 4 and a’wiltin’
bam-zoom, zip-zip, up-down, back-forth
the only thing there’s been little of?

Rain, rain, come again.

(if only the Rain Man were scheduled to pitch here)

Cacophony. Sleepless nights.
chirr-up chirr-up
peep peep peep peep
we be the peepers
twee-ee-ee! twee-ee-ee!
(and on and on and on and on)
chirr-up chirr-up
All night long. A thousand voices. Sunset to dawn.
(which is barely seven, eight hours long)
and then at noon: silence.
chirr-up chirr-up
and a’rattle of cranes

Turkey by the river waits for quiet moment.
Like an underwater scream? surfacing, breaking.
Josie – red lights flashing – HIGH ALERT –
bounce-bounce-leap-leap cross the yard to the head of the trail
Stop. Straight-legged and fierce throwing back his head

Am I in church? Every once in a while I break into song,
join the throng.

Spring is bustin’ out all over …

But one tick and one tick only: May 5
One turtle and one turtle only: May 4
But turtle tracks like country lanes
through the sand
along the river
reminds me of a platypus swimming
circling now back to third grade
and i don’t know why and i don’t know
what it is about a platypus swimming


the noisiest bird of all
the singingest bird of all
ruddy red breast a’puffin’ operatic


i sit on a step in summery heat
a’dreamin’ away and HUMMIE!
darts out from a favorite tree (barely a’leaf)
a’hummin’ and a’hoverin’, pointing, staring,
undeniably indicating
the exact spot where year after year
his feeder hangs and HELLO it is NOT THERE –
I leap from my reverie –
dash inside (josie a’heel) –
sugar! feeder! hot water!
within minutes the feeder hangs
and Sir Hummie is a’sippin’, a’sittin’, a’lookin’ ’round,
ah, I have returned.
May 18: Hummie arrives.
True traveler.
With whom did he spend his winter?

and apostrophes they be bustin’ out all over …
save us

Gauzy parties of caterpillars.
Dandelions and the first whiff of freshly mowed grass.
Wild turkeys trooping by, skirting the yard,
and serviceberries a’bloomin’, even the one in the garden
that I have been seeing
just in my mind
a handful of years.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

statues at the prairie’s edge: presidents, Mother Bickerdyke, a poet, and feathers that flow from fingertips

The nice thing about downtown Rapid City, South Dakota (pop. 74,509), is that there is a potential dog walker on every corner.

“What’s that you say, Bill? Ready to go?”

Of course, them beings being statues, you’re not likely to get very far.

“Not now, Josie. I’m busy striking a Ponderous Pose prior to Signing with Feather Pen
this Highly Important & Indubitably Historic Document.”

I checked into a motel and the clerk gave me a map to the city’s presidents, that is, statues, that is, presidents. She told me that people love taking pictures of them wrapped in scarves and such.

“Here we go! Yes? No? Maybe? O! Patience be a virtue.”

All Josie had was a leash. And a yen. Not enough to get these fellows moving.

I like these statues. I like that they are not on pedestals but on street level in every day poses looking passers-by in the eye. Plus, they got Josie off my hands for a minute so I could take pictures of Josie.

But what is it with South Dakota and all these unavoidable presidents? Not a one was born here, but, of course, there is Mount Rushmore, kind of a presidential calling card, I suppose, a theme to build on. I got to thinking about statues. What are they? Monuments to ourselves? Concrete (granite, bronze) reinforcements of who we are? Of who we think we are? Bold statements, immovable statements, representations of … ? What, exactly.

Mitakuye oyasin. We are all related. On a Rapid City street corner.

From Rapid City I went on to Galesburg, Illinois (pop. 30,960), the part of the trip known as the Graveyard Tour as my recent ancestors (1800s on), for the most part, at least the non-Jewish ones, are resting in a few small towns scattered across eastern Iowa and western Illinois, and, having done most of that tour and now in Galesburg, tired, the last day of the trip before the long haul home (Pelkie, Michigan, unincorporated, pop. 0), I wondered what, if anything, I had the energy to do. I flopped on the bed in yet another motel and flipped through a Galesburg tourism magazine. Aha. Statues. Abraham Lincoln, Mother Bickerdyke, Carl Sandburg.

The Bickerdyke Memorial was, of course, on that list of Galesburg places to visit that in my weariness I had tossed aside. Mary Ann (Mother) Bickerdyke was a Civil War hero of whom I had first learned of a year ago when my sisters and brother-in-law and I gathered in Galesburg to bury my parents’ ashes in the nearby town of Keithsburg. Then the weather had been cold, wet, windy, but, my gosh, today it was warm, sunny, calm. Josie and I went out to gawk at statues.

First stop: Lincoln. He holds court at the train station. A nice statue, kind of like a tall drink, a cool one on a hot summer’s day, appreciated, up on a pedestal with a plaque that tells of Lincoln’s connections to Galesburg, most notably the Lincoln-Douglas debate that was held at Knox College in 1858.

A few blocks away, the Bickerdyke Memorial, on the grounds of the Knox County Courthouse. Mother Bickerdyke, on a pedestal, is on one knee cradling a fallen Union soldier who appears, really, to be just a farm boy. Mother Bickerdyke holds a canteen or somesuch to his lips. In the summer of 1861, when the Civil War was just beginning to pop, residents of Galesburg gathered supplies to send to Union troops in Cairo, Illinois. They chose Bickerdyke, a widow with two young sons, to deliver the supplies. She practiced what they then called botanical medicine, and, apparently, she was well-thought of by her neighbors. After securing care for her sons, Bickerdyke delivered the supplies as if on a mission from God. It was months before she returned home. At the field hospital in Cairo, she saw a need, and proper sanitation and diet, as well as allowing female nurses in the hospitals, were some of the new-fangled ideas for which Bickerdyke fought for the next four years. She broke rules and stood her ground against any who riled her or got in her way, all in the name of helping the Union, her boys in blue. By the end of the war, she had established three hundred field hospitals and toiled and tended to the wounded through nineteen battles. After the war, among other things, she worked with homeless people in New York City and in California worked to get veterans their pensions. She died in 1901, is buried in Galesburg. The memorial to her was established in 1904.

Nearby, Carl Sandburg on a pedestal in a traffic circle, which seemed strange and potentially dangerous, but, turns out, it was easy to park and to cross the street, and well worth it. Any statue of a poet with books, a goat, and a guitar has my vote. Especially if situated in a pleasant park on a fine spring morning.

Then I noticed the quotations. They are embedded in the garden that rings the statue.

What a beautiful partner this morning had become. Magnolias about to bloom.

The next day, a thought. What if I just kept going? Next stop: Paducah, Kentucky (pop. 25,145). The National Quilt Museum. And to whom (or what) has Paducah erected statues? Maybe then on to Montgomery, Alabama, (pop. 200,022). I’d been hearing on the radio about the opening of the lynching memorial. I looked at Josie. He looked at me. I told him what I was thinking; I could tell he was in the groove. We were all packed up, ready to go, getting back in the car. Did you get my blanket? Did you get my food? Yippee. Where to next? Home? Paducah? … ? I realized that despite the pull I’d been feeling for home, I also was feeling the pull of the road—

I thought of Prairie Edge, a store and gallery on a street corner in Rapid City. The statue out front was of a Native American woman and child. I had been taken with it and the store, which is huge with various rooms opening one to another, flowing, some rooms feeling designed for souvenir shopping, others more of a gallery, art, furniture, and one room for books, and then, in a nook on an upper floor, the Italian glass bead library with a display of beads euphoric and by the time I happened upon it I was already in a bubble of wonder that had taken hold down in the gallery with its painted horses racing across buffalo hides, its beaded skulls, beaded bags, bone, fur, feathers, pouches, things I’d never seen, imagined, and colorful hand rattles with feathers sprouting from fingertips—in that space among those things an emotion grabbed me that I could not name and on the second floor, ledger paintings.

An hour or two from home, Josie and I stopped by a wayside to slush about in remnants of winter and to breathe deep the scent of pine. It came to me that it’s all movement anyway, and every day asking what have we here? and isn’t it true, that we’re all just passing through?

This is the third and final post in a series on a recent road trip Josie and I took. The trip encompassed eight days, two thousand four hundred and seventy miles, four motels, one tiny cabin, and some of the most interesting art I have ever seen.

After posting, I saw this article in the Rapid City Journal: Obama statue to be unveiled this fall … It talks about the statues and includes an interview with the current sculptor who is also working on statues of South Dakota governors.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

katherine stubergh, wax artist extraordinaire, and that presidential wax museum in keystone, south dakota

stubergh wax figure
Every time I rounded the bend, there he was, staring at me, his eyes boring a hole right through me. Each time I stopped short, felt taken aback, felt caught out in something. Is he looking at me? Is he still looking at me? If I move … Wait, is he about to call the cops? And then his eyes did not move, would not follow me, and I felt relief. Howard Taft, our nation’s twenty-seventh President and tenth Chief Justice, turned out to be, after all, just another wax figure at the National Presidential Wax Museum.

It was a beautiful day in Keystone, South Dakota (pop. 340), and I was excited to be at the wax museum co-founded by Katherine Stubergh and stocked with many of her waxworks, including the arresting Mr. Taft. One tours the museum in a circular pattern that starts and ends in the gift shop, but rather than exiting to browse the souvenirs, I found myself backtracking time and again—I did not want to leave the quiet marvel of the displays. Teddy Roosevelt, our twenty-sixth President, was a favorite. I wanted to sit down, ask him, hey, what’s that you’re reading?

stubergh wax figure

Lady Bird Johnson was a favorite. She stood behind and slightly off to the side of her husband as he was sworn in as our thirty-sixth President aboard Air Force One that fateful late November. I wondered what her private thoughts might have been.

stubergh wax figure

I also favored Dolley Madison, wife of our fourth President. She was part of a large party scene. That’s her husband in the foreground.

stubergh wax figure

But it wasn’t until I happened upon Ronald Reagan, our fortieth President, chatting with Mikhail Gorbachev, that I realized what a truly exceptional wax artist Katherine Stubergh was. Henry Alvarez, a man who was taught by Stubergh and who became a renowned wax sculptor in his own right, was the creator of Reagan and all subsequent presidents in the museum up until the current one, the forty-fifth, who was created by a chap in England. In these more recent figures I felt a lack, specifically, a lack of softness. Softness was a word I had read or heard somewhere in relation to Stubergh’s waxworks and it came back to me like a bullet. Once past Stubergh’s figures, I realized that to me they had seemed more real, more appealing, and indeed to have had a quality well described as softness.

Stubergh was born in 1911 in San Francisco. Her parents were mannequin makers—she came from a long line of mannequin makers—and one story has it that in 1925 the Stubergh Manufacturing Company was hired by Sid Grauman, of Grauman’s Chinese Theater fame, to create wax figures for a new theater in Los Angeles, and thus the Stuberghs came to Hollywood. Katherine, by all accounts a girl with dreams of a career in dance, learned the family art and continued the business until she sold it, in 1970, to Ripley’s International Limited. During those years in Hollywood, Katherine and others in the Stubergh studio made wax figures, as well as figures of other materials, for movies, museums, and individuals. One of the more colorful accounts of who Stubergh was appears in an odd but interesting blog called “Waxipedia.” The piece is a recollection by wax sculptor David Cellitti, who got his start working with Stubergh. He begins:
She was the Madame Tussaud of America. Anyone who was anyone in Hollywood during the 1920’(s), 30’s and 40’s sat for her. When Albert Einstein sat for her she didn’t speak any German and he didn’t speak any English. Yet she said they got along and were able to communicate fine. She took a life mask from Amelia Earhart shortly before the aviator disappeared from the world. W.C. Fields and John Barrymore would show up drunk to the studio situated on Beverly Boulevard in Hollywood because Barrymore thought what she did was so fascinating. Bela Lugosi, Mae West, Mary Pickford and Ginger Rogers were but a few of the actors from Hollywood’s Golden Era that sat for her.
buster keaton life mask
Life mask of Buster Keaton by Katherine Stubergh.
On display at the National Presidential Wax Museum.

I also learned about Stubergh at the museum, which has a couple of display cases devoted to her career and an introductory video that speaks of her. She and her husband and two others started the museum in 1971. According to the museum, it was Stubergh’s dream to start a wax museum devoted to the presidents. She had been involved in starting other wax museums, as well as creating figures for them, and in the article pictured below, which is on display behind glass in Keystone, we learn that “Miss Stubergh’s current ambition is to model the wives of the presidents of the United States for the famous Smithsonian Institute.” Perhaps she just wanted to put some heads on those gowns.

women in wax

One gets the feeling that Stubergh was a woman with a few different ideas and ambitions. (By the way, that’s Stubergh just below “Women in Wax.” Her mother, who also worked in the studio, is probably the woman to our left, holding the baby, who, no doubt, is made of rubber, a stand-in created for some movie. Cellitti wrote that Stubergh had a sardonic sense of humor, and he tells a somewhat funny story about Katherine’s reaction to Mother Stubergh’s passing.) Stubergh and her partners sold the Keystone museum, which has gone by a couple of different names, in the 1980s, and she and her husband moved to Honolulu. In 1996, she died.

One of the more notable Hollywood commissions Stubergh took on was for the wax figures used in the 1953 movie “House of Wax.” Apparently she received no credit for the work when the movie was initially released, but when it came out on Blu-ray in 2013, she got her accolade.

For “Shall We Dance,” a 1937 movie starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Stubergh created forty-four masks of Ginger Rogers. They were key to the movie’s grand finale, and if you want to know the significance of the masks, I mean, really and truly understand the masks and their meaning, try reading Wendy Doniger’s “The Woman Who Pretended to Be Who She Was: Myths of Self-Imitation.” On its cover are five (or is it six?) of the masks Stubergh created.

Eventually, of course, I had to leave our waxen presidents, enter the gift shop, look for a souvenir to take home. But there was none. Believe it or not, no little wax presidents for sale, no souvenir booklet, no book about waxworks or about Katherine Stubergh, no postcards depicting either the denizens of the museum or Stubergh at work; and wouldn’t this photo of Stubergh and John Barrymore make a nice postcard –

john barrymore

and when I asked the clerk about it—a nice, attentive woman she was—she seemed slightly surprised by what I was looking for. Certainly one could be happy with a bobblehead president …

There is no page for Katherine Stubergh on Wikipedia. She is not mentioned at all in the far-ranging tome “Madame Tussaud and The History of Waxworks.” And when in 1963 Stubergh appeared on the game show “What’s My Line” she stumped the panelists. They had no idea who she was and could not guess what she did. Even after they were told her occupation, they seemed slightly confused.

Although some links are in the body of the post, more are below. If you would like to see more photos of Stubergh’s or Alvarez’ work, I suggest perusing the Hollywood auction catalog. Also, the souvenir booklet for Walter’s International Wax Museum at the New York World’s Fair is superb. The Last Supper, one of Stubergh’s crowning achievements in wax, is pictured there. Stubergh was in New York working on figures for this exhibit when she appeared on “What’s My Line.”

National Presidential Wax Museum
The Museum’s YouTube channel
Waxipedia post on Stubergh
The Wax Figures of Grauman’s Chinese
Works of lifelike art with a horrific ‘House of Wax’
This is the USA Today article that includes the video clip above.
John Barrymore models for sculptress
The Los Angeles Public Library, source of the Stubergh and Barrymore photo. The date is given as September 30, 1941, and the caption as: John Barrymore poses for Katherine Stubergh, the famous Hollywood sculptress for a portrait bust of the actor. It is one of [a] group likeness of the members of the Royal family of theatre. Miss Stubergh will next do Ethel and Lionel on completion of the bust of John. These busts will then be presented to the Museum of Fine Arts.
Which are wax people?
Another photo (with caption) from the files of the Los Angeles Public Library.
Catalog, Hollywood Auction 65
This should open to pages 264-265, which shows lots 749-755. Flip back to Page 259 for info on the items pictured in this section as lots 731-830 are from the estate of Henry Alvarez. The auction was held in October, 2014. Here are the prices the items fetched.
Short Stubergh bio on
What’s My Line? (Dec 15, 1963)
Souvenir booklet, Walter’s International Wax Museum New York World’s Fair 1964-65
At the bottom of this page are links to press releases issued by the Walter’s museum.
This is the second post in a series on a recent road trip Josie and I took. The trip encompassed eight days, two thousand four hundred and seventy miles, four motels, one tiny cabin, and some of the most interesting art I have ever seen, most of it free and much of it—surprisingly—in the form of statues. Next week, what we found on the street corners of Rapid City.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

the world has only one corn palace, and it’s in mitchell, south dakota

corn palace
A farmer in his fields, made of corn, in downtown Mitchell, South Dakota.

If you’re ever driving Interstate 90, going east or west, it matters not, get off in Mitchell, South Dakota (pop. 15,254), and wind through town to the Corn Palace. If you are at all like me, you will love it.

mitchell south dakota
The World’s Only Corn Palace.

Even though I had perused pretty thoroughly the website for the World’s Only Corn Palace and knew to expect large murals made with ears of corn nailed to the outside of a building, I had little idea, really, what murals made of corn might look like.

mitchell south dakota
South side corn murals.

I knew that by showing up on a Sunday, I would not be able to go inside the Corn Palace, which is an arena where some lucky folks get to play basketball, attend graduation ceremonies, dance at the prom, stuff like that. Others can simply visit during normal business hours (which are everyday during the right season but just Monday through Saturday otherwise) and mosey around looking at exhibits and displays, gaining insight into the work that goes into making these murals of corn, a new set, a new theme, every year since 1892. Except for that drought year, 2007. No new corn, no new murals. But otherwise … imagine. 1892.

mitchell south dakota
A corn mural.

But a blizzard had delayed the start of our trip by two days, so it was early on a Sunday morning fresh with spring air and a bright sun that Josie and I wandered around outside the Corn Palace. We had the streets and sidewalks and corn murals pretty much all to ourselves. We got lucky with the Corn Palace’s 2017 theme of South Dakota Weather. I love weather, and I loved the corny snowman, the summer flowers, the spring tornado; honestly, I loved it all.

mitchell south dakota
Summer flowers made of corn and native grasses.

A few birds were there loving it too, pecking at the seed and the corn, mostly pigeons, but maybe not as many birds as you’d think, and I wonder why not. Maybe if I had gotten inside (so if not for the blizzard, which hit South Dakota, closing I-90, before slamming the Upper Peninsula), I would have learned about that. How these corn murals survive the birds and the squirrels and the blizzards and hot sun.

mitchell south dakota
A tornado of corn.

Also, who started this? I mean, back in 1892, who said hey, let’s make a mural with this here corn. Two guys who wanted to start a corn palace to promote South Dakota corn and everyone just went along with it, thought it was just kooky enough to work or maybe genius? And how has it kept going, year after year, through all kinds of weather and economic times and this president, that president, this war, that war, technology, and still, hey, let’s make some murals with this here corn! Not to mention the native grasses. I think I’ll have to find me a book with some history.

mitchell south dakota
Tornado close-up.

According to the Corn Palace website, the murals start coming down “in late May with the removal of the rye and dock. The corn murals are stripped at the end of August and the new ones are completed by the first of October.” None of this happens without a big festival in August.

mitchell south dakota
Corny snowman.

I wonder what this year’s theme will be.

mitchell south dakota
The winter corn mural, complete with a snowball fight.

Could it possibly be as much fun as the weather?

mitchell south dakota
Throwing a snowball made of corn through a mural of corn.

With this post we begin a series on a recent road trip Josie and I took. It encompassed eight days, two thousand four hundred and seventy miles, four motels, one tiny cabin, and some of the most interesting art I have ever seen, most of it free and much of it—surprisingly—in the form of statues. Next week, on to the National Presidential Wax Museum!

Sunday, April 22, 2018

once upon a time, a road trip

In the summer of 1986, a friend and I drove from California to Chicago via the northern route. We saw some sky.

A train.


Various animals.

We even saw some presidents.

We shopped for souvenirs. I bought beaded belts.

My dog, Dandy, enjoyed the view from the car’s rear window.

He waded in the Mississippi River. (Or was this the Missouri?)

He even did a little driving!

Which was a good thing, because in Wisconsin we came across the World’s Largest Six Pack.

And after that, I needed to put my feet up for a while.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

‘we need to be disillusioned’

Baseball and blizzards. A sure sign of spring.

Then there’s the tulip poking up like a groundhog’s snout in a sheltered, sunny spot. Beheaded by a deer. A shaggy, winter-hungry deer.

Signs of spring used to be forsythia in bloom. Sweet-smelling, yellow-soaked. And daffodils and tulips, green lawns, unfurling trees, jackets flung aside, birdsong, feet itching to go bare.

Four hundred miles north no matter the number of years, I must remind myself it might be summer before spring even gets mentioned as having passed by unnoticed.

No fairy tale spring here. No sir.

Of course soon, come May or June, it is likely we will notice wheels spinning in mud, bodies dotted with ticks, our veil of black flies. There’s your spring. Steadfast, predictable. Provides continuity.

And one day the trees will bud and the horizon rich with color, about to burst, held momentarily, a long pause, the conductor raising her arms, musicians poised and posed, bows held a breath above string and breaths ready to blow; ready, ready, quiet, please, and the peepers begin softly peeping and yellow spikes of maple flowers. Underfoot trout lilies and Dutchman breeches gently pushing aside heavy mats of fall, the slush of winter, soft, and a slow pace developing, patience unfolding, and the river already rising with snow, flowing strong, surging, moving along, and Josie continues to run across hard-set snow, a desiccated landscape, barren trees advertising nest, abandoned. Open, wide open. And Josie reels with the alarm and promise of hidden spring.

A cold wind blows.

I read “Dakota: A Spiritual Geography” by Kathleen Norris. It feels instructive, somewhat mesmerizing, hypnotic, engulfing, desolate and full. I feel I understand it, this: For some, the less there is, the more there is. Even though that must be learned.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

madame tussaud on/in jeopardy: entrepreneurship & legacy, horror, verisimilitude

The category is “Entrepreneurs” and the answer is:
After keeping the family business going through a bloody revolution, she emigrated to England at age 41 with her 4-year-old son leaving behind an infant son, her husband, her mother, and the business. She began the family business anew with a traveling exhibition that had her and a growing entourage on the road for more than 30 years before settling into an exhibition hall on Baker Street in London where she continued to run the business until her death in 1850 at age 90, at which time her sons took over. Now, in the 21st century, her namesake international company is worth near a half-billion dollars.
But that’s much too long. Let’s try again.
She kept a Paris-based family business going through the French Revolution and its aftermath, then emigrated to England in 1802 to expand a business that today has been valued at more than $400 million.
Yes, that’s better. But still too long. One more time.
Her success waxed and waned, but around the world iconic horror movies and museums pay homage to her work and name.

Who was Madame Tussaud? And what exactly did she do? First off, she was an artist and a businessperson. Specifically, she was a sculptor, a wax artist, a historian, a costumer, a set designer, a bookkeeper, a cashier, a greeter, a publicist, a survivor of war, a survivor of a shipwreck, an immigrant, a story-teller, a show master, a wife, a mother, a grandmother, the matriarch of a family business. Although she lived in a time and place where the owning of property by women was deemed unlawful, she practiced her art, she ran a business, and she left a legacy that has endured centuries.

Madame Tussaud, nee Marie Grosholtz, lived a hard, fascinating life from which she created—seemed determined to create—this legacy of waxworks and all that goes with it. All of which I am still sorting through. Beyond the museums which bear her name are all the other houses of wax, all the other chambers of horrors, all the other waxen presidents and kings and the artists who create them and outfit them and maintain them. All the people who go to see them. That some of these places are woefully freakish, well, I believe Madame Tussaud would have been appalled by that. She wished to entertain, to educate, to present current events and history as accurately as possible; she also aspired to be among the upper crust in society, to be accepted and respected among the loftier while affording entertainment for all.

I cannot remember the last time I was in a wax museum or if I ever was, but, like most things, I am sure they vary in quality. By all accounts, they did in Madame Tussaud’s day. Her exhibits were thought to be of the highest quality and, as we say today, family-friendly. (Some waxworks displayed anatomical figures, ostensibly for educational purposes, often in separate rooms designated for men only. Today, the House of Wax in the Bronx in New York, a fairly new establishment mixing “mixology with the macabre,” exhibits some of these same figures and, by virtue of being a bar, keeps it adults only.) At Madame Tussaud’s, the wax figures and their clothing were cleaned, mended, even their hair washed, on a regular schedule. The museum offered music, oil paintings, relics, a cafe, and an extensive descriptive catalog. Patrons were allowed to stroll freely among the figures and exhibits. The Chamber of Horrors, presenting notorious murderers, was contained in a separate room. In the 1876 catalog, the individual descriptions of the Chambers’ members is preceded in part by this disclaimer:
“HE IS A SHALLOW CRITIC,” pithily remarks the “Daily Telegraph” in its leading article (March 20, 1868), on the Todmorden murder, “WHO WONDERS AT THE PUBLIC INTEREST IN GREAT CRIMES, AND FINDS FAULT WITH IT.”
At the time the most recent addition to the Chamber was Mary Anna Cotton. Her description reads:
The series of cold-blooded murders for which this wretch was hanged on the morning of Monday, March 24th, 1873, are crimes against which no punishment in history can atone for. The child she rocked on her knee to-day was poisoned to-morrow. Most of her murders were committed for petty gains; and she killed off husbands and children with the unconcern of a farm-girl killing poultry. The story of her crimes is still fresh in the public mind.
Today public interest regarding Cotton and her crimes can be satisfied—or peaked—by watching PBS’ “Dark Angel” starring Joanne Froggatt of “Downton Abbey” fame.

Every horror flick, mystery novel and detective story set within a waxworks owes a debt of gratitude to Madame Tussaud, even though she never took the “horror” of it quite so far, perhaps because she lived the actual horrors of the French Revolution. She was, in many ways, aspiring to be more of a PBS Masterpiece than a Hollywood B-movie. Nevertheless, she perpetuated the persisting perplexity of who we are as people and played on our propensity to perceive illusion as reality and vice versa. This week, as a cold and gloomy wind spiked with snow raged outside, I stayed in and watched whatever movies and shows I could find that were set in a waxworks. Every one of them was a murder mystery or horror show that played on this shift of illusion and reality. As a wax artist and proprietress of a wax museum in an episode of Canada’s “The Great Detective” put it:
Verisimilitude. That is everything in wax … I use wax to imitate life. He uses life to imitate wax.
One day I was surprised while watching a video by a young man who shares on YouTube his experiences visiting wax museums. Watching his bits can be entertaining, but I don’t think I’ll watch anymore. While visiting a museum in St. Louis, he pans his camera across displays occasionally gasping in disbelief, muttering, and identifying what we are seeing, such as a tableau of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He calls the display “horrifying” sounding, as he often does, like a child peeking out from under the bedcovers looking for monsters. He tells us much too often how he is about to poop in his pants—it is all so scary. Soon after Snow White his camera sweeps across a woman in black, seated, a head in her lap, and the head has no body. It seems as if the woman is about to caress the head even as she stares straight ahead, unblinking, unmoving, frozen in time. Our tour guide says “oh my god” and as the camera sweeps past we see more heads on a shelf. In a heartbeat, though, we move on to Michael Jordan and past him, our moment with Madame Tussaud in the wax museum gone in a blink of the eye.

Did this self-proclaimed wax house aficionado not recognize Madame Tussaud and the historic event being signified? Even worse, did he recognize her but think her inconsequential? Not worthy of a mention? Or, on the other extreme, did he think we would all know this person with the head in her lap? Just another Madame Tussaud making death masks during the Terror … He swept by Michael Jordan, too, without comment. Maybe he did not recognize Michael Jordan? Thought his likeness inconsequential? Or—reality—is this guy just in it for the visceral thrill of it all? The kicks? The horror? The YouTube comments and the poop in the pants?

I can’t help but wonder. If Madame Tussaud were an answer on Jeopardy, who would know the question?

According to, Madame Tussaud appeared on Jeopardy in the form of this answer worth $500 on show #3552 in the category “Time to ‘D’ecide.” And the answer is:
Madame Tussaud’s could tell you it’s a wax or plaster cast of a mold taken from a nonliving face