by Carmen Doyle
It isn’t the sort of thing you want to brag about now. But at the end of the 19th century, dime museums were popular entertainment. Known as dime museums because of the admission price, the museums offered all sorts of attractions. According to Fort Wayne's News and Sentinel, Geary’s World Museum featured many unusual “acts”- mainly people who were different due to physical characteristics.
A January 1891 newspaper account in the News and Sentinel contains a notice mentioning “a fat women’s convention” had started at Geary’s. “Some of the biggest women in the U.S. are booked for the exhibit.”
Another popular attraction was Abraham Gump, who was paid $1000 to fast for 30 days. Allowed only water to drink, Gump lost 17 pounds in two weeks. Gump stopped fasting before the 30 days was up, as doctors told him “to eat or die; he chooses the former.” A few months later, History of… A.H. Gump, champion faster of Indiana was published.
Some of the “exhibits” were even more disturbing. Jonathon Bass, an ossified man, was “shown at Geary’s Museum”. An ossified man was a person whose bones had fused together, making it impossible for him to walk or even move on his own. Someone had to feed and move him.
Even more extreme than an ossified man was the “exhibition” of a “two-bodied living baby, with one head, four limbs, and three arms.” The child was less than a year old when exhibited. A notice later in the same month read, “The two-bodied baby at the World’s Museum dies. The baby was born at Winamac, Indiana, June 30, 1890 and was the child of L.C. Hatfield and wife.” Sadly, neither notice mentions the child’s name or even if the child was a boy or girl.
Not everything at Geary’s World Museum was voyeuristic. Peter Carmont Campbell exhibited his airship at the museum. Campbell had received advice and encouragement from Samuel Morse and Horace Greeley. Campbell had recently patented his invention.
Among the congratulatory letters was one from President Cleveland.
In his book Twenty-five years fighting fate, Samuel Shockey describes his work at the museum as practicing “phrenology and palmistry”. Shockey claims he made “more cash than the entire museum” and that “every morning the different papers would have a very large account” of his “performance” at the museum. Shockey also gave private examinations in his office at the museum. (According to About.com, “phrenology (is) a discipline that involved linking bumps on a person's head to certain aspects of the individual's personality and character.”)
Today we are appalled or amused at some of the exhibits at Geary’s World Museum. But in 1891, Col. James Geary’s museum was one of the most popular activities in Fort Wayne. While there are few mentions in newspapers of the World’s Museum after 1892, it is clear that the museum kept operating, with its exhibitions varying from physically disabled people to inventions and pseudo-science.
Ancestry.com has drawings from the Geary's World Museum on its website.