Night of the Wax Abolitionists

To celebrate Halloween, I direct your attention to the creepiest historical attraction in the known world—the John Brown Wax Museum in Harpers Ferry.

My first visit was at the age of seven or eight, when my family stopped at the Ferry on a trip to Maryland and D.C.  This was well before I had any real interest in history, so most of what I saw on that trip went far over my head.  At the National Museum of American History, the one item that impressed me the most was an original Kermit the Frog puppet, if that tells you anything.  In fact, for years afterward, I remembered hardly anything from Harpers Ferry.

But the John Brown Wax Museum made an impression.  Oh, yes indeed. 

It scared the living hock out of me.

It was in one of the town’s older buildings.  The exhibits consisted of a series of tableaux with life-size sets and wax figures set up behind glass windows, each scene depicting an episode from Brown’s life.  So basically I had to wander around a series of dark corridors populated by wax dummies wielding guns and pikes, posed in various states of distress with anguished expressions on their faces.

To make matters even worse, some of the scenes had switches that made the figures move.  One scene showed the mortal wounding of Hayward Shepherd, the black railroad employee killed in the raid; Shepherd was lying on the floor of the set, wearing a bright red shirt.  A push of a button made his torso heave to simulate heavy breathing.  In and out, in and out, in and out.  By the time we got to the last scene, which depicted Brown at the gallows (nothing like a public execution to wrap up an educational museum visit), I had my hands over my face, with just a few fingers cracked to enable me to see where I was going.

Then it was off to Antietam, where I was treated to stories of corpses lying in rows and creeks running red with gore.  I slept with the light on for about two decades after that.

Summer before last, I went back to Antietam and Harpers Ferry with my mom.  It was my first time setting foot in either place since that original horror-laden vacation.  I was shocked that I remembered so little from the first trip.  Both Harpers and Antietam are stunningly beautiful, two of the most picturesque, well-preserved, and professionally-interpreted parks in the whole NPS system.

And the John Brown Wax Museum was still in operation after all those years.  The admission was a little steep, but Mom and I went in anyway, for old time’s sake.



Filed under Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites

2 responses to “Night of the Wax Abolitionists

  1. This is classic! Thanks for the laugh. I have to get to Harper’s Ferry someday. High on the list.

  2. Michael Lynch

    It’s a great place to visit; very scenic, lots of older buildings and museums.


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