Saturday, January 17, 2009

Mark Twain Reviews a Museum of Curiosities in San Francisco

The San Francisco Chronicle recently printed a facsimile page of its coverage of the Lincoln assassination in 1865. One column to the left, under "Amusements", was this note:

GILBERTS MUSEUM - This ever attractive place for young and old, Gilbert's Museum, will have its doors thrown open as usual to the public to-day. The Chinese Jugglers and Learned Pig are still among the attractions.

For a few months in latter half of 1864, Mark Twain, the master of sardonic Victorian prose, was the only full-time reporter for the San Francisco Daily Morning Call. He filed the following dispatches from Gilbert's Museum:

July 3, 1864

MARKET STREET MUSEUM. - The management of this institution has had a severe though not painful attack of novelty on the brain. A whole batch of curiosities have been added to the cabinets during the week past. The French gentleman, extensively known as the Irish giant, and the lightning calculator, who must be a Yank -- notwithstanding he hails from Lancashire, are still there. The Museum is worth a visit at least once a week.

July 4, 1864

TOM THUMB AND HIS BRIDE. - We all remember what a furor was created when General Tom Thumb was married to Minnie Warren, at Grace Church, New York, and how the press teemed with descriptions of the interesting event. The whole bridal party are now in San Francisco, at Gilbert's Museum; not in the flesh, to be sure, but so near it that a casual glance would be likely to deceive all at a cursory view. We refer to the wonderful cero plastic group of the "Fairy Wedding," at the Museum, which Gilbert, through his keen sighted caterer, Hudson, lately brought on from New York. The group also includes a life-like representation of the great Barnum, the Master of Ceremonies on that interesting occasion. It is well worth a visit, and we are glad to know that the enterprise of the manager of the Museum is appreciated and rewarded. Thousands, including a vast crowd of the fair sex, crowd the Museum daily to see this remarkable exhibition.

September 25, 1864

GILBERT'S MUSEUM. - They have engaged an individual at the Museum who may be said to be minimum in regard to size, and maximum as to muscle. He is called the Lilliputian Hercules, and is probably about the dimensions of that mythological deity, when, as a suckling in his cradle, he strangled a serpent. He is some at lifting heavy weights, and it is proposed to engage him for the purpose of boosting the McClellanites into power. You can see the baneful effects of slavery here, too, in the person of a diminutive North Carolina female contraband, who has about as much brain as a humming-bird, and who could be put into a gallon measure with ease without contracting her crinoline. There are many other things here which make one lift his eyes and wonder at the freaks of Nature when she is in a frolicsome mood. Mr. Hudson has again assumed the management of the Museum, and he will speedily add other novelties to the collection.

The source is Twain scholar Barbara Schmidt's collection of newpsaper articles that can be attributed to Twain. He did not have a byline, but his style was so distinctive that these quotes are presumed to be his. Perusing the rest of Twain's articles makes for wonderful view of our fair city in its wild adolescence.

Gilbert's Museum would appear to have been one of the many "dime museums" that were popular in 19th century America. Most were on the East Coast, with P.T Barnum's American Museum in New York the flagship of the genre. They drew in the paying public with oddities, freakish amusements, and visual spectacles, then claimed the moral high ground with sanctimonious instruction. The history of the phenomenon is chronicled in the Weird & Wonderful: The Dime Museum in America.

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