THE MUSEUM OF DEATH can be described as a bit of Ripley’s Believe It or Not by way of Barnum and Bailey (with the emphasis on Barnum, as in P.T.), a dash of Madame Tussaud’s, and a nod to the old-fashioned sideshow, featuring, as they were called at the time, “curiosities.” It’s particularly and peculiarly American — a post-punk mom-and-pop business, a legitimate historical, and therefore educational, museum, a place that picks up extra business around Halloween but is open year-round, not your ordinary tourist draw, and an evolving work in progress. That’s how I’d describe it abstractly. I’ll get specific soon.
Located in the 500 block of Fifth Avenue in the Gaslamp district, the museum occupied, at the time of my visit, three rooms and a longish staircase plus hallway in the basement of its current location, which, appropriately, was the site of San Diego’s first mortuary. In July 1870, Mary Grey leased the building to John Young. Young’s company built furniture, coffins, and caskets. Young, an undertaker, later served as county coroner. By 1885, John Gray and E.B. Tebbutt, also morticians, had taken over the building. Tebbutt lived in a room in the rear. Recently a widower, and in failing health, he shot himself through the mouth with a .38 caliber pistol. The bullet exited the back of his skull, popping out his left eyeball, and crashed into the woodwork 15 feet away.
A wooden trapdoor leads from the ground floor to the basement. Morticians used the trapdoor to lower bodies into the cooler space below. The building later became a hotel, but the basement remained a mortician’s workshop. The 1950s saw it remodeled into a Turkish bath.
A little over a hundred years from its earliest use as a mortuary it became the Museum of Death, invented by two enterprising but not your normal (this is not your father’s Oldsmobile) entrepreneurs, a couple in their mid-30s, married nearly 15 years, James Healy and Cathee Schultz. More, much more, on them later. First, let me take you on a tour of the Museum of Death.
You enter on the ground floor. On the second floor was the Rita Dean Gallery (Rita is Cathee’s middle name. Dean is James’s). James and Cathee owned this too. You pay a modest fee — $4 — usually to Cathee (sitting at the counter) and enter through a red velvet rope at the top of the basement stairs. The exhibitions, the displays begin on your descent. Photographs of accidents, suicides, hangings line both walls of the staircase. Two pictures in particular interested me — partly because I’d read about the practice they depict but also because they reveal one of the reasons for the museum’s being: the witnessing, recording, and preserving of man’s often unspeakable inhumanity to man. Some shock value is intended by the museum — it has tinges of old-fashioned freak shows, its displays are sometimes meant to tweak conservatives’ noses — but it is also a place of historical record, an archive of cruelty and madness.
The pictures in question show a form of execution by torture called “Death by a Thousand Cuts.” I’d read about it in accounts of the Rape of Nanking, which began in December 1937, during Japan’s invasion of China. The name explains a lot about the nature of the death, the pictures worth a few thousand words. Death came slowly, excruciatingly, and in public. Cutting the body hundreds of times, mostly in the upper torso, and being careful to avoid major arteries, mutilated the victims but kept them alive, sometimes for days. In some pictures you can almost see internal organs — hearts and lungs — of the still-living prisoners. Japanese soldiers paraded them through the streets of Nanking as a warning to others not to resist the occupation.
At the bottom of the stairs, a cell door leans against the wall. It sports a rectangular slot for a tray of food — just like in the movies. It weighs 300 pounds. A door on your right leads into the largest room. Off of it, to the right and left, two smaller rooms. Let’s do this the most efficient way: turn to the small room on the right first. You might not notice immediately that white padded lining covers the walls — like the inside of a coffin. This is one of the museum’s Halloween-y touches. There aren’t many. The left side of this room, set off with bars, mimics a prison cell. Behind the bars sits an electric chair (never used but built to scale for the cover photo of a law-enforcement-oriented magazine called Death Row, which, among other things, keeps track of death-row populations and executions in the United States), a guillotine (built by James), a gallows with a noose in which hangs a severed head, the kind you buy in a costume shop. This is the only display — specifically the noose and head — that I found tacky, hokey. Many of the exhibits are weird, horrifying, even, to some people, disgusting, but this seems to me the only concession to the cheapest elements of show biz. This room reveals the museum's sense of humor. Maybe not everyone’s cup of Bozo, but this humor existed throughout the museum and gallery.
There is, for example, a display case concerning the death of pets. A headstone, just like a human’s but in miniature, is inscribed “3/65-8/73, Pardee Trout.” And beneath that: “I miss my baby doll.” I bet that trout had a good eight-plus years — I’m not sure how long they live in the wild. Someone on earth loved Pardee. Another display is more gruesome: the clothes — pants and T-shirt — of a man executed in an electric chair. The pants look normal — green work pants, large. The T-shirt did not get burned or singed as you might expect. Light brown spots, described delicately in the accompanying text as “purge marks,” stain the shirt front. An excerpt from an affidavit written by the sister (a nurse with many years’ experience as an emergency-room supervisor) of the executed man protests the cruelty of her brother’s death: “The burns were severe, third-degree burns with ‘sloughing’ [meaning the skin has literally come loose].” She states that “the leg was so badly mutilated it had been necessary to enclose that portion of his calf in a zippered plastic sleeve with some sawdust material to absorb and prevent draining of the burns.” The execution took place in Louisiana’s Angola State Prison in March of 1988. This room holds some suicide display — texts, photos, memorabilia. The spirit and atmosphere of the museum are set here: an admixture of the historical/educational, a dollop of humor — black humor, irony, a deep but hardly heavy-handed satirical and/or moral streak of humor — and the plain old grim and gruesome. Here it is, folks, some truths about us, our culture. Look if you dare.
Let’s step back into the middle room. If you want to know what a casket locking key looks like and how it works, here you go. Got a taste for antique embalming fluid? One is called Liquid Tissue and another advertises “Like the Living Sleep.” Morticians got better and better discounts the more they bought. Want to know what a mortician’s headrest looks like? Like a short chrome tripod. If it had a piece of canvas slung across its top or a piece of glass balanced there, it would look like a tiny avant-garde chair or an austere miniature end table. Not very comfortable, not something to prop your head up on to watch TV in bed. James and Cathee are surprised by the number of people in the funeral business who come to the museum to see these exhibits. Cathee mentioned that once a ten-year-old girl came in with her parents and announced that she wanted to be a forensic pathologist when she grew up. Her parents waited for her upstairs while she toured the exhibits. Also in this room: a coffin, open, with a skeleton in it — one of the other Halloween-y touches. The saddest display here is a portable backdrop on which dead infants were laid to be photographed. A common 19th-century custom dictated taking a picture of a dead infant — made up, sometimes with eyes open, wearing his or her finest and frilliest — before burial. The backdrop is tacky, made of brown-and-white streaked cardboard, foldable, and festooned with paper flowers. Did the parents stand behind the photographer, behind the black box and shroud of his camera, as he took the picture?
The museum’s layout is a tour of different tones, circumstances, and ironies of death, and the next room contained some of the most shocking material. One sequence of photos, all in color, show a gruesome murder and dismemberment. The murderers, a man and a woman, took pictures of each other posing with the body. They then posed the victim’s various body parts — foot with severed head (big toe in mouth) — on a floral-patterned pillow on a chair seat. I leave the other configurations to the reader’s imagination or for a visit to the museum. These pictures evoke horror — not so much for their goriness but because the killers posed, laughing and goofing for the camera, with the victim. The implicit numbness is breathtaking. Later the killers took the film to a drugstore for development, the developer called the cops, and the photos provided irrefutable evidence that put the murderers away. Breathtaking numbness and dumbness. When you show a jury a picture of a smiling person sawing off the head of another person, it stands as pretty damning evidence.
I was hanging around in this room when three young Marines entered and walked right to these pictures. They were on their second leave since joining the service. I had forgotten how young young soldiers are. I asked them why they came here. Didn’t they want to drink beer, chase girls, etc. One said: “It’s reality.” The other two nodded. Maybe young soldiers know death differently than most people their age, maybe they understand better how long, once dead, one stays dead. Photos of combat deaths, some from Vietnam, hang in this room. A sequence of pictures of an accidental death line another wall: A man hangs an old-fashioned hand-pushed lawnmower from a rafter in his garage. It falls on his head, blade first, adios.
This set of photos, and many others in the museum, were donated, in this case, by the son of the police photographer who took them. When his father died, the son inherited boxes and boxes of his father’s work and he wanted it preserved, so he gave the boxes to the museum.
"It’s reality,” the young Marine said. That’s a common theme here. Implicitly and explicitly. Most people, when asked why they came to the museum, or to the opening of a show of artwork by serial killers at the Rita Dean Gallery upstairs, answered like that or some close variation.
The last part of the museum, a long corridor that leads back to the stairs, holds many more photos, several of spectacular car crashes. Three body bags hang on the wall. One of my favorite photos is here. If "favorite” sounds a bit cold, forgive me, but I love particular types of reverberant irony, and this picture delivers it in spades. Probably taken in the 1940s, it shows a large roadside billboard about the size of a semi-truck trailer. The billboard’s bottom runs only a few feet off the ground. It advertises beer. Lucky lager, to be exact. It shows a scene of snow-covered mountains, a lake, a man fishing in the lake — he’s got a large fish (no, I don’t think it’s Pardee) on his line — clean, crisp, inviting, all-American outdoors. The copy, in huge letters, reads: “IT'S LUCKY WHEN YOU LIVE IN AMERICA.” A large jagged hole gapes right through the words “WHEN YOU LIVE.” Through the hole, behind the billboard, with several people standing around it, sits an overturned car. One suspects fatalities. Was the most-likely-dead driver drunk? Was he drunk on Lucky lager? Did an angry, ironic, and darkly humored god have anything to do with it?
Did you know body bags come in many colors? The text next to them says, “White: used in disasters or massive deaths, i.e., earthquakes, fire, etc. Very disposable. Black: used by coroners or morticians when carrying the deceased from the death scene.” And then: Please note: we are looking for different kinds of body bags for donation or trade, i.e., military green, medical school clear, etc.” Ever evolving: the Museum of Death. On the wall, next to the body bags, in a little glass case, is an array of toe tags. On each one, it says: “Attach to toe." I guess it’s not enough that printed and centered at the top of each, like the title to an unwritten haiku, is “Toe Tag.”
I mentioned earlier the Rita Dean Gallery on the second floor. I timed my visit to the museum to the opening of a show of art by serial killers — John Wayne Gacy, David Berkowitz, Richard Ramirez, Charles Manson, and others. It was a show James and Cathee had put up before and not without controversy. I hung around the gallery on opening night. Most of the artwork was banal, some of it seemed technically competent, and some showed flashes of talent. One of the largest pieces was Charles Manson’s abstract and chaotically colorful painting called Underwater Scene. Also included was a baseball signed by Manson and with the words “And a lot mo’.” He signed it with silver felt-tipped pen. I talked with Jeffrey McDaniel, a young poet from L.A., who said, “You know, one thing I can say about this show is that after it I think all the money in America should be red.” Another person at the opening, Liezle Rubin, turned out to own a lot of the work on the walls. I asked her if she were an art dealer. She answered, with a little hesitation at first, “Umm, I know a lot of serial killers. So, um, I write to them. I torture them. I entertain myself.” I said, “You do it for entertainment?” She answered, “Partly, and I represent Michael Calhoun and John Ruzicike and basically I collect it...because it is something that...the idea of someone having done what they did, and being able to touch something that they created, is pretty heavy. It’s a pretty big statement.”
Did she make any money from this? Did the killers? She said, “They do make money, yeah. But a percentage of it goes to paying for them to be in prison. Another percentage goes to the victims’ fund, and they get what’s left over.” I asked if California had a Son of Sam law, like in New York, making it illegal for criminals to profit from their crimes. She answered,.“In theory, in theory — but they still do it. There’s ways around it.” I asked if she believed in evil and if she believed these people were evil, and she responded, “Some of them, absolutely, absolutely, but, you know, 99 percent of these people, you know, are innocent." Lest the reader be unable to grasp her tone, let me make it clear: she said one thing and meant another.
I asked another visitor, a man named Mario, who did not want to give his last name (most people didn’t), if he found the show exploitative. He said no and continued, “Sometimes people always want, well, we like to see nice things. It’s nice to see nice things, but it’s nice to learn and see other things too. Everything should be exposed, I mean everything. And everyone should look with his own eyes and make his own decision. We have to see everything, everything. We have to learn from everything.”
This seemed the general opinion of the people I interviewed at the opening. One of the last persons I interviewed was an 18-year-old named Angie. She was from Humboldt County, visiting San Diego with her friend Rachel, also 18. They were staying with and accompanied by Diane, a woman in her late 30s, a friend of Angie’s mother. Angie came because she saw a notice about the opening and thought it interesting. I asked for her response to the show. “Charlie Manson is a person I always recognized because my brother is kind of fascinated by him — he used to report on him for school. And I just know a lot of people who are into this — lots of Gothic freaks. These [pointing to some drawings by Otis Toole] are the ones I think are real interesting because I once read a book about naive art and it had a section done by criminally insane people and it said that often schizophrenics made really rigid faces like this one. Really tight, you can diagnose people just by their artwork.”
Diane held a different opinion about the show. She had agreed to come with her teenage charges in a spirit of liberal-mindedness, but after seeing the show couldn’t maintain that attitude. We went outside where she felt she could talk more freely. She told me, “I wanted to be open and I find it... I try to see just the art. But it’s close to home. I write family-violence legislation and lobby for it, and so I see the other side of it. And I look at it, and I think it’s incredibly disgusting and repulsive. For me it almost glamorizes the act of what these people have done and obviously I think these are very sick people, and they’re locked away and having fan mail sent to them. It’s a sad comment on our society to see that many people fascinated by serial killers.” I asked her if she’d prefer that shows like this didn’t exist and she said, “Actually, yes, I would, because I think it glamorizes their crimes and it is so hideous. It’s not like petty theft. I mean, this is murder.”
This would probably be the general opinion of people who didn't come to the opening. It is also true that this work exists, the people who made it exist, the grief and loss they caused exist, and that the people who show it in their gallery have a right to show it.
The Rita Dean Gallery, which has since closed, and the Museum of Death made up two elements of lames and Cathee’s business. I also saw their live, two-headed turtle, Heckle and Jeckle. The turtle is one of the stars of a recently opened branch of their business: Freak Farm U.S.A., a menagerie of living and dead (stuffed or mummified) freak animals.
At the time of my visit James and Cathee lived in an apartment at the rear of the building. Although childless, they did not live alone: they own a large mixed-breed German shepherd named Korvptvs, a very large (at least 225 pounds) Vietnamese potbellied pig called Chaos who sleeps (and seems often to experience disturbing dreams) about 18 hours a day, mostly on their couch, a large albino California banana king snake named Ruby, and two iguanas — one very large, called Godzilla, and another smaller one called Belladonna. During the gallery opening Cathee walked around greeting people and acting the gracious hostess with Belladonna perched on her arm, which she protected with a large black sock. When I first visited their living quarters, James’s mom was there. Cathee had baked a cake. Everyone had a piece: humans, pig, and dog — snake and iguanas excepted. A happy domestic scene, albeit probably the only one in the nation with this configuration of human, animal, and reptile.
James Healy and Cathee Schultz met when they were in their early 20s and married within three weeks. James is from Miami, Cathee from Phoenix. After a time in L.A. they gravitated to San Diego, where James sold real estate and Cathee worked in restaurants. James is about 5'8" or 9", wiry, and hugely energetic, almost hyper, and sports lots of tattoos — one on his right shoulder depicts the two-headed turtle. Tohubohu (which means chaos in ancient Hebrew) is tattooed in large Gothic letters on his lower back. He has close-cropped brown hair and, wearing shorts and a T-shirt, he looks (if you don’t notice his tattoos right away) like a grinning teenager but with a different glint of mischief in his eyes. Cathee is a little shorter and is quite beautiful with flaming, ruby-colored hair. She wears one apparent tattoo: a delicate but sizable design at the nape of her neck, visible only when she pinned up her hair. After a few days I noticed she had a stud in her tongue. Both are articulate, passionate about their business, unselfconscious, and uncensored. I found them immensely likable.
I talked with lames and Cathee extensively, separately and together. I also spoke, at length, to their friend Monte Cazzaza. Monte helps out at the museum during busier times. He lives in San Francisco and is a well-known member of the underground arts movement. Most people would call him a performance artist, but when I asked about the accuracy of this he said he preferred to be called “a researcher, a philosophical researcher.” Some of his research concerns low-frequency sound waves — 6 to 20 hertz — capable of causing physical changes (nausea is one) in humans. He told me the French government — police and military — developed a weapon using similar principles. Once, after reading about a rash of baby abandonments, he placed a tape recording of a crying baby inside a doll, which he hid in a Dumpster to see what would happen when people heard the cries. Experiments in empathy. He did a parody of a famous fashion print ad in the early 1980s in which actress Nastassja Kinski lay on her side, naked, except for a large snake draped over her in such a way that her nudity passed the censor. Monte, too, posed naked with a large snake, a python. In his case, however, the snake bit him, deeply, on the forearm and coiled itself around him. He said two things about this: it happened very fast, and he felt his ribs beginning to give way. It took several people — two just to pry open the jaws — to pull the snake off him. Some artists sacrifice more for their art than others.
When I arrived at the museum, James and Monte were busy installing a huge pendulum, made of metal and wood, designed and built by James. It hung and swung from near the second-floor gallery’s ceiling down to the window of the first floor. Ten feet tall and with a blade three feet wide, it drew attention to the window.
I spoke to Cathee alone, at first. James meant to be there too but left earlier with Monte to service his 1964 Cadillac hearse (given to the museum by a funeral director who wanted it preserved). They were delayed several hours on Interstate 805 when a plane stolen from Montgomery field crashed onto the freeway. The accident critically injured the pilot and his passenger. A picture printed the next day in the Union-Tribune showed the plane sticking straight up in the air, its nose embedded in the asphalt.
I sat at the counter with Cathee while we waited for James. Customers came, paid the $4 fee to the museum, asked questions. Cathee offered to show everyone the two-headed turtle. Several people commented on the jewel-encrusted live beetles for sale in a small terrarium on the counter. Let me explain: large (about the size of a thumbnail) Mexican beetles had lightweight sequins and rhinestones glued, in colorful patterns, to their backs. Thin gold chains connected the beetles’ backs to pins: living jewelry, walking around on your blouse or sweater. A novelty item soon discontinued: a problem arose re the import of the beetles from across the border. Cathee told me about a customer who became irate when she saw these beetles. Perhaps she was a member of PETI — People for the Ethical Treatment of Insects. She complained that gluing jewels to backs of beetles equaled a form of cruelty to animals. Cathee told the customer that these beetles had better things on their backs than what most people put on the backs of beetles: Raid! While we sat there, she got a call from three Japanese men who had flown to the United States specifically to visit the museum. They called from a car phone, lost. The men spoke little English, Cathee no Japanese, but somehow she managed to guide them to the museum. It turned out one of the men owned a similar place in Tokyo. They arrived, visited, bought several things, and returned the same day to Japan.
I asked Cathee about the philosophy behind the museum, the gallery, the forthcoming Freak Farm U.S.A., what their goals were.
“Change the world, of course. No, not change it but help it along in a progressive way toward something better. And I know that’s really ambitious…but really we just try to show people that what’s out there isn’t always just what’s out there, and that what you see on television or in the newspaper, or what you see on the Internet isn’t always true, or realistic. It’s a lofty goal, and pretty crazy, but it is really how I am trying to make things better in a certain way.”
This may sound idealistic, but she meant it. And along with this idealism goes another thing, an important part of the museum: satire, social satire. They love to tweak the nose, as I said earlier, of the establishment, to annoy the self-righteously pious or judgmental. They also make fun of themselves and their business — there is much tongue in cheek in their gallery shows and in the museum itself. They are also, of course, standard capitalists trying to make a living just like the rest of us. Think about it: rent, snake food, turtle food, pig food, dog food, beetle food, iguana food, people food. It adds up.
The Museum of Death evolved from the gallery, a now-defunct bookstore followed, and most recently the aforementioned Freak Farm U.S.A., which includes (or soon will) sideshow memorabilia, old posters, banners from early American freak and sideshows. Both James and Cathee revere P.T. Barnum and think of him not only as a great American showman but also as a great American, period.
A day later I spoke to James and Cathee together. We sat outside in a little deck area behind their living quarters. A gallows leaned against the wall. James built it to the exact specifications of Leavenworth prison’s gallows. The iguanas gazed down at us from a shelf on another wall. I asked James how he procured things for the museum.
“The Museum of Death now is like a magnet. Once you put out there that you have a museum of death, things start coming out of people’s closets. People want to be part of it. They don’t want it collecting dust anymore. So it’s just like the hearse — the guy who gave us the hearse didn't want to have it destroyed. He could’ve had the government pay him $700 to take it off the road, but instead he entrusted us with it because he knew that because we had a museum of death we would take care of it and keep it going.”
I asked James about the electric chair. He tried to get the first electric chair from New York’s Sing Sing prison, “but we lost out. The man who bought it is the head of the fire department in New York City. He has people sit in it when they come to his office. They sit in it facing him.” He said this admiringly. I asked them if they thought their business unusual. James spoke first: “It’s the American Dream, what we are doing. That’s the idea, to find out what makes you happy in life and to do it.”
“And that’s the most important thing to us,” says Cathee. “To be able to be happy. We love freak animals — we love our animals, and that’s a big part of our life. We wanted to use them in something, and that’s how Freak Farm evolved, because that’s a love of ours. Once you have something authentic — a two-headed turtle, a real live, two-headed turtle, and then you can tell people...Monte was telling people upstairs that the dog, the stuffed dog, was really Sam, the dog that told David Berkowitz to kill, and he said, ‘What, you don’t believe me? I guess you don’t believe I have a two-headed turtle either.’ And so once he showed her the turtle, it validated his character, and they said, ‘Oh yeah, it must be Sam.’ We were going to take the pig and dust him with baby powder, turn him white, glue a horn on his head, and say, ‘He’s the mini-rhino from the Serengeti Plain — the only one!’ And an hour later, wash him off and bring him out as a pig."
I asked James if there had been complaints about the museum, the gallery.
“As the serial killer stuff goes, yes. I look at it more as a historian, saving artifacts of history and of America. When you think of America, in 200 years — the position in the world that we hold — we didn’t get here from being nice guys. So it’s important for me to maybe save something that no one else in this country might save. Whether or not these people were good or bad is beside the point of what we do. That has nothing to do with us, you know, they’re just artifacts.”
And Cathee: “I don’t want my sister to be kidnapped by a serial killer...and so if we bring to light...this is their m.o., their modus operandi...”
James added, “And to take it one step further than that, we have a way of telling people, ‘Hey, this is America. We have the right to say what we want to say and to show what we want to show.’ If you don’t like it, you don’t have to come in, but we do charge admission and we tell the people if they want to bring their children we highly recommend an adult supervise them so when they do have questions they can ask, instead of just thinking about it.”
I asked if either of them had experienced traumatic deaths in their families. Cathee hadn’t but James’s father died suddenly when James was 17. Then James said abruptly, “I’ve been stabbed. A guy came into the club that we were in on my birthday three years ago, right here in San Diego, put a gun to our heads and made us all get down on the floor. That’s pretty traumatic. That’s the third time that’s happened to me, and you never get over that. It’s scary when they’re shaking more than you are. When I was 15, I was working at a gas station and two guys came in with sawed-off shotguns and put me against the wall.”
After talking for a while about San Diego’s art and music scene, James again blurted out something. “We have a ghost here. It’s really cool.” The first sentence surprised me a little — despite the nature of their business, their eccentricities, both James and Cathee struck me as rational and unsuperstitious people. The second sentence didn’t surprise me at all: I was beginning to know him.
They believe their ghost is the ghost of E.B. Tebbutt, the mortician who killed himself here in 1885. This exchange followed.
TL: Have you had evidence of him? Have you heard him, seen him?
JH: Yes! He’s thrown a bush at me across the room, in the bedroom, and he tried to get into me while I was sleeping.
TL: Tried to get into you? How does a ghost do that?
JH: Well, it’s very difficult to explain, and I’ll be the first to say that if it didn’t happen to me, I would not believe whoever was telling the story, so let’s make that clear. I was sleeping one night, and (Cathee was there next to me, and all of a sudden something — it grabbed me by the throat. Now you don’t see a ghost, per se, as in like you or me — it’s more of an apparition. So there’s this apparition above me and it had my throat and I started to scream [making guttural noises) I tried to scream to get Cathee to wake up. So, I finally started grabbing her and shaking her, so she woke up finally, and that made me come out of it and break this guy’s grip. Oh my God, this thing was trying to get into me...
TL: And you just knew he wanted to get into you...
JH: I knew. I think what it is — he is so thrilled with people being accepting. Back in the 1800s, if you looked a mortician in the eyes you thought you would die the next day. There was a big stigma. So now, when he sees everyone coming into his old place, he’s excited about it. He wants to be more a part of it.
TL: Maybe he wants his marriage back. He was mourning his wife. Maybe he just wants to be inside you so he can be married to Cathee.
JH: Maybe. He’s a very friendly ghost.
James disappeared for a minute and came back with the taxidermied two-headed chicken and a multi-legged mummified pig, holding one in each hand, grinning.
I mentioned that Cathee had told me earlier that they had considered calling the business the Museum of Life rather than the Museum of Death. They decided against it because no one would come if they called it that.
JH: Right, they would think I was a religious fanatic...
CS: You need that shock aspect to get their attention, and then you have to back it up...
JH: The difference between life and death is just the spelling.
All the time I was at the museum — and still now — I thought about the murder and dismemberment photos I mentioned earlier, the photos taken by the murderers with their victim. These are almost the only photos in color at the museum. I asked James about that and was moved by his answer.
TL: We’re talking about the set of particularly gruesome photos downstairs. It’s one of the only sets of photographs in color. And you just gave me an interesting response to that, James, that color is for the sky, for life. Do you want to tell me that again?
JH: Yeah. The reason that we have black-and-white photographs is not to glamorize so much what's going on. Having a black-and-white photograph keeps it sterile in a sense where it’s almost more of an educational photograph, where a color photo seems to romanticize it and make it more glamorized. It just adds to the misery of what’s going on because you have to see the colors of the blood and all these other things. In the black-and-white photographs you see more of an idea, rather than the gruesomeness of that idea.
I asked where they saw themselves and the museum in five years, ten years:
TL: So you believe you’ve found your niche, your path...
JH: Right, and maybe we don’t know what the title of this profession is yet, because we are forerunners in it, but maybe down the road...you could call it something like...
CS: ...P.T. Barnums of the ’90s!
JH: ...there you go. But when you’re thinking about P.T. Barnum you’ve got to remember, P.T. Barnum started theater in this country, started museums in this country, started circuses in this country, started marine-animal parks in this country, started operas in this country. We’re teachers, but we’re not teachers in your ordinary way, where we have an institutionalized situation to get our ideas across, because we don’t think there is an age limit to being a student. I think everyone is a student all their lives. And I think you can teach old people new things. There’s no reason everyone can’t communicate. And I think one of the problems today is we’re relying on all those technological forms of communication, and we’re not getting out there and talking to each other.
I got a card from Cathee last Christmas in which she announced, “We got the five-legged turtle (finally) and Cinco is his namo! We won first place in this year’s Xmas Tree Gaslamp Quarter Contest (a tree representing your business): skulls, dead mice, dead dog at the bottom, cobwebs, spiders, lots of dead things. Three years ago they hassled us about our ‘Death of Xmas’ display. Now they like it: go figure. What a life we live at the Museum of Death.”
The Museum of Death: go there before you go there.
Thomas Lux teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. His most recent book of poetry is New and Selected Poems: 1975-1995 (Houghton Mifflin).