This essay originally appeared in the now-defunct Nose magazine issue 24 pages 42 and 43. The author is Tim “Zamora” Cridland, and includes two of my photographs.
Tales From The Crib
The Nose Crawls You Through the Sickening World of Medical Museums
By Tim Cridland
Photos by Matt Crowley
Herds of seedy traveling carnivals once roamed the U.S., offering staples like the girlie show, the “mitt joint” palm reader and the “ten in one” sideshow, which often included a “pickled punk” exhibit – carny slang for a dead baby in a jar. The most popular was the infamous two headed variety, “born alive!” the banners would proclaim, showing a happy baby in diapers, playing with its rattle, all four eyes beaming.
As any freak fan knows, there actually are two kinds of pickled punks: the real thing (preferred) and “bouncers,” or realistic fake rubber babies. As sideshow owners retired or moved on, collections were sold an exhibit origins became obscured; even the operators couldn’t tell the bouncers from the punks.
Pickled punks eventually became another archaic curiosity, seen only in odd books and postcards. But you don’t have to travel back in time to see the real deal. Pickled punks still exist, publicly displayed in cities all over the world. You just have to know who to ask.
Many gruesome and weird displays are kept in medical museums, often affiliated with medical schools or hospitals. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a real pickled punk (though that my not be what the label says).
Before you begin your quest for the two headed grail, keep in mind that medical museums are intended for the education of medical students, not for your entertainment. Some are open to the public, but others will require you to bribe a medical student or doctor into taking you. Play it low key. Hide that purple streak in your hair, Take out those lip piercings. Leave the Beavis and Butt-head T-shirt at home. Carry a note pad and try to look like a student. Don’t go in groups of more than three. For god’s sake, don’t blow it for everyone. Even if that Cyclops baby is demanding that you scream or giggle, try to stifle it. “Look at the size of that colon!” you may want to holler to your pal across the room. Internalize your commentary. Save the conversation for dinner.
Museum Vrolik, Amsterdam Medical Center
Where: Outside Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Getting In: Open to the public, but don’t flaunt your status as a layman.
A visit to Amsterdam might mean smoking some hemp and checking out the red light district, but don’t sell yourself short by missing one of the world’s biggest collections of malformed babies in jars. It’s not in any of the tourist guides, and not many locals know about it. Take a train several stops out of Amsterdam. The Medical Center is the only thing at the stop, so it’s hard to miss. Get off and follow everybody else into the main building. Keep going straight past the library, toward the back. Go into the main entrance. Act like you belong there.
Contents: A wall of deformed skulls, deformed baby skeletons, about 40 or so malformed fetuses, Cyclops babies, elephant-nosed babies, pinhead babies, two-headed babies, two bodied and one-headed babies, a blob of flesh with a face.
Most medical museums have a “No Photographs Allowed” policy. When Matt started clicking off some shots, a doctor started yelling at him in Dutch. Matt asked in English, “Is there a problem here?”
“It is you who have the problem!” the irritated physician retorted. Luckily, Matt snapped a couple of skeleton frames before he made us put the camera away. (see photos)
Mutter Museum, College of Surgeons
Where: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Getting In: The public is welcome.
No need to bribe a medical student; they encourage all comers. Their popular calendar features images by photographers like Joel-Peter Witkin.
Contents: Malformed skulls, things people have swallowed, old gynecological tools, deformed baby skeletons, a giant’s skeleton, semi-ossified skeletal remains, a soap corpse. Bonus freak point: Not only do they have the death cast of Eng and Chang, the original Siamese twins, they also have their preserved and still joined liver, which has yellowed over the years.
Fetus collection, Tulane Medical School
Where: New Orleans
Getting In: You are in a “restricted area.” Go there with a student.
Walk briskly into the building-don’t linger in the lobby. Tulane security is stationed there and may question you. If there is an open elevator, head straight to the third floor. If not, go for the stairs, on your right and go up four flights (there is a mezzanine between first and second). The exhibit is along the third floor’s hallways. At first, it appears to be a fairly mundane “growth of the fetus” display, but as you move along, the deformities are presented. By the time you reach the end of the hall, it’s freakshow time.
Contents: Pinhead babies, Siamese twin babies, two headed baby, no-brain babies. Freakshow bonus; Anomalous tiny “goat-boy baby” near the end, with strange horn-like things growing out of its head and hoof-like hands.
Tulane also features mirrors behind the exhibits for all-around viewing. My visit had an added bonus: four police officers showed up and ushered us to the exit.
Here are museums I have not visited but know people who have:
National Museum of Health and Medicine, Walter Reed Medical Center
Where: Washington D.C.
Getting In: General Public welcome.
The Walter Reed Medical Museum used to be right next to one of the Smithsonian buildings. Some suspect that people accidentally wandering into Walter Reed’s ‘elephantiasis of the genitals’ exhibit were the source of those “the Smithsonian had John Dillinger’s 20-inch penis in a jar” rumors. After moving across town, the Walter Reed Museum has reportedly tried to make their exhibits more family oriented, All the good stuff is now in the back room and you need special permission to see it. They apparently still have “conjoined twins” in a jar, however.
Hunterian Museum, Royal College of Surgeons
Getting In: Bring a doctor. They are strict.
This is supposed to be one of the best and is reputed to contain the Elephant Man’s bones.
Here are some other museums of interest:
Room 601, Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of New York, New York City
Rumored Contents: Cyclops fetus, eight-pound heart, mummified babies, other atrocities
Wayne County Morgue Museum
Rumored Contents: Shriveled heads and penises, gouged skulls, mummified hands.
Anatomy Museum (Anatomisch Sammlung)
Basel, Switzerland, Pestazzistrasse 20
Rumored Contents: Very old fetuses and skeletons
Zurich, Switzerland, Espenhofweg 60
Painted and posed skeletons, preserved embryos and organs, birth-control display
Kunstkammer Section of St. Petersburg Museum
St. Petersburg, Russia
Rumored Contents: Collection of Peter the Great – One-eyed baby, four legged rooster, pickled child’s arm holding a human eyeball
Thanks to Ray Nelke and Collectors of Unusual Data International, Anneli S. Rufus and Kristan Lawson for Europe Off the Wall and Roadside America.
I’m not sure what the publication date of the original Nose issue was, I suspect it would have been in the early part of 1994. Strangely, I hardly remember the trip to the museum, except for the encounter with the doctor that Tim mentioned! So much happened in so little time when I was on the sideshow that truly amazing things began to be taken for granted. Anyway, here are two photos that I took inside the Vrolik before being told to stop: